MARCH 25, 2022

Elton’s 75th Birthday Presents ‘Diamonds’ in Dolby Atmos

This year, we celebrate Elton’s 75th birthday with an unprecedented release: ‘Diamonds: The Ultimate Greatest Hits’ mixed in Dolby Atmos…immersing the listener in spatial audio on Apple music, HD audio on Amazon Music, and 360 audio on Tidal for the very first time.

By John F. Higgins

Okay, first of all…what is Atmos?

Derived from the word “atmosphere”, it is a technology created by Dolby Laboratories, originally for modern movie theaters and big budget action films, intended to engage the listener in audio like never before. It is now being enthusiastically developed for music, primarily reaching the consumer via the three main streaming services.

A large part of the overall Immersive Music format, Atmos is the most spacious version of surround-sound ever built. Depending on what you are listening on (ear buds, soundbar, home theater system) it either puts the music all around you – in front, beside, behind, above – or, at the very least, spreads the stereo out in a wider, richer expanse that provides much more aural spectrum space for each instrument to sit in. Think of it as stereo on steroids. A lot of steroids.

Dolby Atmos is also one of those things that, the more one tries to describe it, the more the magic can get lost. It is very hard to explain on an emotional level, even though that is exactly where it hits. But let me try.

You know the sidewalk scene in Mary Poppins? Where Mary, Bert, and the Banks children stop to admire the chalk drawings at their feet…and then literally jump into the animated world they portray? Yeah, that. You have heard these songs before, some of them seemingly a million times, but all this time you have been admiring their beauty from the outside. Now comes the opportunity to be fully wrapped up within them. And the more speakers you have in your system (front, center, rear, side, above), the more you are submerged, in a good way, in the deep end of a pool that is overflowing with music.

It may take a bit of research for each person to sort out which is the best option for them to listen to Atmos. We’d be here all day if I were to explain all the different speaker setups, headphones, and soundbars available to the consumer, some of which are semi-proprietary to the streaming service on which one listens. I recommend either checking out the Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Tidal websites for their recommendations or doing some Googling or YouTubing to explore the numerous articles and videos detailing the Atmos listening landscape before rushing into the waters, as warm and wonderful as they will be once you get there.

Greg Penny, who produced Made In England in 1994 and has known Elton since he visited the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road sessions in France as a teen, began working on the Diamonds tracks in the fall of 2019. Thanks to his efforts, Elton has now been truly launched into the world of immersive audio. It is hard to think of another artist who has released this many songs in the format (48), especially right out of the gate.

The Process…

As Greg puts it, “You want to start with the best material you can. In the case of Elton’s ‘classic’ albums, and some others, I already had all the original multi-tracks. And I was lucky enough to be able to send up a flare to Adrian Collee at Rocket for the tracks I did not have, including the Disney tracks. Most everything arrived at once…and I literally just sat in my studio and pushed up faders for like two days. I was gobsmacked.”

The first thing Greg had to do with everything was figure out the specifics. Simply put, one does not just play a multi-track and hear what is on the final mix. Instrument levels must be re-established. Fade-outs replicated. Sometimes effects like reverb need to be re-created. It is exciting work, but not undaunting, especially in the case of a 48-song project. “It’s insanely complicated. Sometimes it can be unclear which of the various kick drum tracks, for example, was the one that was used on the record.”

After pre-production, Greg always starts each of his Atmos sessions by putting the original stereo mix, and his now-nearly-20-years-old 5.1 mixes when applicable, in his Pro Tools interface, for reference throughout the project. Gus Dudgeon’s mid-90s and Bob Ludwig’s more recent remasters are also reviewed with educated ears. Greg’s assignment is to not deviate too much from what the public has been listening to for years, often decades, while still providing the listener with the Atmos experience. “That is not an easy task. Not every song is the worthiest candidate for Atmos; sometimes you have to work at it to figure out how you can make it have a little something extra. You have to process the spatial change in the song.”

This all may sound gimmicky. In lesser hands, it might be. But Greg has been working on surround-sound Elton since 2004, when he mixed many of the “classic albums” in 5.1. He knows that even the most subtle adjustments in spread, depth, or height can make a distinct difference. So, some of the more straightforward-sounding songs on Diamonds are kept grounded. If the song does not call for it, he does not make things fly around or show off the technology for the sake of its ego. There is a lot to be said for simply spreading the listening environment around. Sometimes, you do not even notice the difference until you compare it against the original mixes. Of course, few of us have time for that. The point is, these mixes will reveal their true depths with repeated listening, no matter what the scope.

