A lot of folks are scared of mixing in surround sound. There’s more computer power, I/O, cables, channels, sounds and panning required to make a pro surround mix – even in 5.1. Get above 7.1, and things go exponentially crazy. But here on Cinema Sound, I’m always recommending mixing productions in 5.1 surround – even if you never deliver that way. This article will outline 5 reasons to mix EVERYTHING in 5.1 surround.
Just in case you don’t know, 5.1 surround consists of 5 “full range” speakers and one “Low Frequency Effects”
speaker. Each one of these speakers has a dedicated audio bus/channel. “Full Range” means the speaker reproduces most frequencies in the hearing spectrum with the exception of the lowest ones. The “Low Frequency Effects” (LFE) speaker is only required to put out frequencies up to 85 Hz. Yeah. Super low. It’s why we only ever send the LFE dedicated channel to a “sub woofer” – a speaker designed to create those powerful sub-lows. This is why we call the most basic cinematic surround format “5.1:” 5 full-range, and one LFE. The 5 full rangers are assorted in Left, Center, Right, Left-Surround, Right-Surround. It’s why sometimes you’ll hear things like “LCR” – which refers to the front speakers and “Surrounds” which refers to the back ones. We balance all of these in the mix in a clever way so audiences are more fully “surrounded” and immersed in the movie than stereo playback can ever do. We spend 25 hours teaching you how to do this well in the MZed Pro Member Education.
The bottom line is this: instead of your output being a Left and Right output in the form of 2 discreet outputs, you’ll have 6 discreet outputs with each corresponding to one of those 5.1 channels. Nice.
“Mark! How the HECK do you take 6 channels and have them play back on youtube, man?!?” Great question. There’s a bunch of SUPER cool ways of doing this including the ability with Spatial Audio Designer to ACTUALLY represent the 5.1 surround positioning in headphones. But for translation of this 5.1 mix into stereo speakers, you use a downmix plugin or other clever routing which brings all channels back into stereo and retains the relative volume of the 6 channels. Sure. You lose the surround vibe, but you gain the relative levels and a good representation of the surround panning in a stereo format. Nice. We show you how to do this in the 5.1 Quick Start Guide in the Cinema Sound Store.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, here’s some great reasons to do your mixes in 5.1 instead of simple stereo – even if you’re never going to release them in 5.1.
One. YOU NEVER KNOW IF YOU’RE GOING TO RELEASE IN 5.1! It’s a simple matter of dropping in a downmixer plugin (on the whole) to take a 5.1 mix into stereo. It’s several MORE DAYS of work to go the other way. It’s always better to mix in a more dynamic format with more channels, because you can always lose dynamics and channels with plugins, but you can’t gain them as easily. “Mark! You’re crazy! My Youtube videos will NEVER EVER be released in 5.1 ANYWHERE!!! I’m SURE of it!!!” Okay. Great. But what happens when you have 4,000,000 followers all of a sudden, and Lions Gate wants to distribute your content as a special feature on the “Avengers 6” Blu-Ray disc. You mean to tell me that you’re okay with sounding completely thin and lousy next to the Lions Gate content when people watch? Really?? “Mark, I’ll just hire someone to remix it!” Really!? You’re happy to burn $8,500 on something you could have done right the first time, AND have more professional deliverables when the time comes? Well, if so, we’ll redub you “false-economy-filmmaker #1.”
Two. 5.1 is SO much more fun to work in. Flying things around in the surround field is a gas. It also allows you have to a more careful examination of your dialog (since it’s in an actual mono channel in 5.1 not a phantom one in stereo) and get it sounding perfect. 95% of the time those fun 5.1 pannings translate perfectly into stereo with a downmixer plugin.
Three. 5.1 helps you get more intimate with music, sound effects, ambiences and how they layer together, because you’ve had to give them extra care in panning and layering. In stereo mixing, sometimes these layers don’t get the love they otherwise would, because in stereo there’s not enough panoramic space to hear these layers distinctly. As a result, they just get buried under dialog and hard effects – which share the same speakers as everything else in stereo.
Four. Surround mixing forces you to make more layers of sounds and create better sound realizations. The
single stereo ambience you used to drop into your films isn’t going to cut it in any surround format, and you may need many layers of ambiences to make surround feel real. The same with sound effects. And there’s certainly no way to get away with music which doesn’t have stems. 5.1 forces you to do a better job of sound creation.
Five. 5.1 makes you seem much more “professional” and thereby your studio and work is more “valuable.” And while it’s true that a 5.1 mix is at least another 25% more work than a stereo mix, the value is 100% more in the production value alone – not to mention the hirability of your work – which increases 4X. Everyone mixes in stereo. Few are willing to do it in surround. But you will, and everyone will notice. Especially at the screening, when the director’s buddy who is coat-tailing the director’s world premiere event by screening his own short right before will have his silly attempt at filmmaking crushed when your 5.1-ready mix shows up and reminds everyone why stereo-sucks in a theater…and you’re the real filmmaker/mixer/creative.
The only other thing you have to get over is the fear, gear & hear. We talk about the kind of gear you need to get (not to expensive) in order work in 5.1 surround or better. Get the gear. You get over the fear by learning to hear, and you learn to do that here and in the 25 hour mix Volume. Get the MZed Pro Member Education and the 5.1 Quick Start Guide in the Cinema Sound Store and start capitalizing on your unfair competitive advantage now. There isn’t a better investment you can make for your career and projects.