Dennis ‘ROC.am’ Jones is hot property in Atmos mixing. He has worked on immersive music for Rihanna, Bryan Adams, Mary J. Blige, and Frank Sinatra, to name just a few of the countless tracks that have received his mixing magic.
Raised by his church-going mother in Brooklyn, New York, ROC.am spent a lot of his early years in church. Wanting to find something to break up the boredom, he gravitated to the band. Of course, it’s often been the case that gospel bands have served as the melting pot for some of the music world’s most prolific artists. We got the chance to sit down with him, to talk about how it all started, mixing, Atmos and of course reverb.
ROC.am continues the story…
“In church, it’s pretty boring when you’re growing up. Just like you’re a kid, you wanna go bounce around so I was always just looking for something to do, and it seemed like there was a lot of motion going on in the music section of the church, so that’s where I gravitated towards. That’s where I started to pick up my musical talents and I discovered that I was musically inclined. I taught myself how to play drums, played keys, sang, and that kind of just migrated into making music.
I always wanted to be a recording artist. One of my friends had a computer and he had a little gooseneck microphone and one day he showed me this program called Mixcraft. I started recording with it and I fell in love with the process. When we were done working and recording, everyone would go outside, go upstairs, or go home and I would literally stay in the basement for hours and hours, tweaking the vocals, adjusting stuff.”
It’s worth noting that at this point ROC.am is only around eight years of age! Wanting to go deeper, he convinced his mother to buy him a karaoke machine for Christmas. It wasn’t long before he was recording his own voice over the backing tracks. Wanting to get backing vocals and ad-libs on the tracks, ROC.am came up with an ingenious way of augmenting the vocals.
“So I experimented. I made my Mom buy me a tape recorder and I would pre-record all of my ad libs and backgrounds and stuff like that and press play and record them as I’m recording.”
Yes, you read that right. An eight year old spinning pre-recorded backing vocals as he was recording the vocals over a backing track! It’s no surprise that ROC.am would be at the forefront of Atmos mixing later on in his career.
Over time, ROC.am built a studio around both analogue and digital equipment, spending his time learning the craft of recording and mixing. His break came when a client ROC.am had known for several years asked him if he could mix a track in Atmos…
“He called me and he said, ‘Hey, do you know anything about Dolby Atmos? Do you know any engineers that know how to mix in Dolby Atmos?’ And in my head I’m like, Dolby Atmos? Isn’t that what they use for film mixing? I didn’t know what it was. So I said, I’d get back to him. My engineer brain turned on and I went and did research and I fell in love with what I saw – and this was when it was brand new. I called them back and said, ‘hey, listen, I don’t know any engineers that operate in this format, but I’ll tell you this, I’ll learn it and I can help you’. It was destiny as that same day, Pro Tools rolled out a Dolby Atmos certification course and I jumped on it right away.”
Fast forward and ROC.am finds himself being asked to remix Frank Sinatra for Dolby Atmos. Of course, the question is, how do you get a gig remixing a legend like Frank Sinatra for Atmos?
“We’re going to talk about destiny and just how life works. During the pandemic, around 2020, it was a very interesting time for everyone, obviously, especially in the music space. I needed new inspiration and thought, ‘I need to start listening to something totally different’, so I decided to listen to Frank Sinatra’s entire catalogue, and I became a huge fan. I started to understand Frank Sinatra in a way that I never even thought I could understand him.”
Then fate took over…
“So, if we fast forward to 2022, I had started working with Universal professionally in 2021 and at Republic Records – that’s where I had my first kind of work in the immersive space. One of the issues were the limitations; in many cases all we had to work with were just mono files, of the entire mix! No stems, nothing. So we experimented. I started to do some really good mixes with these limited assets and the company began to take a liking to them because it started work on content they never thought Atmos would ever work on.
Then the subject of Frank Sinatra came up, it was the record ‘Witchcraft.’ There were a few different versions of it, I had the reprised version, I believe. We were dealing with the estate of Frank Sinatra and they weren’t really too impressed with the immersive side of what was happening based on what they had heard so far, so they came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to give this a shot? We have this Frank Sinatra record, we’re testing things out, we’re trying other engineers who use different tools just to see where we can get to.’ At this point I knew some of the best Atmos mixers had taken a look at this so I’m thinking, if they couldn’t make this work, how the hell am I supposed to figure this out?
I started to experiment and get a feel of where everything should be placed. Where the orchestra should be, where his vocals should be in the mix, compared to how they were in the originals that so many people know and love.
Perhaps my unconventional way of getting into mixing helped me here. You see, I came into this space, not from an educational background, or from a technical background. I was a little embarrassed because I didn’t really speak like most of the people that were in the room. You had a lot of really smart guys who were very tech savvy, but I was just not one of those guys. I come to mixing as an artist, I know what heartbreak sounds like. I know what love sounds like, I know what 4am walking down a New York street sounds like, and I think I have the talent to articulate that through my mixes. As I said earlier, I had spent an entire year listening to Frank Sinatra so I felt I knew how that music and emotion should sound in the immersive space. The Sinatra estate thought; ‘This kid’s doing something a little bit different. This can possibly work.’ I identified with them that they always wanted Frank’s vocals to be very present, very on top of everything. His vocals were pretty much what the music was. They wanted to place things in certain areas that they thought they couldn’t move, but I figured out a way to do it sonically with frequency so I just applied the way that I mix in the immersive space.”
