We chatted with Stephen Emmer about his new album Maison Melody AM:PM. Innovation and future grounded in contemporary classical music.
Stephen Emmer opens the doors of Maison Melody to us to talk about his latest work. There, in his own home, he has been able to record an album of contemporary classical music with the latest spatial sound technology.
The life and compositional creation of an artist reflected in the most faithful way that technology allows, but always with a narrative script typical of a film. For something he himself calls it "cinema for the ears", making sense to do it in a technology that was born in movie theaters.
Do you consider it risky to mix an album with Atmos technology?
There are currently efforts to make mono or stereo albums compatible with Dolby Atmos. The problem is that those mono or stereo mixes are simply being redistributed among the available channels. It is standard practice to use the rear speakers with a bit of reverb to give it spatial width.
I think that's not what's risky, what's risky is doing it directly in the recording and not in the mix. Mixing is already very late, because when conceiving a record with this technology you have to know what sound is going where and why.
How do you record a disc with this technology? Is almost kinematic sound insulation necessary?
Isolation is very important in this case, because it allows us many things. There are two ways to record, you can make a recording directly from the instrument, let's say violin or piano, and then you can position them wherever you want in space. The other way is to have as many microphones in the acoustic space as there are speakers. For example the piano on this album is recorded with all the microphones positioned where the speakers are.
What do you consider to be the most important conceptual part at a technical level in Maison Melody AM:PM?
One of the things that most catches my attention in current sound design is the staticity of the recordings and that has a lot to do with the fact that the sound is focused on post-production when it should be focused on pre-production and should be conceptual. What the big record labels do with new technology is use it for the old catalogue, to try and sell old stuff again. That's not bad, but there will be old genres and new genres. I believe that the more people learn to handle this technology, and I am referring mainly to artists, the more people will be interested in hearing what they have to say.
There are many applications where immersive audio formats can be used and we have categorized our way of using it as “cinema for the ears”. I think that in time to mix the songs as we do now, in a static stereo, it will look old fashioned. We are only at 10 percent of potential. It is a complicated step, but it is logical because it will create new emotional responses in people, I am convinced of it.
How do you think a technology coming out of movie theaters can affect music?
It can affect as a quality filter in order to have a stronger musical selection. And not only that, it can also push platforms to adopt these new formats. For example, the largest music streaming service, Spotify, is not adopting this space technology yet, while Apple Music, Tidal and even Amazon Music already incorporate it. This is why we have not released the album on Spotify, since it does not allow you to listen to the album as it was conceived.
How do you downgrade an Atmos album on a stereo?
We have created several mixes beyond the Dolby Atmos mix, such as 5.1 or stereo, but instead of doing the traditional stereo mix we have done the opposite, we have mixed the multichannel in stereo so as not to lose that spatial sensation so much.
And how would you plan a live show for a tour with this concept?
I see it very possible as long as the places where we do the tour incorporate this technology. In the end I'm just a poor lonely cowboy, I can't do what Kraftwerk does and take a whole system with me to every place in the world. So these shows could be done in places where the Dolby system is installed and ready to go. There are already pavilions in Germany with this technology, two in Paris, in London...there are more and more.
Could you tell us a little about the people who have participated in this album?
The first person I would have to talk about is Ronald Prent. He has been the one in charge of the immersive mix. Years ago he moved with his wife Darcy Proper, a prestigious four-time Grammy-winning music master, to the United States. Together they founded Valhalla studios in New York, which are the only ones to have a console dedicated exclusively to multi-channel mixing. Ronald has gone on to win the Innovation Award at IBC 2021 and is a world reference when it comes to immersive mixing.
The recording engineer is an Italian living in Berlin named Francesco Donadello, who has worked for the likes of Johann Johannson and Ludovico Enaudi. He has also worked on the movie "Arrival", the HBO series Chernobyl as well as the Electronic Arts video game "Battlefield 2042". These two people have been very important in the achievement of the album.
The main violinist is Dimitrie Leivici who works as a freelancer in Hollywood, recording for films such as Schlinder's List. We've also had a lot of support from Christine Thomas at Dolby Atmos Music in San Francisco.
This work has great potential to be considered for numerous awards. Is there a strategy to make it available to academics?
Yes, recently we have even seen the possibility of submitting our work to the classical music awards in Germany where there is a category called “New ways of listening”. For the Grammys and certain music awards given in America, we have thought of submitting this work for consideration. We don't know of many awards beyond what it might mean to be considered in Europe, America…perhaps Japan.
But if you find other places where innovation categories are mentioned, we will be happy to present it. For the innovation section, it is important to indicate the importance of an independent label making the launch. The big labels are very conservative and innovation is not among their priorities. Independence also means being artistically independent and that all decisions are made by the creators of the pieces.
You can listen to Stephen Emmer 's latest work, Maison Melody AM:PM in its original format here; on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Tidal platforms.