Studio in the Round

Audio enthusiasts have been touting surround sound as the next big thing in audio for several years now. Further, the DVD revolution and video gaming
Author:
Publish date:

Audio enthusiasts have been touting surround sound as the next big thing in audio for several years now. Further, the DVD revolution and video gaming have turned multichannel sound into a standard feature of consumer home-entertainment systems. Movies, TV shows, and concerts are routinely encoded with 5.1 mixes that have one or both of the most popular surround formats, Dolby Digital (or AC-3) and DTS.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: Eric Colvin uses MOTU hardware and Digital Performer to create surround projects such as Nascar 3D: The Imax -Experience.

The typical project-studio owner, however, may have had good reason for avoiding the 5.1 rush: the music-only multichannel disc (the format that smaller studios could most easily produce) has never taken off as a mass-market item. Despite hundreds of releases in SACD and DVD-Audio — the two high-resolution audio-only formats — consumers have failed to buy enough of the necessary players to significantly increase the popularity of multi-channel audio.

For many people today, listening to music is about portability and convenience, rather than detail, frequency response, and spatial expansion (which are the most attractive features of the surround format). High-resolution 5.1 mixes don't translate well to iPod ear buds. (But what about the Dolby Headphone format, you ask? See the sidebar “Modern Surround Formats.”)

Even more restricting to the mobile-music crowd is that surround requires you to stay put — your ears must be a certain distance from your five (or seven) satellite speakers to get the full surround effect. (Bass — the “point one” in a 5.1 or 7.1 surround system — works a little differently. See the sidebar “Managing Bass.”)

State of the Art

Should these facts make surround a dead issue for your studio? Not if you want your room to be as competitive and attractive as possible to new clients. Multichannel audio has established a foothold in areas that you might not think much about, such as sound design for electronic games, which is a multi-billion-dollar business. Hollywood studios are gearing up for new high-definition DVDs, while consumers brace for a format war between HD DVD and Sony's Blu-Ray — each of which is supported by different groups of manufacturers.

Even more important to small studios is the DualDisc, which provides audio on one side and video with audio on the other. Major label releases such as Rob Thomas's Something to Be (Atlantic, 2005), and the Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue (Sony, 2005), which includes the original music and a film documentary on the making of the album, have been released as DualDiscs. Car manufacturers have a huge impact on surround's public acceptance, as more autos feature factory-installed multichannel systems and as satellite radio, with its surround capability, grows in popularity.

But for the project-studio owner, surround has been a game of hurry-up-and-wait, because most music-only projects continue to concentrate on stereo mixes. Yet according to several surround experts that EM interviewed, the time to get established as a surround mixer is now (see the sidebar “Entry-Level Surround”). Getting a foothold in the surround business involves many of the same requirements as does entering into the traditional studio business: get the right equipment installed, seek out customers who are looking for surround, and provide good mixes in the right format in a cost-effective way.

To get a clear picture of the current state of surround, I spoke with six engineers who work in various media, from electronic games to HDTV. Each gave good advice and valuable tips that apply to audio mixing in general, and surround work specifically.

Eric Colvin created the surround mixes for Nascar 3D: The Imax Experience (Imax, 2004), and other film and television projects at Soundscape Inc. in Studio City, California (see Fig. 1). Using MOTU hardware and Digital Performer, he delivers most of the film projects in 5.1, while the TV work is still primarily in stereo. He is working on a pop album that he intends to mix in 5.1.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: With his Window-based studio and Steinberg Nuendo, Neil Wilkes tackles audio-restoration jobs as well as live-album production and movies in 5.1 at Opus Productions in the UK.

Patrick Yacono uses Digidesign Pro Tools to create surround mixes for low- to midbudget films, television programs, and older films not previously mixed in surround. He works at Signal Hill Sound, outside of Chicago.

