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July 2014
Issue: June 1, 2008

SURROUND SOUND

By: Christine Bunish
Critical mass has been slow to build for 5.1 surround, but it appears to finally have been achieved. Feature films were early to migrate to the audio format, television programming has been ramping up with the parallel move to HD and museum projects routinely require multichannel mixes. Now, more and more commercials are becoming candidates for 5.1 mixing, too. But it’s not all clear sailing as some wait for a strong consumer demand to really put the pedal to the metal and drive the format.

EXPLOITING SURROUND

In the Lone Star State, Dallas Audio Post Group (www.dallasaudiopost.com) has been doing 5.1 surround mixing for over a dozen years. “In the beginning we provided 5.1 mixes for clients working on IBM prototypes for commercial DVDs,” recalls chief engineer Roy Machado.

While 5.1 clients were admittedly few in those days, 5.1 mixing “has become the norm” today, “especially for TV shows and movies,” he reports. “It’s our standard workflow, even if clients don’t ask for 5.1 deliverables. If a TV program is looking for an Lt/Rt mix, we’ll start in 5.1 and output Lt/Rt. If we have a theatrical feature, which is likely to go to DVD and broadcast, we’ll provide 5.1 and Lt/Rt mixes plus a special stereo mix for the Web.”

Two of Dallas Audio Post’s four studios are capable of 5.1 mixing. Both have Digidesign Pro Tools|HD systems running on a Studio Network Solutions SAN. The larger mixing stage boasts multiple sets of Genelec 1032 and 1031 speakers; the original 5.1 room is outfitted with Genelec 1031 monitoring.

The company has a diverse client base, 65 percent of which are out of state. Customers come from the TV and film, videogame and toy, corporate communications, political campaign and commercial sectors and have migrated to 5.1 at different paces.

Earlier this year Dallas Audio Post’s lead sound designer Rene Coronado crafted the heavy 5.1 sound design for the DVD release of the thriller Catacombs: The Director’s Cut, for which Machado did an extensive 5.1 mix. “The director felt he didn’t get all he wanted sonically in the original theatrical mix,” he says.

Videogame clients with titles for PS3 and Xbox 360 are all exploiting surround. And corporate customers are looking for surround elements to incorporate into major events and trade shows. “We did complex quad sound design and the mix for a trade show exhibit for WMS, a developer and manufacturer of high-tech slot machines,” Machado notes.

A documentary on Sudan and Darfur, With Open Eyes, had a 5.1 mix for DVD, “then we formatted the 5.1 for Lt/Rt for broadcast and did a special stereo mix for Web components,” he says.

The company’s TV spot clients have been the slowest to embrace 5.1. “They’re still a little reticent about full-on 5.1, although they will do Lt/Rt,” Machado reports. “And quick turnaround political spots go stereo all the way.” Some clients are advised not to do surround mixes. “We mixed the Dallas Stars’ NHL playoff Jumbotron opening in mono,” says Machado. “Mixing mono from the get-go gave a better playback experience for the arena’s mono sound system.”

Still, the move to 5.1 mixing as been progressing at a good pace, he feels. “People are used to 5.1 in their homes and at movie theaters. They’re beginning to expect it for every type of production.”
spots are catching up.

When Jeff Payne built Eleven (www. elevensound. com) in Santa Monica in 1999, he constructed the audio facility to be surround-ready. “We were able to do 5.1 off the bat in two studios with DSP Audio mixing stations, which had a great 5.1 set-up and monitoring,” he recalls. Now the company is equipped with Pro Tools|HD3s and Monitor Max 5.1 systems which permit monitoring in 5.1 and Lt/Rt for four-channel surround.

Eleven began exclusively in the commercials arena but has since added short films, features and documentaries to its project roster. “When we opened we were ready for 5.1 but not many commercials were done in 5.1,” says Payne. “We primarily did 5.1 for cinema spots and an occasional longform project. But over the last two years, particularly last year, 5.1 has exploded for spots. We’ve seen a 30 to 40 percent increase in surround work. We’re doing more and more cinema versions of commercials and a lot more 5.1 HD spots.”

Payne believes the same kind of build to critical mass happened “when people went from mono to stereo. Clients who were wary of any new technology became more comfortable with the medium.”

Automotive spots were the first to migrate to 5.1, especially those for high-end brands, says Payne. “They’d have heavy effects and a lot of sound design and wanted a 5.1 mix. But now even standard dialogue and music spots are going to 5.1. It’s becoming the norm; it’s not a unique thing anymore.”

