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Dolby Atmos music is "rubbish" and "stereo is optimum" according to Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich

Nigel Godrich in the studio with Radiohead
(Image credit: Nigel Godrich/Radiohead)

Not everyone is as enamoured with Dolby Atmos as the music industry (and Apple Music) might have you believe. One notable voice of dissent, it seems, is Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. He has shared his opinions on mono, Atmos and everything in between on the most recent edition of Jamie Lidell’s Hanging Out With Audiophiles podcast.

In the wide-ranging interview, starting around 45 minutes into the episode, Godrich riffs on topics as diverse as streaming, parenting, The Pogues and airports. He reveals that despite having a father who was a BAFTA Award-winning BBC sound supervisor, it was a moment of recognition reading the liner notes of Regatta de Blanc by the Police and realising it had been produced by another Nigel (one Nigel Gray) that led him down the path to becoming an audio engineer himself.

After Lidell broaches the subject of mono, Godrich replied “I feel mono is the most reliable audio format that exists, isn’t it? That’s what Stanley Kubrick thought - mixed all his films in mono because if you ever mix a film, wherever you go to watch it, the rooms are always set up differently, and it can be very, very disappointing when something that you’ve done in the rear[s] or is supposed to be happening somewhere, you suddenly can’t hear [it]."

Godrich continued “What I do feel about mono, stereo, 5.1… all this Dolby Atmos rubbish... is that music… you can’t get something that’s in 5.1 to ‘cook’; you never could. That’s one of the problems they’re having with Atmos, actually, is that you can’t master it. You can’t put, like, an overall compression on it, really.

“I always used to say that, if you go to see a movie and there’s like an old Rolling Stones track in it, it always sounds fucking amazing, and yet music that is designed for that audio format, the 7.1 or whatever...whatever it is it’s not that great, necessarily.

“I think it’s all a bit of a bluff, really. I think mono is, obviously, a bit limited, and stereo is optimum - that’s what I think.”

It's not just music conceived for surround formats that Godrich has been left unimpressed by. He goes on to describe an incident when engineer Bob Ludwig, who's mastered many of his albums since Beck's Mutations, tried to persuade him of the benefits of remixing records in 5.1.

“He had a 5.1 demo room when that was all the rage," explains Godrich, "and I was very sceptical, and he was like ‘just come and check it out, come and listen, and I was like ‘OK.'

“I sat down there, and he played me one of the things that had been knocking about that had been remixed for 5.1 specifically, which was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. He put on The Chain - the very famous outro...

“Anyway, it’s all very exciting and starts building up, and out of nowhere, behind my head, this friggin' Hammond organ kicks in, and I was like, 'what the hell is that?’. And he said, ‘well, you know, it’s something they had on the multi-track, and they didn’t feel there was enough room in the stereo field in the original mixes, so now that it’s 5.1, they’ve put it in’ and I said ‘OK, that’s enough for me’.

"That’s proof that this is wrong. It’s just fundamentally not right because, musically, a ‘pseudo-technical’ decision had been made, as opposed to a musical decision. And that’s what’s wrong with all of these things; people are pushing things, and their priority is the technology, not the music.

"And you know you could listen to Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, it's mono, there's no multi-track, it's just brilliant - that's music."

It's not surprising that Godrich is sceptical about immersive sound formats. In the studio, he's known for his meticulous, swift and organic working style. He has previously spoken about his frustration with the emphasis often put on "equipment and studio trickery" rather than the music itself, telling The Guardian (opens in new tab), "one of the reasons why music has become generally worse, and I'm sorry to say that, is that people think about technology more than the actual music they're making. So sue me."

Most commonly used for mixing immersive film soundtracks, Dolby Atmos for music has become increasingly popular since Apple's announcement last May that it would be adding hi-res and Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio tracks to its Apple Music streaming service at no extra cost to subscribers. Atmos music is also available to listeners on Tidal and Amazon's premium tiers and is fully integrated into the workflow of Apple's premium recording software, Logic.

MORE

Read more about the problem with Dolby Atmos Music

Do the Beatles sound better in mono?

Our pick of the best spatial audio tracks to listen to in Dolby Atmos

Mary is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi? and has over a decade of experience working as a sound engineer mixing live events, music and theatre. Her mixing credits include productions at The National Theatre and in the West End, as well as original musicals composed by Mark Knopfler, Tori Amos, Guy Chambers, Howard Goodall and Dan Gillespie Sells. 

