Suddenly Inundated With Surround Work

Over the past couple of months, professional things for me have been happening on a lot of fronts. It's worth sharing because it bodes well for all of us in the 'biz.
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Over the past couple of months, professional things for me have been happening on a lot of fronts. It's worth sharing because it bodes well for all of us in the 'biz.

I've been into surround sound for a long time--composing electronic music since the early 1970s, teaching, demonstrating, and recording. It's mostly a labor of love. My bread-and-butter has been in stereo work, but things have changed.

About a year ago, the Orchestra at Indian Hill, based near Boston, asked me how concert recordings could be improved. After I made some recommendations and did some mastering for them, I was asked to produce their recordings for the next several years. I was also asked to investigate surround recordings. We have our first season of surround recordings in the can. Hot diggity!


(click thumbnail)Dave's BeoLab 5 setup. Meanwhile, the producer of an album of rather unconventional multitrack-based choral music with an extremely eclectic range of styles--Middle Eastern, reggae, gospel, rap, folk, handbells and new age electronica--came in to have me evaluate her tracks and mixes. I was then hired to remix the album. About two tunes into that project, I asked if I could cop a surround mix for my own amusement. After some discussion and demonstrations, she green-lighted a shift to a Super Audio CD hybrid release and asked me to do the surround mixes as well. Just last week I signed off on the test SACD from Sony, and release was scheduled for June 11. ("From Exile to Exaltation..." Dissonance Resolved Records).

SACD IN THE STUDIO

All this finally led me to install a "universal" CD/DVD/SACD player in the studio. Once I got it running (a lot of fun without a video monitor, by the way) I found myself playing everything I could lay my hands on. This led to dragging all sorts of DVDs into the studio and playing them without video, a most illuminating experience.

My room is a really nice high-end music post-production space, with a full-bore all-digital surround monitoring system that includes five BeoLab 5s and a prototype overhead loudspeaker that is almost as good as the one at BeoLab; 15 kW of power, extended LF response to 12 Hz, plus full LF room calibration capability. It's a beautiful thing to experience.

Someday, I intend to add video capability, but for now it's audio only. So, I started actually "listening" to movies, with the same sort of critical analytic processes I use with clients' music. It's amazing what you can hear when you're not distracted by the on-screen visuals. It's even more fascinating when you can also observe or solo/mute the contents of any channel.

Alert readers will recall that I've been ranting about the difficulties consumers must have setting up their home theater systems. I've reviewed the broad middle class, citing sales and support practices at Cambridge Sound Works and Tweeters.

Well, as they say, be careful what you wish for! About a month ago, I was approached by a firm specializing in "intelligent home" systems that offers turnkey home theaters. The firm, Cutting Edge Systems of Westford, Mass., retained me to tune those systems.

These are purpose-built rooms, usually done by an architect, with considerable attention paid to acoustical issues as well as visual ones. Cutting Edge prefers to use soffit-supported or high-performance in-wall speakers behind fabric covers. The rooms are quiet, comfortable, gorgeous and surprisingly pleasant, and now that I've worked in a couple of them, suffice to say--I want one!

Setup and tuning remain complex, difficult and confusing, with many questions about the various behaviors of the front-end processors, which may not be at all obvious. Even with really good instrumentation, I found that getting the room to sound really decent takes a day! Definitely not plug-and-play, nor for the faint of heart or for amateurs!

The upside is that when such a room has been appropriately tweaked, the cinematic experience is stunning.

I'm fascinated and gratified to be encountering so many aspects of the surround-sound experience. I'm finding the following verities:

Those who produce audio are treating the low-frequency effects channel very conservatively. The bulk of the LF experience lives in the main speakers.

The surround channels remain very "tender" to different treatments. How they are used varies widely in music and film. What clients desire is fairly variable, except they definitely want to be able to hear them! Music folks are also treating the center channel quite tenderly, while it is a mainstay for movies. The best systems use identical speakers all the way around, but particularly across the front.

The surround experience is far more visceral and satisfying than stereo, by quite a large margin.

Finally, this surround sound/home theatre business is beginning to get some real traction. There are some excellent music recordings out there, in a variety of formats, there is a wonderful array of films on DVD with excellent 5.1 surround capability, and there are consumers who are quite passionate about all this, and who are investing large sums of money in getting the playback they desire. I don't think this will ever get pushed back into the bottle. Stay tuned.