One example of this is Song For Guy, a tune with like 3½ instruments on it. “That was a difficult one for me to try to make a decision on – should I go out of the box with it, or should it be what I always thought it was: a pavane. It’s a very somber piece and I didn’t want to play around with it too much; I just wanted things to occur where they occur, and just have the space be defined as a bigger space. I don’t know, maybe I was wrong. Maybe that should have been juiced up a little bit, but when I moved things, it sounded irreverent to me.”

There are also considerations to be made when working on tracks created by other producers and mixed by other engineers over 50 years. “The collection of songs is straddling across a lot of other peoples’ work and I’m trying to come up with a single body of work that is cohesive,” Greg explains. “But I’m not going to go into a mix of, say, David Hentschel’s the same way I would one of Robin Cable’s, or whomever. It’s very sacred ground. I mean, Ken Scott is a complete Jedi and a lovely man, but the fact is that you’re shredding someone else’s work and throwing it on the floor and putting it back together.”

Greg, who has been one of the technicians leading the music-in-Atmos charge since its inception, brought his son into the project. Felix contributed 13 mixes, tackling songs as diverse as Home Again and Good Morning To The Night.

“Felix started out prepping tracks for me. It was like a sous chef/chef kind of thing. And then we got super-busy, with other artists’ work coming in, so he stepped in and started mixing some of those. For Diamonds especially, it was great – he was working on ‘Uncle Elton’s’ stuff. There was a moment when I wondered, ‘How am I going to do all of these songs? I know! I’ll have Felix do some.’ [laughing] We figured we’d keep me in the Classic range, which I was familiar with, and he’d do some of the other things. And he did such a great job. I love what he did on Live Like Horses. Written In The Stars. All of them. He nailed it.”

“It was an honor for me, obviously,” added Felix. “I’m a huge fan. I was mind-blowingly excited when the files arrived because the songs are so great and it was all recorded so well. I worked on tracks by seven different producers, and it was very cool to see the different approaches – the recording processes. I was a super nerd unpacking everybody’s production styles. I actually wanted to do Believe [laughing], but that one was definitely for Papa Penny.”

'Rocket Man' in the Dolby Atmos Renderer as used by Greg Penny during his immersive music mixing sessions.

The Experience…

Out of the 48 songs on the Diamonds in Dolby Atmos release, let’s use Rocket Man as an example of what to expect upon listening. It’s only fitting – this has been the default showcase Atmos track from the time Greg first created it in March 2014 as a proof of concept for the technology. “It was a really good choice for our first one. It worked well because of the way the track itself unfolds, production-wise…all the frequencies involved. The artist and his artistry is established on that first note. The meal is fed to you in the exact correct sequence and portions. Everything was right about that track. It actually was the easiest one for me to do on Diamonds.”

When firing up the 1972 hit, it starts off sounding as before, albeit with a wonderful sense of clarity right out of the gate. The space between Elton’s vocal and the piano is gently expanded from the stereo mix we have been used to for the past 50 years – or even from the various remastered versions that have come out since then. You would not be blamed for thinking Elton is standing at a microphone right in front of you.

The first real hint of things to come is when Elton sings, “And I’m gonna be high…” at the 16-second mark. There is a delicate, ethereal echo just after “high” that softly floats above and then behind you. It was never there before, not at all, yet it does not distract. It enhances the experience – draws you even further into what you are listening to. Mentally, and perhaps physically, you cannot help but lean forward a little. This visceral engagement is the whole point of Atmos. (Just be sure you are giving the songs your full attention; Atmos is not for background listening.)

As Greg recalls, “That echo didn’t exist in the original record. I just pushed that note to a long delay, and then pushed that delay to a long reverb. And then placed it overhead. I thought that would sound really good…some ear-candy to let you know that this is different. There are reverb things that, when you hear them in Atmos, are mind-blowing because the dimension of them is incredible. Like, in Blue Eyes. That song is beautiful because of the reverbs. For me, it’s one of the best tracks on the Diamonds album.”

Eyes begin to pop open and jaws start to drop when Dee Murray’s bass comes in on Rocket Man. The dedicated subwoofer spectrum in Atmos allows the bass and kick drum parts to separate from the rest of the low-end. You can almost reach out and touch the tones. The music unfolds around you as the song builds, almost as if Elton, the band, and Gus planned it this way when they recorded the track in 1972.

