Stage vs. Audience 5.1 Mixes

I’m unabashedly a fan of surround sound. I love going to the IMAX theater and being immersed in great sound coming from all directions. And I absolutely love the experience of having music played in 5.1 surround as well. In fact, I purchased my 2004 Acura TL automobile just because it has a DVD-Audio head unit in it and a reasonably good set of speakers…5.1 of them. Despite what you think, cars can reproduce 5.1 pretty well.

Obviously, my studio has 5.1 surround. There are 5 identical B&W 801 Matrix III speakers on anchor stands placed in a correct ITU 5.1 surround setup. I’ve always loved B&W speakers and had purchased a couple of pairs over the years. I used a set in my mastering room and another pair at home…when I was a stereo audio consumer. When I started building my own 5.1 surround mixing room (which is 30 ft x 28 ft x 14 ft), I knew I had to have 5 identical speakers. I had my first eBay experience securing another set from a doctor in Omaha who was upgrading his. The two additional speakers arrived with only grill damage. So now I have a spare. Why don’t speaker manufacturers sell 5.1 speakers instead of just pairs?

I also have 5.1 surround at my home and they are also from B&W. They are FCM-8s and are on floor stands. So no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I can enjoy music or movies in surround. My preference comes from many years of listening. It may also be because I spent a fair amount of my time as a musician and when musicians gather to play they are generally arranged around the room.

Robert Harley, the editor of The Absolute Sound, has a chapter in his book on Multichannel Audio. He’s apparently a fan of surround sound. He explains how having sound coming form all directions in a live concert hall can only be reproduced by having speakers located around you too. Stereo just can’t do that in spite of what the two-channel fans say. It’s different with more speakers. Harley, however, has very strict conditions for what should or shouldn’t be sent to the left and right surround channels. And he illustrates what NOT to do in one particular chapter by singling me and AIX Records out.

As you may or may not know, I include 3 different mixes on each of my releases. There’s a traditional 2-channel stereo mix at 96 kHz/24-bits for those that love stereo or don’t want to spend the money for 3 additional channels. Then there’s the 5.1 surround mixes. The one that I prefer and that Robert Harley doesn’t like is called a “stage” mix. It places the instruments all around you.

Think of what would happen if Mark Chesnutt and his band came and played a private gig just for you in your living room. The drums might be on one side with the acoustic piano on the other. The guitars, pedal steel and bass would probably be across the front with Mark in the center. Finally, I have a sort of half way 5.1 version. I call it an “audience” mix. The left and right surround channels have mostly room ambiance in them. The rest of the band is now grouped in front as if you were sitting in the best seat in a live venue. Isn’t having three choices enough?

Robert says he’s uncomfortable with music coming from behind him. His expectation is that the only allowable information that should come from the surround speakers is room reverberation. That assumes that there is an acoustic model or real world arrangement of sounds that an engineer is trying to recreate at home. What if the producer, engineer and artist are just trying to make a great sound record with the physicality of a stage and audience? Isn’t that valid too? It represents most of the commercial pop/rock records out there.

Robert Harley is quite nice about it. I know him and consider him knowledgeable about many things. And I respect his taste. He doesn’t have to like my “stage” mixes. But I do have a little trouble when he sums up the paragraph explaining that AIX products are unique in offering other mix perspectives. No one else does that. I’d like to ask him…doesn’t that remove your objection? You can have it your way.

Finally, I did notice that the 5.1 speaker placement diagram that Robert includes in his chapter on multichannel audio has the two surround speakers behind the listening position. It might have helped if he listened to my recordings with the speakers in the right place. The surround channels in a 5.1 surround setup are supposed to be to the sides NOT in the rear. Oh well.


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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