Essentials for Going Surround

Apr 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By George Petersen

A STUDIO CHECKLIST

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If you've upgraded your DAW or console lately, then you've probably got surround production on your mind — or at least in your eventual plans. Other than audio for feature films, advanced games or network television programming, the vast majority of the audio we hear is still in stereo. However, surround — real surround; not “rechanneled for 5.1” stuff — is definitely the present (and certainly the future) of music production, whether you're working in LCRS, 5.1, 6.1 or more; and in Dolby Surround, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, DTS, SACD or custom playback systems for special-venue presentations, thrill rides, etc.

Dangerous Music Danger Monitor ST and SR modular monitor controller adapts to stereo or surround.

Thankfully, many of the tools that we need for surround production are identical to the mono and stereo items that fill our studio spaces. It's nice to know that we can embark on our journey to multichannel production without having to give up our favorite mics, preamps and signal processing. Even in a room that's set up with an analog multitrack and an older stereo board, an engineer can do multichannel mixing by simply assigning channel sources to the various output buses. While it's not as slick as working with X/Y pads or joystick panners, your audience will never hear the difference.

MIX FORMATS
Once your five (L/C/R/Ls/Rs) feeds are at the output buses, just route those to your storage format of choice. If you're not maxed out on your system's track count, mixes can simply be recorded back to five available tracks on your source multitrack. This offers the advantage of storing mixes with your multitrack master data (analog or digital), offering a solution that's both easy and convenient. Of course, mix files from your DAW can be easily archived to DVD-R or hard disk.

If you need to have files in a discrete, transportable audio format, options abound. Equipped with eight channels — enough to hold 5.1 discrete tracks and a stereo mix — tape-based modular digital multitracks, such as Alesis ADATs and Tascam DA-88s, are a low-cost alternative. Tascam's (www.tascam.com) latest generation in this category — its Hi-8mm, tape-based DA-98HR and DS-D98 — offer eight tracks at 24-bit/48kHz, or four channels at 96 kHz with the possibility of interlocking more decks for additional tracks. As a plus, both decks also offer 2-channel 192kHz recording, and the DS-D98 also doubles as a DSD (Direct Stream Digital) 2-track.

Speaking of DSD, one high-resolution option is mixing surround tracks to an 8-channel DSD machine, such as the Genex (www.genexaudio.com) GX9000. Housed in a four-rackspace chassis, the GX9000 can record to DSD and 24-bit/192kHz PCM digital. Rackmount hard disk PCM multitracks (Tascam X-48/MMR-8, Mackie HDR24/96, Alesis HD24, et al) offer another storage avenue. The Fostex (www.fostex.com) DV824 provides eight channels of 24-bit/48kHz recording (or four channels at 96 kHz) in a two-rackspace unit, storing audio data to DVD-RAM or optional hard disk.

The Dolby Media Decoder plug-in is part of the Dolby Media Producer Suite of HD and DVD creation tools.

If you really want to go exotic, one possibility is mixing to ATR Service Corp.'s (www.atrservice.com) ATR-108C 2-inch analog 8-tracks, with custom, discrete Class-A electronics by Dave Hill. Phat and sweet!

HEARING IS EVERYTHING
You can't mix without being able to hear your tracks. You'll need monitors, of course. Getting into all the possible combinations and offerings in surround speakers for the studio is well beyond the scope of this article, but for more information in this area, see Mix's report on new studio monitors in the June 2005 issue, or visit www.mixguides.com/studiomonitors for a wealth of resources, articles and references.

Unfortunately, even if consoles can handle surround mixes, most lack adequate facilities for surround monitoring. This problem is most prevalent when an engineer is mixing “within the box” on a computer-based DAW. And the task of surround monitoring goes beyond merely being able to turn down all those tracks at once. Having fast push-button access to track soloing and muting is an essential part of the surround mix experience, especially when you're trying to isolate that odd noise in the right rear channel or are perfecting the level of center-panned elements.

There are a number of surround monitoring packages that provide that quick access as a standard feature — either via a hardware controller and/or by way of computer software under networked control. Dynaudio Acoustics' (www.dynaudioacoustics.com) AIR Series offers both an AIR Soft Mac/PC application and a hard-wired mini desktop remote to enable solo, mute, reference levels and global (or individual) volume change functions. Alesis (www.alesis.com) includes PC control software for use with its ProActive 720 DSP and 820 DSP, and both infrared and wired controllers for its mini ProActive 5.1 system.

