A night at the studio: Champions of 5.1-channel sound have made significant inroads over the past few years, selling a growing and passionate consumer

A night at the studio: Champions of 5.1-channel sound have made significant inroads over the past few years, selling a growing and passionate consumer base on the notion that music simply sounds better when mixed in a discrete surround medium. However, these multichannel proponents still face a logistical Catch-22 when it comes to promoting the format to a large group of people: 5.1 sounds best in small, acoustically accurate environments like studio control rooms, which, by virtue of their size, can accommodate only a handful of folks.

Given these natural limitations, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) — along with co-sponsors Audio-Technica, Dolby, DTS, Solid State Logic and JBL — staged an impressive and effective 5.1 demo titled “5.1: The Future Meets the Past,” featuring surround pioneer Elliot Scheiner's captivating mixes of old and new material by the likes of The Eagles, Van Morrison, Sting, Steely Dan and Queen.

Held at the Hit Factory's huge Studio 1 and moderated by veteran author/journalist Howard Massey, the event was attended by such pro audio luminaries as JBL Professional director of recording and broadcast Peter Chaikin, who oversaw the setup of the company's new ScreenArray speaker system; DTS VP of marketing David DelGrosso; Lexicon VP of sales (North America) Buzz Goodwin; Solid State Logic North America president Rick Plushner and eastern region senior VP Don Wershba; Effanel Music owner Randy Ezratty; Hit Factory principal Troy Germano and studio manager Zoe Thrall; members of up-and-coming New York band Father Divine; composer/arranger Rob Mounsey; and engineers Mario de Arce and Rich Tozzoli. Among the NARAS brass in attendance were Education Committee chair Kathy Sommer, New York Chapter president Beth Ravin, New York Chapter executive VP Jon Marcus and first VP Phil Galdston.

Although the large dimensions of the room gave the demo a necessarily “live” sound, the audio quality of the presentation was far superior to that of other events on a similar scale. The favorable acoustics of the Hit Factory's storied orchestral tracking room no doubt played a part in the clarity of the music, as did the JBL ScreenArray.

A white paper on the ScreenArray states: “Surround playback for audiences of 150 to 200 persons is often done via multiple systems that have been optimized for control room use, and such systems have dispersion characteristics that may not be ideal for playback in larger rooms. About two years ago, JBL embarked on a design project for high-performance systems intended for professional dubbing theaters and screening rooms…The result of this work is JBL's new ScreenArray line of products.”

The five speakers used to play back Scheiner's mixes were variants of JBL's Model 3632 three-way system. They feature dual-LF 2035H drivers covering from 30 to 250 Hz; two MF cone drivers with waveguides covering from 250 to 1.6k Hz; and a uniform coverage HF horn with a JBL 2426H driver covering above 1.6 kHz. The system was complemented by four JBL 2242H LF subwoofer drivers.

Even outside of the sweet spot — or sweet “area,” in this case — the JBL system did a great job of rendering the multi-dimensional soundscape of The Eagles' “Hotel California,” which opened the proceedings. Similarly, Sting's “Desert Rose” sparkled within the Hit Factory's walls, with ambience and rhythmic nuances emerging artfully from the rear speakers.

In the middle of the room, the genius of Scheiner's surround craft was even more apparent. But the night's show-stopper was Queen's A Night at the Opera, which was played in its entirety to a wildly enthusiastic audience. Here, Scheiner's creative use of the rear speakers was as impressive as his respect for the sonic blueprint of the original mixes, which he faithfully reproduced.

Besides the irresistible material, the evening was memorable for its sense of community. Surround sound can still feel like an “inside” phenomenon, embraced by home theater enthusiasts and a segment of the pro audio universe. But on that night, it felt like everyone was in on it. It's one thing to listen to a good surround mix in a closed-in space; it's another thing to experience it “live.”

Dig This: As the founder of Dig It Audio — a New York film/TV dubbing stage partnered with post-production studio Post 391 — Tom Efinger was on a quest for the perfect audio console. His old Yamaha 02R was a great board for its time, but it had been left behind in the dust of technological progress. For a while, Efinger had his eye on the Digidesign Pro Control system, but had ruled it out because he felt it wasn't optimized for surround sound. Plus, back then, Efinger was not a big supporter of the virtual mixing concept.

However, the introduction last year of Pro Tools Version 5.1 convinced Efinger that Pro Control would be the way to go, and that the Pro Tools plug-in architecture would greatly enhance Dig It's ability to instantly recall mixes in progress. “In the five years that we've been partnered with Post 391, we've seen the Digidesign Pro Control system mature into a powerful, extremely efficient mixing tool absolutely on par with the big-ticket consoles,” says Efinger.

In addition to the Pro Control, the new dubbing stage — Studio F — features a Sharp XV-Z9000 video projector and a surround sound monitoring system, using JBL's new 3632-T cinema speakers.

Concurrent with the Pro Control install, Dig It and Post 391 expanded into a newly acquired space at its downtown Manhattan headquarters. The combined facilities now offer the dubbing/mixing room plus five Avid Suites, including a recently upgraded, uncompressed online suite with digital beta and a newly outfitted Adobe After Effects graphics. At the same time, Post 391 founder and Dig It partner Jeff Levy-Hinte brought his Antidote Films production company in-house. “We're [now] capable of providing clients with almost every post-production service necessary to complete their film or TV projects,” says Levy-Hinte.

Efinger's film credits at Dig It include the recent Jerry Garcia/David Grisman documentary Grateful Dawg, director Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents, Kate Davis' Sundance Festival-winning Southern Comfort, Todd Solondz's Happiness, Lisa Cholondenko's High Art, and various commercial and television projects.

In the new dubbing stage, Efinger's first project was writer/director Moisé Kaufman's Laramie Project, produced by Good Machine and starring Christina Ricci, Steve Buscemi, Laura Linney and Summer Phoenix.

Levy-Hinte's credits include editing the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings and producing and/or executive-producing such acclaimed independent features as First Love, Last Rites and High Art.

Furthermore, Antidote Films recently completed Larry Fessenden's Wendigo and American Saint in partnership with Michael Hausmans' Cinehaus production company. In addition, Levy-Hinte is currently producing Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, which stars Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale.

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