5.1 Surround Sound – The Right Speaker Placement

5.1 Surround Sound – The Right Speaker Placement

If you step into most people’s homes and look at their 5.1 audio setup you’re going to notice some things which are common to just about all of them…bad things stemming from bad speaker placement.

Things like these:

  • speakers too low/high
  • center channel on the ground – aimed at the floor
  • surround speakers too high – to far away
  • left/right speakers not equidistant to the listener
  • left/right speakers not equidistant from the center speaker
  • subwoofer under a table or some other fangled place
  • generally all speakers are different distances from the listener

    5.1 setup
    Now This Would Be a Dope Home Theater – And It Would Be The Correct Position of 5.1 Speakers

We get to give our friends a pass on all this, because they like their “home theater” because they have a 140″ TV and that makes them feel like they have the best “theatrical experience” they can have in their neighborhood. Sure. It’s hogwash, but we’ll give them over to their egoic delusions.

For us as filmmakers and audio professionals, we walk away laughing under our breath knowing that audio is 80% of the audience’s impact, and we happily go back to our place with a 42″ TV, and 4,500 watts of JBL Series 7 speakers and get the intent of the filmmakers’ vision.

Why does your system sound so much better? Well, you’ve got better gear first of all, right? But more than this, you’ve understood the nature of positioning your 5.1 system speakers so that you emulate as closely as possible how the filmmaker envisioned his mix in the dubbing stage. You also understand the nature of the “magic triangle” and you’ve implemented it perfectly in your living room.

What? You don’t know what any of this means? Oh dear. Well, let me illuminate with the following short video. We go over all of this in depth in the “Workspace” Volume of the Pro Member Education but I’ll give you the general gist here:

In this clip, you’ll notice a few things which are critical to implement into your system – whether home theater or mixing space – regardless of the surroundings or situation:

Equidistance

Notice that all of the speakers – including the Sub Woofer – are exactly the same distance from the listener. This means that your L/C/R speakers are not in a straight line across. If you did that, the center speaker would be closer, and not only be louder but its sound would impact the listener earlier – which makes it seem even louder.

Surround Position

Notice the two possible positions of the surround speakers. One is what Dolby suggests, and the other is what I suggest. There’s nothing wrong with what Dolby suggests, but I find that for mixing, I get better results with the surrounds in the “music position.” The rear presentation of the surrounds is what music mixer’s use, and it sounds great. Also note that the surrounds should be elevated about 10º or so and refocused to the back of the heads of the listeners to better simulate how it is in a theater (or how it will be).

Dolby position
The Dolby Surround Position isn’t the Most Optimum for Mixing

Sub Woofer Position

There’s quite a bit of controversy over where to put the sub woofer. There is zero controversy over it being equidistant to the listener in comparison to the other speakers. However, check with you owner’s manual and discover if the manufacturer suggests a position. If it says, say, “place against a wall,” I’d recommend you follow that instruction. The trouble comes when the wall placement of the sub woofer makes it farther away than the rest of the speakers. When this happens, you’ll need to delay the rest of the speakers to compensate for this otherwise your sub woofer will be too quiet and your mixes will have too much LFE volume.

You compensate for this by delaying the other channels 1.1308 ms/ft. So if the Sub is 1 foot farther away, then the other speakers get delayed 1.1308 ms. Bear this in mind, since 1 frame of 23.976 video is roughly 42 ms, if your sub is 20 feet farther away, your speakers will be delayed 22.616 ms – which is a half a frame. Not bad, but could cause issues with syncing audio as you listen. Of course, if your sub is that far away, you’ll have to drive it so hard to compete with the other speakers that it might be a better idea to rethink your positioning of it – because a sub driving that hard (perhaps 8 times louder than the other speakers) will certainly get the police called on you if not having you wearing a sub woofer speaker cone around your neck.

Volume

This is another massive issue among audio mixers and one which they love to throw mindless theory at you about. We cover this in depth in the Workspace Volume, but I’m just going to leave this here and you’ll have to trust me about it.

If you’re mixing for web and listening at 75dB, using pink noise generation in each speaker one-at-a-time, tune your speakers the following way:

  • L/C/R: 75dB
  • Ls/Rs: 72dB
  • LFE: 79dB

If you’re mixing for DVD/BRD @80dB:

  • L/C/R: 80dB
  • Ls/Rs: 77dB
  • LFE: 84dB

If you’re mixing for theatrical @ 85dB:

  • L/C/R: 85dB
  • Ls/Rs: 81dB
  • LFE: 90 dB

The Magic Triangle

This mysterious geometric reference has nothing to do with anything in Bermuda, but it is the perfect place for you, the listener, to sit and from which point you should measure your speakers.  If you’re closer to one set of speakers, those speakers will be “louder” to you than the others and your ability to create a mix which will translate widely will narrow. For surround we want to take into account a circular presentation to figure out the distance of our speakers, but stereo must always be taken into account as a triangle for both the front and surround speakers. Take a look at this video and see what I mean.

Notice the center speaker is behind the triangle? Looks like it’s farther away, right? I promise you it isn’t. If you take a tape measure and measure the lengths, you’ll see that geometry beats naked eye. However, the magic triangle must ALSO be had. How do we get both to work? Well, in the Workspace Volume I recommend having two guys and two tape measures, and it’s not easy. Generally, you figure out how far apart you want your L/R speakers, then put yourself in a position so you’re at the peak of the magic triangle. Once you’ve established that, you add your center channel half-way between them. Then turn around and make a magic triangle for your surrounds.

If you follow these instructions and place your speakers where the video suggests, you’ll have a much easier time having your mixes translate to theaters, home theaters, and cars. It’ll also have your home theater sound much more like what the filmmakers’ originally intended.

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