The Fostex DV824 two-rackspace unit stores audio data to DVD-RAM or optional internal hard disk.

At NAMM, JBL (www.jblpro.com) announced the availability of a new Mac OS X version app to go with its LSR4300 Series monitors, as well as Windows Control Center software for adjusting levels, mute/solo and input source select over Harman HiQnet networking. All parameters of the series' Room Mode Correction acoustical tweaking are also remotely controllable either via the handheld wireless remote or from a computer. Tannoy (www.tannoyna.com) recently partnered with TC Electronic on its Ellipse iDP Series monitors, which combine Dual-Concentric drivers and SuperTweeters with onboard networking and DSP control of acoustical alignment, bass management, solo/mute and global level with preset memories that are recallable using the iDP hardware remote or PC-based control software.

MONITOR CONTROL — A LA CARTE
If your speaker system or console provides monitor control amenities, then you're set. But for most of us, some sort of outboard controller is a necessity. Fortunately, controller options abound for surround applications.

Distributed by Sascom Marketing (www.sascom.com), Adgil Designs' The Director is a programmable system designed specifically for multichannel environments. The Director can handle one main monitoring system with up to eight output channels and two aux stereo systems, and switching for up to 30 input sources. Functions include mute, dim, mono and solo (all available from an external remote); preset monitoring levels; variable levels; and more. Rear panel plug-in cards in the three-rackspace central “brain” allow for system-expansion options in input routing, matrix routing and bus amps/insert sends. Three available remotes handle 7.1, 5.1, LCRS or stereo speakers. An average 24×8 (I/O) system is approximately $5,825.

Grace Design m906 5.1 monitor controller

Now handled in the U.S. by AXI (www.axidistribution.com), Audient's ASP510 surround sound controller pairs a one-rackspace “brain” with a compact, hardwired controller. Among this $2,995 unit's features are six preset monitor formats, switching from three 5.1 and three stereo sources, eight console inputs/outputs (5.1, plus 2-track), switchable encoder/decoder inserts, level trims on its six speaker outs, mutes, solo, user-definable reference and dim level, guide track input and built-in pink-noise generator.

Just unveiled at NAMM, Dangerous Music's (www.dangerousmusic.com) Dangerous Monitor ST and SR modular monitor controller adapts to stereo or surround, and features a stepped-attenuator volume control, four input sources, three speaker outputs, programmable input gain/output level offsets, assignable sub output, mute/solo functions and a stereo cue/talkback system with onboard 40-watt power amp. Its modular approach lets users start with the stereo ST unit ($2,199) and add the $1,499 SR expansion module for full 5.1 capability later.

The m906 5.1 monitor system from Grace Design (www.gracedesign.com) goes beyond simple volume duties; it also includes source switching for balanced and unbalanced 5.1 inputs, 24-bit/192kHz AES-3 stereo inputs (stereo and 5.1 multichannel), 5.1 analog outs from the DACs, S/PDIF RCA and optical S/PDIF inputs and word clock/Super clock In/Thru. Also standard are talkback mic switching, analog stereo cue I/O, two stereo analog control room outs, headphone/cue outputs and solo/mute/dim on any output. Included with the $5,995 system is a full-function remote that connects to the two-rackspace main electronics for fingertip control.

Klein + Hummel's (www.klein-hummel.com) PRO M 1012 is a surround management system with full bass management, programmable downmix configurations, volume control of up to 12 output channels and more. Options for this $5,950 system are extensive, including transformer or electronically balanced 8-channel analog input boards, four AES/EBU digital input boards, a board with eight additional transformerless outputs and a parametric EQ module for subwoofer or room equalization. The system stores 80 onboard (plus 12 user-defined) configurations accessible from the front panel, optional hardwired or infrared remotes or (included) Windows software.

The Klein + Hummel PRO M 1012 comes with full bass management.

The MultiMAX EX and EXR from Martinsound (www.martinsound.com) have 16 speaker outs so that the engineer can switch multiple sets of stereo and surround monitors to make A/B comparisons between combinations of a mono speaker, stereo monitors and two 7.1 systems, for example. Sources can include four 8-channel inputs, and options include the company's Monitor Max Stereo Monitor Controller, which adds functions such as talkback and switching from 10 stereo sources.

