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Surround Sound Mixing

Frequently Asked Questions


SURROUND SOUND
Surround mixing is becoming increasingly important to all of us, rather than just those who
work in audio-for-picture applications.Paul White and Hugh Robjohns explain the
techniques and the technology.
Nobody can have failed to notice the recent onslaught of
media hype about surround sound -- all the manufacturers
seem to be trying to sell us surround monitoring equipment,
surround processors and both software and hardware mixing
facilities. But what's the truth behind the hype? And if you
assume that consumer demand for music in surround is, or
soon will be, significant, what does that mean for the project
studio owner?
The number of questions on this subject from music
technology students and project studio owners during the
recent Pro Audio Focus recording techniques seminars only
served to reinforce the impression that this topic is the source
of much confusion. So here are some of the most common
questions we've encountered, along with answers to help clear things up.
Q Home theatre already has Dolby surround, but how is this different from the
surround systems being proposed for music?
Dolby Stereo was a system initially developed for the cinema and it encodes four audio
channels through a relatively simple matrix in such a way that it can be delivered as a twochannel audio signal that is nominally stereo (and mono) compatible. When decoded via a
Dolby decoder (the domestic version is called Pro Logic), the signal is expanded back into
four channels, which are used to feed separate left, centre and right channel speakers at
the front, plus a single surround channel which feeds two or more surround speakers
usually wrapped around the back and sides of the cinema or listening room. A sub-bass
speaker may also be used to augment low-frequency effects such as earthquakes and
explosions, but as bass is more or less omnidirectional, a single sub-bass speaker behind
the screen is often adequate. There is no mandate for a separate sub-bass channel in
Dolby Stereo, but it is a requirement in the recent discrete 5.1, 7.1 and 8.1 systems. The
centre speaker generally carries the dialogue and other sounds that need to be keyed to
the centre of the visual image (the screen) while the left and right speakers carry the
stereo elements of the soundtrack.
What many people don't realise is that the surround part of a matrixed Dolby mix is
actually bandwidth-limited mono -- the same signal is fed to all the surround speakers. Low
frequencies below 100Hz are filtered off so that small surround speakers can be used and
high frequencies above 7kHz are removed to provide a psychoacoustic sense of greater
distance and also to help disguise crosstalk anomalies that result from the matrixing
system. In a home cinema system, this mono surround signal feeds two or more speakers
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positioned behind and/or to the sides of the listeners. In conjunction with the sound from
the front speakers, this produces a convincing 'wrap-around' soundstage, but the rear
speakers provide no real spatial information other than the general impression that
something is going on behind you. Figure 1 shows a typical Dolby Pro Logic surround
playback system.
Q What is 5.1?
Today, when we talk about surround, what we usually mean is 5.1 ('five-point-one' or often
just 'five-one'). A 5.1 system comprises five full-bandwidth discrete main audio channels
(hence the '5') plus a restricted-bandwidth sub-bass signal (the '.1') called the LFE channel
(LFE stands for Low Frequency Effects). Again, we have left, right and centre speakers at
the front and two speakers at the rear, but this time the rear speakers (SL and SR) carry
separate full-range signals that can be used in any way the mix engineer sees fit. What
this means is that sounds can be positioned much more accurately in the surround
environment.
Q How do I arrange my speakers for surround monitoring?
According to the ITU recommendation (number 775, should you wish to check it out), the
left and right front speakers should be 30 either side of centre, with SL and SR at 110
(10) from the centre. It is normal for the speakers to be located on the periphery of a
circle, all angled towards the centre, which will be the listening 'sweet spot'. All five main
speakers should be identical. The sub-bass speaker normally goes front centre, but some
flexibility is possible in difficult environments, as sub-bass is
not as directional as full-bandwidth audio. For 5.1 to sound as
it should, the monitor system speakers need to be set up as
shown in Figure 2, and all adjusted to generate equal sound
levels for identical input signals.
Given that most people pay scant regard to the positioning of
stereo speakers in a domestic environment, it's likely that the
majority of consumers will have a less than optimum setup,
but when you come to mix in surround, it's vital that you have
five accurately matched loudspeakers set up in the right
position in an acoustically suitable room. This means that your
mixing position is likely to be closer to the centre of the room than with a stereo mixing
system and that, of course, the centre speaker will probably sit right in between the left
and right speakers behind the mixer. It is also much more important that the acoustic
treatment of the room is distributed evenly around the space to control reflections from the
rear speakers.