When the chorus starts and the backing vocals arrive, the singers may as well be standing just inches behind your shoulders…like good friends who have come to serenade you instead of distant strangers singing from a different time and place. Then there is Davey Johnstone’s signature slide guitar part; if you are listening on a dedicated nine-speaker system (aka 5.1.4) it literally takes off past you, from the farthest front to the farthest back, arcing up to the ceiling and then coming back down behind. If you are using Atmos-compatible headphones, the effect is similar, just not quite as distinct. Overall, Nigel Olsson’s drumming is that much more present, as is Davey’s acoustic guitar bed and Dave Hentschel’s ambient synthesizer, which swirls up and around, almost high-fiving the slide guitar as they criss-cross over your head. Parts of the song that have merely faded in and out before, now approach and recede.

Close your eyes and you are either in the recording studio or outer space.

Or both.

Greg and Felix Penny speak with about some of the Atmos mixes on ‘Diamonds’…

Tiny Dancer: “I always think of the sound that [engineer] Robin Geoffrey Cable got on that album as almost like a Rubenesque woman. This beautiful bottom end and these incredible features as you go up her neck and her earlobes and her eyes. The song is an incredible thing, but it has this dark, murky bottom end. I mean, there’s a point in that track where you can’t hear the drums at all. They’re just in the soup. And the one thing I tried to do was to have the presence of the drums that wasn’t there in the original record. I did it too loud at first, but I ended up getting the right balance.”

The Bitch Is Back: “[The pulses right after the opening guitar scratch are] really low-end. I had to do a trick on that. I think it’s a residual sound that’s not on the original multi-track. But it’s on the two-track mix, so I lifted it off of there and sent it to the sub-woofer. It’s an anomaly when the two-track machine is starting up in the ‘record’ position. I think Gus was looking for a great noise to start the album with. He wanted Caribou to sound like it had its own kind of cred. Almost an Exile On Main Street kind of thing. I had that track more spread out, but we had some discussions about what ends up happening for the listener when some of the super-rocking elements of a song get put into the speakers behind you, or to the side. The experience is slightly diminished. So it’s a trade-off: ‘There’s four guitars, I’ll just put them in the four corners, or do I have to be careful about that?’ I think I mixed that song three times. The first time I just went for it, and Giles sent a note back, ‘When I kicked that through my Sonos [soundbar], it just wasn’t rocking enough.’ So I thought, ‘When all else fails, rock must prevail.’ I put them back in the front.”

Giles [Martin] was our much-needed and very helpful quality-control man on the Diamonds album. He caught a lot of things. Technical things, more than artistic. In the heat of battle, you miss a thing or two and he was great at coming forward and saying, "You really should try this," or, "I think that’s what they were doing on the original record." He spent a lot of time working with us on this - time he didn’t have. I love working with Giles. He’s wonderful.

Greg Penny - March 2022

Someone Saved My Life Tonight: “That was probably the hardest song for me to mix in Atmos. I mean, it’s one of the greatest Elton John songs, but it’s 6½ minutes long and when you mix it like five times, as I have, for different formats, you start to go, ‘Wow, am I anywhere near where it should be?’ You would think it would just be a matter of pushing up the faders ‘cos it was a fantastic session, and they recorded some room ambiance which makes the drums sound so great. It’s Elton at his best, but it’s a long song that has a lot of build. And you can’t speedball through it. I would sit with it and painstakingly mix each individual section. The first four bars of the middle-eight (‘And I would walk straight on into the deep end of the river’): you want that voice to have a lot of ambiance…and then Davey’s Lesley guitars come in like scorpion stingers! Gus really mixed records. He manhandled faders [laughing]. With Atmos, I didn’t have to be as radical with certain moves, because there is more room to work with. The general presence of the instruments can sustain, without it having to be a horse race: ‘Elton’s in the lead, now Davey’s in the lead, now Dee…!’”

Nikita: Elton sings a low harmony vocal at 1:22. “It was way low in the mix before. I moved the placement of it so that it is more noticeable.” There is also a military snare drum part in the solo. “I always heard it, but I never heard it stick out, so I just made it stick out more. It’s really cool.” And perhaps most noticeably, George Michael’s haunting vocals comes in at 3:27, instead of 4:59. “He sang it two different times: he sang it on the fade, and he sang it there. He wanted it to be his signature thing, and when they mixed it I don’t think they lowered it down in the mix, I think they just buttoned it out. I was really crushed when he died. There was a lot of stuff I never really got a chance to say to him.”

