After 37 years together, jazz fusion luminaries Manteca have firmly established themselves as seminal proprietors of the genre. But even after all this time, co-founder Matt Zimbel and his crew are not finished innovating. Their twelfth full-length effort, fittingly titled The Twelfth of Never, features the band’s nine principle players and a surround mix supported by Neumann.
While a traditional stereo recording of the album was released at the end of September, an offhand discussion between Zimbel, who also works as a television producer, and Bell Media surround sound mix experts Michael Nunan and Anthony Montano led to a plan to take the record to a whole new level: one that incorporates height. Utilizing a 12.2 mix room featuring Neumann monitors, the team was able to realize the album in a 3D space.
The Atmos format is not new to Nunan or Montana, and despite knowing that the format has rarely been used for a stand-alone music recording, they were excited about the prospect.
“Anthony and I have already been working in the Dolby Atmos format for over a year now, trying to learn how it will work for TV applications, and had become increasingly interested in how the format could be applied to non-cinema applications, especially music,” says Nunan, Bellmedia’s senior manager, Broadcast Operations, Audio. “Anthony told me about Atmos outside the truck one day while we were working on the Pan Am games and I was really intrigued,” says Zimbel.
When Zimbel told Montano and Nunan about Manteca’s new album, they knew it would be an ideal first foray into mixing a music recording in an enhanced surround format.
“The Twelfth of Never is an extraordinary album with fantastic players, great songs, and arrangements that are well-suited to this kind of space,” Nunan says. “These arrangements are quite dense with a lot of moving parts. The possibility to get inside the music in this three-dimensional space is a major evolution of the craft of music production.”
The record was initially recorded and mixed in stereo by Jeff Wolpert at the sprawling Revolution Recording studio in Toronto. Nunan and Montano started with individual tracks for each instrument that included Wolpert’s processing and adjustments.
“We wanted to utilize the basic tonality that Jeff had crafted for the record and work from there,” Nunan says. Nunan and Montano took those tracks to Bellmedia Studios in Toronto, home of one of very few non-cinema mix rooms in the country fully equipped for high-order surround.
“Neumann monitors are used throughout Bellmedia Studios because of their excellent sound quality, flat frequency response, and compact size,” he continues “All of those factors made them an easy choice for our enhanced surround mix room.” The mix room features 12 KH 120 monitors complemented by a pair of KH 810 subwoofers. “It is imperative that we have accurate imaging as we explore these new formats, and the Neumann monitors provide that.”
Nunan and Montano hewed close to Wolpert’s core sounds from his stereo mix. “The kick drum sound was the same one Jeff had in his final mix, for example, which we would diverge from only if we needed to account for what happened in the space we were creating.” Some of their enhancements included utilizing special surround reverb and delay effects that were rendered to fill the 3D space.
Wolpert and Zimbel remained involved throughout the process to ensure fidelity to the original sonic vision of The Twelfth of Never. Wolpert notes how pleased he was with the performance of the Neumann monitors in translating his original mix to high-order surround.
“To make this happen you need extraordinarily accurate monitoring,” he says. “We were very fortunate to have Neumann monitors for this process. As you can imagine, imaging is super important and that is something at which these speakers excel. Without precision of placement there would be no ability to precisely create the virtual atmosphere we were after. They really are extraordinary.”
With this very unique mix of Manteca’s latest work complete and approved by Zimbel and the band, it was time to decide how best to present the material to the world despite the dearth of non-cinema venues equipped for high-order surround playback.
“We didn’t feel that a movie theater was the right place to debut this, so we decided to bring it back to where it all began: to Revolution Recording’s Studio A live room,” says Zimbel. The audience would be divided into two listening sessions and include friends and collaborators of the band as well as industry luminaries and a few lucky Jazz FM Toronto donors. To achieve the balanced sound the team had relied on during the mix stage, they reached out to Sennheiser’s Doug Spears, manager ProAV Sales, Canada, who was able to coordinate the delivery of a 14-speaker Atmos-ready sound system for the occasion. The system featured Neumann’s KH 420, KH 310, and KH 120 monitors and KH 810 subwoofers, arrayed in a 7.1 configuration at ear level with an additional 5.1 array above the listening positioning to add the crucial height dimension, each encircling the 50 chairs gathered in the immense live room.
“For most of you, this will be the first time you hear something that you feel does justice to the term “surround sound,” Nunan said as the audience for the first listening session gathered in their seats. After Zimbel, Wolpert, Nunan, and Montano gave some background on the process of creating this unique experience, Nunan pressed play and the audience was entranced. “Incredible,” said one guest as enthusiastic applause erupted after playback completed.
While the method of delivery for a commercially distributed version of the high order surround mix of The Twelfth of Never is uncertain, Nunan hopes that continuing advances in surround reproduction technology will make a compatible system more widely available in the form of a pair of normal headphones.
“When we created the mix, we did so by placing audio objects in a virtual space, which the computer then renders to the specific speaker orientation we have available upon playback,” Nunan explain. “This means we can always re-render our mix to a new speaker format as standards evolve. Some day we hope this will include a binaural convolution that allows us to deliver the effect on conventional headphones. These are yet more reasons why it was critical that our Neumann monitors afford us the clarity and honesty that ensures that our mixes will translate for years to come.”