Q Why go to all this expense when record shops are still selling stereo CDs?
CD players are already being superseded by DVD players, and all but the cheaper models
are capable of playing back 5.1 audio as well as your old CDs. There is also the new
Sony/Philips Super Audio CD (SACD) format which boasts dual-layer discs with a
conventional Red-Book layer (allowing stereo replay on existing CD players) as well as a
high-density layer containing high-resolution stereo and surround tracks using the 1-bit,
2.8MHz sampled DSD format. All new Sony DVD players from Christmas will be able to
replay SACD discs.
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As yet, the final standard for the format of DVD audio is still 'before committee', but some
surround material is expected in the shops by Christmas 2000 -- the story is that certain
companies will go ahead and produce material using the audio element of the video format
whether or not the DVD-Audio format gets the official blessing, though some issues have
yet to be resolved over copy protection. SACD has very clever mechanical copy protection
systems which avoid modifying the audio in any way; a significant advantage over the
schemes proposed for DVD-Audio.
Q DVD videos use a data-compressed audio format to allow the sound and picture
to fit on one disk. Does this mean that DVD-Audio will sound worse than CD?
While most DVD video discs do use data-reduced audio to make room for all that video
data on the disk, DVD-Audio is a different format and will use 24-bit, 96kHz sound quality.
It also includes options for 192 and even 384kHz sample rates, which is technically
superior to CD and broadly equivalent to the SACD format (discussed earlier) as well as
having more channels than conventional CD. While such technical excellence is laudable,
the vast majority of pro audio equipment currently works at 24-bit 48kHz, with some
working at 96kHz, so upgrading everything to work at 192kHz, or even twice that, is going
to be horrendously expensive -- a tough decision when the format may or may not offer
any audible improvement. How the transition to high-resolution audio pans out remains to
be seen. Will SACD appeal only to an audiophile minority or will the Sony/Philips
marketing machine win the format war against the late-starting DVD-Audio?
Q If the DVD-Audio format isn't even approved yet, and the DVD-Audio versus SACD
battle is still undecided, is there any point in worrying about surround now?
It depends on what kind of work you're doing. If you're working on material for commercial
release, then you should be aware that many record companies are insisting on having
surround mixes made of all new material so that they can archive it until the time is right to
release it. There are techniques that can be used to 'fake' surround from existing stereo
audio, but the success of the results depends very much on the type of material being
processed.
Q How do I mix for surround?
Sounds are positioned in surround in much the same way as they are in stereo mixes -- by
'power panning' (the difference in level between the same signal in different channels),
except that you are balancing across five speakers, rather than just a stereo pair. Very
often this is bodged on a regular mixer by using six separate channels for each source
(representing the five surround channels plus the sub-bass) and feeding them to separate
mix busses. These in turn feed the monitoring system and a multitrack recorder in order to
capture the six separate signals that comprise the 5.1 mix. While this is not difficult to set
up, it makes mixing difficult, and it makes dynamic panning extremely complicated as you
have to adjust several different level controls at once.
A better solution is to use a joystick or a similar surround pan controller, and this is how
many professional sound mixers work. However, in the project studio environment, a piece
of audio recording software with virtual joysticks is a much more cost-effective solution.
Q How do we use these surround channels?

The whole point of surround audio is to give the listener a more interesting and involving
listening experience. Nobody has all the answers yet, as surround music is still a relatively
new art form, but new mixing techniques are sure to evolve.
The LFE channel is not mandatory in all formats and may not be implemented in some
home systems, so you cannot guarantee anything you create specifically for the LFE
channel will be replayed. All five main channels are full-range and should carry bass in the
normal way, though some consumer systems may use small satellite speakers and split off
the lower frequencies to a separate bass speaker just to make a compact system practical.
For mixing, though, it's probably safest to make your decisions based on a set of full-range
speakers.
Then there's the centre channel. In film work, it makes sense to pin the dialogue to the
centre of the screen, but in music we're used to hearing stereo with no centre speaker.
Mixing with all the mono components coming from a centre speaker sounds different to
what we're used to and, because of the axial response of the human ear, it also makes the
signal sound tonally different. So some producers and engineers may put the voice in the
centre channel while others may want to stick with the phantom image we've all got used
to in two-speaker stereo. There is also the issue of incorrectly aligned domestic playback
systems. If, on playback, the centre channel is a few dB adrift of its correct level balance, a
carefully crafted mix could end up with the vocals, bass guitar, kick drum and any other
centre-panned sounds either too high or low in the mix. This is another reason why an
increasing number of engineers and producers are avoiding the centre speaker and
creating conventional balances across the left/right pair, which not only sound more
familiar, but are far more tolerant of system misalignment. The only drawback is that the
image placement will not be as solid as with a true three-way discrete frontal format.
