Surround Comes of Age

So here we are several years down the road in the life of Surround Professional. It’s been an interesting journey — one filled with both hopes and predictions as to when multichannel audio would finally become mainstream. And while many of the predictions regarding the proliferation of surround sound haven’t come to pass as quickly as we thought (so few ever do), we have indeed made much progress on many fronts. So now seems like a good time to take a look at the state of the surround industry with some rear-view mirror eyes and a fresh perspective on where we’ve come from.


Much has happened recently in the surround production world to finally bring the format on par with its mature stereo brother. Equipment-wise, a production team now has nearly as wide a palette of tools to choose from as in stereo, with little of the kludge-like environment previously required to get the job done.

Today, microphone systems such as the Soundfield, Holophone, and SPL/Brauner Atmos make source capturing easier than ever. Consoles, once the weak link in the surround chain, have refined their surround features to become more useful, rather than the afterthought they initially were. Indeed, products like the Euphonix System 5 on the high-end, Amek Media 51 at the mid-price, and the Sony DMX-R1000 and Mackie d8B on the low-end allow engineers to get the job done without the previous trials and tribulations that were so much a part of the production process only a year ago.

Outboard gear, formerly the bane of the mixing engineer, is now abundant. Effects offerings from TC (System 6000) and Lexicon (960L) have become as much the standard as their predecessors. Six-channel bus compressors from Drawmer and Alan Smart fill a long sought void in the signal chain.

Although few dedicated mix-down machines exist for the high-res 96k portion of the format, there are several alternatives that are now tried and true. Engineers routinely choose between multiple master delivery formats, choosing from either tape-based TASCAM DA-98’s to optical Genex GX8500 to even hard disks from any number of digital recorders. Speaking of hard disk recorders, surround has taken hold of the digital audio workstation market with a fury. Now virtually all of the major DAW manufacturers offer usable surround features on their products that are vastly superior to their initial offerings. Indeed, such heavyweights as Digidesign, MOTU, and Steinberg, among many others, now have excellent surround features as an integral part of their applications. What’s more, both standalone and plug-in encoding packages from companies like Kind Of Loud and Minnetonka have now been developed so that the engineer can deliver a final audio product already optimized in either Dolby Digital or DTS.

Speaker manufactures have expanded accordingly as well, with most manufacturers now offering dedicated packages. A new system from Blue Sky even has an integrated bass manager and monitor controller for the most complete one-stop solution yet. And if you need to retrofit surround to your existing console and monitor system, products like the now-standard Martinsound Multimax, the Adgil Director, and the Studio Technologies StudioComm give new surround life to that precious vintage console. While production tools got a head start, mastering tools initially lagged behind.

This is not the case currently, however, with many viable mastering tools from such stalwarts as Z-Systems, Weiss, and Junger now becoming commonplace in the mastering studio. And tools to repurpose stereo to surround have recently come on the scene, with offerings from TC Electronic (Unwrap) and Z-Systems standing alongside proprietary systems that had gotten the bulk of the work previously. At the record labels, surround production for DVD has not only grown from just an afterthought, but is now taken seriously at every level of the company. Once the domain of the “Special Products” division, A&R has finally awoken to the possibilities. While the movement here is still slow, it is steady and the label troops are at least aware of the trend, instead of oblivious as they were a few years ago. At the major film studios, the Home Video divisions are now ordering special 5.1 remixes for DVD releases as standard procedure as consumers become more audio savvy and demand surround as an integral part of their DVD experience.

More and more artists are approaching the medium with an entirely new and different outlook in order to create an experience unique to the format. Two prime examples are the quirky yet artful Residents Icky Flix and the award-winning self-titled Studio Voodoo.


Surround sound is currently delivered predominantly in two types of places; in the movie theater and in the home. It reaches homes via DVD and, to a lesser extent, via satellite and cable. Certainly, since theatrical releases were the first to take advantage of the 5.1 format and, as a result, have the most history with it, the format is now commonplace on all major releases. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a current release not in surround. Not only have we’ve come to expect it when we go to the theater, we now even take it for granted.

But DVD has become the biggest delivery method of surround by far. The format has become the fastest growing consumer electronic product ever, even faster than VHS or CDs. In fact, household penetration of DVD is already at more than 30 percent, with some 20 million households already enjoying the product. What’s more, the Consumer Electronics Association predicts that number will exceed 175 million households by 2004.

The software figures are also impressive. Since the launch of the format in 1997, software shipments have exceeded 460 million units. And, according to figures compiled by Ernst & Young on behalf of the DVD Entertainment Group, more than 80 million DVD movies and music video titles were shipped in the second quarter of 2001 — nearly two and a half times the number of units shipped in the same quarter last year. There are currently more than 10,000 DVD movies and music video titles available. At last count, there were more than 950 music titles alone on DVD-Video, with another 165 DVD-Audio titles. As in the theater, consumers now expect their DVD titles to come complete with multichannel audio. surround in the vehicle

More people listen to music in their cars than in their homes today, and it now seems a given that true mass acceptance of surround sound, and the critical mass that was mentioned before, won’t take place until it’s easily accessible in the vehicle. Indeed, for those of us who are involved with surround sound on a daily basis, widespread introduction of car surround sound will be the demarcation point that signals that the format has really and truly crossed over to the masses. There’s been quite a lot of movement towards car surround in the last year, although most of it has come from aftermarket providers like Alpine, Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony, who all offer DVD players with both Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. In fact, Panasonic now offers a universal DVD-Audio/Video player, which is the first car DVD-Audio player available. While the aftermarket has been a hotbed of new development, the major car companies have little to offer at the moment since they have to plan around vehicle programs that are many times 3 or 4 years out from today. That being said, there is one current model that features a built-in surround system. The Volvo C70 is the first car in the world to be equipped with a factory-fitted Dolby Surround Pro Logic sound system, although it should be noted that Pro Logic is a 4-channel system and not the discrete 5.1 channels that we’ve come to enjoy in our movie and home theaters.

As anyone who’s been to a recent Consumer Electronics Show has seen, family entertainment systems that feature DVD-Video playback and 5.1 surround sound for the second and third row seats of SUVs or minivans are coming in a big way. Look for these to be introduced in the 2002 model year by most major manufacturers.

But that doesn’t mean that surround audio for the driver has been forgotten. In fact, most car manufacturers feel that surround sound via DVD will have a significant 20 to 30 percent penetration in the market by 2003. Since the car manufacturers are always a year ahead of the model, this means that you could see dedicated DVD-Audio or SACD vehicle surround as soon as the ‘04 models.

As you can see, surround is alive and well, and, despite what the non-believers claim, is actually gaining ground. Do we have a ways to go? Yes, definitely. Have we come a long way? Sure have. Can we be going faster? We never seem to be going as fast as either we’d like or predict, but, given some 20-20 hindsight, it’s obvious that we’ve come a long way, Baby. I can’t wait to see what next year brings.

Surround Professional Magazine