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Surround Sound Mixing – Part 5 of 5

This is a guest post by mix engineer, Unne Lilijeblad over at www.mix-engineer.com. This is the fifth and final article in a five part series about his experience with mixing in this still under utilized medium for listening to music. Last week it was Mixing in Surround. This week he talks about Multi Stereo Surround.

Unne Lilijeblad - Mix Engineer
Unne Lilijeblad - Mix Engineer

 

MSS – Multi Stereo Surround
With all of these issues and potential problems in mind, I developed a new mixing method that can help achieve better results. A good friend of mine came up with a name for it: MSS, for Multi Stereo Surround, since the technique involves creating multiple stereo images between the various surround speakers. Recording in stereo using the previously mentioned techniques gives excellent results, and unlike their surround equivalents, they are not very complicated to setup. Using two microphones for a piano, drum overheads, and acoustic guitars etc, is very common, and most recording engineers are already doing it. Additionally, both plugin and external reverb and delay effects all output their results in stereo.

So my technique is basically to “create” multiple virtual stereo pairs between all the speakers. In a standard 5.1 channel surround system (leaving the subwoofer channel out of the equation since it is only use for very low frequencies) there are a total of 10 possible stereo pairs:

This means that you can have 10 stereo sources playing between 10 different speaker pairs (and therefore not competing with each other very much) theoretically resulting in very clean and spacious sounding results.

For example, I could mix a simple jazz recording the following way:

Piano (recorded with an ORTF Stereo Array) – The left mic hard panned to the left rear speaker and the right mic hard panned to the center speaker.

The piano is also sending to a stereo reverb effect with its stereo output panned so that the left channel is hard panned to the left front speaker and its right channel to the right rear speaker.

I really like the kind of sound this creates. It’s definitely not a realistic sound in the true meaning of the word, but having the close miked piano come from two speakers while having the ambience of it coming from two other speakers in different locations does create a very clear, enveloping, and, arguably, “natural sound.”

Then I’d do something similar with the drums, having the overhead stereo pair between the left front and the right rear, with the reverb from them between the left rear and right front speakers. The mono kick and snare mics can be left panned in the center between the left and right front speakers, with some being sent to the center speaker as well. And the snare would be sent to a reverb returning on the left and right rear speakers.

Acoustic bass (which was recorded in mono) I’d pan between the center and right front speaker while also sending it to a stereo reverb returning to the left rear and left front speakers.

The vocals could be kept more towards the middle, so they could be both between the left and right front speakers AND in the center speaker. A tiny touch of reverb in those three speakers too, but more reverb sent to the left and right rear speakers.

Finally, the saxophone can go almost in the same place as the bass, (since those two instruments occupy quite different frequencies and hardly compete with each other) between the Center and Right Speakers. Putting the piano where I did kind of tilts the whole mix towards the left, so this helps compensate for that. I’d also send some of the saxophone to a simple short delay, imitating a natural slap back, panned between the Left Surround and Left Speakers. Then, finally send some more saxophone to a reverb returning to the left front and right rear peakers.
Take a listen for yourself!
In case this all sounds a bit too abstract, the mix I described above is a real song that I did mix that way, and you can download it right here and check it out for yourself.

However, since online distribution of Surround Sound content is still in its infancy, it’s not as easy as I’d like it to be. Apart from the obvious basic requirement of you, the listener, actually having a surround sound playback system, there are three different ways for you to get the content from my server to your ears, and the way that is best for you depends on what kind of equipment you own and how it is setup.

You can download the file right here:    My Little Brown Book DTS.wav

CAUTION! Just right-click on the link (or ctrl-click if you’re stuck with only one mouse button) and choose “Save As,” “Save Target As,” “Download Linked File” or something like that. DO NOT just left-click on the file as your browser might try to play it back directly, which could cause a lot of loud noise to come out of your speakers.

But downloading the file is only the first step. Now you have to decide how to play it back. And just like when you were  downloading the file, DO NOT just double click on it since doing so could cause a lot of noise to come out of your speakers. That’s because this file is encoded in DTS format.

Now, the three ways of playing this file back:

  • You own a multichannel sound card for your computer that outputs each channel (Left, Right, Center, LFE, Left Rear and Right Rear on separate analog output connectors, hooked up to either six analog inputs on an amplifier or directly to each self-amplified or ”powered” speaker.If this is the case, all you need to do is download the free (as in both beer and freedom) media player VLC and configure it to work with the surround outputs of your sound card.
  • Your computer has either an optical or a coaxial digital audio output (spdif) connector, and you have it connected to a receiver with the appropriate input, and that receiver has a DTS logo on it.If this is the case, you should be able to play back the file through any media player software, such as iTunes, Quicktime, Microsoft Media Player, Winamp, etc. If you still only receive noise, it might be that you have to enable something like “Bitstream Passthrough,” “DTS Passthrough,” “Dolby Digital Passthrough,” or “Spdif Passthrough,” either in your playback software, your sound card settings, or both.
  • You own a CD or DVD Player with the same kinds of digital audio outputs I described earlier, and you have it connected to a receiver with a DTS logo on it.If this is the case, just burn the file onto a CD with any burning software (Toast, iTunes, Easy CD-Creator, etc) and you should be able to play it back on your system. Just be sure you make a regular Audio CD and not an mp3 or data CD or something like that.


I would like to thank Unne for contributing such a great insight into Mixing in Surround. If you would like to read this article in its entirety you can head on over to Unne's site and read it here.

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