Payne has mixed 5.1 commercials for Hummer, E3 Fable, Dodge, Bud Light, Acura, Hyundai, Under Armor, Tylenol, Coke Zero, Nike Golf, Xbox, Doritos and Coca-Cola. Pioneer Kuro TV’s Enter, from Chiat Day/LA, was a particular stand out.

“The images and effects were spectacular, and the sound design by Gus Koven of Stimmung and the music composed by Jason Moss of Machine Head complemented each other perfectly,” notes Payne. “Because of the movement of the images, I was able to be very creative with the panning of the sound effects and individual music elements, giving the spot a very wide sonic dimension as well as helping provide greater dynamics between the softer and louder passages.”

Payne “anticipates client needs” for an array of deliverables by doing standard stereo and Lt/Rt mixes at the same time as the 5.1 mix. “That way it’s not a lot more work for clients.”

The main difference in 5.1 mixing for cinema spots is the overall audio level, he points out. “The averaging level in cinema is 82dB so you have to mix and EQ a bit differently. For network spots I’m more concerned about the peak level.”

Payne is delighted that increased 5.1 mixing for spots means “we can be thinking 5.1 from the get-go as mixers, composers and sound designers. It allows everyone to deliver more interesting and creative work.”

SECOND NATURE

At NYC’s Digital Arts (www.digital-arts.net), 5.1 surround comprises 35 to 40 percent of business, according to owner/executive producer Axel Ericson. “If you do HD, 5.1 is part of the deliverable, anybody going international has to have it, and it’s a spec for theater,” he explains. “It’s so standard for us at this point that it has become second nature. Mixing in surround and folding to Lt/Rt is how we work, and we use this template even for stereo sometimes.”

Digital Arts’ current facility was built from the ground up for HD and surround four and a half years ago. It has two 5.1 mix suites, four HD finishing suites (two with 5.1 monitoring) and a digital intermediate suite with projection and surround playback. The audio rooms are equipped with Pro Tools|HD systems and Genelec speakers.

When we launched this location, surround for TV was new, Ericson recalls. “There were no set rules. People were a little conservative about it; they’d put little in the rear speakers. But we chose to be more aggressive, to get more dynamic and create more interest in the mix. Now the whole industry is more aggressive about surround. People are using all the speakers in a much more dynamic way than before.”

Pre-set templates make opening up a 5.1 mix in Pro Tools|HD quick and efficient, says Ericson. “At this point, you still have to be efficient in utilizing TDM resources and busses. On complex surround mixes with multiple 5.1 and Lt/Rt splits [for] delivery requirements, we can use all the 128 busses of each Pro Tools system.”

Digital Arts can even make a 5.1 mix fit the budgets of indie filmmakers as the producers of the feature Home Sweet Home can attest. “There’s extra time spent in sound design because of the discrete speakers and in dialogue editing because you can’t get away with what you could in stereo,” Ericson explains, “but the length of the mix session is about the same. Since we packaged film post and sound for Home Sweet Home it was really quite affordable.”

Digital Arts did the 5.1 audio for a theatrical trailer promoting the A&E series, Paranormal State. Chief engineer Mike Dillenberger and sound designer Mitch Osias also recently completed a 5.1 mix and sound design for the “Science of Evil” episode for National Geographic’s Explorer series.

For another 5.1 project, Osias served as lead sound designer and dialogue editor on the Japanese anime feature Tekkon Kinkreet, which netted the Digital Arts team a Golden Reel award nomination from the Motion Picture Sound Editors. After he did the first sound design pass in 5.1 at Digital Arts, Osias went to Japan with a Pro Tools|HD 5.1 rig and custom sound effects library, and worked for two months with the director and animators in the Tokyo office of the film’s production company, Studio 4c. “This proved quite valuable as it led to changes in the film and a more nuanced understanding of the characters for the both animators and for Mitch,” says Ericson.
 
He believes 5.1 as well as 7.1 surround — “another great format” — are here to stay, even though NHK demo’d a proof of concept featuring four 4K screens and a 22.2 surround system at NAB. “It was surprisingly impressive, but probably practical as a real specialty application such as venues and rides,” Ericson reports.

