Dr. AIX's POSTS — 03 October 2014

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I had a chance to listen to the Tom Petty and Heartbreakers “Hypnotic Eye” Blu-ray disc in my 5.1 equipped studio and can confirm my initial reaction and comments. I’m thinking of coining a new term for the type of surround mix that engineer Ryan Uylate produced of Tom’s tunes…a 5.1 stereo mix. Imagine having all those speakers and choosing to reproduce a fatter, larger, 2-channel stereo mix in them. It strikes me as similar to having a flying car and choosing to remain closely tethered to the ground instead of completely breaking free and taking advantage of free flight.

It’s time to revisit the whole issue of surround models and aesthetics.

As far as I can remember, no on ever taught me how to distribute the individual parts of a selection of music in stereo or 5.1 surround. Mixing engineers simply listened to the music on the radio or on their vinyl LPs and did what the previous engineer had done. And at least in the world of stereo mixing, the model that has existed for many decades spreads the drums evenly between the left and right speakers (from the perspective of a listener standing in front of the kit), locates the lead vocals in the center and places the remaining instruments and voices in the spaces that are left over.

But it wasn’t’ always that way. When stereo first got cooking in the 1960s, it was common to put the band on one side and the vocals on the opposite side. These recording sound really strange today…but music fans accepted it without any question. Engineers didn’t really know what do with two speakers as they transitioned from mono to stereo. And the same thing is happening today as surround music begins to gain in popularity. What’s the best way to present a song in 5 speakers?

Some traditionalists cling to the outdated model that a music recording is supposed to be a sonic documentary. They believe that any audio reproduction should strive to recreate the sense of being in a room with the live musicians. That notion was abandoned years ago when multitrack recording equipment and extensive overdubbing became the standard way of producing commercial recordings. Les Paul and Mary Ford laid down multiple layers of harmony guitars and vocals that could only be played from records.

With regards to mixing in surround, the sky’s the limit. Mixing engineers have complete freedom to place instruments anywhere they want. They don’t need to justify their efforts based on a live performance model. Honestly, if you were given the choice to sit right behind the conductor during a performance of the “Rite of Spring” and listen to the music as the maestro hears it, wouldn’t you jump at the chance? I know I would…partly because I have had that experience and it was amazing. The same “stage” perspective works equally well for a big band, a string trio, or a rock band. Forget about the limitations of a physical arrangement of musicians and embrace the fact that technology can take us places that would never be practical in an auditorium.

This is especially true if the recording formats provide you the ability to select a mix tailored to your personnel preferences…that’s what I do with my AIX Records DVDs and Blu-ray discs. I’ll post an “audience”, “stage”, and standard stereo mix of a tune on the FTP when I get a chance (I’m in Detroit at the moment and will return to LAQ on Monday). I’ll let you choose which mixing type you prefer.

All I can say is that when I demo an aggressive surround mix for the uninitiated and then switch to a stereo mix of the same selection…virtually everyone insists that I go back to the “stage” 5.1 presentation.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(21) Readers Comments

  1. Thumbs up for a very important post!

  2. Hi Mark

    You have sometimes spoken of compressed sound.
    Here is a website http://www.soundsenze.com that shows some examples of how bad it is.

  3. That’s right: Surround music is the Next Generation and it will bring us, if the engineer explores, Where No One Have Gone Before.

  4. Ah, yes. I remember the days of ping-pong stereo. Nothing natural sounding about it at all. On the other hand, in later years the pendulum went the other way and it became increasingly hard to tell any meaningful difference between the channels. Almost like listening to a mono record on a stereo system.

    Les Paul was a real pioneer in early music recording and production work. There was a great documentary on him on PBS, I believe.

  5. Thanks for the great article again which started me thinking about surround mixes in general. I believe you are right that there is no real precedence in how to mix audio surround channels at this time, but I’m still on the site that I want to hear the music as close as to the real performance as possible at every spot in the original venue not only at the spot the mixing engineer decided to provide.

    You said “the sky is the limit”, but I you would still have to follow some rules I believe. Especially, when you present audio and video together as on your Blue-rays it would be super strange to hear the violin from the right when you see it left in the picture as you actually could do with your close micing technique. You would be free to place the instruments /performers anywhere in the listening space. But I think there should be a reason for doing so.

    Why would we want limit ourselves to a specific position in the room (stage/audience). Would it not be great if we could capture the sound field at every point in the original venue with a grid of say 100 mics or more. Filter out the room characteristics, measure the listening room characteristics and filter them out and then apply the room characteristics of the original venue. Then have an audio processor do the calculation for your room position and the speaker channels you have at your disposal be it stereo or 7.2 or what ever. So could dial your position in (sit right next to the first violin or at the conductors podium or at the last row of the audience).

    May be I’m completely over the top, or completely wrong in my approach as I’m not an audio engineer, but that surely would be my preferred scenario.

    • There are no real models for surround mixing yet, you’re right. I don’t worry about making the video match the audio…that would mean boring video or moving the elements in the music. I love the aggressive and creative mixes that can be done in 5.1. And with the ability to customize things with multiple streams…no one can complain.

      • ” I love the aggressive and creative mixes that can be done in 5.1.”

        The german project Lichtmoon might be an example of that.
        On the brandnew release ‘Days Of Eternity’ there is even an Auro-3D 9.1 sound mix.

        http://lichtmond.com/index_en.php

        • I’ll check it out. I know about Auro 3D but haven’t heard anything mixed in their system.

  6. Yes, and the uninitiated also prefer those intense artificial flavors over the natural taste of organic food in a similar short trial. But feed them the organic stuff for two weeks, then switch back to the natural flavors, and they will spit out the artificial immediately.

