A specter of Harry Styles floats in Greg Penny’s studio, located in an industrial park in Ojai, California. In this 3,000-square-foot, high-ceilinged space that feels like a warehouse, a makeshift acoustically-treated room is created from compressed cotton panels made from shredded T-shirts. These panels hang from a truss that looks like it should be on a small festival stage. There are a total of 13 speakers — arranged left, right and center; high, middle and on the floor in the front; and with two sets of left and right speakers about two-thirds of the way to the back of the mixing room.
This is where Styles’ disembodied voice comes from, and if you close your eyes, you would swear that he is suspended in the air right in front of your face — something that only happens when you hear his album “Fine Line” in Sony 360 Reality Audio.
Penny, who is known for producing Elton John’s “Made in England” and k.d. lang’s “Ingénue” albums, is a longtime pioneer in the immersive audio space, in all its iterations, including being nominated for a Grammy for best surround sound album for John’s “Honky Château” in 2005. His latest fascination is with Sony 360 Reality Audio, for which he is nominated for a Grammy in the best immersive audio album category for “Fine Line.”
“I’ll drink Harry’s bath water — I love that guy,” says Penny with enthusiasm. It took Penny two weeks to get through mixing “Fine Line” in 360 Reality Audio, which is quick for him, and he enjoyed every minute of it. “You get a sense of Harry popping out of the mix and talking right to you. I felt like I had this intimacy with him by being able to sit alone in this room and mix that out. I took some liberties, but I also tried to make it so it’s not going to jar you. Hopefully it will enhance your experience and you’ll think, ‘That was even better than I ever remember it being.’”
Nick Rhodes, who mixed Duran Duran’s recent album “Future Past” in 360 Reality Audio, explains its spatial elements: “If you imagine sound as a sphere, you are placing the sounds within that. That sphere is almost your head. You’re placing sounds, not just to the left and right like you would with stereo, you’re putting things behind the head, or you’re putting something up in a corner that can slowly come down towards your eye. You’re literally moving the sound around that sphere.”
A visual of what Rhodes is explaining is on a giant screen in Penny’s studio. There are two perspectives. On the left is a three-dimensional view of the sphere looking forward. On the right is the top perspective looking down on the sphere. This second image can be toggled to a variety of other perspectives.
“These are the graphic representations of the placements of the objects in the music,” Penny explains. “The objects are more powerful than just tracks because they’re impregnated with metadata that tells them where to go. You have three-dimensional movement that you’ve programmed into the mix. I don’t overuse the movement ability, because I feel it takes you out of the moment. You can blow people’s minds with just the atmosphere, and only move something when it has meaning, rather than for the sake of being able to do it. It’s set up so the mix always feels like you’re moving forward into the mix, like it’s pushing sound past you.”
A 360 Reality Audio mix of “Fine Line” sounds its best in Penny’s studio, where it was actually done. It is, for the time being, only available in the United States and Europe on Amazon Music, Tidal and Deezer through their spatial audio portals, where Penny asserts the fidelity absolutely translates, despite DSPs’ reputation for low-quality audio.
“I try to make the speaker experience and headphone experience match each other as much as possible,” he says. “The quality of the listening experience in 360 Reality Audio is the placement of the speakers, or the placement of the energy that’s coming from the headphones. So much of the way we perceive sound is in the bone structure of our heads. The software is really attuned to that.”
Rhodes concurs with Penny’s assertion, saying, “Where it’s particularly good is on headphones. When I first heard about it, I was slightly skeptical about the possibility of a 3D 360 sound on headphones. It’s not the same as having speakers all around you. What Sony has done is quite clever, because it’s like an enhanced stereo that spreads widescreen, and that also works really well behind the head.”
Penny has made it so you can have Styles floating in front of you with a click on your phone. But, he says, “For me, the satisfying moment is when you stop thinking about the technology that’s involved, and you get this immediate visceral reaction to the music. I feel like it’s the closest I can come to the artist.”