By Steve Harvey
Imagine if you could create a 5.1 mix of a song just by pushing a button. That’s exactly what Scott Blum and Toby Wright did. The result, Mixlab, is a brand new technology that, working with a stereo mix from the original multitrack masters, analyzes and deconstructs the song then selects the optimum 5.1 mix from 2.5 million possible mixes, significantly speeding up the process.
“When you describe it, a lot of people can’t fathom that a piece of technology can be in on the creative process,” acknowledges Blum, the computer whiz behind Mixlab. Formerly with Starwave, a Seattle-based software entertainment company, and founder of the iMusic online community, Blum has leveraged
a background in multimedia software to create a deceptively simple mixing program that creates an astonishingly organic and enveloping surround mix. In 1999, Blum sold iMusic to ARTISTdirect, where he is presently VP of research and development.
The genesis of Mixlab dates back 18 months when Wright, an engineer, producer, and mixer known for his work with hard-rockers Korn, Tantric, and Sevendust, was called in to remix every Alice In Chains hit for a DVD compilation, Video Bank. States Wright, “Before the Alice project, I listened to two or three hundred DVDs, and they were pretty lacking in the way they enveloped you. Most were geared toward picture, so they were very front-loaded. I wasn’t very impressed with the audio that I was hearing. It wasn’t a very aggressive use of the technology.”
Wright, who had worked extensively with the band, spent over three months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to not only perfect the 5.1 remixes, but also redefine surround sound. That’s far beyond the budget of most remixes, the pair allows, and very few engineers have the time to experiment.
“Because of my background, specifically merging entertainment, and specifically music with artificial intelligence, I understood what Toby had done and thought I could make a technology to help speed the process up,” offers Blum. “He really pioneered the concept in the surround world that you try to use it as one space as opposed to discrete sources. Mixlab was modeled off the creative process that Toby employed.
“People spend years learning how to place in a stereo spectrum, but, with 5.1, you’re multiplying that 300 percent,” he observes. “It’s exponentially complicated, so that once you start placing things, in order to keep a balanced mix, it takes a lot of trial and error — or an incredibly mathematical mind — in order to accomplish that. It’s a very time-consuming to do, so that’s where we’ve brought in the technology. Let’s use a computer for what it’s good for, doing lots of tasks over and over.”
Unlike other technologies, which operate on phase relationships and apply processing to send elements to the rear and center speakers, Mixlab imports quite a different set of data. On a track-by-track basis, it takes into consideration the instrument type, whether it plays a primary or supportive role, and how it was recorded: as a direct input, through an amplifier, or via microphone. The system also considers whether the source is mono, stereo, or quad, and whether it is grouped, for example, as one of a stereo pair.
“It takes into consideration the stereo mix panning,” Blum continues. “That’s one of the reasons for doing the stereo mix first, not only to get the levels right, but to keep the integrity of the panning, then open it up.”
Mixlab can already import some of the information it requires directly from Pro Tools, and will soon recognize OMF and other protocols. Beyond those criteria stored within the mix system being used, additional elements must be entered manually. As R&D continues, bidirectional communication with the mixing equipment will be developed, says Blum.
Once the information is imported and entered, he says, “The actual mixing takes less than one-tenth of a second.” Mixlab then directs the engineer to pan each track to a specified location on a 200-by-200 matrix.
“It’s a little more difficult to pinpoint on an analog console than a digital board, obviously,” says Wright. “The Euphonix Series 5, for example, has an XY matrix, so you can pinpoint where you want to put the guitar.”
Wright and Blum recently employed a Euphonix Series 5 digital console at Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank, CA for their first Mixlab project, remixing Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s self-titled solo project for DVD-Audio. The album will be released on Elektra Records on October 1.
The album demonstrates the time-saving offered by Mixlab. Wright reports that the album “took us six days to mix in 5.1, and 18 or 19 to mix in stereo. Yes, there was familiarity on my part because I mixed the original album, but that’s how fast it can go.”
Blum continues, “Let’s say you get somebody to come in and do a stereo mix. In addition to that time, it takes between half an hour and an hour per song, including all the input work, to mix it in 5.1. That’s a starting point. Somebody like Toby would then come in and say, ‘That sounds great except, although balanced, that particular vocal creatively would sound better over here.’ You don’t have to spend a week and a half to mix the song. We’re trying to be able to mix an album in a day.”
Mixlab will offer two working methods, says Blum. “One is that we’ll do the record as an engineering team. The other is that if producers and engineers want to use the Mixlab technology to speed up what they’re doing, if they dig the sound, we can operate the Mixlab technology for them.”
Concludes Wright, “There is no right and wrong in surround yet, no standards. We’re trying to start one.”