One of the most interesting challenges I faced when transitioning from working primarily in music production to audio post-production was making the switch from mixing in stereo to mixing in surround sound.
In some ways, mixing in 5.1 is actually easier than stereo. For example, dialogue lives much more naturally in a mix with a dedicated center channel than it does squished into a stereo mix when working in film, and music and FX have so much more room to breathe in five speakers than in two.
It also goes without saying that mixing in 5.1 is a lot of fun! It can be incredibly satisfying to create a soundscape for a scene that puts the audience right in the middle of the action.
While there are certainly many uses for stereo and mono plugins in surround sound mixing, quite often, working in surround means using plugins that are purpose-built for multichannel mixing duties.
There are now a number of tools made specifically for multichannel use that have become invaluable to my workflow in 5.1, and today, I’m going to run down some of the most crucial surround-ready tools I’ve found. From metering to reverb to surround panning, from encoding to multichannel sound libraries, these are now some of my most trusted tools for nearly every surround sound mix:
iZotope’s products are as crucial to my workflow as my DAW itself. I use Insight and RX6 every day, and on every project that passes through my studio.
I covered Insight in detail a few years back, and since then it has become one of my most trusted tools for mixing both in stereo and surround.
Insight is a complete suite of metering tools for analyzing your mix visually. The suite is comprised of Levels, Loudness History, Sound Field, Spectrum Analyzer, and Spectrogram.
This plugin works beautifully in both stereo and 5.1, displaying up to six channels (L, C, R, Ls, Rs, LFE). Insight provides crucial loudness and true peak metering ensuring that each project I mix is complies with the technical specifications it requires. It sells for $199 by itself and also comes bundled with the RX Post Production Suite.
RX6 gets real a workout on every project I mix. Modules like Mouth De-Click, Leveler, Ambience Match, EQ Match, De-Plosive, and Dialogue Isolate are just some of the essential tools I use to clean and enhance audio in my projects.
Although—as of this writing—the RX suite is not purpose-built for multichannel audio, iZotope has cleverly built a “’composite view” feature into RX6. Composite view allows you to import up to 16 audio tracks and merge them together with the click of a button inside RX.
Working in composite view allows you to isolate and fix audio problems across all your sync’d tracks, such as multiple dialogue microphones, or a whole drum kit for instance. Once you’ve finished, your composited audio tracks are then returned to your DAW in place of the original individual files.
Composite view is a very welcome addition to RX for those of us working in surround sound. To read more, check out my review of RX 6 advanced for SonicScoop.
2) Waves 360° Surround Tools
If I had to live with just one suite of plugins to begin mixing in surround sound, it would have to be the Waves 360° Surround Tools bundle.
This plugin bundle provides the basics for mixing in surround. Everything from compressors to limiters, reverb, metering and up/downmixing plugins are built into this bundle.
12 plugins in total make up the 360° Surround Tools bundle including the C360 Surround Compressor, IDR360 Bit Re-Quantizer, L360 Surround Limiter LFE360 Low-Pass Filter, LoAir and more.
Many Waves plugins have become essentials in my mixes. I still use the Renaissance EQ and compressor constantly. In the surround world, I’ve come to rely on many of the plugins bundled in 360° Surround Tools for my 5.1 work.
My go-to for all things reverb in surround or stereo is Audio Ease. Altiverb is the gold standard of convolution reverb plugins. A little while back, I even had the pleasure of creating some custom impulse responses for Audio Ease as part of a project to capture the sound of Brooklyn recording studios.
Altiverb models a whole lot more than just recording studios, though. Their impulse response library runs deep, from concert halls and churches to bedrooms, living rooms, cars, the pyramids in Egypt, and of course, loads of your favorite classic pieces of studio gear—including some of the most famous plate reverbs ever made. The Viegland Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway for instance, is one of my favorite IRs for affecting flashback scenes and dramatic transitions in films.
More recently, Audio Ease introduced Indoor, a purpose-built post-production reverb platform for placing dialogue, FX and music inside acoustic spaces such as houses, cars, restaurants and more. Indoor is truly a multi-purpose audio paintbrush allowing me to create foley and FX layers and place them within the world of the film.
Most astonishingly, Indoor allows you to move both a virtual microphone and speaker anywhere in a room or building, giving you unparalleled flexibility over where the sound appears to be coming from.
For instance, if we are in a downstairs room in a house and there is music playing upstairs in a bedroom, with Indoor, you simply place the microphone downstairs and the speaker upstairs. Indoor then processes your dry music track through the convolution reverb recorded exactly as the GUI on screen shows. Indoor is truly a game changer for me working post production.
When I first started getting into 5.1 surround mixing, I reached out to a colleague of mine in L.A. who mixes in surround and I asked him what I should be looking out for in the surround plugin world that I probably wouldn’t know about having just worked in stereo. At the top of his list was Spanner.
The Cargo Cult’s website bills Spanner as “The Swiss Army knife for surround audio.” They aren’t lying. At its core, Spanner is, as the name suggests, a surround panner. But it’s also more—so much more.
Spanner offers complete control over each channel in your surround configuration, even including support for Dolby Atmos. The extremely low CPU drag and zero delay compensation gives users with virtually any machine the ability to run hundreds of instances of Spanner in their session. This is a plugin built to work on every computer imaginable.
Spanner comes with a free dedicated iPad remote control app called Spancontrol which is incredible. Spancontrol seamlessly follows the open instance of Spanner in your DAW, turning the iPad’s touch screen into a perfect surround panner. This allows you to quickly and easily automate fast action panning like cars, airplanes, and more very easily.