REQUESTS, MIGRATION

New York City’s Creative Audio Post (www.creativeaudiopost.tv) had been doing a lot of stereo mixing for Discovery and National Geographic content providers when they migrated to HD production and 5.1 surround, prompting the company to move to 5.1 as well. “My strategy was to get those projects before gearing up,” says president Jacques Boulanger. “Technology changes too fast and loses value quickly. I wanted to be able to capitalize my investment.”

So, two years ago, Creative Audio Post designed its new facility with surround in mind. Two of its five mix rooms are based on Pro Tools|HD3 and HD4 systems with JBL LSR 4308 surround monitoring systems. The rooms optimize the mixer’s and producer’s monitoring positions: the mixer can quickly switch calibration presets between his position to the producer’s position when they’re reviewing a mix.

Boulanger “takes pride in [providing] surround that’s much more entertaining and engaging” than what is often the case for surround productions for television. “We use sounds and speakers in a non-static way,” he declares, as viewers of Discovery’s Build It Bigger series (which was Creative Audio Post’s first 5.1 series under its former title, Extreme Engineering), and National Geographic’s Mega Structures and Inside series will attest.

The company just began 5.1 mixing for 13 episodes of Who Knew? With Marshall Brain for National Geographic. Creative Audio’s first 5.1 commercial spot, a cinema trailer promoting a Broadway show, was coming up at press time.

Boulanger also did the surround mix for the feature documentary Meatloaf: In Search of Paradise, which premiered in New York in March, with a television and DVD release to follow. The doc captures the singer on the first leg of his recent tour in the US and Europe. “I had to create the surround mix with audio from backstage and on-the-road footage, multi-camera audio and monitors’ mix output from rehearsals, combined with Meatloaf’s London [Ontario] concert DVD release masters,” he explains. “During the mixing process, it was important to keep the drive and energy throughout the entire soundtrack.”

At Creative Audio, staff members perform specific audio tasks for projects. “We have a team of people collaborating with different aspects of the same project; it’s not just one person doing the whole job anymore,” Boulanger points out.

With that approach, “it’s not necessary to have all your rooms equipped for surround. It would be overkill to do narration and dialogue clean up in a surround environment. Narration is always in the front speakers anyway. We keep the workflow moving from one room to another until the tracks merge in one of the surround rooms. This way, it optimizes our client’s budget by increasing the production value we contribute to the project.”

DEMAND REMAINS LEVEL

Richmond, VA’s Park Group (www.parkgrp.com) has been doing 5.1 mixing for the last six years prompted by the needs of producers delivering programming to National Geographic and Discovery and multichannel museum projects.

But composer/audio engineer Eric Heiberg finds the “demand for 5.1 hasn’t really increased much in the last few years. Seems like the interest and excitement have waned compared to maybe four years ago.”

Advertising customers aren’t seeking 5.1 mixes “unless the spot can really benefit from it,” and even then he gets the feeling “they think it’s an inconvenience, or a potential complication down the line. That certainly wasn’t the case four years ago when there was a lot more excitement.”
Heiberg isn’t sure why interest has dropped off, but he believes it stems from the consumer side where “a lot of people have had lousy experiences with 5.1 at home: they can’t hear the dialogue, then they’ve gotta mess with the settings — it’s gotten way too complicated. Convenience has to rule — 5.1 has to work for the consumer without any hitches.” Without a strong demand from consumers, Park  Group’s bread-and-butter advertising clients continue to move slowly to 5.1 delivery.

Nevertheless, 5.1 forms the core of Heiberg’s daily workflow. “My day-to-day template is a Pro Tools 5.1 mix with a two-channel down-mix. I’ve been working and archiving that way since 2003,” he explains. “When a mass spot distributor like DG starts saying send an AC3 or a multichannel .WAV file along with the spot, I’m more than happy to comply.”

Both of the company’s audio suites are equipped for 5.1 mixing with Pro Tools|HD3 systems running 7.4 software with Elastic Audio, ProControl surfaces, and Genelec 1038B speakers in the larger room, and Mackie HR824s in the other. A MultiMax monitor controller enables Heiberg to make sure a mix “works all the way down to mono. I can push a button and hear the stereo down-mix and mono, even alternate 5.1 speakers, using a typical Bose home-theater system with a sub. You’ve gotta check surround mixes on everything.”