Neil Wilkes uses Steinberg Nuendo with his PC-based system to create mixes ranging from private quadraphonic restoration jobs to full live album production and movies in 5.1 (see Fig. 2). He works at Opus Productions, in the UK.

Paul Klingberg creates music releases in the DVD-Audio format, as well as DualDisc, DVD music videos, and mixes for HDTV at Red Note Studio in California. Recent projects include several SACD remixes of classic Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago LPs and the HDTV surround mix of the two bands' recent joint tour. He has also created the surround mixes for Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery (Rhino, 2000), Carole King's Tapestry (Sony, 2002), and Foreigner's Foreigner (Rhino, 2001).

Image placeholder title

FIG. 3: David Glasser has created numerous high-definition audio mixes for Sony''s SACD format at Airshow Mastering in Boulder, Colorado.

David Collins, along with Associate Sound Designer Jim Diaz, mixes in surround for LucasArts, a developer and publisher of interactive titles such as Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith (LucasArts, 2005), for PCs and game machines such as the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2. The company also oversees and creates sound, voice, and music for externally developed projects such as Pandemic's Star Wars Battlefront (Pandemic/LucasArts, 2004).

David Glasser has created many mixes for Sony's SACD format at Airshow Mastering in Boulder, Colorado (see Fig. 3). He recently handled the surround mix for The Grateful Dead Movie (Monterey Home Video, 2004). Glasser and Matt Sandoski were Grammy nominees for their audio restoration and mastering work on the boxed set Goodbye Babylon (Dust to Digital, 2003), a six-disc collection of gospel recordings from the 1920s through the 1950s. (For additional information on the studio setups and preferred equipment of these surround professionals, see Geared Up for Surround, available online at www.emusician.com.)

Changing Channels

All the surround mixers that I spoke with have encountered challenges unique to the multichannel world, and have developed strategies to create successful projects. Understanding the goal of distributing sound creatively among five speakers is only the beginning. Colvin says that the process has been relatively smooth: “The only issues were deciding what gear to buy, how to most effectively and flexibly hook it up, and how to start thinking creatively in surround terms from the inception of a project. Those seem to be fairly unavoidable growth issues that anybody would deal with in the transition from stereo to surround. Aside from that, it's been a playground.”

Colvin doesn't think in terms of rules for surround mixing. “I just make it sound as good as possible and follow my instincts. As accessible as surround has become, it's clear we're still in a period of definition. Almost anything goes. I approach surround with no more ‘rules’ than the ones I approach stereo with. If a mix sounds good, it sounds good — and it's not up to anyone to convince me otherwise.

“One thing that did come up recently as a request from a dubbing engineer on a score of mine for Nascar,” continues Colvin, “was to steer clear of the center channel. The engineer knew it was crucial to have Kiefer Sutherland's narration as defined and unobstructed as possible. Knowing that the film was going to be an onslaught of thundering sound effects and driving music, it made sense to ‘carve a hole’ for Kiefer to cut through. So we delivered the score in quad with a phantom center. It worked perfectly.”

The most attractive thing to Colvin about working in surround is its number of options. “I now have five discrete positions to play with, and all of the convergent possibilities to boot,” he says. “It's really fun to try more things in the mixing process. That's not to say I get bogged down with gimmicky exploration; I merely use the 3-D space to try mimicking ultra reality. If I'm listening to music, I want to be in the room where it's being played. Surround makes it more possible to achieve that sense.”

Yacono's work with live surround has given him a different take. “A big challenge comes when mixing for a large venue, and trying to compensate for the people who are sitting all the way in front and to the right or left,” he says. “An associate of mine went as far as sticking Post-it notes with stick figures along the bottom of my screen to help me with that visualization.

“I try never to think of audio as stereo, mono, or quad,” Yacono adds. “I think of the environment as a whole, and mix for everyone in the venue. For theatrical releases, I always leave a little center in everything up front. If you pan hard right, the folks that are seated front left may not be hearing the sound, so I position audio between speakers to give location without leaving anyone out.”

