Surround 2002 Conference Wrap-Up

One year further on in the new world of surround, presenters at the 4th Annual Surround 2002 Conference and Showcase universally demonstrated a better command of the production tools and formats in a series of illuminating “show-and-tell” sessions. For many in the record-setting crowd of attendees, surround productions, while still not necessarily as commonplace as stereo projects, no longer present the challenges that they did just one or two years ago.

“We’ve come a long way from last year to this year,” confirmed Bob Michaels, president of production services at 5.1 Entertainment Group in L.A. “We have it down — many people do, now.” Michaels, along with 5.1 Entertainment’s Charlie Watts and consultant Craig Anderson of Craigman Digital, offered some comparisons between 48, 96, and 192 kHz PCM audio in their Hi-Res Shootout session. “Data storage is intensive at these [sampling] frequencies, and storage is cheap,” noted Watts. Michaels revealed that a recent facility purchase of one terabyte of hard drives cost only $3000. Demonstrating progress since last year, Michaels also noted that 5.1 Entertainment is targeting 10 releases a month, has no problem mastering DVD-9 discs, can author in just two or three days, and can cut reference discs at the end of a session, all a far cry from 12 months ago.

Anderson presented an analysis of a waveform at different sampling rates that, to his mind, indicated problems with the DSD process directing noise components into the upper frequencies, which, he said, “Is interesting from a pure propellorhead standpoint.” The theoretical aside, as indicated by the enthusiasm of several presenters during the conference, the Super Audio CD format is gaining ever-increasing numbers of ardent enthusiasts.

A manufacturers’ forum presented attendees with details of some of the few high-resolution recording systems currently available. In the opinion of Kevin Brown at Genex, “DSD gives the tools back to the professional.” Answering critics of the single-bit SACD encoding system, he noted, “There already is a roadmap for multi-bit SACD,” adding, “It’s already closer to analog than the original [44.1/16] PCM recording.”

DSD allows engineers to take their analog gear back out of the closet, added SADiE’s Gary Rosen, discussing the company’s new DSD-capable workstations. SADiE DSD is “the 1/2-inch 2-track of digital,” he said. Speaking for Merging Technologies, independent mastering engineer Graham Brown described the Swiss 8-track workstation, while Jim Bailey from TASCAM brought conference-goers up to date on the DSD-capable version of the tape-based DA-98.

Heard at Surround 2002

*Murray Allen, Electronic Arts on the battle for real estate in video game media: “The people that make the pictures don’t want to give anything to the people that make the audio.”
*Telarc engineer Michael Bishop on the impetus for his double M/S orchestra miking: “Because I need to have some control after the fact with the center of the orchestra.”
*Engineer/artist/producer Alan Parsons on not gaining the job of remixing Dark Side of the Moon for surround: “It’s one of those unhappy things that happen in the music business.”
*Engineer Mark Linnet on working with the Beach Boys original Pet Sounds
masters: “The tapes from the ’60s were
incredible. The only thing you’d find is a splice that would let go.” On using external digital reference clocks: “I’m a believer that the best clock you can get makes more difference than almost anything.”
*Engineer/producer and Oceanway studio owner Allen Sides on 5.1 mixing: ”Once you’ve got the stereo sounding great, it’s easy to make the 5.1 sound great.”
*Dr. Andrew Demery, the director of field services for the Sony/Phillips SACD project: “As a key design criteria, we wanted to maintain compatibility with the large installed user base of CD users.”
*Broadcast audio specialist Gary Baldasari on the ubiquity of high-performance surround monitoring: “Even my yard guy is listening on M&K.”
*Engineer Nathaniel Kunkel on mixing surround at home: “It’s cost prohibitive to do [5.1 mixing] anywhere but in your own zone.”
*Dwezil Zappa on his father’s
arrangements: “Before Spinal Tap made it possible for everybody to play bass, Frank had two bass players.”
*Mastering engineer and Gateway Mastering owner Bob Ludwig on the best transfer paradigm: “Damn, you have to keep using those ears.”
On hypercompression: “Part of the reason sales are down, besides gross copying…is that the records are so hot now, so compressed…it’s a very unnatural thing.”