Something About The Way You Look Tonight: (Felix) “I loved working on that song. It may have been my favorite one to do. I love the horn arrangement. Davey’s guitar stuff is really cool. Actually, what was given to me was the full album version, so I did an Atmos mix of that and then edited it down to match what is on [the original] Diamonds. There’s a lot of energy in that track, and Elton also gets low and kind of growly. Kind of intimate, and then he comes back and does some bigger sections. Especially in Atmos, it works really well because you have the space to really have those horns sneak up behind you, and the strings and everything.”

I Want Love: (Felix) “That was the first one I did. It was great! I love that song – it feels to me kind of like going back to the roots for Elton, in terms of songwriting. It’s just a very cool band track, with that rad guitar solo and Davey’s flourishes. And Elton’s lead vocal is seemingly dry but there’s kind of a slap on it. I spatialized that a little bit. I like to kind of make it so that when you’re sitting facing forward, it feels like the lead vocal is bouncing off a wall behind you in a club or something and I spread the reverbs in the 3D environment a little bit. I feel the song filled the Atmos space really well – there’s a lot of stuff that you can hear in the stereo mix, but you can really make it speak in Atmos in a way that you never heard before, which is always exciting.” (Greg) “There’s a weird oscillating synth in the second half of the middle-eight that I never noticed on the original record. I thought Felix put that in a great spot. In any other context, it would be kind of an ominous sound, but on here it offsets the sweetness of the melody in a really interesting way. The anchor of that sound is what keeps the gravitas going.”

Circle Of Life: “An amazing song. I definitely have much more choir in my mix. I think the choir is one of the coolest things on the song, so when they come in I give them the whole back mezzanine of the room.”

Kiss The Bride: (Felix) “This one went pretty quick for me. Another very straightforward band track. The most complex part, mix-wise, was that huge reverb on that snare drum, but that was all actually printed on tape separately, so the multi-rack was really beautiful. I did some panning, eq’ing, and compression and felt pretty good about it after the first day or two.”

Part-Time Love: “It’s got some really interesting stuff happening in the panning. Paul [Buckmaster] did this insane arrangement, with oboes and flutes and strings that I never really appreciated before. In the Atmos mix, it’s amazing. And Davey’s guitar parts – he doubled it, but he doubled it so tight that it sounds like one guitar. And Paul’s stuff was doubled. I love that track.”

Believe: “My bar for that song has always been extremely high. [Engineer] Jon Ingoldsby gets the credit for the mix on that song, and it was a little bit weird for me to have to try and suss out the beautiful things that he did on the original tracks. But obviously I did know what we did to get those sounds. Like, the drum sound on Believe is largely that stairwell that ran up the back spine of the Hall at AIR Lyndhurst, with a microphone at the top. The hardest thing for me was to put myself back in that mode in a different technology, trying to get it to feel like the stereo mix. Get it back to where it was. And then spread it out. When you start to move stuff around, you realize it might not hold together because there’s big empty spots in the sound field. Although it’s not like you have to fill a hole every minute of every day.”

Live Like Horses [w/Luciano Pavarotti]: (Felix) “This is the one that I think I had to revisit the most. There’s just so much going on on that track: there’s the choir, strings, the two different vocal parts… I really wanted to fill the space in a unique way and try to make everything have its own spot. You’ve got two pretty strong vocalists on the same track, so I wanted to make sure their vocals didn’t step on each other. I was careful of the same with True Love [with Kiki Dee] and Written In The Stars [with LeAnn Rimes]. Atmos is so well-suited for allowing multiple lead vocals to breathe.”

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taught us anything, it is that time travel happens the further you get swallowed up in the quantum realm of things. And so it is that the listener of Elton’s music in Atmos is drawn so deep within each track that they might find themselves going back to the very first moment they heard each song. Close your eyes and envision what perhaps now-questionable fashion you were wearing at that tender young age…or, I suppose, a week ago. Smell the aroma of what your mother was cooking as you squirreled yourself up next to the record player in your bedroom. Perhaps even re-live the weather as it was on the day you ran home from the record store with your new Elton LP/tape/CD.

But most of all, just relax and revel in what is quite simply the most amazing-sounding Elton audio ever created.

Greg Penny: “The application of the technology is being used to bring you closer to an artist than you normally could ever come. It’s bringing you inside. Surrounding you.

Even if the listener approaches it with some apprehension – ‘How could it be any better than the CD I have in my car?’…it always is. That’s the response I’ve gotten: ‘Holy crap, if I had known it was going to be like that, I would have been listening to this all along.’

I can’t exactly explain why that is because I am engaged in making that trick happen. I just know that a lot of time and effort goes into it. It’s done in real-time. It’s done with the original, real components. And it is meant to affect you in a very different way.”

Happy birthday, Elton…and thank you for the present!