Four-time Oscar-nominated Hollywood mixer, Dennis S. Sands, has leveraged his extensive experience and expertise in both orchestral recording and film score mixing into the evolution of Sound Waves SB, the world’s first and only private studio equipped with the revolutionary Dolby Atmos™ system.
With a resume that reads like a USC post-graduate film student’s thesis on the history of American cinema; if you’ve seen landmark films such as The Shawshank Redemption, Good Will Hunting, Independence Day, The Horse Whisperer, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, plus recent blockbusters including Captain America—The First Avenger and Godzilla 2014; you’ve heard the remarkable artistry and signature sound of Dennis Sands.
Beginning his film career as scoring mixer for the feature, Movie Movie, Sands has racked up an impressive 282 credits to date. His Oscar nominations for Best Achievement In Sound Mixing include Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away, and The Polar Express. Sands also has six additional C.A.S, Golden Reel, and Satellite Award nominations, plus six wins, including a Primetime Emmy and a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack Album for the film, American Beauty.
Always looking to bring his art to a higher level, Sands was recently introduced to the Dolby Atmos audio platform at an L.A. dub stage, and immediately recognized its potential to provide unprecedented control of sound placement, and in turn, a unique, immersive experience for filmgoers. That encounter prompted Sands to outfit his already impressive studio with the Dolby Atmos system, enabling him to deliver a film score in any format, including Atmos, 5.1, 7.1, and stereo.
The facility itself has a pedigree as impressive as Sands’ long list of illustrious credits. Originally built by action-film director, Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), the studio, now known as Sound Waves SB, was designed by Tomlinson Holman (the “TH” of THX) and outfitted from top to bottom by RSPE Audio Solutions of Los Angeles in conjunction with Ron Lagerlof of Visioneering Design.
While Sound Waves SB is a convenient and pleasant drive up the PCH for the LA film community, its Santa Barbara location makes Sound Waves SB a choice destination for the international film industry as well. A prime vacation spot on the California coast, Santa Barbara ensures beautiful surroundings, physical comfort, and great food—essential components for any creative endeavor.
We will let Dennis tell you about Sound Waves SB in his own words.
What kind of experience can clients expect when they come to Sound Waves SB?
Everyone who comes here is blown away by it. First of all, it’s extremely comfortable and very private. It’s relaxed, it’s beautiful, and the facility is unique in the music world—there’s nothing like it anywhere. It’s also extremely well equipped—with great sound and a product that translates very well.
Plus, we have great projection: a Christie Digital Systems projector, a 12’ by 20’ screen, and a full Meyer Sound cinema sound system. It’s a very large space (42’ x 36’ x 16’ ceiling height), and there’s also a huge lawn here with benches, so we can sit outside and have lunch.
Sound Waves SB is also a very safe environment; that is to say my studio is not going to be invaded via the Internet. Just a small aside: my studio has been vetted by Marvel Studios for Internet safety. We have an industrial-strength firewall, which is monitored 24/7 just like a burglar alarm. It’s totally invisible to the outside world. Even if you tried to get through it, which you can’t, the monitoring facility would track you and then turn you in to the FBI. Plus all of our computers that contain the music and picture files are hardwired and isolated from our wireless system, which is non-broadcast wireless. Our picture files are contained solely on an encrypted hard drive, which requires a key to operate—nobody can get in it and take files. Anyway, it’s a long way to say that Sound Waves SB is a very safe environment in terms of the product.
And finally, we’re in Santa Barbara, which is a resort destination. There’s great food and luxury hotels—Santa Barbara is all about accommodating visitors.
You mentioned being extremely well equipped. Where does Dennis Sands shop for gear?
Interestingly, both RSPE Audio Solutions and Ron Langerlof’s Visioneering were initially contracted by Andy (Davis) and have been involved with this facility since its start. RSPE supplied the equipment, Ron Langerlof the technical expertise to interface it all—and they both provided the same capabilities for me.
Let’s talk about Dolby Atmos. Does it change the way you mic an orchestra?
I’m experimenting a little now, but I haven’t found anything that I would do radically different … as yet. Just to backtrack a bit as to why I put Atmos in my facility: at the end of December 2012, I was working on a project called Oz the Great and Powerful, which was a movie I was recording and mixing the score for. The director contacted me and said, they were going to release the movie in an immersive format and wanted me to listen to it, because they wanted me to do something for the score in this (format). I said okay, but I was very cynical about it. I thought, “boy, 5.1 or 7.1 is pretty nice, why do we need another format?”
So, I went to a dub stage in L.A. where they had an Atmos demo set up. The first time I heard this stuff—and no one was more cynical than I was—the first time I heard it I was completely blown away. “Immersive” is a very good term for this sound format. The sound isn’t thrown at you; you’re in it, in a great, great way. Not only that, but the clarity, the depth, the accuracy of the movement of sound, and the placement of sound in the 3-dimensional environment was stunning—something I’d never heard before, really.
I was extremely impressed so I started to look into it. But at the time, outside of going to a dub stage where they were working in Atmos, I had no way of hearing it, and certainly no way of mixing music with it. There was just nowhere to go, and now I have the only dedicated music-mixing facility with Atmos capability. There simply are no other facilities.
Anyway, my approach has more to do with mixing rather than microphone placement for orchestral recording. Actually, there are already enough mics out in the room for the orchestra that I can use for the Atmos mixes.
I understand that you have an extensive mic collection.
Yes, I do. At last count, I have around 110 microphones—something in that region. I have four original Neumann M 50s. I use three of them on a Decca tree when I record orchestra and the fourth as a spare. They’re spectacular microphones for that purpose. They’re also very rare. I think they only made about 600 of them—the last of them was made in the 1950s. From what I understand, one third have been lost or no longer exist, so there’s maybe 400 left, of which I own … one-percent. They are the highlight of my collection to say the least.