Tascam's DS-M7.1 ($1,249) supports surround formats from LCRS up to 7.1 — including 5.1 and 6.1 formats — with the ability to downmix to mono or stereo from any surround format to check mixes on a smaller system. The unit has a detachable front panel that doubles as a full-function remote. Other features include 8-channel TDIF, AES/EBU and ADAT connections to a stem recorder; TDIF connections to console (AES/EBU and ADAT optional); eight input and eight output channels; AES/EBU digital inserts for encoder monitoring (analog optional); mute/solo/dim/mono switching; onboard bass management; individual channel delay compensation; and analog and AES/EBU digital surround monitor outputs.

SWEET AND SIMPLE
Sometimes what the job really requires is a straightforward system that addresses the need for 5.1 bass management and volume control without other features — such as studio communications, busing and stem routing — that increase the product's complexity and cost. Here are a few examples for the pro studio environment.

Although designed with its own line of surround monitors in mind, Blue Sky's (www.abluesky.com) Bass Management Controller works with nearly any 5.1 system and handles the basics — 5.1 bass management and volume control — in a $795 package. Features include balanced XLR I/Os, channel mutes, a full-function remote, defeatable 80Hz bass management and dual subwoofer outs.

Digidesign markets the Neyrinck SoundCode.

Self-contained in a single rackspace is the SR5.1MKII ($1,100) from Coleman Audio (www.colemanaudio.com). This 5.1 surround level controller has channel mutes and individual trims for each speaker, along with fold-down to stereo and fold-down to left/right/center. A six-gang stepped attenuator controls level for the straight-wire crowd. All inputs are balanced on Combo TRS/XLR jacks. Coleman also makes the A/B5.1, a $525 unit for switching between two sets of 5.1 speakers.

New from Event (www.event1.com) is the ESP5100, a surround preamp/processor with volume control and switching of its 5.1 analog RCA inputs and four digital ins (optical and co-ax) to 24-bit/96kHz DACs feeding its 5.1 analog RCA outputs. The $399 unit includes an infrared remote and onboard decoder circuitry for Dolby Pro Logic II/IIx, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX and DTS formats. Due later this year is the ESP7100, with full 7.1 capability, XLR balanced outputs and channel mute/solo control.

Miller & Kreisel's (www.mkprofessional.com) LFE-5 Bass Management Controller ($999) redirects the bass frequencies from five full-range XLR inputs and one or two LFE inputs to one or two subwoofers. The LFE-5 has basic bass-management functions, a 6-channel volume control, mute switches on each channel and -3dB cut switches to attenuate the level of the left/right surrounds to match the preferences of some film mixers.

Housed in a single slanted desktop chassis, SPL's (www.spl-usa.com) Surround Monitor Controller 2489 ($799) allows selection from two surround and two stereo sources with a large volume pot, and provides switches for individual solo/mute, mono, dim and global mute. Inputs are on D-Sub and RCA jacks. Speaker channel outputs are ¼-inch TRS jacks; a slave output routes the stereo or surround input directly to a recorder device.

Tascam DS-M7.1 supports LCRS up to 7.1, with downmix capability to mono/stereo.

The single-rackspace Models 68A/69A ($1,799) and 78/79 ($2,799) from Studio Technologies (www.studio-tech.com) offer control of multiple surround sources. The 68A supports two 5.1 and two stereo inputs; the 78 handles two 7.1 systems. Models 69A and 79 hardware remotes add mute/solo switching, input select, level control and dim/mute functions.

New from Violet Audio (www.violetaudio.com) is the MV71, a digitally controlled analog surround volume controller. Inputs include XLR 7.1, RCA 7.1 and five stereo pairs; outputs are 7.1 XLR and two stereo pairs. Also featured are bass and treble control on the master stereo outs, infrared and hard-wired remotes, 24 quick-access controls, last-state memory storage and backlit 16×2 character LCD.

THE FINAL CHAPTER
Ironically, encoding/decoding — the last step in surround audio production — is both optional and essential. Certainly, it's possible to create awesome multichannel mixes in a studio that doesn't offer encode/decode hardware or software — if the final mixes are passed on to another facility for authoring and creation. Yet, having in-house/in-studio access to the encoding/decoding process can reveal much about how effective your mixes will be for the end-user.

Such products are available in hardware and software, and support various formats and/or platforms. Software is available either in the form of plug-ins within a DAW or authoring program, or as separate stand-alone applications. One advantage of hardware encoder/decoders is that they operate in real time and can be patched into the surround monitoring chain, providing immediate feedback as to the effects of the process on the audio signals. And with audio data-compression rates in the 8:1 range, it's nice to know what your audio sounds like after 60, 75 or 85 percent of that data disappears.

