Will Bates and Lucy Alper are co-owners of Fall On Your Sword, a one-of-a-kind music production facility in Los Angeles. Inside the entrance, you’re greeted with interactive art pieces set to a Lo-Fi instrumental version of The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place” and an eclectic display of posters featuring their work in film and television for HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and more. In various corners of the property you’ll find an old Volkswagen Beetle converted into a self-contained miniature drive-in theater; a display of thrift-store tube TVs showing various 80s films; and a fully stocked bar.
Will, who focuses on scoring and composition, works mostly out of the facility’s tracking and control rooms. Centered on an API 1608 console with an additional 16-channel expansion, these three rooms are a wonder-world of rare, vintage instruments and outboard gear: a vintage Rhodes MkII, Super Continental, Farfisa, Mellotron M4000, Eventide H9000, and a Yamaha CP-70.
The studio has been ever-growing since its inception in New York City. Most recently, they called on Westlake Pro Design Services Group to retrofit their 7.1 surround room to 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos. An Avid S6 Large Format Console sits center stage with an Avid MTRX Pro Tools | HD Interface, Avid Sync X Master Clock, Crown amps, and JBL 10” Cinema Surround speakers completing the system.
The idea of investing in immersive audio has been on their radar for almost a decade, but getting there has taken a few twists and turns.
Lucy and Will first heard Dolby Atmos at Sundance Film Festival in 2013. “We had a movie at Sundance called I Origins that was the first movie at Sundance to be played in Atmos,” Will says. “Skywalker Sound had this Atmos grant where they picked one movie at Sundance and did a full immersive install at the Eckles Cinema — which is the big theater in Park City — to showcase it. So I actually went to Skywalker and we mixed the film in Atmos. Of course, it was never played in Atmos again. But at the time, we were like, all right, this is it. We should do this too. I was just dazzled by the experience of mixing music in Atmos.”
When they returned to New York, they began exploring the idea of installing a Dolby Atmos mixing room in their facility. Their excitement deflated when they saw the price tag: at the time, the minimum barrier-to-entry was easily $100,000. Instead, they completed two new surround sound rooms and ran wire through the ceiling for potential height speakers in the future.
Several years later they moved their entire multi-room facility across the country to Los Angeles and began to harbor doubts about their earlier predictions. “We thought, It’s never going to take off. It’s just never going to happen. So we didn’t run cable for ceiling speakers this time. We made that mistake once before.”
Then they got the call from Netflix: every project moving forward will require Dolby Atmos as a deliverable. “Music has been the bulk of our business to be honest. But we slowly got back into the mixing world after finishing our space here and the first couple of things that we’ve done have been more standard festival deliverables. Then because of doing those jobs, we got a Netflix project — and they, of course, needed it to be delivered in Atmos. And they needed it in six weeks.”
Since major companies like Netflix, Warner Brothers, and others have made Dolby Atmos a required deliverable format, immersive studio design has become more attainable for commercial studios and independent mixers than it used to be. The price tag for required equipment has dropped precipitously and Dolby no longer requires an expensive certification. However, the design and integration process is still a mystery for most. There is a lack of standardization across various niches of the industry, best practices change frequently, and no one seems to know whether Dolby even offers certification at all anymore. (They do, but it’s mostly just a way to be listed on their website as an approved mixer.)
Faced with the prospect of figuring all of this out and installing the system in six short weeks (while running a successful studio), Will and Lucy decided to call in some help.
Westlake Pro’s Stephen Bannister and the Design Services Group designed a system based on the existing surround sound room. “We knew that we needed something that could expand on our existing 7.1 system without replacing everything,” Lucy says. “And we had just upgraded all of our computers to ‘cheese graters’ [newer Mac Pro computers], which cost quite a bit of money. So cost was a concern.”
After studying the system, Westlake’s Design Services Group noted that the older ‘trash can’ Mac Pros that replaced the cheese graters could be repurposed for the new Atmos system. “A lot of people don’t realize how efficient Atmos mixing has gotten over the past five or six years,” Tim Lawrence says. “It used to cost a lot of money to get two computers that could handle Pro Tools and Dolby’s RMU separately. A few years ago Dolby released an update that would allow Mac Minis to handle the RMU, and now some smaller studios can even get away with running everything off a single machine.”
With a plan in place, most of the difficulty with meeting Netflix’s deadline came down to actually finding some of the gear. “As most people are aware, product availability has been all over the place for the past few years,” Stephen says. “Six weeks is not a lot of time to account for working through supply chain issues, so I started working down the gear list right away.”
Will says, “There were so many pieces where Stephen was a little like, ‘Ooh. I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to find that one. I know there’s none available.’ And then he would call me a couple weeks later and have scrounged one up somehow.”
As gear was sourced, the design team cut into the acoustic fabric on the ceiling and framed openings for the height speakers to be mounted. After everything was installed, Stephen worked with Dolby to align the speakers and tune the room. Within six weeks of the first meeting, Fall On Your Sword was ready to begin mixing in Dolby Atmos.
“If there’s one piece of advice I could give to other studios who are on the fence about upgrading to Atmos, it’s that it’s now attainable for all of us,” Will says. “Don’t be afraid! Your project will sound incredible and it’s an easy add-on to offer if you’re already doing a lot of the work for a particular filmmaker or media company. You hear so much about how it will be really expensive, or really complicated, and we were pleasantly surprised with just how simple the whole process was.”
With Fall On Your Sword’s unique collection of analog synthesizers and acoustic instruments, the possibilities for sound design in immersive format present a lot of exciting possibilities. Alongside their own projects, the co-owners have opened up the studio to other mixers who need a place to work in Atmos.
Overall, Will and Lucy’s experience is a great example of the growing scalability of Dolby Atmos mixing systems. Thanks to the innovations of Dolby and other manufacturers, integrators like Westlake Pro can put together rooms like this one with few hiccups and at a fraction of what it cost even a few short years ago. Easier yet, the simplest setups can now be achieved with a single Thunderbolt interface, a Mac Mini, some speakers, and a little know-how.
Words and Photos by Tom Edwards, MixBus Marketing
Fall On Your Sword Studios
Westlake Pro Design Services Group