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.