  • manicm
    You get certain producers, because they've been primarily been involved with one band, who are stuck in their ways. What's good for Radiohead may not be good for others - case in point Roger Waters' Is This Really The Life We Want - I did not like the reductionist production by Godrich. He tried to pull a Rubin, and I did not really like it.
    Reply
  • Friesiansam
    I agree with Godrich, music first, not tech and, stereo is great for music. If you go to a live gig, how often are there musicians above or behind you, unless you are standing on your head and facing the wrong way?
    Reply
  • manicm
    Friesiansam said:
    I agree with Godrich, music first, not tech and, stereo is great for music. If you go to a live gig, how often are there musicians above or behind you, unless you are standing on your head and facing the wrong way?

    But it's completely different in the studio, and there are better examples of music in Dolby Atmos, especially in classical.
    Reply
  • Commish
    There is a lot of truth in what Godrich says. Many people find it disconcerting (annoying, distracting, nauseating) to have musical instruments mixed to surround them during a performance. I do not want to sit in the middle of the orchestra, or a band during the performance, I want to have them playing in front as on a stage, while I am in the hall (with the reflected sound behind me).
    The finest multi-channel music recordings I have experienced place me in an environment in which there is a natural sense of acoustic space.
    Reply
  • Sliced Bread
    So much Atmos music reminds me of early Stereo tracks where they had to *show* you they’re using stereo. Many Atmos tracks over uses the surround and height channels

    *But some tracks are wonderful and use the format to create spacefor the music to breathe.
    Reply
  • Armand
    Well, when he's actually done any good work with a good band, let's hope he learns something..
    What a hack.
    Reply
  • Jaybird100
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Producer Nigel Godrich has shared his thoughts on some of the problems with Dolby Atmos music in a new interview, saying: "I think it’s all a bit of a bluff".

    Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich is unimpressed by "rubbish" Dolby Atmos music, believing that "stereo is optimum" : Read more
    I'm going to offer an opposing view to what Nigel Godrich says. While I'm not a fan of Atmos, I do find that music in 5.1, even 4.0, is more satisfying, at least to me, than plain, vanilla stereo. When the music is recorded, anywhere from 8 to 48 tracks are used. Trying to take all those different tracks, and trying to shoehorn all those sounds into the two channels of stereo, obviously not everything is going to fit without making the end result sound cluttered. The use of additional channels can allow more of the music that was recorded to be presented to the listener. If you have a mixing engineer who's savvy at mixing for surround, along with input from the artist or group, the results can be quite satisfying. More of the recorded music can reach the listener. True, sounds don't necessarily come from behind you in a live environment, but surround can also be used to create the ambiance of a live venue, the acoustics of a concert hall, the options are many. But to dismiss surround sound for music is, in my humble opinion, very short-sighted.
    Reply
  • Sliced Bread
    Jaybird100 said:
    …surround can also be used to create the ambiance of a live venue, the acoustics of a concert hall, the options are many. But to dismiss surround sound for music is, in my humble opinion, very short-sighted.
    Agreed. IMO the very best Atmos tracks I’ve heard are those which sound like well recorded stereo tracks. The extras channels are used subtly to open the soundstage and create space for the instruments.
    When done well you don’t even realise it’s Atmos.
    Reply
  • lacuna
    I do enjoy the sound from my stereo system (Marantz 8200 w/Dali Oberon) but I still prefer music in surround, even when my receiver is just upmixing the stereo recording.
    Reply
  • Jaybird100
    lacuna said:
    I do enjoy the sound from my stereo system (Marantz 8200 w/Dali Oberon) but I still prefer music in surround, even when my receiver is just upmixing the stereo recording.
    Are you familiar with the Surround Master, from Involve Audio? It's the best matrix decoder/synthesizer I've ever heard. It's capable of creating a near-discrete surround effect from stereo recordings, as well as high-separation decoding of QS, SQ, EV, Dolby Surround, and Dynaquad. It can be added to any quad or home theater receiver that offers multichannel analog inputs. Check out Involveaudio.com for details about this unit. I use one, and it's the best audio purchase I've made in years.
    Reply