By Christine Bunish
Issue: October 1, 2004


Post: What's the market for 5.1 surround mixing today? Who's doing it and why?

Rex Recker, Co-Owner/Post Production Mixer AudioEngine , New York City,
Rex Recker: "For me the big market is cinema commercials; advertisers have chosen to use the theatrical format as a way to target their brands. We did a fantastic cinema spot for Fanta Orange Soda from Ogilvy & Mather/NY, which premiered in theaters and utilized big pictures and big sound to create an experience for the audience. I'll bet that most people sitting in the theater felt they'd been treated to a special experience, not just another commercial."

Drew Weir, Owner/Sound Designer/Engineer, Vagabond Audio, Chicago,
Drew Weir: "We just opened in May, and we mainly do post audio for TV commercials. We see that market using 5.1 for cinema-release versions of commercials and for DVD packages of commercials for clients. We also see the ad market becoming more and more aware of HD and 5.1. But what I'm excited about right now is Dolby Pro Logic II, which is reverse compatible to standard Dolby Surround Sound. It has the same sound field as 5.1, including discrete rear channels, but no separate subwoofer. The key thing is that it can be broadcast like normal stereo audio. I see it happening for commercials to bridge the gap between 5.1 and stereo, and would like to see a [Digidesign] Pro Tools plug-in for encoding it."

Lindsay Tomasic, Studio Manager, Firehouse Recording Studios Pasadena, CA,
Lindsay Tomasic: "The market is pretty vast for us - everything from big jazz artists like Herbie Hancock and Foreplay, who occasionally want surround mixes, to the 5 Alarm Music production music library, and TV and film composers. But it's mostly been associated with HD or film projects for cinema distribution."

Tom Fleischman, Rerecording Mixer Soundtrack F/T, New York City,
Tom Fleischman: "My market is feature films. Virtually all feature films are mixed 5.1, and both of the film stages at Soundtrack F/T are set up for the 5.1 format. Five-point-one digital has been the standard format for theatrical releases for a decade. There is also a DVD market for documentaries, sports and concert films in addition to features - anything with complex tracks that would lend itself to a 5.1 mix."

Troy Krueger, Sound Designer/Mixer, Creative Group, New York City,
Troy Krueger: "Five-point-one is still in its infancy, but it's coming of age with some progressive clients. Often, the broadcast networks start with corporate applications like a 5.1 mix I did for a 180-degree HD presentation screen in the NBC merchandising store at Rockefeller Center. New kids on the block, like the Scream HD cable network Creative Group is launching this month, get right off the block with surround. We're mixing promos for Scream in surround and some of its original programming will be surround too."

Bobby Owsinski: "For us the market is primarily music DVDs, like concerts or HBO specials sent to us by the strategic marketing arms of the major record labels, some indie record label and film projects, the occasional theatrical release and, lately, a lot of anime projects. I've been told by a number of high-ranking record-label executives that 5.1 is a feature that helps them sell DVDs. Everyone expects it now."

Post: Do clients for 5.1 surround mixes typically want stereo mixes as well? What are the differences, technically and creatively, in performing surround and stereo mixes?

Recker: "Yes, you really have to deliver stereo mixes as well. Our room is built for cinema-style 5.1 mixing and it translates really well to broadcast 5.1 mixes; it's configured so any time we do a 5.1 mix it's automatically mixed down to two-track stereo. When everyone is happy with the 5.1 mix we listen to the stereo mix on a TV; 90 percent of the work will have been done and we'll just need to make some small adjustments. We may push anything in the surrounds forward and lower them to avoid phasing issues."

AudioEngines Rex Recker recently mixed this theatrical Fanta spot in surround.
Weir: "They absolutely want stereo mixes as well, and that does pose problems. How do you re-create the same excitement and energy of a 5.1 mix in stereo? It's a different animal, and I believe you have to approach it differently, bringing down some elements, maybe eliminating others. But you don't have to start from scratch: you start with a really big palette and pare it down from there. Creatively, surround mixes offer the opportunity to make more than the voiceover stand out. A 5.1 spot can be distinguished from the previous commercial or the next one by its spectacular audio palette and not just its volume."

Tomasic: "Yes, typically we'll lay off a stereo mix of a surround project. Surround mixes have a bit more presence with ambiance sections and are a bit more spacious than stereo mixes. One technical difference is the placement of elements. There are more options where to put things in surround so your creativity is also engaged by virtue of the process."

Vagabound Audio recently opened with a 5.1 suite.
Fleischman: "We deliver 5.1 and Dolby Stereo mixes for all films. I monitor 5.1 while mixing and then do a Dolby Stereo pass on it, listening through a Dolby matrix, and make a second printmaster. I don't usually make major changes in the mix to accommodate that.

