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Issue: October 1, 2003

Surround Sound

By: By Christine Bunish

The degree to which 5.1 surround sound has been adopted by the audio post industry depends on the markets served. Feature films, cinema spots and DVD content are the foremost 5.1 customers with broadcast programming making progress and broadcast commercials lagging behind.

"Audio is half the experience of a movie," declares sound designer Phil Kovats of Studio City, CA's B1 Media, who says 5.1 is a given in theaters. "You want to go to a good sounding theater and have a great experience. It's starting to be the same at home, especially with large sound productions like Lord of the Rings. People want that theater experience at home."

Steve Davis, director of audio at Atlanta's Crawford Communications, sees falling prices of 5.1 consumer playback equipment and heavy promotions by chain stores prompting increased purchases and spurring the demand for 5.1 mixing. "Once there's surround playback in the home, the desire for surround effects, even in local retail commercials, will grow quickly," he predicts. "The surround market doesn't need to be fleshed out with high-end projects before it penetrates the low end. People will take advantage of it across the board."


AudioEngine performed the 5.1 theatrical mix of this Heineken broadcast spot out of Publicis/NY. The spot was a tie-in to the film Matrix Reloaded.
Since digital and 5.1 go hand in hand, the jump in US TV stations broadcasting digitally - not to mention digital satellite TV and cable delivered to the home - spells growth for 5.1 mixing. According to the NAB, the number of stations broadcasting digitally today tops 1,000 - up from just 200 in June 2001. DTV stations are in 201 markets, from San Diego to Cincinnati to Bangor, Maine, serving 99.17 percent of US TV households. And increased HD broadcasts deliver a full high-resolution picture and 5.1 sound package.

CRAWFORD HOSTS STEADY 5.1 WORK

When Atlanta's Crawford Communications (www.crawford.com) built its current facility, it constructed three of its 10 audio suites as 5.1 audio studios. "Three years ago market demand for surround was not entrenched," says Steve Davis, "but you had to stake your claim. Everything was pointing to digital, and digital video inherently supports surround sound. All the signs told us we needed to make a commitment to surround if we wanted a facility with legs."

Today, Davis reports, "We've seen our surround sound business steadily increase. Although the majority of work in all three surround studios is stereo, we usually have at least one surround job in-house at all times."

The Tom Hidley-designed Audio A is Crawford's largest surround studio. It boasts an SSL Avant console, Digidesign Pro Tools|HD running V.6 software on Mac G4s with 192 I/Os, Kinoshita custom monitoring and JVC D-ILA big screen HD projection. "The room emulates a Hollywood dubbing stage," Davis points out. "Mixing to a TV screen tends to skew relationships when you playback in large venues; here the sound field is in the correct proportion to the images, and it translates nicely for TV and radio spots."

Audio B and C, also designed by Hidley, are similar to each other in size and configuration with SSL Avants (all the Avants are networked on a hub router to share all I/O connections for an integrated mixing environment), Pro Tools|HD, Genelec 1031 monitoring and JVC D-ILA HD projection. The three surround studios can take control of HDCAM, DVCPRO HD and D-5 HD decks "so we can control the process from beginning to end with no encoding, layback or latency problems," says Davis.


(L-R): Chace's David Hunter, Michael Werckle, Greg Faust and Noa Lazerus. The team recently completed work on this Roy Orbison DVD, which features 5.1 audio.
Crawford does a steady business in surround for cinema spots (The Marine Corps from JWT, Cingular from BBDO, TBS's original movies and TNT's Ripley's Believe It Or Not) and high-end corporate staging and promotion (Tribune and Turner network upfronts, Coca-Cola's Operation Greenlight, Philips Consumer Electronics' in-store point of purchase).

Crawford also does surround for DVDs of music content, often offering a turnkey solution for producers. A case in point was the star-studded Concert for World Children's Day. Crawford's Ron Heidt supervised the HD shoot and video editorial for the ABC TV special, which was simulcast in standard definition and HD/5.1, with Greg Crawford handling the post audio and surround mixes from music mixer Humberto Gatica's stereo mix. McDonald's sponsored the DVD that followed.