    As previously stated, I think it’s perfectly justifiable to mix in surround when it’s fake pop music w/ lots of out of phase information. A rather fine and popular example is ‘Graceland.’ but almost any multi-mono, multi-track recording that is not a pure acoustic performance will work fine.. Classical music too can be enhanced by surround ambiance, but that’s a perfect instance where the orchestra should still always seem to be reasonably well-focused right in front of you, the vaunted “Mid-Hall” perspective, where direct sound and impact still dominate, but enough reverberant later arrivals accrue to clearly describe a large acoustic space as well. This describes the reality of the acoustic event, not bending it into something that one would never heard in real life.

    It is perfectly fair to realize that both the desire for a natural perspective or an artistically created/engineered one are not to be judged or damned. As long as the format of choice is well executed, to each his own.

    All I would cautiously propose is that most of the “uninitiated” are likely not well acquainted with the actual sound of acoustic instruments, and that the “old fogey purists” are generally far more aware of the character of natural sound. I’ve helped a surprising number of audiophiles over the years that only knew about recorded sound, not unexaggerated acoustic reality. Last but not least, the heavy L/R panning so common in early stereo is certainly still entertaining; and I would compare those recordings to 5.1 jobs where the surrounds are overly emphatic in the mix in that respect.
    Middle ground here. Best,Craig

    • I would agree that the only reason the early stereo mixes were so extreme were to sell stereo. Much more important than the mixing is the performance, it’s all well having a “querky” mix but if that mix detracts from the performance then it’s pointless and can ruin an otherwise good capture of the musical event.

      • The mix is part of overall creative presentation of a piece of music. It might not be a performance per se, but there are countless different ways to mix a record. Again, it comes down to personal taste.

  7. Mark, have you ever listened to the Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) 5.1 surround mixes of many progressive rock albums by Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Caravan, etc. Steven seems to have done quite a bit of work in this area that has been well received. It would be interesting to get your review? I suggest ordering some samples from Amazon!

    • I have hear a number of his mixes and do enjoy his perspective and skill in bringing these projects to full 5.1 surround. I’m a big fan of Jethro Tull, but haven’t heard his work with this band. I do remember Ian Anderson being very much against anything more than stereo. He say something to the effect, “we only have two ears, why would I need more than two speakers?”

  8. You may have already answered these questions but what were your thoughts on Pink Floyd dark side of the moon James Guthrie surroundsound mix and or Alan Parsons mix and surround?

    • Alan Parsons is a casual friend of mine. I know his work and am aware of his preferences for surround mixing. He doesn’t support the idea of a center channel, for example. I have heard both James’ and Alan’s surround mix of DSOTM and prefer Alan’s. It’s more aggressive, smoother in the in use of the front channels with regards to the instruments vs. vocals, and has an immersive quality that Jame’s doesn’t…for me.

  9. I prefer a more “band-up-front” mix, with my Surrounds simulating the room/hall the band is recording in, that’s how a live performance sounds. Hence I like the two Petty blurays, and I almost always play my AIX recordings from the “Audience” mix, not the ‘Stage” mix.
    There are, obviously, some music examples that sound wonderful with full Surround, the music and effects coming from all directions with major, obvious panning (think Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, or even Steely Dan.

  10. Did you notice if the snare had more sizzle/hi-end in your setup compared to the ribbon tweeter equipped monitors you previously listened through? I believe you mentioned the snare sound in you original post. Thanks as always.

    • The snare sounded about the same. My B&W speakers were slightly warmer but the overall color and the midrange…including snare…was less exaggerated in my room. But for me a snare is supposed to snap and it didn’t in the Petty mixes.

  11. Surround, stereo, natural, uninitiated and the “profesional -expert” ………………

    humans are omni-hearing, meaning we can destinct and place sound comming from (almost) any direction.
    (as in a sphere around us, so above and under us also)
    we have that capebility because we needed to survive and prosper, and we have 2 ears to do that with.
    There is much more accuricy possible in pinn-pointing sound, when using 2 ears, and the capability to calculate the loudness, frequencie, and timing differences between the signals heard by our 2 ears.
    Sound reproduction takes that into account. (the 2 ears part)
    And tries to give our ears something that resembles a “real-live” expierence.
    To make that happen, a specific sound RECORDING proces is needed.
    Now please do not go into uninitiated and such things, we humans have another capacity, that of imagination.
    That is what makes us “believe” we are listning to a “real-live expirience.
    Even the most profesional and expirieneced person accepts recorded and reproduced material, even makes money with it.
    Fact is, recording and reproduction, till now, and some time to come, do not match in loudness, frequencie, and timing of the original sound as can be heard in an actual place and situation, out side a recording studio.

    Now, Lets take a real concerthall, were it is best suited to hear music.
    There are almost no purpusly build recording studios, with a acoustic that comes close to a concerthall.
    And then you have too choose if you want to record with or without audience.
    I do not even consider to discuss mono, stereo or multichannel, just to make a piont that recording and so the reproduction to created a “real-live expirience” is flawed.

    However if, you want to decide on a channel form, consider that we humans have 2 ears, but can hear from any direction.
    So any recording/reproduction, should give the listner the posibility to position him/herself att any piont within the concerthall.
    I just would love to be on stage, you maby smack in front of the stage.

    Raf van Bossum.

    • Although I produce ALL of my recordings in a live performance auditorium, I would not assert that a concert hall is “best suited to hear music”. It might be for a certain style of music but it’s not universally true. And the goal of every recording is not to create a “real-live experience” either. These are not universally true statements…but just flavors in a sea of flavors.

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