Steven Wilson: A Master of Immersive Music

Photo By Adam Taylor

Steven Wilson loves changing the minds of spatial audio skeptics. He's the go-to Dolby Atmos and 5.1 mixmaster for many heritage artists, new-wave bands, and alternative acts. Best known for leading the post-prog collective Porcupine Tree, releasing a score of genre-stretching solo albums, and serving as a key creative contributor to such experimental groups as No-Man and Blackfield, Wilson's approach is simple: bring them into his studio and let the music do the talking.

"My biggest thrill is sitting the artist down in the magic chair that's in the sweet spot, and then I play them their own music that's now suddenly opened out into spatial, three-dimensional audio—and I just watch their jaws hit the floor. It's the best! It's the best feeling in the world," Wilson acknowledges. "And I've had it happen many times. I've had it with Andy Partridge, Robert, Martin, Roland, and more recently Mat, from Suede." That's King Crimson's Robert Fripp, ABC's Martin Fry, Tears for Fears's Roland Orzabal, and Suede's Mat Osman. Partridge, of course, is from XTC.

Besides handling a litany of other artists' immersive-audio catalog upgrades, Wilson also concocts far-reaching Atmos mixes for his own original material. He recently completed one for his seventh studio solo album, The Harmony Codex (Virgin Music Group), released in September 2023. The Atmos mixing was done on the 7.1.4 system in Wilson's home studio, located just outside London. There, he uses a Logic Pro DAW with Logic native and Universal Audio plug-ins, Dolby Atmos Music Panner bridging, the Dolby Atmos Renderer, and two Universal Audio Apollo interfaces, monitoring his mixes-in-progress on Genelec 8020 speakers.

Some of The Harmony Codex's most striking Atmos moments occur in Wilson's duet with Israeli vocalist Ninet Tayeb on the despair-driven song "Rock Bottom." It's a downward-spiraling sequel of sorts to "Pariah," the pair's stirring, uplifting collaboration on Wilson's 2017 solo album, To the Bone. Steven is happy to accept comparisons to Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush's impassioned "Don't Give Up," from Gabriel's multiplatinum 1986 LP, So—but only up to a point.

"Listen, I think any time a man and a woman duet on a piece of conceptual, grandstanding rock music, the obvious reference point is always 'Don't Give Up,' isn't it? That's the archetype," he allows. "And 'Pariah' was closer to 'Don't Give Up' in the sense it was the guy saying, 'I want to give up,' and the girl saying, 'You'll live again.' But 'Rock Bottom' has a slightly different vibe. I always envisioned that song as a Bond theme, like a big John Barry epic (footnote 1)—an orchestral, dramatic big ballad with Shirley Bassey singing it. That was how I imagined the song from the very first moment Ninet played me the rough guitar demo." Paging Michael G. Wilson (no relation) and Barbara Broccoli—Steven Wilson would love to score a James Bond film someday. "It's No. 1 on my bucket list," he admits. "But I'm still waiting. ... Still waiting." The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Mike Mettler: What were your goals for the Atmos mix of The Harmony Codex (above)?

Steven Wilson: Well, I'd been doing Atmos mixes for about three years by the time I started on this album. Put simply, I wanted to take everything I had learned—all that experience I'd had doing mixes for other people and for some of my own projects—'and just tried to raise the bar on what you can do with Atmos. This album was conceived as a piece of cinema for the ears, with all that entails: the sense of flow, the sense of layers, and the sense of storytelling.

All of that is inherent in The Harmony Codex. Everything about it said to me, "This is an opportunity for you to really show everything you can do without falling into gimmickry." And gimmickry in Atmos, as you know, is always a little bit of a pitfall. Instead, I wanted to try and create some thing that people might say, "You know what? When I want to show off my Atmos system to my buddies when they come 'round, I'm going to put on The Harmony Codex." [laughs]

Mettler: When somebody goes into the Apple Music universe and pulls up the Atmos mix of The Harmony Codex to listen to on their AirPods, do you feel like they're getting the full breadth of what you've done with it in Atmos, or did you have to compromise anything for that potentially lossy playback?

