Twenty-five years ago, R.E.M.’s eighth studio album—the monumental Automatic For The People—was released. On November 10, Craft Recordings will reissue the classic 1992 album in a variety of remastered formats, the most elaborate of which—the Deluxe Anniversary Edition—features four discs of previously unreleased material, a 60-page book, and a remix of the entire original album in Dolby’s Atmos format.
Turning their attentions back to Automatic For The People a quarter-century later are original producer Scott Litt and engineer Clif Norrell, who dug out the original multitrack tapes residing on both 24-track analog and 32-track digital (ProDigi) formats.
What was it like, diving into rather uncharted territory, remixing a massively successful, timeless and loved record in this new immersive audio format? “It was hard,” admits Litt. “It was hard because there was no precedent. Everyone always kept saying, ‘There are no rules’ and I would say ‘Well, can’t there be, like, one rule?’”
Litt and Norrell both agree that the inherent nature of Automatic For The People—a largely organic, rather solemn, acoustically rich and tonally deep album—does lend itself to Dolby Atmos, as the overhead channels allow the listener to sit within the spaces and moments occupied by Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry all those years ago, experiencing it all as if it were happening live and today.
“The overall sense of [remixing in Dolby Atmos] was to create a more immersive sound that washes over you,” offers Litt. “If you close your eyes, you could be in the middle of this room, sometimes with an orchestra, sometimes without. It was about finding places where certain things worked and that would be our rule of thumb [going forward]. It turned out not being an experiment of terror—with things flying around the room—but more about making the original stereo mix sound like mono, and making the Atmos mix sound like a full-fledged stereo listening experience, where 360 degrees are working for you.”
This project was not the first time material from Automatic For The People was remixed “beyond stereo.” “I had actually done a surround sound mix for ‘Man On The Moon’ years ago for the film [Man On The Moon],” explains Norrell, “so I had an idea [of the process] going in. But because it’s a band, I wanted to stay true to that, as if the mix were a band performing in front of you. That was my philosophical part of it: to allow the listener to have an immersive experience with the album—that they are inside the music.”
Further, the success of the album encouraged Norrell to remix with reverence. “This is an album people are very familiar with already,” he explains. “And we felt like we pretty much got a lot of it right originally. We wanted to stay true to that, [but] just make it bigger and better, take advantage of the format and not really try to re-approach the songs, not try to change them. We tried to stay true to the original approach and the sounds.”
Mixing for Atmos, explains Norrell, is an entirely new world compared to traditional surround due to its overhead channels. “Instead of a 360 degree/2D experience, it is a 360, 3D experience,” he comments of Atmos. “There’s a sense of depth and space that Atmos allows that hasn’t really been possible before. It opens up a lot of possibilities for me as a mixer, in terms of letting the listener to really feel inside of it.
“When I’m mixing in Atmos, I’m really mixing for that sweet spot in the room,” continues Norrell. “The mix does change quite a bit as you walk around the room, which can really change your experience in a good way; you may hear things you’ve never heard before. You can hear things with such clarity, too. If you sit in the middle, it will sound like the arrangement that you remember, but as you walk around and perspective changes, you will have a completely different experience, which I think is a really awesome feature of this format.”
Featuring acclaimed string arrangements composed by none other than Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones over time-tested songs and powerful, intimate voices and tones, Automatic For The People can be an active study for listeners in the use of open air acoustics, space and nuance in pop music.
“Part of the consideration [for the Atmos mix] is that [the guys] are a band, and the sounds are natural-sounding instruments—acoustic instruments, real instruments,” concludes Norrell. “And with the orchestra, it all sounds like people playing. Because of that, I didn’t want to go too crazy with panning things around while the music was happening. That kind of ends up sounding distracting, rather than allowing the listener to just enjoy the experience of being in there with the musicians. And that’s specifically in this case. You could have some modern synths and drum machines in an Atmos mix that lend themselves a certain style of motion and panning. Instead, we’re talking about a moment in time 25 years ago that we want to stay true to.”