Nearly everybody has a surround sound system one way or another. Sure. We just throw up the speakers, put them in whatever seems to fit – or fit onto our furniture – and turn up the subwoofer and enjoy. But there’s a lot more that goes into setting up a surround system than just what ends up fitting on your pre-placed cabinets. In this article we’ll talk about where the Center Speaker goes, and how I nearly messed up a mix, because I messed up the position of the center channel in my own home.
The most important aspect of placing surround speakers is distance from the listener. In an ideal situation, all speakers (including the Subwoofer) are the same distance. In essence, you’d have all speakers positioned around a circle surrounding the listener. The reason this is important is two-fold. 1. It insures that no speaker is closer than others which would cause said speaker to be louder than the others. 2. That closer speaker would also have its content hit the listener earlier than any other speaker – further exacerbating the issue of it being louder than the others. Sounds simple, because it is: keep the speakers the same distance from the listener and 85% of the surround sound issues are solved. Of course, pointed them at the listener is also critical, but I figured you knew that.
It would suffice to say that as the author of Cinema Sound and of those products that I’d be taking my own advice. Well, apparently not.
So here’s me, having burned a reference DVD of the mix for Blade of Honor, dropped it into my blu-ray player and listening to the mix to see if it translates from Cinema Sound studios. I was quite disturbed to hear the Center channel SUPER loud – like 6 dB loud – to the rest of the speakers. I checked the TV audio settings, BRD player settings, even the head unit settings only to find everything in order and nominal. I was really disturbed, because the mix in the studio was awesome. We rechecked the speaker levels and positions in the studio: perfect.
I then tried forcing the 5.1 mix into a stereo presentation from the head unit effectively taking any issues with the Center channel and mixing it into a stereo format. The stereo downmix coming out of L/R was exactly what I’d expected.
Now, understand this: my living room 5.1 surround system speakers were FAR from factory spec. Not only do I have a different Center speaker from L/R I have different Surround speakers yet again, and the Sub Woofer is find I got from a car I used to own, and powered by the 2,700 watt amp out of a Sunfire active subwoofer. You can’t get more eclectic. But this system has never failed me in the past. If it sounds reasonably close on this rag-tag system, it’ll translate anywhere fine. Worse, I’ve got a different height and distance-to-listerner for every speaker. In fact the sub, L/C/R speakers are all on or in a wall unit that parallels the wall the TV is on. Yep. They’re all in a horizontal line. Really bad. But for general watching of TV or movies, it’s never bothered me. Much. But in this case, because the Christmas tree was taking valuable real-estate in the living room the L/R speakers were pushed back against the wall…pushing the Center speaker even further ahead of them.
But I didn’t get it. At all. I was freaking out about how my mix could be so off. It wasn’t until I stepped back toward the surround speakers that everything started sounding normal…because the distance issue gets nullified as you get out of the optimum listening position.
And I realized how stupid I’d been. The mix was just fine, the position of the Center speaker was ruining it. Face Palm. If I hadn’t taken my own darned advice about speaker positions, I might have gone back and remixed. HUGE mistake. Fortunately, I figured this out before then.
All this to say is, do as I SAY not as I DO (apparently) when it comes to speaker placement for 5.1/7.1 surround systems. And I felt silly enough about it that I figured I’d fess up and tell you all: I’ve done it too.
Be sure to check out our articles on Surround Sound here:
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