Wilson: By definition, they're not getting the full breadth of what I've done, no. However, one thing I would say about the fact that Apple and Amazon have adopted Atmos is why it's going to stick around. This is why Atmos is not going to go the same way as 5.1, quad, and all those other attempts to create immersive spatial audio that were doomed to failure because it's hard to persuade people to put X number of speakers in their front room. We've got this binaural algorithm, which is why Atmos is going to prevail, and that's an amazing thing.

Obviously, given the choice, I would rather people hear a fully discrete, full-resolution version of The Harmony Codex. But you know what? It still sounds pretty good on AirPods, and I've worked very hard to make sure of that. All the way along, when I was doing the discrete mix, I'd put it on my iPhone and get on the treadmill with a pair of AirPods Max's, where I was listening to the mixes, making notes, going back and tweaking, because I knew [a large number] of the people that listen to this Atmos mix would be hearing it through either the Apple or the Dolby binaural algorithm. I completely embrace that, although I obviously can't compare it to the full listening experience. I'm very happy this option is available, because it's what's going to give Atmos longevity at the end of the day.

Mettler: Are physical formats disappearing for recorded media? You've embraced just about every single potential physical format with how you've put out The Harmony Codex (footnote 2), though I'm still waiting for the reel-to-reel version.

Wilson: I'd love to do that! [chuckles] I have a buddy who's an experimental sound designer, and he did a wax cylinder edition of exactly three copies! Isn't that crazy? [laughs] I don't know how he found a way to do it, but he did. Apparently, there's someone that still makes them. Anyway, we digress. The answer to your question is, I don't think physical formats are ever going to go completely away. In the same way vinyl was predicted to go away, and in the same way that cinemas were predicted to go away, there will always be a swing back of the pendulum in the other direction. Not to the same magnitude, but there will always be a little bit of pushing back against that. People love physical products—not everyone—but it's fair to say a certain number of people will pay a little for convenience over the quality of experience. But there will always be a little niche, a little swing back in the other direction. And we're seeing that with Blu-ray Atmos discs. More of them are coming out now than there were a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. More people are getting into it. It's always going to be a niche, but it will always be there.

Vinyl's not going anywhere—anywhere—'ever again. I think it's clear to see that. And the same is probably true of high-resolution audio on Blu-ray and whatever the next format will be. There will always be a place for physical formats with audiophile-quality audio.

Mettler: You also still like the CD. Tell me why.

Wilson: I do like CD, but CD is a much-maligned format. Some people refer to CD as a lo-rez format—which is funny, actually, because it sounds amazing to me now. Okay, it's 44.1kHz, 16-bit. And now we've got 24/96 and 24/192, and of course that's on another level. Honestly, I struggled—maybe I shouldn't be saying this—I struggled to hear the difference.

Mettler: I think you can tell the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit, but maybe not as much between 96kHz and 192kHz.

Wilson: My philosophy has always been, if you can record at 96, then why wouldn't you? And that's what I do. But honestly, I can barely hear the difference between a CD and my 24/96. Maybe my ears are going a bit in my old age, but anyway, I still love CD. For some music—bearing in mind that Blu-ray is still very much a niche thing—if I'm given the choice between CD and vinyl, I'll go for CD. When it comes to ambient music or classical music, I don't want to hear that on a vinyl with crackles and pops and surface noise; I'll buy a CD. For ambient music, you want a zero noisefloor as far as I'm concerned. For a lot of music, I still favor the CD—or a Blu-ray if a Blu-ray is available, but very often, it isn't. Regardless, the foretelling of the death of CD has been very premature for many years.

