The Creative Approach to 5.1 Mixing

LOS ANGELES The switchover from analog to digital TV is finally upon us, bringing with it the capability of the ATSC standard to support a fully discrete 5.1-channel mix. The creative choices in a six-channel mix are up to the engineer, and audio technology—especially the mixing console—can go a long way toward enabling and expanding those choices.

Ed Soltis, who currently works for CBS on live golf and football events, has been mixing in six channels longer than most. "I was probably was one of the first guys to deal with 5.1, back in the mid-'90s, with the first HD truck from National Mobile Television," he said. "At that time we were using an SSL Aysis, which was extremely limited."

These days, Soltis can usually be found behind a Calrec desk, a commonplace console in U.S. sports broadcast mobiles, in particular. "What you hear on the air constitutes about 20 per cent of what I'm mixing," he said. "There are so many monitor feeds and isolated recordings and submixes going on. That's where Calrec listened to us and started building a desk for our needs, giving us the ability to do all these different things so easily and so quickly."

Multiple master outputs are of particular benefit, he notes. "I mix multiple shows—I mix a show that airs on CBS and also construct a show for the NFL, which is in stereo." The NFL mix doesn't include any of the rear channel and certain other elements. Then, he says, "I'm able to build the NFL show on the second master, and I'm able to build an effects channel, which CBS takes for highlights for the following weeks."


Audio engineers at R/H Factor, a Los Angeles-based post production house rely on the closely integrated automation features of the Euphonix 5-MC console plus workstations when mixing episodic TV. Features such as external input monitors and external inputs to meters have become essential. "I'll take the 5.1 mix and I'll put that through a Dolby 563 to encode it to an Lt Rt, then I'll bring the Lt Rt back through the desk on an external input," he said. "I'll spend 50 per cent of my time on either one of those two during the show.

"That's where the biggest problem is with 5.1. When you're taking these elements that were really only meant to be generated out of a rear speaker and now you're collapsing them into your left and right speakers, are you overpowering your announcers, are your tape elements being overpowered by crowd effects?"

Since a golf game is essentially 18 simultaneous events, 125 mic inputs are not uncommon. Calrec consoles allow tone to be inserted on any input channel, which means that, via the bidirectional MADI link to and from the router, Soltis can individually ping each source and check on the console meters that the circuit is complete.

"I don't need anyone to help me, and I don't have to wait for the assets to be in the field," he said. It used to take three hours, and I can do it now in about five minutes. So I now have three hours to EQ or just manage sounds on the course."


Time is money to the episodic television mix stage, too. As a result, automation is key, allowing the mix to be constantly updated and for program producers' notes to be incorporated quickly.

"All the fold-downs and the two-track and all the stereo stems, it's all done in one go, using the monitor matrix," said Andre Perreault, a mixer at Technicolor Sound Services in Hollywood, where he uses an SSL Avant desk. "It's all done within the console; we don't go outside, we stay fully digital, and it's all done in one pass."

Pressure from producers to mix loud enough to compete with commercials means that compressors have become essential, according to Perreault. "The SSL has compressors and limiters and gates on all the channels. That's very handy."

Everything is compressed at the console inputs except sound effects, which are compressed at the buss output. "Then we have limiters on the six-track output of the console and also on the matrix for the two-track [Lt Rt mix]," he said. We have brickwall limiting on the outputs so if they want it louder we just push everything up and at least we stay broadcast safe and loudness is maximized. What we tend to do is load the mix as much as we can without sounding compressed and over-processed. That works very well on the SSL."

SSL offers another handy feature. "Divergence on the panning is very important to us," Perreault added. "If you have five channels for producing a gunshot as opposed to just one in the center you can get more output. The TV medium is not very expressive, so we need to use everything we can, and the SSL helps us with that."

Perreault doesn't use automation in the workstation. "There's no Pro Tools automation at all; all the automation is within the console. We automate every single element, so we can replay from automation if we need to. If the client needs some fixes we can punch in at any point in time, do a fix, then get out of there and go home and have dinner!"

Mixer Craig Hunter, co-owner of Hollywood-based post house R/H Factor, relies on the closely integrated automation features of his Euphonix 5-MC console plus workstations when mixing episodic TV. "We use Pro Tools as a source machine feeding into Nuendo which then automates our tracks on the 5-MC and then we record our stems onto the Nuendo workstation," he said. "That's characteristically different to a lot of guys in town."

He elaborates, "I think what R/H Factor has tried to do is find a common ground that optimizes the available technology of the various workstations on the market with a console that was well suited for managing that. Euphonix has come up with a way that you can bridge that and create audio channels within a controller surface. That's an interesting and potential next step for these sorts of things."

The Euphonix fits well into a run-and-gun TV environment where there may be only two days available to mix a one-hour episode. "What Euphonix represents to me is a very ergonomically efficient way of managing tracks and their positioning within the soundscape, Hunter said. "By that I mean it has a feel of an analog console, which means you can simply grab dedicated knobs instead of multifunction knobs, and be able to quickly position and control in terms of level, equalization, panning and so forth. The ease of being able to grab knobs quickly and treat a track in a rough draft way works extremely well in the episodic environment."

Hunter laments the lack of time in the TV audio environment. "There's never enough time to craft the mix the way that you want. Schedules have become compressed, and not everybody is afforded a Lost-type schedule. We have very little time and we're expected to do good work quickly. The classic thing is, did you finish or did you just stop mixing? Invariably the answer is, we stopped mixing."