High Resolution and High Standards

Wilkes feels the primary challenge of surround comes from its increased clarity. “Surround is a lot less forgiving, on the quality of the source material than stereo is. This is because with stereo you have only the two channels to think about, and so there is a great deal of masking that hides a lot of the source material's faults and imperfections. You don't have that luxury with multichannel, because every flaw stands out as a result of the extra space and bandwidth available.

The most important component of a pro surround system is proper setup, says Wilkes. “It is imperative to use a correctly calibrated monitor system, with all five main channels set as close to full range as possible — certainly extending to 50 Hz, and preferably lower. Monitors should be of the same make and model, and if you are not using active monitors, then all three amplifiers must be the same make and model. Otherwise, the weighting will be all wrong.”

Wilkes favors foregoing the subwoofer and instead mixing in 5.0. “You cannot mix for multichannel using a sub/satellite configuration, or you won't know how it will sound when played back on a properly setup system. You will find that there will be either far too much or far too little bass.”

Wilkes also warns against excessive limiting. “It is unnecessary to use the brickwall limiting techniques that are currently so fashionable in stereo mixes to raise the average levels. With five channels, 85 dB SPL is loud enough. If you want it louder, then turn up the amplifier. But never mix like this. If you do, it will sound bad. Overcompressed mixes sound dreadful enough in stereo; they are harsh, tiring and hard to listen to. In multichannel, the listener just turns it off — fast.

Good Seats

“There are two ways to mix for surround,” Wilkes says. “Put the listener in the audience or put the listener in the middle of the mix. The first approach works well with live material: place the band in the front three monitors, and use the rears to place the listener in the middle to front of the hall. Try to re-create the actual atmosphere at the show. That can be a very effective method to use, as long as you get it right. The second approach works with most, if not all, mixes. It is known as the ‘aggressive’ mix and uses all five channels equally with musically significant information coming at you from all sides. I also try to avoid using the .1 LFE [low-frequency effects] channel at the initial stages of the mix. I use it only at the final stage, unless I am preparing a movie soundtrack.”

Mixing for games carries a unique set of requirements. As Collins points out, “Often our mixes will be heard on multiple pieces of hardware, which all sound very different. Surround ‘folds down’ in different ways, depending on what your primary playback box is. For example, PlayStation 2 uses Pro Logic II, whereas the Xbox uses Dolby Digital AC-3; we therefore need to make sure that each mix we do will read on every platform. Sometimes we'll do specific mixes, if time allows. Also, the sound delivery for these games is often a set of cheap speakers built into an old TV, so we check our mixes on that as well. Old television sets serve as our Auratones!”

“Generally, our surround mixes are for cutscenes — cinematic movies that propel the game story between levels,” adds LucasArts Associate Sound Designer Jim Diaz. “I like to keep things as realistic and natural as possible. I try to stay true to the picture and use the surround field to immerse the player in the game's universe, which for us is the Star Wars universe, mostly. Also, I don't want the sound to intrude on the player's awareness. If you notice the sound, it's usually because it's bad. In a good game, the sound will engage the player and raise the intensity of the experience. Bad sound will distract and take away from the fun factor.”

Live and Kicking

Glasser tries to ensure that “the sound field or environment of the mixes is well balanced between the channels — that there aren't any holes in the space, and that the front and rear sounds are integrated. We always check the work using the bass manager and frequently add or remove information from the LFE channel. Fortunately, surround mixes do not have to be as heavily compressed or limited to have a dramatic impact. In fact, the Dolby and DTS encoders produce better sounding results with dynamic material.”

Because the number of concert DVD-Video projects is increasing, Glasser advises mixers to put up multiple audience mics printed to at least four tracks when recording concerts. For studio recordings, it's helpful to record some room mics, which can be used to place things in space. When mixing surround, calibrate your monitors using the NARAS and Dolby guidelines. Glasser advises clients to bring their in-progress surround mixes into his mastering studios for listening and review.

