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Audio Mixers Raise Issues Plaguing 5.1 for TV

LAS VEGAS—Audio mixers working on content for the small screen still face challenges several years after the industry’s transition to ATSC. The ATSC transport allows for 5.1-channel audio, yet some broadcasters produce programming in stereo and others automatically upmix everything, leaving mixers sometimes uncertain about exactly how their content will be heard by consumers.

“There isn’t a standard practice, a best practice, and I would argue if the networks would say, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ it wouldn’t be up for grabs. We could do it the same way every time and we could have some predictability,” said Roger Charlesworth, executive director of the DTV Audio Group.

Bob Clearmountain, who has mixed various live music projects for broadcast, related a recent experience.“We did this concert for Hurricane Sandy relief. It went out in stereo; nobody wanted to deal with the 5.1. I thought, ‘This is going to be pretty safe.’ I recorded it at home on two different channels, and I was appalled with what Lt/Rt does with the stereo. It didn’t even sound close,” he said.

The problem might have been that the show—which was carried live by numerous broadcast and cable channels—was, in this particular instance, upmixed for delivery, a situation that is not uncommon, Charlesworth said. “It’s in stereo, and somewhere, a box that nobody is listening to is turning that into 5.1,” he said. “Then someone is hearing, in the set-top box, a downmix of that 5.1 that no one in the production ever heard.”

“If we’d mixed it in 5.1, it probably would have translated better,” Clearmountain said.

The issue, as Charlesworth has noted previously, is that someone on a production may decide that it’s too time-consuming, too difficult or too expensive to work in 5.1, despite the fact that the production and post production workflows can easily handle it. Once a show is produced in stereo, it becomes very difficult to change to 5.1; rolling in clips from previous seasons can be a problem, for instance.

“It’s production economics,” said Michael Abbott, an independent sound designer, engineer and consultant currently working on NBC’s “The Voice,” which is produced in stereo. Whatever the required delivery spec, he said, the mixer should monitor in that format. “I do a show for ESPN and they want live stereo delivered,” he said. “They know it’s going to be upmixed to 5.1. When I mix the show, I listen to it upmixed.”

A show like NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” on the other hand, is all 5.1 all the time. Josiah Gluck, the show’s associate music mixer, is also a production and post-production mixer. “It’s archived as four 5.1-wide stems: audience, music, dialog, effects,” he said. “It enables us to unfurl things and create best-of packages and that sort of thing.”

But Gluck did note that artists and their teams rarely consult with him on the live music segments. “The first time Janet Jackson was on our show, I was stupefied—no one from her camp ever came back to the room to talk to us about the mix,” Gluck said. “In their minds, it was how do the dancers look, how are the lights?”

Clearmountain said that no artist he’d worked with had a 5.1 system in their home. “Every record I’ve mixed in the last 10 or 12 years, I’ve also done a 5.1 mix,” he said. “Once we’re done and everybody is happy, I’ll say, check this out, and play the 5.1. It blows their minds.”

A number of manufacturers have introduced products that allow consumers to alter the balance of a broadcast mix—and emerging object-based audio schemes could end up making that even easier—which poses another challenge: “How much appetite is there for the creative side of the industry to yield a little more control downstream to consumers and allow them to turn things on and off, change the relationship between things, move them to places maybe they never anticipated?” asked an audience member.

“When we deliver it, it should be reproduced that way,” replied music mixer Bruce Botnick. “I don’t want them remixing it; it’s a disservice to the artist and to the show.”

Botnick also recently experienced a transmission problem with a project. “I got [a phone call] from Robbie Krieger of The Doors last week about this Hollywood Bowl show. He said, ‘I don’t understand it; there’s no right channel.’ I couldn’t answer what happened. I know what we delivered. When it went to the network, Palladia, I don’t know what they were using, whether it was a downmix, or what.”

“You cannot police the entire thing,” Gluck said. “You need to have a certain amount of blind faith that it’s going to go out properly.”