Clients who are content producers for National Geographic and Discovery are required to deliver 5.1 Dolby-E along with stereo and Dolby-E stems. Last year Heiberg mixed Inside the Green Berets for Hoggard Films, which aired in primetime on the National Geographic Channel. It was shot in Afghanistan, where producer Steve Hoggard and his sound man were seriously injured in an explosion that resulted in four fatalities. The  program, in fact, was full of explosions, which challenged Heiberg’s 5.1 mix. “We had to decide how realistic versus how entertaining to make it,” he says. “We deliberately tried not to ‘Hollywood-up’ the explosions too much.” This summer, Park will mix two more one-hour docs for Hoggard Films and National Geographic.

Last fall Heiberg performed a discrete 14-channel mix for the Monitor-Merrimack Battle Theater at the Maritime Museum in Hampton Roads. Before that, the Experience theater at Frontier! Texas in Abilene required a 12-channel mix. The latter “was a 7.1 mix with a quad send,” he reports. “The theater had six projection screens around the outside, four plasmas in closer, each with its own speaker. Our control room is wired for 7.1, so I just bring in two more speakers, and we’re up and running. Pro Tools is very straightforward about multichannel mixes; the Maritime museum was two parallel 5.1 mixes with a couple of special effects speakers added up in the ceiling.”

For all the larger museum projects Heiberg goes onsite for the final mix. “Pro Tools is so modular that I can pack up the rig and set up inside  the theater with maybe an eight-channel fader controller and put the final tweaks on it,” he says. “I go in with a darn good mix in hand, but it’s great to know exactly how it’s going to sound.”

Heiberg is now working on original music and the 7.1 mix for a four-screen theater at the Tampa Bay History Center, where the film attraction is titled Winds of Change. “I absolutely hate to use the word organic, but for this score, that’s what we’re going for,” he notes. Heiberg typically scores the museum projects and often records orchestral tracks with members of the Richmond Symphony. “As a production company we have a large shooting studio, which also comes in handy for recording. A choir, the symphony, 10 guys banging on drums — we can capture it.”

5.1 FOR DVDS: BIG BUSINESS

New York City’s Beatstreet Productions (www. beatstreetnyc.com), which has found a niche in music and audio post for children’s television, recently built a new room to ready itself for the impending client demand for 5.1 mixing. It is outfitted it with a Digidesign Icon console and Genelec monitoring.

“We built in two sets of surround monitors so we can switch between the engineer’s and the client’s perspective,” points out owner/creative director Joe Franco. “We also have 5.1 monitoring in our client lounge, so you can listen on a more home theater-type system as the mix is going on.”
The company is seeing “a slow ramp up [for 5.1] in broadcast with the arrival of HDTV,” according to chief engineer Nick Cipriano. “The Dolby-E spec is slowly being accepted as a delivery format by the networks, but it’s still a bit complex for them on the implementation side and expensive for content providers on the encoding side.”

Much of the demand for 5.1 is now coming from content providers who want 5.1 for their DVD products. “It started in mid-2007,” reports Franco. “Our clients were not demanding 5.1 mixes for broadcast. However, when they started putting out DVDs, they began asking for 5.1 mixes.”

At Beatstreet, surround for DVD begins with a client-approved stereo broadcast mix. “Then we expand it to 5.1, which can be done fairly easily and quickly” says Cipriano. “We can offer this at a price point that’s not overbearing for the client. Surround encoding for DVD authoring is much cheaper and easier to do. It can be done via Apple’s compression program within Final Cut Studio. It’s a lot easier to justify that to a client than encoding to Dolby-E for broadcast.”

Beatstreet is mixing the animated Word World PBS series in 5.1 for DVD release and expects to do the same for the upcoming PBS series Lomax: The Hound of Music. While demand is still small at the moment, Franco expects that “in another two years we’ll be mixing all shows in 5.1 for broadcast. I feel it would be smart to mix in 5.1 now to futureproof mixes.”

Surround mixes for broadcast are done in 5.1 and then down-mixed for stereo or Lt/Rt delivery. When music is not created in-house, Beatstreet requests music stems fairly split out “so we have flexibility and can give the mix some depth in the 5.1 environment,” Franco says. Beatstreet typically delivers the 5.1 mix plus a stereo mix, an M&E mix for foreign broadcast, and AC3 encoding for DVD.

“There’s still a bit of general confusion over what 5.1 really is,” Cipriano observes. “Clients often rely on us to educate them as to what 5.1 means in both an artistic and a technical/budget sense.”