Field Test: Waves 360 Surround Toolkit

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY DAVE RIDEAU

Surround-format commercial music is commonplace. There are hundreds of titles available in various formats used to both entice and confuse consumers. As the corporate format wars continue, we cannot forget the chaos we experienced on the production side of surround: ITU vs. other speaker placements, full-range vs. satellite/sub monitoring, 83dB vs. 85dB SPL reference level, the use of the center and LFE channels, and the total sub/bass-management confusion. Forget about what to put in the rears; we don't even know where to place them! The Waves 360° Surround bundle is not the answer to all of these problems, but it at least gives Pro Tools TDM users a set of powerful tools to address a good number of them.

The recently released Waves 360° Surround Toolkit ($2,400) consists of nine well-conceived plug-in components over seven software sets. Each performs specific functions that seamlessly integrate into Pro Tools surround productions of up to 5.1 channels. They include the S360 Panner, S360 Imager, R360 Reverberation, C360 Compressor, L360 Limiter, M360 Manager, M360 Mixdown, LFE360 Lowpass Filter and the IDR360 Bit Requantizer. The concept of the kit is to cover every aspect of calibration, mixing and monitoring, while eliminating the need for any additional software or hardware to produce a professional multichannel master.

CRITICAL CALIBRATION TOOLS
The surround bundle's foundation is the Waves M360 Manager. This workhorse provides the user with critical calibration functions that must be performed in order for a mix to translate to the outside world. Besides phase, subsends, mute, solo, delay and level adjustments for each of the main channels, this plug-in also provides bass management with variable crossover frequencies for sub/satellite speaker-system monitoring. There is a second plug-in component, the M360 Mixdown, which permits either preview or application of fold-down formats from 5.1 to mono, stereo, LCR and LCRS. For more on surround monitor setup and calibration, see the sidebar on page 112.

The Waves M360 not only provides your studio with the tools to align your surround monitors for playback (don't forget your earplugs), but it also provides a very sophisticated bass-management solution. After inserting the M360 on the master surround fader, I followed the M360 PDF manual's recommended calibration procedure with only an SPL meter and the software provided.

The Waves calibration routine was simple and functioned well, but I encourage professionals to research further (I recommend Bobby Owsinski's Website at www.surroundassociates.com or Tomlinson Holman's book, 5.1 Surround Sound — Up and Running), purchase a set of alignment tones and make their setup as accurate as possible.

As I went deeper into the M360's functionality, the design details continued to impress me. For example, all panning algorithms are based on monitors positioned in the ITU configuration (± 30° fronts and 110° rear). But in order to service troublemakers, such as myself, who refuse to comply with the ITU standard, Waves made it possible to input personal front and rear speaker angles directly into the M360 by using the Send Angles setting provided on the M360 Manager.

The visuals of the M360 are informative and easy to read. The display provides a representation of the ITU standard speaker placement and is a clever way to portray your personal speaker setup. I was also glad to see that all six outputs have meters with digital readout that retain the peak level of each channel during the previous playback.

The M360 also provides various target adjustments to preview common variables that can be found in the consumer and professional worlds. For example, Dolby recommends that in some smaller control room surround-monitoring situations, users should reference their mix with the rears at -2 dB. Some consumer surround receivers also have a rear -3dB down default. As another example, in most consumer surround setups, the front speakers are positioned in a straight line along a front wall. All of these scenarios and more can be recreated and saved as presets using the M360's target adjustments.

PANNING AND IMAGING
The S360 Panner/Imager handles all panning duties in the Waves toolkit, controlling the width and rotation of a mono, stereo, 5/5.1 channel or surround source in your multichannel mix. These two parameters functioned well, allowing me to quickly position a track into the surround landscape. After choosing between panning that employs either speakers in pairs or sets of three, I set the rotation angle to represent where the center of my source image was located. The Width Ratio parameter allowed me to further adjust width/divergence in relation to the image's center. This parameter provides continuous control from equal energy to all five main channels to the final collapse into a mono image. Center-speaker use is specified in percentages: 0% is equal to phantom center L/R image and 100% represents center channel only, with all of the possibilities available in between. The LFE can be sent independently and not be directly influenced by the panning that occurs in the five main channels.

The S360 Imager is another reason to applaud the Waves design team. It contains the same features as the S360 Panner and adds room model early reflections and shuffling, which emulate distance panning and low-frequency width. For early reflections, it is more DSP-efficient here to keep the processing of early reflections and reverb tail separate and to reserve processing specifically for the execution of the R360 Reverberation. This forces you to address early reflections head-on when it is often easier to dial-up your favorite reverb preset, adjust the reverb time/pre delay and call it a day.

The S360 Imager's shuffling level and shuffling frequency parameters create images that have a sharper focus or a heightened “spaciousness” by adding bass frequencies to elements of the mix panned away from center. The purpose of this is to add more depth and life to spatial images by compensating for the fact that stage width is unnaturally narrow at the lower frequencies compared to the mid/high width of the same source. I found the Shuffle function subtle, but quite effective, when used on the appropriate source.

MORE GREAT TOOLS
The LFE 360 Lowpass Filter is a very steep (60dB per octave) filter designed for use on the LFE channel. It is meant to create the same result that most popular surround encoders produce and, therefore, defaults to 120 Hz. You may use the LFE 360 for preview purposes only or, if you prefer, apply it to your master. When used as recommended — inserted just before the M360 Manager — it will affect only the LFE channel, leaving the subsignal untouched.