With additional monitor mixers and speakers, Crawford's other audio rooms can also do cost-effective surround mixing. In fact, one room is now taking the Cartoon Network catalog and new programming and mixing shows in surround for its "Adult Swim" late night block, including the current Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which is being delivered in surround, and the classic Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which is being remixed in surround.


Surround sound finds itself
SURROUND SUPPORTS DVD WORK
In Studio City, design and production studio B1 Media (www. b1media.com) has added a 5.1 surround suite, managed by Phil Kovats, to support its core business: the design and production of video DVDs, as well as other projects.

"It's not a big room, but it reflects the home theater environment," says Kovats, who helped design and build it. The 5.1 room features a Pro Tools|HD system with V.6.1 software for Mac OS X and the Avid A/V OptionXL digital video system. A Blue Sky 5.1 speaker system is monitored by a TASCAM DS-M7.1 for "great frequency response that translates very, very well to home theater systems," according to Kovats. Video playback is handled by a 42-inch plasma monitor; 40,000 sound effects are stored and transferred through Gallery's mTools SFX database system.

"Some DVD titles prefer to stay stereo, usually for budgetary reasons, but we're doing a lot more 5.1 with everything," Kovats reports. "It's seen as a bonus to say you have surround audio, but we always include a 2.0 mix with 5.1 because a lot of homes still don't have surround."


K.K. Proffitt says JamSync first geared up for surround mixing back in 1997.
Kovats is currently working on mixing bonus content for seasons of Hercules, Xena and Highlander going to DVD from Davis/Panzer Productions. "The DVDs are authored through B1, and I'm recording and mixing the bonus material in 5.1," he explains. Kovats supervises the recording sessions at area facilities like Keep Me Posted, where he used to work.

Another project, from B1's own production division, involves remastering show content and all bonus material and menus for a best of Blue Torch DVD series. The extreme sports program aired on Fox Sports Net.

"I handle everything within Pro Tools|HD," says Kovats. "A lot of third parties are creating interesting and excellent-sounding plug-ins for Pro Tools, but still the best thing you can have is a good ear." He notes that "clients and budgets will dictate" the future capabilities of B1's surround room, which he built to deliver 5.1 and more. "I can give clients whatever they need. I can do 7.1 with the TASCAM and just need to add a couple more speakers. B1 has all the creative and technical asset#s needed for the tasks ahead."

SURROUND FOR CINEMA SPOTS

AudioEngine partner/mixer Rex Recker is known as the go-to guy for surround cinema spots, which he's been mixing since his days at the now-shuttered Photomag. Although NYC-based AudioEngine (www.audioengine.net) is committed to 5.1, Recker hasn't experienced a demand yet for 5.1 broadcast commercials and reports that not even all cinema spots are 5.1.

"Only a quarter of cinema spots are mixed for surround," Michael Porte, another AudioEngine partner, reminds us. "You can tell which cinema spots didn't make the extra effort to create a 5.1 soundtrack," Recker observes. "They pale by comparison in a pod of 5.1 spots."

Recker has been mixing cinema commercials in AudioEngine's Studios A and B, which currently have Avid AudioVision systems (soon to be replaced by Pro Tools|HD) and Soundtracs DPC-II consoles. Studio D, created especially for Recker, just came online in September. It also boasts a Pro Tools|HD system and a mixer-in-the-round configuration, which puts Recker in the center of the room and his clients around him so everyone is "more enveloped in the 5.1 soundscape" instead of the mixer being the only one in the sweet spot.

Recker did the 5.1 international theatrical mix of a broadcast spot from Publicis/NY for Heineken Beer with a movie tie-in to Matrix Reloaded, which features the signature Matrix moment in which the camera stops while a 360-degree sweep continues. To capture this effect in sound, Recker mixed 360-degree whooshing sound effects by Mackenzie Cutler sound designer Marc Healy. "It was a really powerful use of the 5.1 mixing environment," says Recker. "I started left of center and went clockwise around the room. The subwoofer was the point-one that gave it strength, weight, power and awe."

Healy incorporated the subwoofer in his sound design, which was essential to Recker's 5.1 mix. "I depend on getting the correct elements to create a dynamic soundtrack," he notes. "People have to be prepared for a 5.1 mix," echoes Porte. "We collaborate with sound designers, musicians and editors who may not know what we need for the best 5.1 mix."