"Five-point-one surround is creatively more challenging and interesting for me because having five discrete full-bandwidth tracks and a subwoofer makes panning and sound placement within the theater environment a lot more accurate. The surrounds are stereo, so there's an opportunity to be creative with panning there as well. With mono surrounds and a Dolby matrix, there used to be a lot of leakage of sound from the front channels to the surrounds. We didn't have as much control over what went into the surrounds. With discrete tracks we have total control."

Creative Groups Troy Krueger recently provided a 5.1 surround mix via Pro Tools and Dolby encoding for Ghost Stories.
Krueger: "Yes, they want both. I start with the surround mix and come down to stereo. One of the beauties of surround is that there are really no guidelines or ingrained methodology to follow; there's no correct way to pan or mix surround. The differences depend on the project. If it's a TV show where the content is front based, plug-ins or processors can put across the master mix and make a stereo mix out of it. But if your have a corporate presentation with pertinent sounds all over the place, you really have to remix for stereo."

Owsinski: "A lot of times the stereo mixes are already finished. A concert will have the truck or posted mix for stereo already, so we'll just do the 5.1. Sometimes a project has only a stereo mix available because they can't find all the elements or documentation, and it still needs a 5.1 mix. We have a couple of proprietary technologies that can do a really unbelievable job of upmixing from stereo to 5.1, although the result always depends on how good the original stereo mix was.

"Five-point-one is actually easier and faster to do than stereo because there's lots of space to place individual elements so a lot less processing and EQing is required, and the mix goes faster as a result. The biggest limitation when mixing music in 5.1 can sometimes be the picture itself. You can't have elements that look like they're in front of you suddenly popping up in the rear speakers. And if a scene changes and an element appears on one side of the screen with that element's audio on the opposite side, it's very disconcerting."

Post: Are there any burning issues in the surround arena?

Recker: "Advertisers need to start doing what's happening in Europe right now, which is using the movie theater to premiere their new campaigns: People get very excited seeing commercials they are not going to be seeing on TV. The feeling is very similar in this country to how we view the commercials on the Super Bowl. We love seeing something for the first time.

"Another issue came up when I was watching the Summer Olympics in HD and 5.1. When the commercials kicked in, they were all stereo. Advertisers weren't taking advantage of 5.1 available in the HD broadcast, and the commercials felt smaller. Advertisers need to know to finish spots in 5.1 for HD broadcast especially for big events like the Olympics."

Weir: "Quality control of playback for the end user is a concern for me. There's no way to know that all the effort we've gone through will sound correct in the end when some home theaters have both surrounds and the center channel on the left side or they're not set to 5.1, or the volume controls are tweaked in some crazy way. If home theater manufacturers had test CDs going out with their systems at least users might get the volume right or have speaker placement in the right neighborhood."

Tomasic: "Which way to go with deliverables is a question we deal with. We typically lay off stems to DVD or place them on a server the client can access. But we're also exploring new technology, especially what's new in burners."

Fleischman: "In film, the surround channels are a small part of the whole track. The surrounds are there for ambiance, not to be primary channels. I don't want the audience turning away from the screen to a single-point source behind them. So I try to keep some ambient sound in the surrounds all the time or expand the track back from the screen channels instead of focusing on abrupt movements."

Krueger: "Standardization has always been something of an issue in this industry. In the surround world there's no real standard, just suggestions, as far as setting up the surrounds, and there's a variance in the suggested roll off frequencies. In terms of post for TV, the standard that goes with HD is Dolby E Stream, and I hope it stays that way."

Owsinski: "A couple of issues are consumer oriented. One is the placement of the rear speakers at home: Do you have room to place them where it makes sense, and what do you do with the wires? Some consumer electronics manufacturers are coming out with wireless technology that will help solve that. Another issue is people's perception that if you don't have the speakers placed exactly right you won't get any enjoyment out of the 5.1 system. But placement is not nearly as critical as people perceive. In reality, you can place [speakers] rather haphazardly, and as long as they are calibrated correctly, you'll still get an enhanced sense of enjoyment.

"A third issue starts in the studio, and that's a misunderstanding of how to calibrate the monitor system. The problem almost always exists with how the subwoofer is calibrated. There's a lot of documentation available on how to do it - we have a detailed procedure on our Web site - but people can still be confused by the concept. As a result, you have subwoofer levels all over the map on most DVD releases.

"And, lastly, no matter how careful we are with the audio on our end when we hand it over for DVD authoring, it can be mangled in ways you can't imagine. Usually the audio person at the authoring facility is the low man on the totem pole. He's just listening for major flaws. I've frequently been appalled upon going into a so-called authoring QC room and finding things like the center speaker not connected, the system uncalibrated or out of phase, or the speakers spread out so far that you can't get a reasonable idea of what you're hearing. So flaws can be introduced downline after we finish our job, and that's one of the reasons we moved into encoding our final product rather than letting someone else do it.

"Another major issue is that sometimes we're only given control of the main element of the title, like mixing the concert, but we don't do the other elements like the menu music or the audio commentary or other additional features, so the levels are all over the place. Just to make sure the title is as consistent as possible, we'll even discount our rates to be able to control the quality of all of it. Recently we've gone into producing extra elements too like videotaping interviews, recording commentary tracks, and even some DVD authoring."

