Best Seat in the House

At this year’s upcoming Surround 2002 Conference, I will be discussing issues that relate to mixing music for the exploding multichannel home theater DVD market. As most readers already know, mixing for five or more speakers with a subwoofer has its benefits, but there are complications that go along with that. Ah, all the more to discuss!

Most of the surround we do at Gizmo Studios in New York City is mixing live concerts to picture, which are turned into DVDs with Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0, and DTS-encoded tracks. Titles vary from Average White Band, Foghat, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Live, and Naxos Classical concerts, to a recent high-definition capture of a Blue Oyster Cults 30th anniversary show. These come to us on various formats, at various sample rates, with various bizarre timecode tracks! Brian Mackewich at Gizmo is a 20-year video veteran, and he handles all sync to pic and transfer issues, allowing me to focus on mixing. Often we will have Transfermat in New York turn all these tracks into Pro Tools files for us, especially when 30-year-old David Bowie 2-inch tapes show up at the door.

Once the files are ready and the Digi-Beta is locked, we address the tracks and see where we’re at. We always try to get the live engineer who actually mixed the band to come in to tell us about the venue, lineup, audience mics, amps, drum kits, and all the small but important details that help the mix. Steve La Cerra has mixed Blue Oyster Cult for many years, and he spent the whole first mix day with us sharing his deep knowledge of the sound of the band. That specific show from the Navy Pier in Chicago was recorded in high-def video, with 32 channels of DTRS audio by Metro Mobile Location Recording (which were turned into Pro Tools files). Having discrete channels for the entire band, along with audience mics, is a blessing to a surround mixer. It allows you to create an enveloping mix, placing you in a great seat 15 rows back.

Some shows force you to upmix — say if there was only a 2-channel master available. While this is not nearly as good as working with discrete tracks, it can create a nice space outside of stereo, and boxes like the Lexicon 960L and TC 6000 have some excellent algorithms to handle such needs. Also, we have taken upmix info and applied to it audience mics, even when we have the multichannel mixes. It does provide a nice full effect. Of course, we always prefer the multichannel masters though!

Once we have a good surround mix going, we like to run the multiple channel output of Pro Tools into our hardware DTS and Dolby Digital encoders, then send the signal into our consumer setup in another room. Here we can accurately judge the sub, center, and surround levels. We will often tweak a mix to account for consumer bass management, where the small satellites roll off into the sub. Also, with the advent of Kind Of Loud’s Smart Code Pro and the new Mac G4’s with DVD burners, we can create a DVD reference disc on the spot. It’s not nearly as fast as burning a CD ref, but at least it can be done.

Mixing back to stereo is another home theater consideration, as DVDs must include a two-mix for those consumers without surround. At Gizmo, we mix the surround first, then take all the multichannel outputs and simply “force” them into stereo in the Pro Tools I/O page. All my fader and pan moves, EQs, compression, and reverbs are saved, allowing me to simply adjust channels to fit the two-mix. The audience surround mics make for great natural ambience in stereo, but often you must bring up a bit more low end on the bass and kick to compensate for the sub loss. Overall, the method works amazingly well and saves countless hours of mix time.

Watching picture when mixing surround is important, especially with live concerts. It provides for great “cue” moments, such as boosting a guitar solo or snare drum hit when the camera focuses on that moment. It can also cause headaches, such as when a word is mumbled and the vocalist is on camera, sometimes forcing you to be very creative in editing. From there, the proverbial “can of worms” can open up, because, with the live audience mics in surround, you have to match a potential edit to the original tracks behind you!

Surround Professional Magazine