Here & Now

While many engineers can claim a number of surround credits these days, the majority of them lie in catalog rather than new titles. Engineer/producer Jim Scott is the exception, with five titles by contemporary artists under his belt. Jim’s projects include two by Natalie Merchant, two by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and one by Barenaked Ladies. I caught up to him at Hollywood’s Cello Studios for a discussion on his views about surround mixing.

SP: What do you find to be the biggest differences between mixing for 5.1 and stereo? Jim Scott: There are a lot of things really. During 5.1 mixes, most of the time I’ve been the only one there to do it, so I only had to make myself happy since I haven’t had a room full of people to help me make decisions. In stereo mixing, you usually have more of an audience. People usually ask for things like bass up and bass down, but that kind of stuff doesn’t make much difference in the surround mixes because they’re just so big and so clear that you hear everything to begin with. It’s actually easier to make a big gigantic 5.1 mix because it just fills the room, and any direction that you turn you hear the mix in a new perspective. In a stereo mix, if you’re looking right in the center while you’re mixing, it sounds great. If you turn around and face the back of the room, it just sounds like the record is behind you. That’s not the case in 5.1. The other thing that’s weird is that I’ve only really listened to my mixes in the studio, because you can’t just go to your car and check the mix. You can go to another studio and listen, but that’s not really convenient since you can’t just burn a CD and take it there.

Also, when I’m doing a stereo mix, I usually put up two sets of speakers plus the ones in the wall plus the ones in my car and a blaster and the set in the lounge. You can really check your mixes all over the place. In 5.1, you can’t do that. In the studios that I’ve worked in, there’s only been one set of speakers to check mixes on. I personally don’t even know someone that has a 5.1 system at home to even go check some of these things that have become product. So what I do is get some product in the same genre that I’m mixing by people that I respect and play it back just to see if I’m in the same universe. And what I’ve discovered is that everybody’s different in their approach.

And yet another thing when you get into 5.1 is you find the budgets are smaller and they want the mixes faster, so you don’t have time to experiment. At the moment, I’ve only been doing 5.1 mixes for my existing clients. Is your approach different in surround than stereo?

Yes it is because, when you have so many speakers, it’s easy to make an exciting mix because nothing has to compete for any room since there’s room everywhere. That soft sound that you wanted to hear but had to fight to get above some muscular rhythm guitar in stereo can be heard as clear as a bell if you just put it in a speaker where those other things aren’t in surround. That’s what’s different about remixing studio albums, but I’m not so sure those albums were recorded to be all spread out like that.

What I’ve discovered is that, in a stereo mix, you get things going and you focus on the song. Maybe it’s the guitar solo or the vocalist, but that’s what you’re really listening to, and that kind of focusing in a stereo mix holds your attention. But when you spread things out, sometimes you hear mistakes or things that aren’t in the pocket. Such as, “I didn’t know that shaker was so out of time with that hihat,” where in stereo you might have hid it right behind the hihat so it felt better. So that’s something that’s happened to me a couple times where I heard things that I never noticed in the stereo mix. I know that you like to work on Neves. Do you use the quad bus when you mix surround?

I don’t use the quad bus. I discovered that if you have something sounding good in the front and someone asks to hear a little in the rear, your levels change as soon as you insert the Pan button to send it to the back. So you have to restart your mix as soon as that happens.

Now that you have so many soundfield choices and in-betweens, the options are far greater than with stereo. So what I do is mix my left front and right front through the stereo bus because that’s time tested and sounds great. Then I mix everything else through sends. So that gives me absolute control over everything and I can put anything anywhere I want. Which listener perspective do you use? Audience or in-the-band?

People don’t want just a mellow stereo mix with a little bit of humming and buzzing in the rear speakers; they want sound there. So I’ve been doing what I think are dynamic and radical mixes. I don’t know that the people who liked those records before will like them any better now, but these 5.1 mixes are sounding wild to me and I think that’s good. When I’ve done live ones — I’ve done two live projects — if I put my elbows on the console when I was mixing, I tried to make it as though I had my elbows on the stage. If I slid way back, I was in the bleachers up in the back; and somewhere in between was “how close did you want to get.” So the band was more or less in front of me. With the Chili Peppers, it’s only a three piece, so the guitar was basically on the right and the bass was more or less on the left, but not so much that all I heard was bass on the left. It was sort of like everything had to come from everywhere because it was a big room. I’ve only gone to a couple of concerts where it worked in stereo, so it’s not that kind of an audio experience. It’s like “more is better” and “louder is better.”

So, with the live stuff, I just wanted to give that impression that you really feel like you’re there and you hear the sound of being in an arena someplace. That’s the sound you hear when you go there. Do you start with a stereo mix and then spread it out?

I start it front and back instead of in stereo. I know that my bass and drums kind of have to be in the front and in stereo. Percussion has a tendency to lean to the back or to the sides more and stay really wide, and then you just spread the harmonic information all around. The first one I did was a live Natalie Merchant project and (mastering engineer) Bob Ludwig called me up and said, “We had a little problem transferring the Genex discs and everything got scrambled, but we think we got it straightened out now. I just wanted to ask you, is her voice in every speaker?” And I went “Yes,” because that’s how it sounded best. All anybody wants from her is her sound and silkiness, so that mix was like a big pyramid starting at the top of my head and going out to the front and back and sides. Everything sort of came up to the center of the room like a circus tent, with her voice at the top in the center. But that doesn’t always work because each record is different. You wouldn’t want to do that with the Chili Peppers because you need the energy more than Anthony’s (the lead singer) voice. What format are you mixing to?

Now I’m mixing to the TASCAM DA-98HR along with dB Tech converters, but I always try to get whatever Bob Ludwig suggests. We also back it up to a Sonic Solutions file to avoid transfers. When I first started mixing in 5.1, I backed everything up to 6 tracks of a 24-track. I don’t do that now because I have more confidence in the digital gear. Do you do any alternate mixes like you would in stereo?

I do. No one has said I should, but I’m so used to doing it in stereo that I do it anyway. What I haven’t done yet is instrumental versions because no one has said they needed an instrumental 5.1. But I do it because Bob (Ludwig) is not shy about saying, “I was listening to this and I think the bass up mix might be better,” and I love that about him. So the need for alternate mixes is not as obvious as it is in stereo. You’d have to turn something up by about 3 dB to really hear it, but, in stereo, 1/2 dB makes a big difference many times. How do you use the LFE channel?

I put the bass and kind of a drum mix in the LFE. Not just the kick drum, but a low rhythm mix, and that’s it. Sometimes I’ll put in a little piano if it’s appropriate. I just put enough in there that when I turn it off, the mix gets thinner yet doesn’t collapse. The mix still has to be balanced and theatrical without it. What’s your typical monitoring setup?

I use a Multimax controller with KRK E8’s and an M&K subwoofer with no bass manager. I also use the E8’s to mix stereo. They sound more familiar to me. They’re not too big or too small, and they take a beating. Do you use your outboard gear any differently in surround?

For effects, I try to use two real plates and delay one that I put in the back. I use a slap and put it wherever it sounds the best, usually in the front center or on the left and right.

If I patch in 20 things on a stereo mix, I find I patch in only seven or eight things on a 5.1 mix. I don’t EQ and compress much anyway, but I find that I’m not compressing things nearly as much as I do in stereo. I still compress the left front and the right front a bit, but I haven’t yet compressed the rears, and it’s 50/50 whether I compress the center because you really don’t need to. The impact comes from how big and wide everything is. We’re not making a radio mix; we’re making a living room mix, so it feels really different. You kind of have to think that people are going to listen to this as if they’re watching TV.

Surround Professional Magazine