Klingberg is mindful of the care that's needed in working with classic albums and legendary clients. “My biggest challenge is remixing stereo recordings for artists such as Chicago, Carole King, and Earth, Wind & Fire in surround. The challenge is to capture the feel and emotion of the original stereo mix and translate that into the full 5.1 surround field. By definition, the mix will change, but I always try to retain the feel and vibe of the original. People know what the original recordings sound and feel like. Being sensitive to that feel and emotion is at the heart of remixing in surround.

“All of music mixing is based on a great stereo mix,” says Klingberg. “I always start my surround mixes in stereo only. Adding things to the surround channels is the easy part. The great mixers who have years of stereo mixing experience make the best surround mixers. All the fundamentals of balance, EQ, compression, and sound-field placement start in stereo . Years of achieving that in stereo make for very compelling surround mixes. There is no substitute for knowing the fundamentals of audio engineering, including how to use dynamics, microphone technique, preamp settings, a patch bay, EQ, console bus routing, and effects processing.”

Wild West of Sound

Will surround as we know it continue to grow in popularity, or should small-studio owners wait to adopt some other format? Colvin feels that, given the growth of investment and interest in the consumer market, surround is steadily positioning itself to replace stereo, in the same way that stereo replaced mono. It is a Wild West of sorts, with surround being the “open territory.” The market will grow hungrier for diverse surround content, just as we are currently accustomed to the vast selection of stereo content. Getting in on the forefront of that kind of production makes it possible to carve new paths. That's exciting to me.”

The studio owner who wants to expand should be as informed as possible before whipping out his cash, warns Colvin. “The most important factors in my decision were budget, manufacturer reputation, flexibility, and compatibility,” he says. He sees no limits on types of work to look for: “Album production, video games, live events, and independent filmmaking — that's where I would look.”

“I was recently asked to speak at a game developers conference about surround mixing techniques,” says Klingberg. “Many games for the PlayStation and Xbox have now incorporated 5.1 surround sound. The experience is awesome and very cinematic. I'm convinced that audio production for games will include 5.1 surround-sound work for all of us in the industry.

“With the launch of DualDisc, all the labels will want to fill the DVD side of the DualDisc, and 5.1 surround mixes are great content for the DVD side,” Klingberg continues. “Is your studio mixing a traditional stereo project for CD release? Why not pitch your client (and record label for that matter) on releasing your project in the DualDisc format, and then pitch them to do a 5.1 surround mix for the DVD side of the DualDisc?”

At LucasArts, Diaz is also optimistic about multichannel. “I believe that surround is the new high fidelity. It is the future of sound in every aspect. When quad sound was introduced in the 1970s, it was too far ahead of its time. That time has now arrived, and the entertainment industry is beginning to take full advantage of surround sound.

“I look forward to mixing music projects for surround,” says Diaz. “I have heard a few classic rock albums mixed in surround, and they sounded like completely different recordings in some cases. The surround field really opens up the possibilities to engage the listener.”

Collins adds, “I agree with Jim that surround music is excellent, and I hope that more of it is produced. Surround music won't truly take off until one format or another gains wide acceptance and some sort of standard is adhered to. If surround music ever makes its way into automobiles, then there will be a huge demand for it.”

“Unfortunately, Pro Tools LE does not support surround,” Diaz points out, “so running a Digi 002 is out of the question for project studios hoping to mix surround. Pro Tools TDM systems may be outside the budget of a project studio. Cubase SX and Nuendo by Steinberg have surround capability, as do MOTU's Digital Performer and Apple's Logic. Compatible hardware for those systems is readily available and affordable.”

Once you've equipped your studio for surround, Collins believes that games are a great area in which to obtain work. “Lots of surround work needs to be done,” he says, “whether it's for small cutscenes or for making dozens of quad ambiences. An increasing number of films are being remixed for DVD, and television shows have been receiving the surround treatment for DVD release. Not all of those projects can support endless hours of surround remixing in larger facilities, so that might be a wonderful place to look for work.”