Q What should I feed into the surround channels?
This is the subject that causes the most heated discussions, because it's a matter of art
rather than science. In classical or acoustic recordings, the room acoustics (or simulated
room acoustics) can be used to provide the listener with a 'best seat in the house' listening
experience -- the music still comes from the front while the reverberant field (and audience
noise, if a live event) come from all around. On the other hand, if you fancy yourself as a
rival to Pink Floyd, or as a cutting-edge dance producer, you can put instruments all
around the room. With some types of music this might be too distracting, so you may
decide to play the game a little more conventionally while still moving some of the effects
or incidental instrument parts out to the sides or even to the rear. The point is that there
are no rules, so you can do whatever is most artistically pleasing -- keep in mind, though,
that it may be prudent to help compensate for bad setup in consumer playback systems by
keeping all the important elements of the mix near the front. Subtlety is the best approach,
just as when mixing in stereo. Don't go mad by spinning sound sources around 360 all the
time. Use special effects as exactly that -- as special, and therefore rare, effects. That way
they become far more powerful and effective.
Q Once I've set up my surround mix, what do I record it on?
At the moment there are no dedicated surround mastering formats, so most people record
to six channels of an ADAT or DA88, (using the other two tracks for a dedicated stereo
mix). And, yes, we know that ADAT doesn't record at 24-bit/96kHz, so there will probably
be a lot of surround releases starting life as 44.1kHz or 48kHz masters. There are a couple
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of different standard track layouts, but the most common (and that
consistent with the ITU/SMPTE recommendation) is: L, R, C, LFE, SL, SR
on channels one to six respectively.
One of the reasons this is recommended is because the 5.1 signal will
typically be transferred to and from the eight-track machine as AES-EBU
pairs. In the unlikely event that these three pairs are routed quite
differently, perhaps incurring timing offsets of a sample or two, pairs that
clearly need to be coherent will remain so: L with R, and SL with SR. This
will also apply to the secondary stereo pair on tracks seven and eight.
Under these kinds of error conditions a sample or two difference will make little or no
difference: The LFE track can survive quite large timing errors without disturbing the image
and, while the coherence of the centre channel to L and R remains a bit of an issue, at
least any artefacts will be symmetrical.
If you want to save your work in a 24-bit, 96kHz format, it's probably more convenient to
work on a computer workstation, and then to save the audio files to CD-R (in a data format
rather than as a Red Book audio disc), recordable DVD or other data storage format. Note
that 5.1 data at 24/96 takes up a lot of space compared with regular stereo -- you may only
be able to save one or two tracks onto a CD-R.
Q I've already got a lot of stereo material that I don't want to remix. Can this be
processed to work in surround?
There are various ways to process existing back catalogue other than remixing it.
However, as mentioned earlier, the results will be better with some material than with other
types. It also depends on what you're trying to achieve -- if you just want to create a wraparound ambience, this will be easier than attempting to simulate ambitious surround
panning.
Mastering engineers often split a stereo signal into its middle and side (sum and
difference) components so that they can process the mono (centre-panned) components
of a mix differently to those panned left and right. For example, they may wish to EQ or
compress the middle of a mix without changing the way the edges of the mix sound. Once
the processing is done, they recombine the signals to reproduce conventional stereo
signals. In the context of surround, this technique allows the 'side' component to be
artificially enhanced in order to add artificially generated 'rear of room' reflections that
create a more convincing sense of space. High-end processors, such as the TC Electronic
M6000, Lexicon 960L and Eventide Orville, have specialised algorithms to handle this type
of work, but a lot can be done using regular stereo studio processors.
Q At the moment I can burn CDs of my own music very cheaply, but how can I get
audio DVDs that will play on commercial DVD players?
Currently, the only DVD recorders on the market are designed as computer data storage
devices -- the discs they produce can't be played back in a consumer DVD player. At the
moment, DVD mastering is a very expensive and complex process, and is therefore
beyond the capabilities of most home studios. We can only hope that, as the format
becomes more popular, a DVD equivalent to a CD burner becomes available.