ROC.am’s approach on this took Atmos in a completely different direction.
“Instead of thinking about instrumentation and vocals, I thought more on the frequency range and I separated those frequencies within a master file, which comes from the stereo master file. I pretty much created a new kind of immersive space with Frank Sinatra, where I had his vocals here, and then I had the orchestra in one place, and then I had strings in the back. Learning how they like to hear his music going back and forth, I figured out a good workflow that kind of just worked with everything.”
Were you working with separate tracks, or were you working with just like a stereo mix file?
“At first it was separate tracks and then I said, you know what, let me have the final mix, because this kept everything together, as it sounded. Rather than mixing vertically with individual tracks, I’m mixing horizontally, I’m dealing with separating elements by frequency. For example; from 100Hz up to 250Hz, or 5kHz up to 8kHz. So with this technique I applied that to how I would separate the frequencies and how I would move and place things.”
Is this because the original arrangements were doing the work already?
“The strings are already swelling or dropping, and then the brass parts are coming in and giving a big thwack of power. So in a sense, that job has been done by the arrangement already. My job was just to create space.”
Do you think you were handed a gift in that sense? Because a lot of hard mixing is because the arrangements are wrong in the first place?
“Yes. I didn’t really have to overthink. There’s the gift of understanding how the immersive space works and then there’s also the experience and lifestyle – I think that’s something that needs to be put at the forefront a little bit more. Because I listened to that catalogue in 2020, because I had the opportunity to actually go to the studio where these songs were recorded and envision how this orchestra played, and watching videos. The entire experience helped enhance how I would go about approaching this mix in the catalogue.”
Do you think those formative days in church, watching and experiencing how the bands played and responded to one another helped?
“1000%. I was really young coming up in that and I was able to adapt so I can literally feel when something’s about to tone down, that’s church for you. Church was always a free for all. We never really practised. I was just at a mixer in LA and they had a little jam session. I jump on the drums and I’m just hanging out and all of a sudden a singer comes, a guitar player comes, all these people come and they’re just like, let’s jam out. We created magic right there. I think that really carved a lot of what I’ve done, especially in the immersive space, using the same kind of instinctive musical thinking about mixing.”
It seems you put a lot of stock on being true to yourself. Many would look at how you are approaching Atmos and think that’s not the conventional way to do it…
“I’ve figured out a niche in this world and as I got more known for my mixing and collaborated with a lot of huge companies, there was one thing that they always wanted and that was true authenticity. Once I identified who I was and they saw what that was, they wanted that because it was a totally different perspective from what they usually get. Whatever your background is, by bringing that into the professional space, people who are in those similar environments get influenced by that and understand that they can be just like you, or even better.”
Let’s talk about reverb and how you use that in your mixing.
“Reverb and the immersive space is quite interesting. There’s been several different ways I’ve used it. A lot of time you’re getting stuff from tape or multitracks, the hardest part is to recreate these mixes as they sounded when they were first made.
I would get the multitracks for a legacy record and I would have to mimic that same mix and master to actually create it in the immersive world. That’s a lot of automation, a lot of reverbs, compression, delays… I would have to do a little bit of studying about how that record was made.
I’d consider where they recorded the album, where was it mixed? What studio? What gear were they using? I use all that information to inform me about how I would go about the immersive mix. I’m often reverse engineering and emulating everything that they did in analogue in the box.
Reverb is often one of the harder things to replicate, obviously for reasons of just how they did reverb back in those times. Sometimes I use different plugins and reverb for vocals, or I’ll use it to recreate a drum room, or just on an entire record to give it more space and make it sound bigger.”
ROC.am talks about how LiquidSonics made the job easier.
“I started to play with the plugins that I already had, because at this time I didn’t really know if any immersive reverb plugins existed. It was quite a complicated set up in Pro Tools to get a really cinematic sound.
Then I learned that there is Cinematic Rooms that’s fully Atmos compatible. When I got that, it made things way easier. A lot of the time I would need to add just a touch of reverb to bring a little bit more life to the record, Cinematic Rooms is one of those plugins I would use.
It helps me create a space. It’s like a ball of reverb. That’s how I use it, like a dome around the mix. It often makes the room feel bigger.”
ROC.am’s roots are in hardware, so it’s no surprise that he is very fond of the Bricasti M7.
“I’m also a big fan of the Bricasti M7. I’ve used it coming up in mixing when I was experimenting in the hardware world. It is one of my favourites. That’s one of the reasons why I gravitated towards Seventh Heaven, because I’ve never had an experience with reverb like I did with the Bricasti M7. Seventh Heaven was the first plugin I’ve ever experienced that actually worked like the hardware. Once I saw it I just had to get it. I want my mixes to stand out and it’s using gear like this that does it.”
We’ve been talking for over an hour, and yet it feels like we’re just getting started! Whether it’s his ingenious childhood recording experiments, or shaking up the Atmos world with his unconventional methods, ROC.am embodies a refreshing authenticity. But it’s not just about the skill set; it’s about understanding the emotion, the culture, and the story behind each track. And perhaps that’s his real gift – the ability to tap into the essence of a song, no matter how old or how complex, and breathe new life into it.
From a boy beating on drums in a Brooklyn church to the man remixing Sinatra in Dolby Atmos, ROC.am reminds us all that sometimes the most innovative solutions arise from the most humble beginnings.