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Some traditionalists cling to the outdated model that a music recording is supposed to be a sonic documentary.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.