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Surround Sound Consoles

With this issue’s focus on mixing, we thought we’d look into some recent products and time-proven consoles designed for surround sound production in both music and sound for picture applications.

With dozens of mixing consoles claiming surround sound bragging rights, we thought it would be helpful to distinguish those desks with purpose-built surround functionality from the wannabes. To be sure, many of the new breeds of 8-bus digital consoles can be adapted for surround operation, but not without serious handicaps or adding third-party add-ons. For 5.1 monitoring during mix-down, for instance, six of the eight buses in these boards are typically delegated to serving the 5.1 monitor feeds, leaving only two buses with which to mix! Also, a MIDI joystick or some other third-party add-on is often required to effect continuous surround panning. And, usually, the only way you can raise or lower all six monitor levels simultaneously is by first subgrouping the buses.

Although it’s great that cost-effective consoles designed for stereo operation can be adapted — sometimes rather marginally — for surround sound work, engineers who must work efficiently to meet unforgiving deadlines require a console that was expressly built for the job at hand. Accordingly, all of the consoles featured in this article can continuously pan tracks in real time in surround format using a single pan control (e.g., mouse, touchscreen or joystick). These boards also allow you to listen back to a surround mix and still retain at least eight buses for mixing. And they all provide a dedicated master monitor level control, so you can raise or lower the output of all of your speakers with the twist of one knob or by moving one fader. We note where a company provides an in-house, surround-specific option in order for its console to achieve this level of functionality. But consoles requiring third-party add-ons are not included in this roundup. Also, surround consoles that are tied to workstations and/or integrated recording systems (e.g., the Digidesign Pro Control) are also not covered here.

Inevitably, whatever criteria we choose to weed with, the patch will leave out some eminent products. One such example is the Amek Media 51 audio recording and production console. The Media 51 supports 5.1, 7.1, LCRS and stereo formats and can be ordered with up to 64 inputs. The console features SMPTE-based Supertrue™automation, Virtual Dynamics™ on every channel, Cue List event triggering, two groups of six buses (configurable as two multiformat stems), an optional joystick, and mic preamp and EQ sections designed by Mr. Rupert Neve. See the accompanying chart for contact info for Amek.

Of course, the chart thhat follows should only be used as a starting point in your research. Most of the consoles listed are highly configurable, making it difficult to quantify some features (such as number of inputs and channels) in absolute terms. That said, we’ve narrowed the surround consoles field down to a manageable list of standout candidates. Sit down with your hands up — we’ve got you surrounded!

Click here to view the chart…

Michael Cooper is a Mix contributing editor and owner of Michael Cooper Recording in beautiful Sisters, Ore.