“Word of mouth is big in this business,” Diaz adds. “Working on small film projects is a good way to get started. Try a local film school for such jobs. They may not pay at first, but do them well and put them in your portfolio. Having experience and quality work are your best assets for getting another job.”

A Caveat and a Confirmation

Wilkes feels that the future of multichannel audio is very exciting, and it will only get better. “New media such as the holographic systems currently under development will combine high-bandwidth multichannel audio and high-definition video simultaneously.”

But he doesn't mince words when it comes to breaking in. “To the project-studio owner who is trying to get into surround — don't. Not unless you have a lot of money to spend and a stack of clients all lined up and ready to go. Otherwise, you'll spend far more time talking about surround or trying to talk clients into going for it than you will actually doing it. Initial investment is enormous, its many formats make it seriously expensive, and you must be geared up for all of them. If you aren't, the first job you land will require encoders or software and hardware that you don't have.

“Not only that, but you will need a dedicated space that has to be set up just so,” adds Wilkes. “Multichannel is not even close to being as forgiving as stereo is. And you will need to spend the first two years learning, and not earning.”

But by and large the surround mixers we spoke to agreed that the future of surround is secure and that when it comes to getting started with surround, there's no time like the present. “We all know that surround is here to stay,” says Yacono. “You either have to jump on the wagon or get left behind. Fortunately, it doesn't cost a million dollars to mix in surround anymore, so look for the equipment that will get you in the game early without killing your bank account. Pro Tools HD lets you mix anywhere from mono, to 7.1 right out of the box with some well-thought-out panning features.

“Stereo will be obsolete within the next few years,” says Yacono. “At minimum, all stereo programs will have been derived from a downmixed surround program. If you're avoiding getting into surround because of the lack of surround work, create the work yourself. Take your 2-channel clients into the surround circle of life, and give them a taste of something they are going to want again and again.”

With the advantages of powered monitors, low-cost satellites and subwoofers, surround-ready software applications, and reasonably priced DVD burners, these experts agree that expanding your studio into a multichannel laboratory should be a simple matter of “when,” rather than “if.”

Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. He can be reached atrcutchin@comcast.net.

MANAGING BASS

Because surround began life as a way to create more dramatic impact for filmgoers, bass had to be handled in a special way. Speakers designed for theater walls couldn't accurately reproduce the rumble of earthquakes or the thundering sounds of running dinosaurs. Subwoofers became necessary equipment in theaters, as they enabled deep bass levels to be controlled independently on playback. When digital audio tracks became the norm for films and multiple channels of sound could be mixed into a single audio file, engineers made a dedicated low-frequency effects (LFE) channel part of the multichannel mix. In written terminology, this channel was separated from the other channels by a dot (5.1) to indicate its restricted frequency range. Sound mixers could now drop a giant footstep or a thunderclap into the LFE channel and know that the effect would be faithfully reproduced in the theater's subwoofers.

With the advent of home-theater systems, electronics manufacturers wanted to give consumers options for matching surround receivers with incompatible speaker systems. Bass-management systems were therefore incorporated into receivers. Bass management routes the LFE channel in a decoded surround mix and the frequencies below a set corner (usually 80 Hz) in the other channels to the system's subwoofer. In a correctly calibrated system, that allows for smoother performance with full-frequency response from all sounds and instruments that have bass content.

Engineers creating music-only surround mixes may add bass-management hardware, such as Blue Sky's Bass Management Controller, to an existing satellite/sub configuration. Alternatively, they may mix in a 5.0 system with no sub if they are confident in their monitors' accuracy and frequency response and know their program material thoroughly. (Horror stories abound of engineers mixing without full-range monitors only to deliver tracks with the sounds of moving scenery, conductor taps, and other stray low-frequency information that jumped out from an end user's subwoofer.)

