Driving Home the Point

I was lucky enough to become involved in the 5.1 movement early. My work is now mainly mixing, with 5.1 channel projects occupying most of my time. Some of my earliest 5.1 projects were records that I had recorded and mixed in their original 2-channel versions, but now I’m seeing more and more new music being released in 5.1. As I write, I’m working on mixing Faith Hill’s new album in 5.1 — an interesting project as it used a couple of different producers and five different mixers for the stereo versions, which I get to match and expand into 5.1.

I’m in a traditional studio now, mixing from Pro Tools on a big iron desk with a medium-format digital console as a sidecar for automated panning. Other projects I’m able to do at my home in my Nuendo/Yamaha DM2000 equipped room. The freedom that the modern tools give a mixer, added to the freedom of expression that surround sound allows, make these exciting times. More projects are being released in 5.1 by more labels, and it looks like we may be near the point where surround music takes off with the consumer.

I regularly expose anyone who drops by the house to surround music, and when people hear 5.1 music for the first time, it’s breathtaking for them. Making that experience available to more people is what is needed to take the format to the next level, to a wider audience.

Some early adopters and movie buffs have installed home theater systems, mostly with capturing a theater experience in mind. These consumers probably stumble across surround music, but movies aren’t likely to take them there, as Hollywood doesn’t make very good use of surround for music — in my experience, popular music used in films still comes mainly from the front speakers. Many surround-ready home systems are being sold, but until the consumer has a surround music experience, they aren’t going to try and figure out how to have that experience at home.

Where will most people will get their first surround music experience? I believe that it’s really going to be in the car. One project that I’m involved in will help promote car surround — I’ve been working with a manufacturer on designing a surround system that will hit the streets next year. This will be a factory-installed system in about 60,000 cars — a single upscale model of an import brand. The consumer won’t have a lot to figure out, just pop in a DVD and fill the car with glorious surround. We’re even looking at programming in “sweet spots,” optimizing levels and pans for the number of passengers actually in the car.

I have to think that this will help sell a few cars — imagine a salesman sliding a DVD-A into the player and saying, “Check this out!” And even if the car isn’t sold, the experience may lead the consumer to an aftermarket player or to one of the other auto manufacturers starting work on their own plans for jumping into automotive surround.

Inside the car, the listening environment can be controlled. Outside of the car, the consumer will have to be educated — once they hear surround music, the consumer will be ready to learn how to take the experience home. Again using the manufacturer I’m working with as an example, we are discussing a tour of Hi-Fi dealers to promote a companion home theater/surround music system (complete from DVD-A player to speakers) that will be released simultaneously with the auto surround system. All the manufacturers need to take similar steps — we need to expose as many people as we can to surround music, and once they are hooked, be ready to help them take it home. The record labels need to join in as well — they have surround product and it is now time for them to promote their 5.1 releases across the country and beyond. It is time for a major advertising push for 5.1 music. It might be too much to hope that this will be a coordinated effort, if the push comes from more than one direction, maybe that would be enough to work up some momentum with the listeners.

Here’s another idea: millions around the world watch the annual Grammy broadcast. What if the head of the academy was to promote the 5.1-channel music movement during his address? Let’s take it a few steps further, what if the Grammys were broadcast in 5.1 around the world? What if this was advertised and promoted for six months prior to the show? With the whole world watching, what better time to boost 5.1 music?

The label catalogs are growing. A DVD player that can handle both DVD-A and DVD-V costs the same as an average DVD-V-only player. Automobiles will soon roll off the assembly line ready for 5.1. It’s time to make some noise and get some attention paid to 5.1, so we can keep making the music.

Surround Professional Magazine