Music in 5.1 Dimensions: How the Best Surround Mixers Approach the Soundstage

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Surround sound made its first public appearance in 1941, when Disney released its groundbreaking animated musical, Fantasia.

Ever since then, surround systems have increasingly been used to enhance the emotional impact of films (which George Lucas has famously, and accurately, declared are “50% sound.”)

In the mid 1990s, a small but meaningful mass market for digital home theater systems began to emerge, and by the end of the decade the first 5.1 albums began hitting shelves, piggybacking on this trend. By 2005, the GRAMMYs had added a “Best Surround Sound Album” category.

Today, with surround systems ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars for an all-inclusive “home theater in a box”, to a few thousand dollars per speaker at the high end, there is a potentially larger market for surround music than ever before. And that market continues to grow, slowly but surely.

Although consumers are slow to adopt systems that require a setup and are hampered by competing delivery standards, surround sound has at least one thing going for it: Few who get bit by the surround sound bug ever want to go back to plain old stereo.

With this in mind, we talked to a handful of the very best surround mixers in the business, including GRAMMY nominees and winners like Bob Clearmountain, Frank Filipetti, Jim Anderson, David Fridmann, Nick Davis, Ronald Prent, Morten Lindberg, Martin Walters, Keith O. Johnson and Greg Penny, about how to master the format.

Pick Your Approach: Real or Hyper-Real?

Although there is a myriad of ways to approach surround music mixing, we can think of them as falling into two broad categories:

The first – which is especially popular in classical, jazz, and live pop recordings – is to go for a sense of convincing realism. Engineers working in this mode strive to re-create the sense of being in an actual acoustic space with a group of musicians.

The second approach is to throw out the rulebook, and treat surround like a completely new artistic medium. Mixers working in this way exploit the surround field to achieve a novel and ear-opening experience with a production aesthetic as developed as the music itself.

Aiming for Realism

In the rock and pop world, the more realistic approach tends to be most common on live recordings.

“Live albums work really well in surround because you can get the atmosphere of the concert without cluttering up the sound with the audience mics,” says Nick Davis, a British audio engineer who has mixed live and studio recordings for Genesis, XTC, Björk, Phil Collins and The Velvet Underground.

Nick Davis

Nick Davis

“In the past, my beef with live albums in stereo is that although the audience mics add a lot of energy, they will ruin the sound of the band. But with a live album or DVD in surround, you can pull the audience out of the music, and have the music coming out of the front which works really well.”

In addition to the conventional home theater market, this approach to surround music has probably had its greatest audience with the fidelity-obsessed fans of jazz and classical music.

Keith O. Johnson of Reference Recordings adapted his stereo hi-fi approach in order to win the GRAMMY for Best Surround Sound Album in 2011 for his very first commercial 5.1 release – a recording of The Kansas City Symphony playing Britten’s Orchestra.

“My style of recording is to try to come as close as I can to capturing what is really happening,” Johnson says. “So I start off with very conservative mic’ing using only a few accent mics.”

“If the space is just right and the group can balance themselves, I can get surprisingly good result with just a few directional mics facing forward and a couple of directional mics facing backwards and not a whole lot more than that. The more accent microphones you use, the more bleed and cross-feed you get, and that ruins the very kind of presentation surround wants to have.”

“I use something very close to a Decca tree, although in this case the center mic is a stereo pair instead of being mono. Anything that needs an accent mic I’ll also do in stereo rather than mono. And the final assembly of it all is done with much consideration of the time domain. So if I want to shift something to the left or the right I’m using a time-shift, and maybe a bit of EQ, which is a little bit more complicated than just using a pan pot.”

“When you get it right, it creates a picture in the brain. I call it ‘visual acoustics’. And when that mental picture is there, you get a whole lot more. Just like with a movie.”

Going Beyond the Real

Dave Fridmann, best known for his bold and uncompromising mixes for The Flaming Lips, as well as work with bands like Sleater-Kinney, Weezer, Mogwai, Neon Indian, CYHSY and Café Tacuba, has a very different perspective:

The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi in 5.1

The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi in 5.1

“When I first bought a surround system for my own personal use, I remember the salesperson complaining about some Steely Dan album that came out because it had the horns in the back. And I thought, ‘Well, if that’s upsetting you, then you’re really not going to like what I’m going to do with it’.”

“He was so concerned with the idea of re-creating some sort of live experience. And I mean, if you’re making a live DVD or album, then I suppose that’s a valid concept. But for making new pieces of art and new pieces of music, why would you ever want consider any of those things? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

“For better or for worse,” says Fridmann, “I think we were completely unconcerned of what any convention would be or should be in regard to that.”

Nick Davis seems to agree, at least when it comes to studio albums: “With a studio album, the whole palette is broader. You’ve got no fixed rules and no audience mics, so when it comes to the rear speakers you’ve really got a free hand.

“I really enjoyed re-mixing the Genesis studio albums in surround,” he says. “In that music there are these big emotional moments where I’d make full-on use of all five speakers, and then there are these moments where I might just use the center speaker to achieve a really small mono effect.”

“But whatever you do, must be tasteful,” he adds. “It can’t just be for the effect. It must work because it musically and artistically works. Not just because it works technically.”

Finding the Balance

Frank Filipetti, a monster mixer who has worked with everyone from Korn to James Taylor, Dolly Parton to The Plasmatics has been working in surround far longer than most.

In 1997, he and the late Phil Ramone worked on David Grusin’s rendition of West Side Story, which became one of the first 5.1 albums ever commercially released.

Since then, Filipetti has taken almost every approach on the map, from realist sound-staging to avant-garde inventiveness and everything in between.

“There have been some projects, like the Frank Zappa thing I did a few years ago, where I looked to put you in the center of the band. Even though it was a live show, I had Frank in the front center, Napoleon Brock in the left rear speaker, and George Duke in the right rear speaker. So there was a kind of a triangle formed by these guys with the rest of the band around them.

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  • Frans Keylard

    Thanks for this article, it’s good to see that the top minds in the business are involved! Interesting to read that streaming might be the way to really entrench surround. Not today though as compression still manages to ruin the sound compared to disc.