Dr. AIX's POSTS — 24 September 2015

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Robert Margouleff and I spent another couple of hours in the studio the other day listening to a variety of pop/rock commercial surround music tracks. I have a bunch of demonstration discs containing a variety of music genres mixed in 5.1 surround sound. After the disappointing “surround” extractions we auditioned over the weekend, we’re continuing the search for tunes that will make compelling headphone surround demos.

So what criteria are we using when we listen to a selection from Foreigner, Neil Young, The Doors, or ELP? Mixing in 5.1 surround hasn’t been around long enough for audio engineers to narrow in on a “standard way” of placing instruments and vocals. The increased number of speakers offers creative possibilities that simply don’t exist in 2-channel stereo mixes.

I think Robert would agree we’re listening for an aggressive use of the space. Simply pulling a stereo mix off of the front wall by fading a copy of the left and right front channels to the left and right surrounds isn’t compelling. And unfortunately, there are a lot of releases that claim to have 5.1 surround mixes when in reality they’re nothing more than stereo mixes distributed in a 5.1 surround speaker array. I think some of the engineers/producers of these projects believe a successful 5.1 surround mix is one that has full levels in all of the meters.

When I mix a track in surround, I want individual instruments spread around the room. I always mix my projects in 5.1 before tackling the stereo version but I don’t think most projects are mixed in that sequence. The market for surround music is so small compared to outlets for traditional stereo mixes that more time and effort is spent on the stereo versions. When those mixes are done, it’s (and less expensive) far simpler to recast the 2-channel mixes in a 5.1 spear array than it is to re-imagine the music natively in surround.

Virtually all of the commercial pop/rock tracks that we heard on Tuesday are traditional front oriented mixes with some instrumentation steered to the left and right surround speakers. There are some more aggressive and creative mixes but they are rare.

The other thing that we noticed was the lack of warmth in many of the tracks. The follow the “all loud all the time” production norm and the overuse of mastering tools that sneak in frequency specific amplitude increases doesn’t contribute to enhanced fidelity…they just make things louder.

So our quest resulted in identifying about 4-6 tracks that need remastering to make them ready for casting as headphone surround demos. What I would really like to do is get my hands on the original multitracks and remix The Door, ELP, or The Beatles in discrete 5.1 surround. The results would be very different than what’s been released on SACD, DVD-Audio, or Pure Audio Blu-ray.

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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.

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