On the plug-in side, Digidesign (www.digidesign.com) distributes Dolby Surround Tools, a $795 Pro Tools TDM plug-in for encoding/decoding Dolby LCRS tracks to Lt/Rt, with versions available for TDM Pro Tools|HD, Mix and Accel systems on the Macintosh and Windows XP platforms. The company also markets the Neyrinck SoundCode for Dolby Digital for full encode/decode of 5.1 Dolby Digital (AC-3) audio directly within Pro Tools software. The $995 plug-in is available in HTDM, RTAS and Audio Suite formats for Mac OS X and Windows XP Pro Tools systems.

The oldest name in surround encoding, Dolby (www.dolby.com) offers a range of tools that meet the Dolby Digital (AC-3) standard used on all DVD-Video releases, as well as tools that support Dolby Surround (LCRS), Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby Pro Logic II formats. The DP569 ($5,600) and DP564 ($4,600) form a reference encoder/decoder pair that's equally at home in a recording studio, authoring suite or broadcast chain, with pro features such as onboard sample rate conversion, VTC and VITC SMPTE timecode sync, and serial interfaces for configuring and controlling the units from a Windows PC.

At last year's AES show, Dolby launched its Dolby Media Producer suite of HD and DVD creation tools. The Mac-based (OS X “Tiger”) software includes Dolby Media Encoder, Dolby Media Decoder and Dolby Media Tools — a set of utility tools. Each program is available separately or as a suite, and handles codec and metadata chores in Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, MLP Lossless and Dolby True HD for compatibility with Bluray, HD-DVD and standard DVD formats. The entire suite retails at $11,000; individual programs are available separately.

DTS (www.dtsonline.com) has a full range of surround production/authoring products, from the hardware CAD-4 (encoders) and CAD-5 (decoders) that handle soundtracks and multichannel music in multiple DTS formats (DTS 96/24, DTS-ES 6.1 and DTS Neo:6) for DVD, CD and broadcast to the Windows XP and Mac OS X DTS Pro Series Surround Encoder software suites. Also offered is the DTS Pro Series Network Encoder, a multi-user software suite for studios on the Apple Xserve platform. Both software packages can encode audio for CD and DVD-Video applications, and support the most popular DTS technologies, including DTS Digital Surround, DTS-ES 6.1 and DTS 96/24, as well as multiple bit rates, sampling rates and channel configurations.

The Circle Surround Series of hardware and software-based encoder/decoders from SRS Labs (www.srslabs.com) encodes up to 6.1-channel mixes onto a stereo Lt/Rt mix that's playable on standard 2-channel media (broadcast, CDs, etc.) or decoded into multichannel sound in the end-user's home theater. The Circle Surround Digital CSE-07D and CDC-07D hardware matrixing offer AES/EBU 5.1 and 6.1 encoding, as well as a mono/stereo-to-surround up-mix function. The Circle Surround Analog CSE-07A and CSD-07A make up a hardware encode/decode pair with similar features, but this pair operates in the analog domain. SRS also markets two Circle Surround plug-in suites: Circle Sound TDM Pro (for Pro Tools|HD, Pro Tools|HD Accel and Pro Tools Mix systems) and Circle SoundVST Pro for Nuendo, Cubase and other DAWS with multichannel VST support.

Minnetonka Audio Software's SurCode (www.surcode.com) line offers audio software encoders for Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS and MLP Lossless encoding. Now in V. 2, SurCode for Dolby Digital (AC-3 surround) is $995. SurCode Dolby Pro Logic II stand-alone encoder for PC or Mac is $495 and VST plug-in versions are $550. The SurCode MLP Lossless (for DVD-A) is $2,495; a $499 encoder handles DTS DVDs; and a version of SurCode Dolby Digital 5.1 is built into Adobe Premiere Pro with a $295 activation price.

JUST THE BEGINNING
There's plenty more you can add to your surround production rig. Software and hardware signal processing can offer everything from auto-panning and dynamics to ambience, delays and spatialization routines, while meters (virtual and real VUs) and outboard panner controls can simplify life in the surround lane. But if you start with the basics — a solid monitoring rig and a secure place to store those mixes — then the rest can come in time as your needs and finances allow.


George Petersen is Mix's editorial director.






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