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Surround Sound Mixing – Part 1 of 5

This is a guest post by mix engineer, Unne Lilijeblad over at www.mix-engineer.com. This is the first article in a five part series about his experience with mixing in this still under utilized medium for listening to music.

Unne Lilijeblad - Mix Engineer

Unne Lilijeblad - Mix Engineer

It’s been seven years now since I took the plunge and invested in a complete Dynaudio Air 5.1 surround sound monitor system. At the time, I thought that Surround Sound on DVD-Audio and SACD discs was going to take off among music consumers. That didn’t really happen. At  the time, I could walk into a Tower Records Store or the Virgin Mega store in Union Square and find DVD-A discs from the likes of Seal or John Hiatt, but the last time I visited Virgin, I had to talk to a whole bunch of store people before I found someone who even knew what a DVD-Audio disc was, and how they differed from regular DVD-Video discs with music content on them. “Hmm, yeah, I think I do remember those. No one ever bought them.” Now Tower Records is no more, and the Virgin Mega store in Union Square that I used to visit has been closed for a few years. These discs are still available on Amazon of course, but I doubt they sell in any large numbers.

Looking back, there were a few obvious reasons for why these formats failed:

  • The format war between SACD and DVD-A never got resolved. They’re both still around, but neither of them is doing well.
  • The majority of music consumers have slowly been shifting to downloads (mainly from the iTunes store) and streaming services like Spotify, neither of which offers music in surround sound.
  • No reasonable portable playback of HD surround material – True Surround Headphones are both very expensive and rare, and surround capable portable playback units even more so.
  • No big installed base of capable playback equipment.
  • The CPPM copy prevention system for DVD-A, and the fact that SACD does not use PCM Digital Audio but a completely different system that ordinary computers cannot play back – Why would consumers want to invest in a new technology that restricts making backup copies or moving audio between various playback units when CD’s aren’t restricted at all and the DVD-Video encryption was broken a long time ago? I think this is by far the biggest reason for failure. With these restrictions in place, CD’s and Video DVD’s provide a much more convenient experience.
  • Competition from DTS-encoded CD’s and DVD’s – Even though DTS is a lossy format that does not have the same audio fidelity as the lossless or uncompressed formats of DVD-A and SACD, it still sounds quite good. And as most consumers are happy listening to MP3’s which is a similarly lossy format, getting the benefit of surround audio makes the trade off in audio fidelity worth it. DTS Surround Discs aren’t that popular either though, but at least there’s a reasonable niche market and DTS (the company) is still promoting them.

Next week Unne will discuss some of the disappointments he's experienced with DVD-Audio discs.

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