The Atmos Saga of an Independent Release
Updated: May 2
The last couple of years have been content rich for pro audio media outlets, filling their pages with article after article about mixing for Atmos, hardware for Atmos, delivering Atmos…etc etc.
There hasn't been much written about independent artists delivering their own Atmos files to digital distributors for wide release to streaming platforms. So here’s a bit about my experience with that very subject, in the hopes that it might be helpful for others.
I was lucky enough to get a week in an Atmos room to mix my polyheDren record, Psychic, using Logic Pro X and the stems that I had from my stereo mix. I will say that I absolutely love mixing in Atmos, and it feels like there’s all of this new space to play with, and it challenges the techniques that you have relied on for so many years to achieve great stereo mixes.
After mixing that week, I made the decision to optimize the mixes for Apple AirPods, since most of the population that was going to listen to these mixes was going to listen to the record via Apple Music on AirPods. So I tweaked the mixes for 2 more weeks using this process:
Export the mix to an ADM BWF (takes 15-20 min)
Open the ADM BWF in the Dolby Atmos Renderer as a master file
Export the master file as an MP4 (can take a while)
AiriDrop the MP4 file to an iphone.
Open in Files and play it back thru the AirPods.
Take notes on the mix
Check the loudness analysis in DAR for the master
Make adjustments in Logic
Go back to step one.
So that’s why it took a couple of weeks.
I have a new setup now, with a Mac Studio and the latest version of Logic Pro X so I can mix directly to the AirPods, instead of doing that ridiculous process in the future.
Anyhow, that was the easy part!
As part of that export process, you also need to be sure that your stereo mix files are EXACTLY the same length as the ADM BWF files. It’s even worth checking this after exports, cuz I found one that didn’t conform correctly (late in the process…more on that later).
I bring this up because the first company that I was going to use as a distributor for this release, CD Baby, had a process for Atmos that forced me to question their process.
I had already submitted the stereo version of the album to them and it had been approved, but we were over 3 months away from the release date. Their process demands that an Atmos release (which was only distributed to Apple, not Amazon or Tidal) would be posted and paid for as a separate release thru their portal. As I began to do this, at no point was I asked for the stereo files (I had to conform my Atmos mixes to the stereo mixes…so wouldn’t they need them?). So I asked them about it.
CD Baby told me (at the time, which was January ‘22) that they don’t need this, as Apple Music toggles between the Atmos version (for Apple Spatial) and a stereo render of the Atmos mix. This did not sound correct to me. What on earth would that stereo render sound like? Surely it would be nothing like the stereo mixes that I worked so hard on.
So I asked a friend at Apple about this. He directed me to a page on Apple’s site that had specifics about this very subject (scroll to “When delivering Immersive Audio should I also deliver stereo?) that says that the stereo files are strongly recommended to include with the Atmos submission. I sent that link to CD Baby, and they simply disagreed with Apple’s assessment of the submission process!
Needless to say, I pulled my release from CD Baby, and looked for a new distributor.
There are not very many options for digital distributors who deliver Atmos files at this time. Apple provides this list, but many of those are only available to larger labels. So DistroKid seemed like the best bet, in that they delivered Atmos files to Apple Music, Amazon Music and Tidal. And I was using them for some other releases as well so I already had an account.
Starting on January 29th, 2022, I tried to upload my release to DistroKid, including my Atmos files. I had no idea that it would take 3 months before everything would upload!
On the first attempt I did get the message on one of the Atmos tracks that it exceeded the 5GB file size limit. So I had to figure that out. It turns out that when you mix Atmos tracks, you need to remove every single non-used track from the final export, because that information (even if blank) will make the file bigger. I also ended up consolidating a few tracks and changing from a few 3D Object tracks to beds. It took a bit, but I was able to get the file size down. But it did beg the question; what if I had a long 15 minute classical track, or 30 minute atmospheric track with lots of Atmos information…what would I do if I wanted to release it in Atmos? Would I be out of luck?
Anyhow, after solving the file size issues, I went back to uploading. To prepare the upload took about 30 minutes as every single song has at least one guest artist, which involves a lot more work than a regular release. I also had to include the spotify/Apple Music links for every single artist to be sure that all of the meta data worked properly and everyone’s info was connected at that level.So I kept trying. And trying and trying. But every upload attempt resulted in an error from DistroKid saying that there was an error in uploading the artwork or music and to try again.
I started a dialogue with their support. Some of the responses were from people who clearly didn’t know very much about Atmos files. There were some folks whose response made me question if they had even read my question. I get that there are a lot of dumb questions that must come in to those folks, but reading the inquiry completely usually helps save time in the end.
Finally I got to Perry. Perry was extremely helpful. We ruled out my internet connection (it was pretty fast and solid), we ruled out Atmos issues, and many other issues. At one point he even offered to just get my Atmos files and upload the release themselves. Anyhow, this back and forth went on for three months.
Neither of us gave up, so that really helped. They were working on their end to get the servers to stay open for these longer uploads (I think). And they made some real changes to the upload page of their site. Perry asked me to keep trying after these changes. After the first time he asked, I didn’t see any change. A couple of weeks later I had to say that the release date was coming up soon and that if we didn’t figure this out, that I’d just forgo the Atmos release and maybe we’d have to figure out how to get them uploaded at some other time.
Perry let me know that they couldn’t upload it themselves anymore (I dunno why) but that I should try to do it again, as they had been working on it. Ok, what the hell…
The first time, I got the error again, and just felt like giving up, so I started the process of just uploading the stereo mixes without the Atmos, as much as it pained me.
But then I received a different error! It was something about an artist’s name spelling that wasn’t exactly as it was on their Apple Music page (the one that I’d specifically linked as part of the release). My first thought was, “Is this the REAL reason for the error in uploads?” Maybe the previous error message didn’t include all of the error issues? It was a fairly generic message…okay, well it was worth a shot.
So I tried again, I fixed the spelling discrepancy so that everything agreed. Then hit the upload button again. And I hit the same error again.
But then I received a DistroKid email. “Artwork for Psychic was successfully processed”
It went thru? Then I started getting the emails that each song had been successfully approved.
So it did go thru!
Time to celebrate!
Then I got a message that there was a problem with one of the Atmos tracks, and that it wasn’t conformed exactly to the stereo mix. They do need to match, to the sample, so it’s possible that I screwed one of them up.
So I fixed that, and then double checked all of the loudness measurements for each song. When measuring the ADM file as a master within the Dolby Atmos Renderer, the results are slightly different than they are when measuring the 5.1 render, which is how I had measured it before. Somewhere in the Dolby documentation it’s suggested that the loudness analysis happen on a 5.1 render from the Atmos mix. But it turned out that this wasn’t as accurate as using the ADM file as a master, and measuring loudness from that.
So I fixed all of the files, just to be sure. But I couldn’t cherry pick my replacement files from the existing release. Painfully, I had to delete the release with the errors (after all of that work), and go thru the upload process again.
So I went thru, what must’ve been about the 30th time that I tried to upload the release. I received the same error again, but I did get the confirmation emails that all of the files were going thru!
Anyhow, DistroKid worked with me to get that to happen, and I’m very grateful. But the other good news is that now anyone who wants to upload Atmos files to DistroKid should be able to do so without all of the issues that I went through.
I hope that this is helpful for anyone trying to get their Atmos mixes delivered to digital streaming services. And if you’d like to check out my Atmos mixes for polyheDren, here’s the link to my artist page.