The Waves R360 Reverb is unique in that its sole function is to create accurate and smooth-sounding reverb tails for the surround environment. After you have “distance-panned” a track using the S360 Imager early reflections, you can complete room emulation by the right amount and type of reverb. The R360 plug provides reverb time, high- and low-frequency damping control, high and low EQ, pre-delay, size, wet/dry and several other parameters more specific to surround use. To encourage users to carefully marry performance between the S360 Imager and R360 Reverb, Waves' programmers provide a starter set of Virtual Spaces presets, which share the same name in both plugs and work well together to create convincing room emulation. Of course, you may want an imperfect room emulation, which can be created just as easily. The R360 also has a “compact” component that is capable of running at true 96k and is available only to Digidesign HD users.

Using the popular L1 and L2 UltraMaximizers as a model, the L360 is a surround peak limiter and level maximizer for 5 or 5.1 channels. Working at up to 96 kHz, it features brickwall peak limiting and five different link modes with three separate sidechains. This allows dynamics processing with the option of preserving phantom images. The L360 is meant to be the last device that your 5.1 mix goes through before you print, but it can also be useful to “hype” individual 5/5.1 elements that need a level boost. The L360 uses many of Waves' software-limiting tricks: look-ahead mechanisms to anticipate peaks, Waves ARC (Auto-Release Control) and 48-bit double-precision processing. If you like Waves' software limiting in stereo, then you'll love it in surround.

The C360 also works on 5 or 5.1 channels with flexible link modes. Its controls are similar to the L360, but with a different sound result: The C360 attenuates the signal before the threshold level is reached and continues to do so after the threshold is passed. This soft-knee design also has an auto-makeup function that compensates gain automatically, no matter where the compressor's threshold is set. The C360 Surround Compressor worked well with 5/5.1 source material that had more dynamic range than desired, and it was easy to “dial in” to taste.

The IDR360 (Increased Digital Resolution) was Waves' original offering of dithering and noise shaping for optimal bit depth re-quantization; it was designed for programs that would inevitably be reduced to 16-bit. In surround, 24-bit is the most common format, but IDR's multichannel version has been provided where bit reduction may still be required.

IN USE
I set up a session for a 5.1 mix at my home studio, which mainly consists of a Digidesign HD3 system, Westlake Audio LC 8.1 monitors and a Velodyne sub. I chose a recording by Ann Nesby — an artist I am currently in production with — who is known for her sheer dynamic power. The S360 Imager was a particular treat for me to use: It afforded me the power to place a vocal “behind” the speakers in the sonic soundstage, an effect I find particularly hard to create in an all-digital mixing environment. Finally, after I had a basic surround mix that I was pleased with, I inserted the L360 Limiter into the master fader, which tempted me to make my mix as “loud” as possible. This is a great device, but I chose to use it minimally to take advantage of the expanded dynamic range offered by mixing in surround. After a bit of fun, I lowered the gain reduction to a level that my mastering engineer would appreciate. CONCLUSION
The 360° Toolkit is a serious piece of software and, in turn, requires serious processing power. My Pro Tools|HD3 rig was maxed out after engaging the S360 Imager on 20 tracks (the S360 Panner is 4x more efficient), and that was without the M360 Manager, which uses approximately 25% of one DSP chip.

The good news is, with careful planning, you may not need to run out and buy that expansion chassis just yet. Pro Toolers have been devising ways to conserve DSP since its infancy, and with creative I/O and internal busing setups, you can get further than you might think with this bundle.

The Waves 360° Surround Toolkit completes the Pro Tools production arsenal in a way that could impact the quality of your surround projects. I've listened to previously mixed surround projects monitoring through the preset Target Adjustments available on the M360 Manager, and I'm convinced, for this feature alone, that the Waves surround bundle is a good investment.

Special thanks to Capitol Recording Studios, Westlake Audio Recording Studios, Velodyne, DTS and Audio Den in Los Angeles.

Waves, 865/546-6115, www.waves.com.


Dave Rideau is a three-time Grammy-nominated recording engineer and producer based in Los Angeles. His work has taken him to Europe, Japan and China, where his artist is currently topping the charts.

SURROUND MONITOR SETUP AND CALIBRATION
The monitor setup/calibration process for multichannel audio constantly amazes and amuses me. Procedures vary, but this is what I try to achieve in my surround setup: a front monitor array in compliance with the ITU recommendation and a center speaker with ± 30° angles for the right and left monitors. I position the rear monitors as a mirror image of the front in relation to the centerline (no, not 110°) with all monitors at the same distance from the listening position. I then feed each main monitor (one at a time) bandwidth-limited pink noise (from 500 Hz to 2 kHz) at 0 VU and adjust each monitor's gain until I achieve an 85dB SPL reading on my trusty Radio Shack meter (C-weighting/slow response) at the primary listening position. I then feed the sub from the LFE channel bandwith-limited pink noise (20 to 80 Hz) at -10dB VU electrical level (with every other channel muted) and, again, adjust the gain until I reach 85dB SPL.

Even though this method works for me, it is far from perfect. There are several important factors that I'm completely ignoring. For example, like it or not, the vast majority of surround listeners are using systems that have sat/subs using bass managers, so it makes sense that we at least reference this electronic process at some time in production. These managers extract the bass frequencies below a specific cutoff point from all five main channels, the sum of which will ultimately be fed to the system's subwoofer. If this wasn't enough low-frequency energy already, your LFE (.1) production channel is boosted 10 dB and then added to the five channels of the redirected low-end information mentioned above. This signal is the final result of the bass-management process and what is fed to the subs that the good people at home listen to. Some studios provide bass-management hardware, but many do not, my home studio being one of them.

When discussing this point with Lorr Kramer, director of technical marketing at DTS, he agreed that it was important to illustrate that even though many professionals consider their monitors “full-range,” they rarely reproduce the lower frequencies that average consumers have available in their living rooms. Even if you use a sub in your surround studio, unless your low frequency is properly managed, you could be doing more harm than good.
Dave Rideau



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