Mixing for the masses

As I am writing this, I am listening to the Count Basie Orchestra in surround that I recorded live for Neumann’s 75 anniversary from the original DSD masters, and I am contemplating the future of surround sound.

Never in the history of recorded music have we had more powerful tools to record with or the ability to deliver it to the consumers.

Never have consumers had access to better playback systems at lower prices. Universal players are widely available that will play back all formats, including DVD-V, DVD-A, and SACD along with MP-3 CD and regular CD for well under $400. Packaged surround playback systems are available everywhere from warehouse clubs to specialty retailers of all shapes and sizes. From cheap to huge cubic bucks, you can get a surround system to fit any budget and room size.

So how do we get Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer to buy and listen to our efforts on their systems? We have to create compelling software.

Parlor tricks like having the percussion come out of the rear left channel and gimmicks like making rock guitar solo spin around the room faster and faster should have gone out of style with leisure suits and disco, but they are out there on current surround releases.

On the “other side of the tracks,” there are some very tastefully done surround mixes out there. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon comes to mind as an elegant reissue of a seminal recording. When I auditioned the surround mix on SACD I was impressed with how artfully it was done. Made me wish I hadn’t sold my lava lamp and Nehru jacket on eBay!

Most of the classical surround recordings are also an example of what the state-of-the-art in surround is capable of delivering and, most importantly, what the consumer is going to be motivated to buy more of.

It’s my opinion that over-processed, over-cooked, loud, and over-the-top surround mixes will not make Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer want to spend their money on our efforts. If they don’t buy it, the labels aren’t going to pay us to record it. It’s simple economics 101.

So what are we going to do about this? Well I would suggest that the application of a little common sense would go a long way when doing surround mixes.

We have all of these ultra hi-fi digital formats in surround with dynamic ranges of well over 110 dB. And since you can’t play surround on conventional radio, there shouldn’t be any logical reason to make it loud.

So maybe you don’t have to use the latest whizbang 80-band digital compressor/limiter/masher set on “nuclear meltdown” to squeeze the living snot out of your music’s dynamic range. Same goes for spinning things and inappropriate placement. My theory is that subtle is always better than IN YOUR FACE when it comes to surround mixes.

I would also suggest that the jury is not yet in on LFE management in a non-movie theater environment. How your mix is going to translate to Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer’s surround system sub is a bit more magic than an exact science the surround textbooks say it is.

Call me a heretic, but the thought of putting an 80 Hz rolloff on my L/C/R and rear channels and the subsequent phase shift that it causes back into the lower midrange of my recordings (trombones don’t like this at all) makes me want to open an artery on the guy that thought this was a good idea for hi-fi. The same with bandpassing the LFE channel at 80 Hz. Hey, I figure that the speaker guys know what frequency their sub and surround speakers are designed to be crossover at a lot better than I do!

To get an idea on how the real world sounds on our non-LFE-managed Neumann Count Basie project we have been toting around our DSD masters on our Genex 9048 and EMM Labs DSD converters to a couple of different Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer systems to make sure we haven’t made any bad choices in terms of rear channel levels and sub level. Sure it’s a pain to lug all of that around and set it up, but how else you going to know for sure? And you know what campers? So far we haven’t found a system our recording didn’t like!

So, with all of this technology at our disposal, will we make wise choices, or will we make surround mixes with things spinning around the room and mashed to within an inch of its life? Will Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer listen to these parlor tricks, gimmicks, and novelties, shake their heads, and go back to their MP-3 players? Will surround be relegated to a footnote in the history books of audio like Quad, SQ, and the likes from the ’70 or will cooler heads and better surround mixes prevail?

It’s all up to us….

Surround Professional Magazine