Mettler: I've seen some recent stories where Gen Z is getting into CDs. They're buying Nirvana CDs, since it's become a thing for them to experience music through that format.

Wilson: It's because they're cheap as chips! You can go buy a copy of Nirvana's Nevermind—or any of those records that sold millions in their day—in any charity shop for like $1, so why would you not do that and pay $30 for a 180gm vinyl that might be badly mastered or might have crackles? I still think there's a place for CD, particularly if you're on a budget.

Mettler: That said, you do still like vinyl, don't you?

Wilson: I do love vinyl too, yes. I love the tactile thing of vinyl.

Mettler: You also have a massive wall-to-wall collection of vinyl shelved there behind you, and I swear I'm not jealous of it in the least.

Wilson: When we moved into this new house, that was one of my promises to myself—to have proper shelves built for the vinyl collection. I've also built in some room for expansion, though I like to think that as I get older, I will start to shed things I don't listen to and replace them with things I will listen to. That's the way I've always been—otherwise, I'd have twice as many albums as I do now. Curating the collection is definitely a fun process, though.

Footnote 1: John Barry [Prendergast] composed the James Bond Theme and scores to 11 James Bond films. He also wrote the score to The Cotton Club and several other films.

Footnote 2: The Harmony Codex is available on vinyl, CD, Blu-ray, digital, and cassette.

Footnote 3: Released in 2021, on Caroline International/Arts & Crafts.


kai's picture

I love Steven Wilson remixes, all formats.
If every producer would do it as good as he does, Dolby Atmos for music would be a great success.

Over the decades, I’ve gone through all the paces of surround sound, only to come back to stereo in the end.

The disappointing thing is:
The audio engineers don’t have a clue how to use more than stereo.
Specially, in Classical typically it’s simply a bad joke what do you get from the surround channels - some faint alibi room sound, that’s it.
Does that justify to install five more speakers in the room?

Kal Rubinson's picture

"The audio engineers don’t have a clue how to use more than stereo.
Specially, in Classical typically it’s simply a bad joke what do you get from the surround channels - some faint alibi room sound, that’s it.
Does that justify to install five more speakers in the room?"

That's exactly what many (most?) serious classical fans want, the reproduction of an original, real event. I can understand why some would prefer a more exciting synthetic experience but I don't.

barfle's picture

I was at a concert of Holst’s “The Planets” and when it came time for the chorus in “Neptune, the Mystic,” the conductor turned around and cued the chorus, which was in the balcony behind the audience.

We weren’t in the middle of the orchestra by a long shot, but we were in the middle of the music, and it was absolutely marvelous.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yup, those effects are great. I recall a performance of Boito's "Mephistophele" where, in the prologue, the voice of Mephistophele came from above the stage and the voices of the angels and cherubs were arrayed across the upper rear of the hall. Breathtaking.

pbarach's picture

I agree with Kal: What most classical music listeners want from surround is ambience (with a few exceptions, such as Berlioz Requiem). I have a few old Sony SACDs in which the listener is placed in the middle of the New York Philharmonic. It's just...distracting.

kai's picture

I don’t want to sit in the middle of a classical orchestra - but it should make a difference if I switch the surround channels on or off.

Missed chances:
When I’m in a real concert, the room sound wraps around me.
I‘ve yet to hear a recording that at least goes into that direction.

And for the middle-sitting:
Where‘s the Yello remix that makes all the electronic sounds crash around you?

Kal Rubinson's picture

I don’t want to sit in the middle of a classical orchestra - but it should make a difference if I switch the surround channels on or off.

I certainly should and, in my experience, does happen with many recordings.


Missed chances:
When I’m in a real concert, the room sound wraps around me.
I‘ve yet to hear a recording that at least goes into that direction.

I do not know what you listen to or how you are set up but this is (and should be) common.

Glotz's picture

are just stunning in every way. Bringing up quiet details up transforms these albums even versus the latest remastered purist versions.