Getting back to mixing with Atmos, What about the overhead speakers, which 5.1 and 7.1 don’t have—how do they figure into the way you mix?
I look at the overhead speakers the way I look at a subwoofer. I think what makes the overheads work is when you use then occasionally. If you use them all the time, they’ll disappear. Subwoofers are the same thing. If you have a low-frequency thing going on all the time, it loses its effectiveness. When the overheads are there occasionally, then it opens up—it’s impressive and beautiful.
So Atmos leaves a lot more room for Foley …
As well as the dialog … instead of being locked to the screen, you can spread the width of the music to the walls and still have full frequency-range capability. It allows more space for dialog, more space for sound effects, and you can still keep the music happening—there’s just less competition for space—in essence, you can move sound off of the screen.
Do you think Atmos will change the way composers work?
I hope so. What I would love to see happen is for composers to “A,” get excited about this format, and “B,” think about it when they’re composing, so they actually start writing for this kind of experience. People that are creative, I think, will find this a wonderfully additive tool.
What advantage does having the Atmos system present to potential clients?
When you hear a true Atmos mix, it sells itself. It’s a completely different experience; you put people inside the music and they “get it.” As I said, it’s an immersive concept. First of all, you can widen the image, you can create great depth, and you truly immerse the audience inside of the soundscape.
One of the great things about Atmos is the surround channels are full range and of equivalent volume to the screen channels. All speakers are set to the same standard level, plus, the surround channels are bass-managed, which means I have subwoofers that enhance the low frequencies on the surround channels and the ceiling channels as well. It’s a unique capability in regard to anything that has existed prior to Atmos.
You now have full audio range capability throughout the entire theater, which you never had before. It’s a totally different soundscape. And because it’s so accurate in terms of how you can position various musical elements in a space, it’s really an incredible experience for the audience—a new experience.
Apart from Atmos, is there any other technology that’s enhanced your workflow as a scoring mixer?
One thing that was substantially helpful to me, especially in the interface of my Atmos mixing, was the Euphonix System 5 MC that Russ (RSPE Audio’s Russ Belttary) provided me with. It’s a control surface that’s just absolutely spectacular.
The console I had when I moved here was a Euphonix CS 3000, a 96-input desk, which is a digitally controlled, analog board. I looked at several digital consoles but they are limited to a 96k maximum format. I do all of my orchestral and/or acoustic recording at 192k. The difference from 96k to 192k is stunning. The quality, the dimensionality, the depth of the sound, the content, the richness, is stunningly better at 192k. But the limitation of digital consoles is that everything you do, whether you set up a channel, effects send, EQ, compressor, whatever, draws on the available DSP. From a practical standpoint, you cannot go above 96k on a digital console, so I chose to keep my analog console to allow for the highest possible quality.
Because I kept my CS 3000, I can remain in the 192k format, which means the quality is substantially better, but I need to access my other systems. I have four systems online when I mix: one for prelay, one for orchestra, one is the mix rig, and the fourth is a dedicated video system.
With the System 5 MC everything is right in front of me. At the push of a button I just access whatever system I want, do my moves, save ’em, push a button, go to a different system, it’s all right there—just fantastic—so aside from the Dolby Atmos, the Euphonix System 5 MC has been a real enhancement to my workflow, and Russ (Belttary) was very instrumental in making that all happen for me.
I’ve done business with RSPE for many years. I find them to be a great company. They’re very responsive, helpful, reliable, whether I’ve needed a repair or whatever—they’ve been very gracious all along the way. You can buy a piece of equipment from anybody. What separates any company is the kind of service you get afterward, and that’s where RSPE is really a standout. So I’ve been very loyal to them and they’ve been extremely helpful to me. Having the entire team at RSPE available for any technical emergency or solution sets them apart from any supplier. If there were one supplier that I can say that I can rely on after over 20 years, it’s these guys.
You have an extraordinary resume, which begs the question, why does Hollywood come to you; what does Dennis Sands do that can’t be gotten anywhere else (apart from Atmos)?
Editor’s note: While he may be at ease with miking horns, Dennis is not the kind of person who’s comfortable with blowing his own. So we asked Gary Lux, former head mixer at Universal Studios what he has to say on the subject of Dennis Sands:
Dennis Sands is a true Hollywood Mixer. His unique understanding and ability to capture the sound of an orchestra balancing itself in the room sets him apart from most. I remember in my earlier days in Los Angeles, I was a guest at a Mike Post session at Group IV Studios. The show was, ‘The White Shadow,’ a TV series. Dennis was mixing. He was cool and calm. The studio, the musicians, the vibe, and the sound were larger than life! It was one of those few moments that proved to be extremely pivotal in me becoming the mixer I am today. I recently visited Dennis at his studio in Santa Barbara where he demonstrated a Dolby Atmos mix he had done for the upcoming movie Godzilla. I’ve mixed a tremendous amount of music in 5.1 surround sound, but hearing his Dolby Atmos mix blew me away, as it opened my mind to the possibilities I had tried to achieve in 5.1 for so long. But, the real magic to Dennis, besides the talent and his wonderful ear, is how incredibly nice a man he is, which makes him one of the greatest music mixers this town has ever known.
— Gary Lux (The Jacksons, Frank Sinatra, Usher, Sting, Rob Thomas, Janet Jackson)
Nothing is more condusive to creativity and the making of an award-winning artistic endeavor than a calm, respectful, light-hearted environment, where the client is king, and talent and expertise roam free. If you’re in the business of making features films with the potential to impact our lives and our culture, make Dennis Sands’ Sound Waves SB your final destination.
To learn more visit the Sound Waves SB web site.