Music studios outside the U.S. have begun implementing surround capability on a more routine basis in the last two years. Facilities in Europe and Latin America, both those upgrading and building new, are increasingly making decisions to accommodate 5.1 mixing.
“Every overseas facility that I’ve done over the last two years has had some level of surround capability,” notes John Storyk, principal designer of Walters-Storyk Design Group, based in upstate New York. Facilities he currently has underway include a renovation at AR Studios in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and a planned new music studio, Audioarte, in San Jose, Costa Rica. The former is a four-year-old Storyk design that has decided to make surround music the focus of a renovation of one of their three studios; the latter is a ground-up multi-room studio facility that, when it’s completed next year, will assuredly be Central America’s largest music recording complex, with both of its two studios surround-capable. In Auckland, New Zealand, designer Russ Berger, of the Dallas-based Russ Berger Design Group, says an impending complete renovation of the city’s largest studio complex, the 20,0000-square-foot York Street Studios, will have two new studios and a new mastering suite, all fitted for 5.1 surround. A small 5.1 theater is planned, as well.
“It really doesn’t matter where in the world it is, a new facility is simply not going to not incorporate 5.1 into its design anymore,” says Berger. “Consciousness regarding surround has been raised globally, and the additional cost to add 5.1 to any new studio buildout or renovation is relatively minimal. So why not do it?”
Global Economics 5.1
Berger points out that, as the music business becomes more globalized, and as record labels look further afield for potential hit artists, the addition of 5.1 capability in a studio raises its perceived value to clients both at home and overseas. For a relatively small extra cost, a facility in any city in the world can perceptually place itself in the ranks of world-class facilities by asserting their 5.1 capability. “Surround can be an effective marketing ploy,” Berger agrees. “It can allow studios in other parts of the world to essentially leapfrog large U.S. studios in the minds of some producers and artists. But what’s more real and tangible is that 5.1 capability is the lure that induces potential North American clients to look further into whatever advantages an overseas facility might have. And I don’t mean technologically. For instance, the New Zealand dollar is worth forty-eight cents compared to the U.S. dollar. You’re talking about cutting recording costs more than in half by going there, and, on long album sessions, that can more than offset the cost of flying the band there and putting them up. 5.1 can really contribute to putting studios around the world on a par with each other.”
If there is a difference in the nature of surround design outside the U.S., it’s that foreign facilities seem willing to be more radical in their renovations. “Almost every time we do a [surround] upgrade on an overseas facility, they let us rip the room down to the shell,” says Storyk. Most U.S. upgrades to 5.1 seem timid by comparison. “In most American studios, they don’t want to take things apart; they just want to add speakers. I’d rather build it from scratch to the degree that I can. That way, we’re not trapped with bad angles or other acoustical impediments. It’s more effective to make a surround room from the beginning than trying to adapt a stereo room.”
John Arthur, principal of the Miami-based John Arthur Design Group, concurs, adding that he’s also seeing more interest in the format from Latin America than he is from the South Florida area. “One of the things that’s driving it in South America, especially Brazil and Argentina, is authoring for DVD,” he suggests. “Authoring is becoming a big business down there and it incorporates 5.1 surround audio. DVD is giving some music studios the incentive to make authoring a service. That will position them for surround music when it happens in that area of the world.”
London Studios Creatively Market 5.1
After the U.S., Europe has seen the most activity in surround music, particularly the U.K. And they are not just equipping themselves for it, but are actively fostering a market as well – even more proactively than many U.S. facilities. One of the most active facilities in this regard is Abbey Road, which now has three studios on line capable of 5.1 operations. All three – a large orchestral room, the Penthouse mixing studio, and a Sonic Solutions-based edit and mastering suite – were initially revamped with postproduction in mind, but surround music is migrating to them, in part, says director of operations Chris Buchanan, because of the synergy created by Abbey Road’s three-year-old interactive division, which includes DVD authoring services. “EMI Classics will announce some titles later this year for DVD-A, and Warner’s has been a champion of the format here as well as in the U.S.,” he says. “So we expect to see a number of 5.1 music releases coming out soon. Demand is building gradually for surround music.”
Thus far, Abbey Road has remixed and remastered several new releases for DVD music videos, including a live Eurythmics concert video. However, plans are afoot to pull some of the classic SQ-format Quadraphonic material from the 1970s out of the archives and prep them for 5.1. “A lot of those were mixed to 1-inch 4-track tape for quad; the tracks are discrete and sound quite good,” says Buchanan. Abbey Road has also developed some in-house techniques for preparing older catalog music material for 5.1. For the anniversary rerelease of The Beatles’s Yellow Submarine last year, the studio took the various 4-track reels – which, at the time, were constantly being combined onto successive new 1-inch reels as tracks were bounced from one machine to another, a common technique in 1960s music recording – and transferred and sync’d each individual, pre-bounced track to a Sonic Solutions workstation, then mixed them for 5.1. Another approach is upmixing, or, as the engineers at Abbey Road jokingly refer to it, “faux” surround, alternately using frequency spectra division to create additional channels from stereo, or using ambient effects to create them, either electronically with the TC Electronic TC 6000 and Lexicon 9600 signal processors, or sending tracks through speakers into the studio’s large recording spaces and legendary acoustical echo chambers. Strongroom, one of London’s larger music facilities, converted the first of three 5.1 music rooms nearly six years ago, mostly as an experiment, says managing director Rob Buckler. “It was even before DVD,” he says. “We were just looking for something different to drive music business at the studio.” He then invited a number of techno and dance music artists in to use the multichannel facilities without charge, a move that built interest in multichannel music among producers and artists in London and positioned the studio as a leader in the format when DVD finally did arrive. As a result, groups such as Orbital and Underground have done surround music videos and DVD-A music singles at Strongroom. Both Buckler and Buchanan say that the level of interest in surround music in the U.K. remains high – Buchanan notes that a recent seminar on the format hosted at Abbey Road was three times oversubscribed.
A Matter of Perception
Then there’s the old bandwagon effect, which some believe has as much influence on pro audio format success as all the technical advantages put together. As to why overseas music recording and mixing facilities are migrating to surround, Storyk has a theory. “I think they’re seeing the American [pro audio] magazines, which have been cheerleading for surround, and are getting hyped on it,” he suggests. “They’re terrified that they’re going to miss out on it.”