Huge kudos to Wilson!

mauidj's picture

Great article and interview Mike. I know you have a soft spot for SW but this did not devolve into some hero worship piece. Lots of good stuff revealed.
I am a big fan of his remixes. Which was not the case when I first heard the early ones. My muscle memory would not allow me to accept anything but the originals. But time and listening got me over that bump and now I buy every new remix I can get my hands on.
I’m glad to have all his Tull, Crimson, Giant and Rutherford mixes.
Thanks to this article I just ordered The Harmony Codex on BR. Can’t wait to hear it.
Many thanks again.

Wavelength's picture

Steven, Mike;

I am a huge XTC fan. I know Andy & Erica have been to Swindon and delivered Andy a custom guitar amp. I have a number of Steven's mixes and love what he is doing. When Steven did the Big Express reveal it was with 18.1.12. That's 31 amplifiers and speakers, it better sound good!!!
BUT??? This is Stereophile were most of the people reading this may have a TV system with 5.1, but I bet most of the population are looking at $$$ 2.x systems. So what do we get out of ATMOS and how would we enjoy that... that should have been the question.
Also why do we still talk about 96/192 instead of 88.2/176.4? Do you know the math behind down sampling 96/192 to 44.1 which would be a requirement? It's really messy... even Weiss has said this and his Sarcon plug in is said to be the best. A number of artist I support with good ears had already figured this out and were recording at 24/88.2. One of the reason the Pacific Microsystems stuff is still used is because the defaults were 88.2/176.4
Anyway... I would like to see more about how ATMOS fits into Stero, how to benefit, if companies in Computer Audio playback have looked into decoding. I have done immersive 6 channel into stereo before over USB and it can sound really wide... true maybe not. But if the decoding is there then why not show us how.
Wavelength Audio, ltd.

manisandher's picture

Take a 24/192 file. 'Downsample' to 16/44.1. 'Upsample' back to 24/192. Measure the difference between the original and 'down-/up-sampled' file. It sits at around -140dB in the passband. Keeping everything in 24 bits, they null to below -180dB in the passband.

FWIW, I recorded loads of stuff at 24/192 on my PM Model Two.


Archimago's picture

We talk about 48/96/192 because in 2024 asynchronous sample rate conversion is not rocket science.

And multichannel/Atmos can sound great. No reason audiophiles should be deprived of good immersive sound.

supamark's picture

Steven Wilson is a terrible mix engineer. Like, really really bad. He knows neither how his tools work nor how to use them. His stereo mixes (from which his surround mix derives) are often tacked on to ## anniversary remasters and they're always worse in the same way. The high end is rolled, every individual track sounds overcompressed - most individual tracks (like a gtr track) he works on already have enough compression because those guys knew what they were doing 40+ years ago; and the whole just sounds mushy and lifeless.

I tried to listen to his 40th anniversary remix of ABC's Lexicon of Love and within 8 bars of "The Look of Love" I had to turn it off - he made the focal instrument, the bass gtr, go from rollicking sharp attacks to sounding like a squishy limp turd. The original sounds like the player used a pick, the remix it sounds like he tried to play it with a marshmallow. I mean, you have to do real work to f up the sound that much.

To me "Steven Wilson remix" is a warning label, not a sign of quality.

Mark Phillips, a dude who actually knows how to mix (and has stuff on Tidal/Qobuz. If anyone cares I can list tracks).

I will say one positive - his instrument to instrument balances (i.e. bass vs gtr vs drums vs vox) are typically fine.

mauidj's picture

And especially where music and audio are concerned…so I was interested to read your I hate SW post. I am curious what qualifies you to state “ He knows neither how his tools work nor how to use them. ” I am not casting aspersions……just wanting to understand where your experience lies regarding this comment. Several of my favorite bands/musicians/producers obviously do not feel the same way given their desire to have him remix many of their classic albums. Remixes are a very interesting and often conflicting subject.