Spatial Talks w/ Greg Penny

Posted by Catarina Chagas on Jan 25

Greg Penny_1

Greg Penny is a record producer, recording engineer, mixing engineer, musician, songwriter and artist. He is best known for his collaborations with Elton John, Harry Styles, Norah Jones, Sting, Stevie Wonder, The Weeknd, and k.d. lang. He worked on Grammy-winning albums and was nominated for a Grammy Award himself. This multi-talented artist was also the mixer of Elton John's "Honky Château" - the first track in the world mixed in Dolby Atmos. As the president of Flower Records, he continues to produce records and has contributed significantly to the music industry. 

Greg, you mixed Elton John’s Rocketman in Spatial. This was literally the first track to be mixed in Dolby Atmos, the mix that trail-blazed Spatial Music as we know it. Can you tell us about your artistic approach to mixing the track?

Rocketman is a record that’s been played millions of times, one that is part of the social fabric. The ebb and flow of that track was always special to me. The way it starts small and it grows and gets bigger. Then it gets small again, then it gets big. Then there is so much space around it. It feels like you are moving through space as he is telling the story he is telling. Those were important elements to me. The first time I mixed it in 5.1, I regarded a lot of that ebb and flow. There was a whole re-imagining of that with Atmos, so we could utilize the height channels. I have to credit Bryan Pennington at Dolby for helping me with that track back in 2013. The shockwave of this mix went around the world three or four times before somebody went “Wait. What is this? Let’s do this”, which led to Spatial Music becoming mainstream, in 2017 or so.

I think it’s the ebb and flow approach to mix that showed off the format. Because you were not overwhelmed by it. I mean I have heard lots of great Atmos mixes since then, and some are completely exhausting. You have 12 or 15 speakers pointed at you and things are flying at you all the time. Psychologically it becomes almost uncomfortable to listen to for a long period of time, when you have too much movement. I think the good thing about Rocketman is that you can take it in bites and chew on it. That’s what makes it so satisfying at the end. It’s like a sonic meal.

The intention was really to put something out there that would prove to people that it could be incredibly compelling, emotionally, to listen to. At the end of the day I am a record producer. All these decades later I remain enthusiastic about making music. I want to throw paint on the wall, make music, move people through music. Part of my task is to know the machine well enough to make it go away.


Can you tell us a little bit about the work you have done in the Spatial Music realm?

I have done a lot of records for Elton John, who has been like a big brother, a huge supporter of mine since I met him; when I was 17 years old. I was there at the session of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. So that gives me a bit of a conceptual edge on how to approach it, as I mix the record for Spatial. In Dolby Atmos I’ve mixed records by Sting, The Police, Stevie Wonder, Harry Stiles, The Weeknd, Katie Perry, Classic Motown records and many others. I also recorded the Vatican Choir at the Sistine Chapel with the purpose of capturing it to be released in Atmos. 


Can you tell us about your background and experience working with Immersive / Spatial Music?

Like many young producers finding new ways to express themselves, I always played with multiple speakers in my studios. I would give a speaker to each track of the tape, experiment. I always liked the concept of working outside the bounds of Stereo.

Growing up in Nevada in the 70’s, there were a lot of mad scientists around. It was the wild frontier, with so many people trying new entertainment ideas. As a teenager I remember visiting one of those people who had so many speakers lining up the upper hemisphere of his room. There must have been 20 or 30 speakers, even though he was only playing stereo. I remember that night being distinctly inspirational to me. Very much like when I first heard Quad or 5.1. Once we got to 5.1 I knew we had something to really really work with. This is when I went to DTS and learned how to mix in this new format.

Then I did as a test, an album I had done with Elton John called Made in England. I started mixing some of the tracks in 5.1. Of course you are super adventurous at first. You want to do things that are abstract and out of the box but you eventually have to settle on something that is consumable. Elton was touring in the US at the time and called me to ask how it was going. I told him everyone was loving it and he said “Eventually get around to doing it, but drop it for now and go do Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” This was in 2001-2002.

Fast forward some years and I am having lunch with a dear friend when he tells me I have to hear this super surround system that Dolby just came out with called Atmos. He invited me to hear his Atmos system and I was blown away. He turned around after playing a Dolby demo reel and said “You need to go do something with this in the Music space.” I was completely excited by the challenge. 


Clearly, you’ve been breathing Spatial Audio since the 70’s. With all these various formats around, how do you foresee the future of Spatial Music? What are your thoughts on Binaural?

I think I would really like to be able to express in the immersive format without thinking about the limitations or politics of the format. Sometimes specific titles are not available in a specific format because there was a deal made somewhere. I would like to see Spatial Audio to be more of a freeform choice on my part to be able to mix the way I want to mix. I think that more original IP is important. We are now over the phase where we were just remixing all the classic records we have listened in Stereo. We needed to go through that phase because that’s how people recognize new technology, that’s how a new format launches in a way.

At this point in time, I really think that starting from the very conception of the material; let it be an album or a show, needs to be conceived in Spatial. SkyDust, the virtual instrument is incredible because it removes the barrier to entry for a musician who is trying to conceptualize a musical piece; but has to stop and deal with a complex technology along the way.

I think that when you have for example an immersive synthesizer, incredible things can happen. Lets face it. Half of the magic of the great records you have listened to since the dawn of recording are accidents. They are accidents created by the mere process of recording. Stars have been born out of technology.

I think this is an important thing. I do see a lot of super creative people who have this imagination for amazing things. They often times get slowed down by the complexity of the technology, and whether or not it is going to be acceptable as a delivery format wherever they have to release it, you know. I think the best thing is to break those barriers down and let things happen, let the inspiration come. From what I have heard, the original compositions and original experiments in immersive formats are mind boggling. It is fabulous.

Binaural is the junction that I am more concerned with right now. I’d been speaker centric for a while, but now with streaming services supporting Spatial, Binaural is a necessity. Products like SkyDust 3D is incredible. I’ve listened to it on headphones and it’s so cool to play with because it does not have some of the limitations that I feel in other formats. 


What are your thoughts on Sound Particles’ suite of products?

I feel super inspired by using all the Sound Particles products. I am blown away by Density. The incredible ability to have a 3D Synthesizer like SkyDust 3D that I don’t have to think about; It’s just so expressive. The ability to load simple background vocals of Rocketman into Sound Particles 2, being able to moving it around and create almost like a melodic drone that turns around you and repeats at random times is so inspiring. I just imagine hearing this in a stadium and having Elton John walking out on stage with a spotlight. It’s awesome.  


Greg Penny's journey in the world of immersive and spatial music has been a remarkable one, spanning decades of innovation and creativity. From his early experimentation with multiple speakers in the 70s to becoming a pioneer in the field of spatial audio with Dolby Atmos, his work reflects a deep passion for pushing the boundaries of music technology. With a focus on original compositions and the removal of barriers that can hinder creativity, he envisions a future where immersive formats, including binaural, offer artists the freedom to express their musical visions without limitations. 

Thank you Greg! 


Topics: Interviews