Image placeholder title

FIG. A: Minnetonka SurCode, available in different versions for specific surround formats, is widely used for Dolby Digital (AC-3) and DTS encoding in Windows-based professional studios.FIG. A: Minnetonka SurCode, available in different versions for specific surround formats, is widely used for Dolby Digital (AC-3) and DTS encoding in Windows-based professional studios.

ENTRY-LEVEL SURROUND

Although engineers who regularly create pro-level surround mixes work with dedicated hardware and full-featured versions of software applications, you can form a surround mixing station if you're willing to go through a few extra steps.

Monitors

The first requirement is having the right number of monitors. If you are using powered monitors, you'll need to add three more to create a basic 5.0 system, which is all that's required (as long as you're using full-range monitors) to monitor the placement of elements in the mix. A subwoofer is required only for isolating the bass information (the LFE channel or “.1”) that will be encoded onto the final medium. All monitors don't have to be the same model but should be compatible. One combination, for example, might be Mackie HR 624s for satellites and center-channel monitor in a system that uses Mackie's HR 824s as mains.

Interface

You will need to assign each output in your software application to its own line-out to feed your monitors. Your audio interface must therefore have at least six discrete outputs. That requirement eliminates USB interfaces and many FireWire units that provide only stereo monitoring.

Applications

All of the major digital audio sequencers now have some kind of surround compatibility. MOTU Digital Performer, Apple Logic, and Steinberg Cubase SX 2 have enhanced panning features and plug-ins. Although Digidesign Pro Tools is used for many pro-level surround mixes (as is Steinberg Nuendo on PC-based systems), Pro Tools LE doesn't support surround directly, although a multi-channel mix and monitoring setup can be achieved using aux busses and sends.

Sequencers will create individual mono files or an interleaved multichannel file, which must then be encoded to one of the major surround formats, usually Dolby Digital (AC-3), before burning to high-resolution DVD-Audio or to the audio track of a standard DVD-Video. (Sony's SACD format requires professional equipment.) Minnetonka's SurCode (Win, $999) is a popular pro-level PC-based encoder (see Fig. A). Cubase SX 2 can export 5.1 mixes in Windows Media format for playback on a surround-equipped computer.

Mac users have been restricted to Steinberg's higher-end Dolby and DTS encoders or the Circle Surround VST plug-in encoder ($250; TDM version, $750) made by SRS Labs (www.srslabs.com). Windows and Mac users can use Minnetonka Discwelder Bronze software ($99) to create DVD-Audio discs. Apple DVD Studio Pro ($499) has a Dolby encoder for creating standard DVD-Video discs, which is the easiest way to hear your mix on other systems.

MODERN SURROUND FORMATS



Dolby Digital

Also known as AC-3, Dolby digital delivers mono, stereo, and up to 5.1 discrete channels of surround sound: left, center, right, left surround, right surround, and low-frequency effects (LFE). Global standard for DVD-Audio and DVD-Video. Digital audio standard for North American HDTV, digital cable, and DBS systems.

DTS

Similar to Dolby Digital in channels and quality. Popular in theaters, and used on many DVD-Audio discs. (More information is available at dtsonline.com.)

Dolby Digital Plus

Next-generation audio codec that provides higher fidelity, extended channel applications, and broader utility. Backward compatibility with existing Dolby Digital decoders. Selected as the lossy audio codec for the HD DVD format.

Dolby Digital Surround EX

Introduces a center rear-channel to the 5.1 playback format of Dolby Digital. Additional channel clarifies audio effects that pan from front to back and improves the realism of audio that originates from directly behind the listener.

Dolby Headphone

Accurately simulates a 5.1-channel surround-sound speaker system from any pair of headphones for highly realistic “virtual surround.” (You can hear demos at www.dolby.com/consumer/technology/headphone.html.)