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DVD Between the Lines -
5.1-Channel Surround Sound: Mixing Opinions, Part II

Mark Waldrep

August 2001 | Once you have fully equipped your audio facility for handling the technical requirements of 5.1-channel surround sound, you're ready to begin the actual process of distributing audio signals from a multitrack source into an array of speakers. The concept may seem simple, but the complexities of creating a compelling surround mix are actually quite daunting…even for the most experienced mixing engineers. The many decisions that are required for balancing and equalizing audio into two channels are multiplied when the philosophical aspects of a composer's "musical intent" or a consumer's comfort with "immersive surround" are factored into the 5.1 mixing equation.

The lack of a historical model for surround mixing is another factor that makes producing music for 5.1 speakers particularly challenging. As mentioned in Mixing Opinions Part I [April DVD BETWEEN THE LINES, p. 37–Ed.], the basic questions center on the use of the left- and right-surround speakers. Is it appropriate for a mixing engineer to place instruments into these two rear channels or is there some unwritten "musical imperative" that only allows reflected sound or ambiance in the back? Does it matter what type of music is being mixed? Can a piece of classical chamber music or a jazz trio benefit from dispersion into a surround setup? And what about music played by a soloist? All these questions confront today's audio engineers and music producers, and are debated in studios and periodicals the world over.

From where I stand, there is no absolute right or wrong approach to producing a 5.1-channel surround mix regardless of the musical genre. AIX Records, our new DVD-Audio/ Video label (www.aixrecords.com) has produced 13 new projects ranging from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) to Peppino D'Agostino playing solo acoustic guitar. As many as 12 stereo pairs of microphones were placed on the stage with the performers, which were captured on high-capacity hard drives and recorded on Euphonix's digital multitrack. The number of recorded channels and their strategic locations among the musicians allow us to prepare mixes from several points of view. Using the AUDIO button on a DVD remote control, it is possible to switch between "stage" and "audience" mixes. If the listener prefers to experience music from the 14th row of a magnificent-sounding concert hall or the best seat in an intimate jazz club, then the "audience" mix will allow him or her to recreate that experience in their own home. On the other hand, it is also possible for a listener to join the assembled group of musicians by creating a mix that actually surrounds him or her with the ensemble. This so-called "stage" mix runs somewhat contrary to the classical purist aesthetic but still constitutes legitimate musical expression, especially as it allows listeners to have experiences that might otherwise never be possible unless they happened to be musicians themselves.

The argument over a composer's musical intent in a specific work, especially in the case of a classical composition, needs to be carefully examined. The claim that Bach, Beethoven, or Stravinsky wouldn't have appreciated their music being performed in-the-round is hard to justify. Composers throughout history have made use of physical space in performances of their works. Gabrielli used the opposing sides of the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice for his well-known antiphonal brass/choir compositions in the 17th Century. In the 18th Century, the choral and organ compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach and others provide the most direct analogy to today's "rear speaker" debate because of the fact that the sound often comes from the choir loft or pipes located at the back of a church. AIX's release of Respighi Pines of Rome has brass players dispersed into the balconies and rear of the hall. When the final movement, "The Pines of the Appian Way", reaches its ultimate climax, the sound is coming from all directions–including the sound of the trombones, which emanates directly from the rear. A live surround example can be heard in one of Elliot Carter's string quartets, which places the members of the ensemble in the four corners of the performance space. Who says music cannot come from someplace other than a proscenium stage?

Clearly, composers have used and appreciated "surround" sound in the past. I believe that the technology of DVD-Audio/Video and 5.1-channel surround sound systems can be made to enhance virtually any piece or style of music. Producing a recording is not limited to creating an acoustic documentary of an actual performance, although that pursuit is among the choices available to audio producers/engineers. Mixing music to enhance the musical experience should be a large part of the creative/technical process. The reactions to our mixing style have been both positive and negative. The conductor of the NJSO, Maestro Macal, raved about the DVD's sound. He commented that this recording was the first that he had ever heard that captured the sound the way he intended it.

For other listeners, recording and mixing from the "conductor wannabe" POV is a mistake. I disagree, and am confident many musicians and audio consumers will find "stage" mixes more interesting than the "audience" versions. Besides, if the "audience" mix is preferred, a simple press of the AUDIO button will switch the perspective on all AIX Records releases. Check it out and let me know what you think... we're building the model as we go.


Mark Waldrep (mwaldrep@aixmediagroup.com) is the president and CEO of AIX Media group, an international company specializing in the innovative use of emerging technologies such as DVD and the Internet. He is also a professor in the Division of Performing and Media Arts at the California State University at Dominguez Hills.

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