Today Apple Music released its spacial audio feature. Millions of tracks now offer immersive, Dolby Atmos-powered mixes that Apple claims deliver “true multidimensional sound and clarity.”
I am writing this with my immediate first impressions, there are a select few playlists of Spacial Audio tracks on launch (no doubt it will take time to build out a catalogue) so I picked 4 songs to test:
- ‘Black Skinhead’ – Kanye West
- ‘Blinding Lights’ – The Weeknd
- ‘cardigan’ – Taylor Swift
- ‘Youngblood’ – 5 Seconds of Summer
The first two tracks I am deeply familiar with in terms of mix and instrumentation, the second two tracks I’d only heard a handful of times prior.
What hit me within the first 30 seconds of ‘Black Skinhead’ was butterflies in my stomach. Sounds dramatic? It was.
It reminded me of my time as an artist manager, going into the studio and hearing my artists mix for the first time.
I’d sit in front of a speaker system worth hundreds of thousands, listening to a song I’d previously heard many times before in demo form, but now I would experience it fully evolved, totally in the artist’s vision, with every part of my body immersed in the instrumentation blasting out of the speakers.
Every instrument heard clearly, every subtle panning of vocals noticed, the full artwork in all its glory. That is when you get butterflies as a manager, that moment is what makes artist managers and people in the record business so addicted to our jobs.
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Listening to Spatial Audio for the first time took me back to that feeling, it was as if I was sitting in Kanye’s studio listening to the final ‘Black Skinhead’ mix for the first time – and I got that feeling listening to it with my iPhone and AirPod Pros. Incredible.
The Future of Spacial Audio
If you’re like me and mostly listen to super niche hip hop artists (or any other non mainstream music), I think it will take a long time before your favourite artists are releasing records in Spatial Audio.
In some high level conversations I’ve had with relevant people, to mix an album in Spatial Audio at the Dolby studios will cost an artist anywhere between $30k-$80k extra. Even on that lower price range, it puts Spatial Audio out of reach for most artists.
A smaller artist who can sell approximately 500-1k tickets per city will likely have an album budget of $40k-$80k. That means, for most artists, mixing in Spatial Audio will be nearly double their album budget, so it’s not viable.
However, Zane Lowe just announced today that “Apple is building immersive music-authoring tools directly into Logic Pro later this year. So any musician will be able to create and mix their songs in Spatial Audio for Apple Music — whether they’re in the studio, at home or wherever.”
Great news for up and coming artists who self mix, or mixing engineers who want to up-skill and offer this service to the artists they work with. When the Logic Pro tool is rolled out, it will provide an opportunity to artists at all levels to release records in Spatial Audio a lot cheaper than via the Dolby studios.
Untill then though, I imagine for most artists Apple will either need to convince labels to increase their album budgets or foot the bill themselves cover the Dolby studio costs, otherwise in the short term we will only see the biggest artists in the world release Spatial Audio mixes till the cost of mixing Spatial Audio reduces over time and Logic Pro release their tool.
Labels increasing their album budgets
No doubt this pitch is already happening between Apple and labels. I imagine the pitch going something like this:
“If you create a Spatial Audio mix for this upcoming artist, we can put the record in all these extra popular playlists which will generate x amount of extra streams for them returning $x extra dollars”.
If the maths ads up, and the Apple can hold up their end of this hypothetical bargain, this will be a no brainer for labels. However even if a strategy like this only covers half the costs, it still could become super interesting for labels with all the extra exposure their new signing might get on the platform releasing a Spatial Audio mix.
Apple covering the cost for artists
This is the option that would be the biggest win for everyone. If Apple can come up with a “Spatial Audio fund” in the short term, almost like production budgets streaming services have to allocate to smaller artists around the world than it will change the game.
- Fans will win as more of their favourite artists will be releasing Spatial Audio records sooner
- Labels will win as it will elevate the risk
- Artists will win as they’ll be able to mix a record in a way now only reserved for the biggest artists in the world
- Studios and mixing engineers will win as they’ll get a whole lot more business
This will obviously be an expensive option for Apple, but they are the most valuable company in human history – if anyone could do it, it’s them. And it would be a massive sign of faith and support for up and coming artists around the world.
Either way, this is a new piece of music technology Apple have rolled out today is the real deal. I did not expect to love it, in truth to me it seemed like a bunch PR speak / fluff, however it is truly revolutionary. This will change music forever.
Well done Apple Music.