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Adventures in 5.1

Surround sound in movies has been around for so long now that it's no longer something that most people are impressed by. You go to the movie theater and the sound is loud and all around you because, well, that's what it's supposed to be. At home as well, if you have any kind of decent home theater setup or even a sound bar. It's simply something we take for granted in this day and age. But for producers of music and video content like myself, it's a huge challenge to be able to bring that to an audience. Mixing something to sound good in stereo is difficult enough. Adding a center and rear speakers plus a subwoofer is a whole other engineering challenge... to not only get your equipment to work that way but also to make it sound natural and enveloping in whatever environment where it gets listened to.

I've dabbled in surround sound over the years. When I was in the band I persuaded everyone to let me create a mind-boggling contraption of cables, speakers and multiple amplifiers to allow us to record and playback our music in true 4-channel quadrophonic surround sound. It was a noble and exciting effort that resulted in a couple of fun and experimental evenings but the practicality of such a setup wasn't sustainable.... those were the analog cable days and everything about recording was cumbersome. But oh what fun it was listening to my keyboard sounds spin around my head from speaker to speaker.

Years later, when my digital home studio was up and running I decided to try it again, hoping that I could get a methodology down that would allow me to mix any future movie projects in 5.1 surround, the industry standard. Those were still early days in computer recording technology so it required a few multi-tentacled analog cables, an outboard processor and an amplifier with the corresponding multi-channel inputs... not all that common. It also required me purchasing an additional set of surround speakers and subwoofer, commonly referred to a "home theater in a box". Nothing too expensive - I wasn't going to go all in on this experiment until I was damn sure I could pull it off. I was able to get it all hooked up to my satisfaction and technically it was reasonably sound. But for one reason or another the bloom fell quickly off the rose and I never pursued it further. The speakers eventually got unplugged and commandeered for other various uses.

Skip ahead to November 2018.

There we are at the Reading Film Fest for the premiere of our latest film CAGE THE BEAR 2- THE BLACK BANG. The sound is too low and too compressed, it doesn't fill the room and I am pretty much miserable about it. I resolved then and there to give this surround sound thing another try... because I want an audience to hear my work the way it was intended.

So after a couple days of research and a lot of back and forth in my mind about how I was going to configure my studio, I decided to use my existing home theater system, an inexpensive but reliable and accurate Sony theater-in-a-box that I have been using for years to watch movies. It's always important to know the acoustic characteristics of your gear and your room and how studio films and shows sound in that environment, because your goal is to match it. I calibrated my speaker configurations and positioning and ordered a simple Thunderbolt-to-HDMI cable from Amazon. To be honest, I had my doubts that an $18 investment in studio upgrades would give me the results I was looking for but I had my fingers-crossed.

And what do you know - it all worked! There were no headaches, no deep-dives into the internet trying to find out why this or that wasn't working properly... I read the manuals, followed the instructions and within a few hours I was up and running with a two-monitor system and glorious 5.1 rattling the walls in my studio. I had to pinch myself. Believe me, this is a shockingly wonderful rarity in my personal engineering history. Now all I needed was a project to work on to validate this new multi-speaker world I found myself in.

I decided that the latest short film I worked on, GEIST by my buddy Justen would suit my needs perfectly. It's a simple film with no dialogue but plenty of ambient sound effects and a mostly electronic score that I could manipulate around the sound field. Plus the stereo mix was already completed - I only needed to remix and enhance it for 5.1.

I started by saving a new project file and setting up the individual channels in a surround configuration - this way I could manipulate each sound anywhere in the 5.1 mix I chose too. Logic Pro X makes this incredibly easy and intuitive. My only problem was not having the individual sound effects files that Justen used in his mix but I was able to use his original 2-track stereo file to suit my needs. For the most part I left that as the primary front L/R mix, extracting only a couple things like door-knocking and dogs barking to place into the surround speakers as needed.

Once I had the original stereo SFX tracks sorted and leveled for volume, I had to decide what additional SFX would be needed to fill out the surround mix. There are no hard and fast rules regarding how best to do this or what is 'acceptable' from an engineering or artistic standpoint. It's all a matter of taste and what best suits the movie and story you are telling. My goal here was not only to learn but to serve the film's needs. Because the story is about a man alone on a quiet farm, the sound design is more important than usual in carrying the weight of the narrative. I wanted the sound field to envelope the listener without being distracting so I started by adding environmental ambience to all the scenes that occurred outdoors - meadow crickets, nighttime bugs, rain, wind, etc. The indoor scenes I left alone for the most part, allowing the sound field to compress into the front speakers, drawing the viewer into a more intimate experience. As long as the balance between wide and narrow sound fields was calibrated correctly, there would be no jarring transitions that would pull the listener out of the film.

Remixing the music came next. The electronic, ambient nature of the score allowed me to underplay the music, making it more of a complementary addition to the overall fabric of sound. I quickly found that lowering the volume and using it to fill all the speakers worked best.

For a few key moments in the film that required dramatic crescendos in volume, I used traditional orchestral samples as well. This afforded me the opportunity to take advantage of the various microphone positions my samples were recorded with. So for the cellos and horns, I placed the stage mics in the front L/R speakers and created duplicate tracks to place the surround mics in the rears. Because these mics represent the actually ambience from the rear of the hall where they were recorded, it gave me a natural and true sound field that fills the room nicely. I was thrilled to finally be able to put these into practice.

Having completed my mix to the point where it sounded great to my ears down here in the studio, it was time for the next leap of faith - exporting it into a format that I could use to listen to elsewhere... this is always the moment of truth for any audio engineer. The technical aspect of converting my mix to DVD went smoothly - another testament to Apple and the products I've been faithfully using forever. I took it upstairs to my big home theater system, crossed my fingers and gave it a whirl. To my relief, it sounded great and matched my studio levels almost perfectly. This was definitely the "Eureka!" moment - I now have an efficient and effective system in place to move forward confidently into the world of surround sound mixing. So exciting! The next hurdle will be learning the technical aspects of creating mixes for Blu-ray replication and movie theater playback.. but that's a battle for another day - now's the time now to have fun!

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