“Digital is still striving to match analog or exceed it,” famed engineer Bruce Botnick opined in a session that saw some of the industry’s top engineers demonstrating recent projects for SACD. Multi-Grammy-winning engineer Al Schmitt revealed his early surround mixing techniques: “For a while, I wasn’t putting anything in the center. I wasn’t using the surrounds, either!” Now, he noted, the surround format is beginning to catch on: “I’ve started getting calls from arrangers who are starting to write for the surround setup.”

Answering those who observe a painfully slow acceptance of the surround format among consumers, Elliot Scheiner revealed what he could of his involvement with an automobile manufacturer that will see the country’s first in-car, factory installed surround system. Acceptance of new formats has “always been driven by the automobile,” he said. Of his latest preproduction demonstration, he added, “I found it mind-blowing.”

Presenting his own masterclass later in the day, Scheiner revealed his mixing techniques and some of the behind-the-scenes business machinations involved in creating surround releases from stereo masters. “We were always A/B-ing against the stereo mix,” he said of the 5.1 remix of Queen’s Night at the Opera. Regarding the monitoring of the stereo downmix, he noted, “If the drums and bass are in the rears, it won’t fold down, whatever the coefficients.”

“I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to do upmixes,” commented engineer and Surround Pro senior editor Rich Tozzoli, noting that labels do in fact approach him to turn 2-track masters into surround. Tozzoli called the record labels “clueless” when it comes to turning in media for a surround project, handing in any variety of media that must often be synchronized to picture by hand. A recent example involved hand sync’ing a board mix and a DAT tape from the audience to produce a DVD-V for the Average White Band from an initial Webcast.

The session, which focused on multichannel mixing for home theater, also included examples from the film world courtesy Brant Biles from Mi Casa. When re-purposing a theatrical release for home theater viewing, said Brant, he tries “to balance it better,” typically adding mild compression to keep the dialog at a good level. Both engineers like to experience their finished mixes in a real-world home theater setup, they disclosed, Biles at Mi Casa and Tozzoli at a local consumer equipment store.

Chace Productions in Burbank offers a proprietary process that assists the company’s engineers in turning mono and stereo elements from contemporary and archived features into surround DVD releases for the home. Chace Digital Stereo features seven inputs and can handle 60 events per second in 18 parameters. But all that technology, noted president Bob Heiber, merely supports the mix engineer’s creative decision-making process.

Glen O’Hara explained the FDS process, with the aid of Dwayne White and Hank Waring from the company. FDS has clients in film and music who use the FDS 4 Plus process to encode CD- and DVD-compatible 5.1 content onto VCD. The process “corrects” Dolby Pro Logic, said O’Hara, improving the phase coherence between channels and phantom images.
Bruce Graham, VP of audio services at Technicolor Creative Services (TCS), noted that there is increasingly a blurring of the line between mixing for television and film, citing the example of Steven Speilberg’s presentation of Taken. The miniseries, which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, was essentially 10 two-hour features, each from a different director.

TCS, which also posts Star Trek: Enterprise and HBO’s Six Feet Under, typically delivers in Dolby E format, explained Graham. Although not able to air in 5.1, shows such as Taken and Enterprise include a 5.1 mix encoded onto two channels via Dolby E in preparation for their eventual cable broadcast. Six Feet Under, he added, is the only show posted by TCS currently going directly to a 5.1-capable station.

“Incorrectly set metadata in Dolby E can offset the Dolby Digital decode, warned Graham, who also noted that Dolby E introduces a two-frame delay, one in encoding and the second upon decoding, which must be allowed for during the post process. All LCD flatscreens also introduce a delay of up to nine frames, noted Graham.

In a session on multichannel location recording two giants of the medium, Guy Charbonneau of Le Mobile and David Hewitt of Remote Recorders, discussed the migration of surround techniques into what has long been a stereo process. Charbonneau in particular observed the increasing number of audience microphones that have become commonplace over the last 10 years, but on the subject of surround he claimed, “I have as many questions as I have answers.”

He and Hewitt both agreed that the vocal microphone presents the biggest challenge in a live 5.1 mix, due to leakage from other onstage sources. Hewitt noted that the penchant for overdubbing less than satisfactory live vocals creates a huge problem: “You overdub and it doesn’t match the leakage, so you add artificial reverb and the excitement of the live show goes out the window.”

Heard at Surround 2002

Surround Professional Magazine