Crawford's Steve Davis in Audio A, which features an SSL Avant console. The studio recently posted this Norah Jones project (inset) in surround.
Recker used a different approach to surround on a MasterCard cinema commercial from McCann-Erickson/NY. Featuring a make-purchases/accummulate-points theme for a video rental promotion, the spot showcased popular trailer voiceover artist Don LaFontaine whose voice is heard with every card swipe a man makes. "I used the 5.1 palette to create the illusion that Don was omnipotent," Recker points out. "His voice isn't just coming from the front speakers but the surrounds too. I steered the single mono track to all five of the channels and reinforced it with reverb and echo for a voice-of-heaven effect."

AudioEngine's investment in 5.1 surround enables Recker to give agencies and their clients an opportunity to do something "different and more cutting edge" once they recognize the significance - and inevitability - of surround. "The big problem is you can't play a 5.1 mix at most agencies right now," notes Porte. "If you can't play it for them and prove it's great, why would they want to do it? But eventually that's all going to change."

UPMIXING MONO TO 5.1

"We built Jam Sync to be a surround mixing studio in 1997," says chief audio engineer K.K. Proffitt. "We had the first purpose-built surround mixing room in Nashville."

Today Jam Sync (www.jamsync.com) offers 5.1 surround in all three of its rooms: a mix studio with THX equipment, plus two editing rooms where sound effects are created and DVD authoring with Sonic Fusion and DVD Studio Pro 2 is performed. The company has a Pro Tools|HD system with the latest processing cards, and another is expected later this year.

Proffitt does a lot of upmixing from stereo and mono to 5.1 for commercials, corporate retrospective programs and new equipment shows. She also does considerable surround mixing and upmixing for independent films. "A lot of filmmakers come in with their film mix done but need surround for DVD menus and commentaries," she notes citing Tennessee filmmaker Kevin Shaw whose Jeremiah Strong won this year's Nashville Film Festival.

"When we mix for menus and commentaries we often have to redo the mix of the movie in the background so the person can talk over it," she explains. For Jeremiah Strong, which originally had stereo assets for the menus, Proffitt upmixed and encoded in 5.0 instead of 5.1. "We encode 5.1 and it goes to stereo we lose the LFE track," she says. "So we encode the five main channels so if it's downmixed to 2.0 stereo on a small system, it doesn't lose what's in the LFE channel."

Some DVD film clients come in with music and narrative material but no sound effects, so it's up to Proffitt to sweeten in 5.1. She has accummulated so many custom 5.1 effects - including sounds from her family's eastern Tennessee farm - that Jam Sync plans to release them on the Internet at www.surroundeffects.com and www. 5point1fx.com. "We hope to bring them online soon," she says. "There are a few surround libraries on disk, but often people only need one or two surround effects, so they could go to our Web sites and download them for a fee."

When Proffitt does custom surround effects in the studio she's careful about not overwhelming the dialogue. "If we're upmixing, we'll extract the center channel. A lot of times you don't want that running under the dialogue of the movie. We have to figure out how to get a quad mix happening so we don't overload the center channel. With stereo effects you can throw them left and right and hope you're not really hitting dialogue or hard pan them so they're out of the center, but with 5.1 or upmixing you don't want the center to be dominant for sound effects that have to work with dialogue."

CHACE SAW VALUE EARLY

Nineteen-year-old Chace Productions (www.chace.com) in Burbank was a very early adopter of 5.1 surround thanks to the forward-thinking heritage of the company, which specializes in restoring, remastering and preserving cinematic soundtracks. The late Rick Chace invented the Chace Surround Stereo processor in the mid 1980s. This enabled engineers to create truly directional surround stereo from mono sources.

A few years later he recognized the significance of 5.1 technology and the company introduced the Chace Digital Stereo (CDS) processor, a proprietary system which puts out 5.1 or 6.1 from mono sources. The processor takes in seven channels of information and applies to each track 18 different psychoacoustic and sound design parameters 60 times per second. "It's very powerful. It creates a sound design package that has 450,000 events per minute. In going from mono to 5.1 it gives us an enormous leg up," says Chace president Bob Heiber.


