1. Think surround in pre-production: Planning for a surround sound project is critical. First and foremost, make sure your client is ready for the extra time and budget needed. Try to get the best sounding room possible and check that the surround monitors work before you arrive.
2. You don’t need multichannel mics to record surround: Yes, higher quality mics are certainly better, but you can record with a bunch of SM-57s if you really need to. Try a quad array of decent omnis or cardioids around a drum kit, and pan each into the four corners of your mix. It’ll sound like you’re sitting on the kit.
3. Use the surround mics for stereo reverb: Take those two rear surround mics behind the kit in the above example, and use them in your stereo mix. They can provide “real” reverb, and add a nice depth to your overall sound.
4. Center channel – Don’t rely on it: Some engineers don’t use it at all. However, the consumer may feel cheated or that something is wrong if they don’t hear anything in the center channel. Try using divergence or Center % (for Pro Tools users), which will then spread the signal across adjacent channels. With a vocal, for example, it will be heard in the Center, Left, and Right Front channels. The amount in each is your choice, but I always check my mixes with the center channel muted to see if it’ll remain punchy. You never know if that consumer at home — the listener we’re ultimately mixing for — has that channel in the wrong place, or worse, not connected at all.
5. Use bass management: Bass management on the consumer level allows those small satellite speakers to sound large — by routing the bass into the subwoofer where it can be reproduced properly. Usually in the 80–120Hz area (often selectable), the filter in the receiver cuts off any frequencies below that and sends the rest to the speakers. As surround producers, we should take this into consideration by checking our mixes as such. You can use hardware bass management systems that plug in before your studio monitors, or use software that works with your DAW — such as the Waves M360 Surround Manager. Whatever you choose, it’s good to think like a consumer but mix like a professional.
6. Vocal delays in the surrounds: Try taking a mono or stereo delay, placing it into the Left/Right Surrounds and sending some front positioned vocal to it. This will help “pull” the vocal out of the front of the mix, creating additional depth and clarity. Try filtering the high frequencies in the delay to help reduce any sibilance and add warmth. Push the vocal delay send up to the point where it’s audible, then back it down a pinch. When you mute the delay, you’ll miss it — that means you’ve got it just right.
7. Use a piece of string to keep your speakers equal: Good Surround Monitoring is critical and ideally the signal from all five (or more) speakers should arrive at the same time. While the angles and heights of the speakers may change with music or post-oriented mixing, the distance from you to the tweeter should remain the same.
8. Capture your finals at the highest resolution possible: Whether the end product is DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, a video game or a TV broadcast, it’s best to work with the highest resolution possible. Remember, it’s easier to downconvert and lose a bit of fidelity than to upconvert, which can never sound better than the original source. Plan for the future now.
9. Prepare for the recall: Recalls by the artist, producer and/or record company are a daily occurrence in the production world. With surround sound, things can get even more complicated. Whether you mix “in the box” or with a full-blown console, document your work thoroughly. The variables of a surround sound mix are enormous, from multichannel outboard gear to subwoofer crossover levels — so be prepared for that total recall when it happens, which it will.
10. Go for it: Since there are “no rules”, enjoy it. Take chances. Do something nobody has done before you. If it’s wild enough, we’ll all hear about it and you’ll end up with a Grammy for Best Surround Mix. Hey, it could happen.