Post: Is there any specific surround gear you'd like to see introduced?

Recker: "I'm 100 percent into Pro Tools, and one thing I really miss is being able to pan sound in the surround field in slo-mo or frame by frame. It has to be in realtime, so you can't get those really fast zips. Yes, you can start editing the automation, but it is a bit cumbersome. It would be so cool if I could click the picture a frame at a time and slowly move the joy stick. Other than that, I'm very happy with the technology now. It makes everything easier and more efficient, and you have so much more control over the process so you can concentrate on the end product."

Weir: "I'd like to see more and better options for software encoders for workstations, especially my Pro Tools. Dolby wants you to buy their gear, but that's an expensive proposition when you're not doing 5.1 every day. Ultimately more people will do 5.1 mixes if it's easier to show clients what they sound like when they're encoded and played back over consumer set-ups right in the mix room. I haven't seen many 5.1 dynamics plug-ins, and they'd be useful. Also, 5.1 outboard meters aren't real common yet, and I'd like to see more true 5.1 reverbs or room modelers so we can start using surround to emulate real environments and not just for 'wow' effect and spacey applications."

Tomasic: "We'd like to see more surround-capable plug-ins we could use in sessions. It would be nice to have a larger variety of them for our two Pro Tools studios."

Fleischman: "Right now I have all the tools I need, but now that I've said that I'm sure someone will come up with a new idea!"

Krueger: "Our three rooms have killer Pro Tools systems with ProControl surfaces, manual panners, great MultiMax monitor control and Dolby encoding gear. We have a lot of gear and are pretty well set now."

Owsinski: "Our three major studios and two edit bays are now all 5.1 and 6.1 capable, but when we started in 1998 there were no tools at all; everything was pretty much jerry-rigged. Gradually the needed tools were developed and are now pretty commonplace, but they're still evolving and, like everything, could be improved. Sometimes, because a project doesn't have the budget for our big studios or because they're booked, we use the Pro Tools and Steinberg Nuendo rigs in our edit bays for mixing - with excellent results. These days, DAWs all come pretty standard with surround features like surround panning and bussing, but for the most part there's no facility to monitor directly from the application, so you still have to go to an outboard monitoring device, which shouldn't be needed in this day and age. And speaking of monitor controllers, some sound terrific but don't have the required features while others have the features but don't sound so good. I'd like to have something that combines great sound with the great features."

Post: What's your forecast for the evolution of surround?

Recker: "The big evolution in the next two or three years will be the continued migration to HD, and that means all mixes will be in the 5.1 format. Businesses like ours have to make a big financial investment in D-5 HD machines because we'll be requiring laybacks to a D-5 master. The cinema mixes I'm doing now are mostly finished on film, but that's already changing; in three to five years most theaters will be equipped with HD projectors and film will evaporate from the exhibition chain."

Weir: "It's here to stay. In my business, as more broadcast programming is done in surround, the chances increase that commercial breaks will keep you in the same world. Advertisers won't want it to sound like things have shrunk when you go to their commercials. 7.1 surround is definitely a cinema format, designed for the size of that environment, so I'm not all that concerned about re-creating it in my living room just yet."

Tomasic: "We're looking forward to 7.1; we're set up for it. I think 7.1 it will become an integral part of our everyday recording and listening experience. It's the next frontier!"

Fleischman: "A few years ago, Dolby introduced a three-channel Surround system, Dolby EX, which I used on Mission to Mars. I don't think it's caught on in a big way. If there's a specific reason to have a three-channel soundscape behind the audience it works nicely, but most film applications don't really call for it. I don't think 7.1 has caught on either for theatrical films. It takes a fairly large capital investment for mix facilities and theaters to convert for it, and I'm not sure if the benefits justify the expense."

Krueger: "The current challenge is to get the consumer to appreciate and desire 5.1 surround. I think that's happening with the introduction of surround in cars: that's how the CD happened! Now we need the equivalent to that in the home. I think it will start with DVD-A with high-resolution audio, no video. And the mandate for TV stations to go digital will push them to include surround. We're wired for 7.1 surround but it's really suited to large theater venues; it would be too overwhelming and costly for consumers."

Owsinski: "Five-point-one hasn't progressed at nearly the rate we all anticipated. I'm chairman of the annual Surround Conference, which first started in 1999, and we thought back then that in a year or two 5.1 would be widespread with mass acceptance. We were sadly wrong in our prediction, but in the last year the pace has quickened a lot, and now 5.1 has become a fairly standard feature that consumers expect. As for the future, we've demonstrated 6.1 and even 10.2 formats and beyond and how they enhance the sonic enjoyment level. But consumers who have just become aware of 5.1 are not going to be moving along to something else anytime soon. Thankfully, we won't be needing to update our studios again for a while."