AudioEngine's Rex Recker in the studio's surround-capable Sountracs DPC-II suite.
Chace began doing 5.1 for laserdiscs, a high-quality format that "reinvigorated the home theater industry," Heiber reminds us. Today, all four of Chace's transfer rooms and two edit rooms are 5.1 environments, and three small mix studios boast 6.1 monitoring. Chace has done several hundred feature titles for DVD in 5.1, including the Pink Panther films, which reincorporate the original 2-inch, 16-track music master of the Henry Mancini score for The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

An anthology DVD video, Eagle Rock Entertainment's Roy Orbison - Greatest Hits, combines the singer's first recorded performances and vintage TV appearances with 5.1 mixes by Elliot Scheiner from recent Black and White Nights and Austin City Limits DVDs. "Elliot's track of 'Claudette' has a very active 5.1 mix; you feel like you're in the mix though not right in the group. Guitar and drum lines come out of surround and there are solos in the surround," Heiber reports. "His 'Pretty Woman' was more conventional. With our CDS processor and limited mono and stereo tracks it was our job to not imitate Elliot's mixes but create mixes that felt right for the other performances.

"The result is an audio sampler of how to approach 5.1 on a single DVD," Heiber says. "It's a history of music recording and a look at how music is being repurposed in 5.1 for the home theater environment." There's even a demo of Orbison singing "Crying" in the disc's bonus material, which switches from mono to stereo to 5.1 to show what the conversion process is all about.


(L-R): B1's executive VP Brian Johnson and Phil Kovats.
Right now 6.1 is "considered a value-added tweak," says Heiber, since it requires the consumer to have additional hardware. "I don't think it's as critical in the home theater environment as in movie theaters. The discrete center channel in 6.1 helps smooth movement in back and is important if you have a truly distinctive rear center effect for an action or sci-fi picture."

UNIVERSAL: TV, DVD, FILMS

At the sound services department at Universal Studios in Universal City (www.universalstudios.com/studio), the most recent trend has been 5.1 mixing for TV delivery. "Today it's not uncommon to see 5.1 delivery requirements. We've gone from the mono TV world to mixing in 5.1 and downmixing to two-track and mono at the same time within the same tight schedules," notes senior VP of sound services Chris Jenkins.

Among the slate of shows mixed in 5.1 are the Dick Wolf Productions Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order Criminal Intent and Dragnet, which all air on NBC. The network began requiring 5.1 delivery with the fall 2002 season.

In addition, Universal's two-year-old BluWave Audio division is doing a big volume in creating 5.1 masters from two tracks, and Universal's restoration department is taking original Left, Center, Right surround tracks and making them 5.1 or going back to original stereo music masters and regrooming the dialogue and effects tracks for 5.1. Often the material, which is updated, goes back into the film vault. Sometimes the work is driven by synergistic marketing, which times the release of vintage TV programs, like Universal's The Hulk, following the release of a related motion picture.

The restoration department recently did a total remix of director Brian De Palma's Scarface whose original 1983 mix was Left, Center, Right surround. "It's a visually-stunning picture and the old soundtrack really didn't measure up to it," Jenkins reports. Jenkins and his mixing partner Frank Montano remixed the film in 5.1 and hosted composer Giorgio Moroder who came in to sweeten his music tracks. Scott Hecker rebuilt all the sound elements. The 5.1 mix was done for a new DVD release of Scarface, which was followed by a theatrical re-release in seven major US cities.

"The impact of 5.1 is spreading out across all areas: TV, DVD, theatrical," Jenkins notes. "Everything we do for new [movie] releases is in 5.1, and theatrical trailers for our motion picture group are all 5.1. Occasionally TV spots are mixed in 5.1 for special venues, although all TV spots are heading in that direction. With networks requiring 5.1 for longform, commercials are going to want to sound as great as possible, too."

Jenkins says all rooms - for sound editing, sound design, TV mixing and sound transfer - in the sound services department and at BluWave are 5.1 rooms. The sound services department's three large feature stages are all outfitted with Harrison MPC consoles. Studio 1, the TV stage where Law & Order and Dragnet are mixed, recently installed an MPC3D that "lends itself exceptionally well to simultaneous multiformat [mono, stereo, 5.1] mixing" which is key to meeting TV deadlines, Jenkins reports.