Every time studio owners think they have things figured out, the ground shifts. Take the project studio phenomenon. New York facilities have found ways to form partnerships with them, and that's been working nicely, thank you very much. However, the possibility of DVD-Audio technology catching on with consumers poses some interesting questions, particularly since the art of multichannel mixing is in its infancy. Can rooms designed for stereo monitoring be jerry-rigged for multispeaker work, or does new construction necessarily factor into business plans?
Either way, studio owners have some big-bucks decisions to make. Is it necessary to scrap the speakers that have served so well in favor of an integrated monitor system for what might turn out to be a limited amount of bookable hours? We checked in with Sony Music Studios and River Sound (Donald Fagen's studio) to get perspectives on where we are in the development of 5.1.
Bob Wolff is a senior recording engineer in charge of all of Sony's DVD-A authoring. He points out that, while not exactly a Tower of Babel scenario, different formats are fighting to establish primacy in this young area of the business. "The surround formats are very much in their infancy at this point," he says. "We're seeing a good deal of interest from the artists we deal with in multiple-speaker mixing. one example would be James Taylor. Frank Filipetti recently remixed his Hourglass album for surround, and James was involved with every step of the process."
No rules exist for multispeaker mixing yet. Wolff's take on the Hourglass remix is that subtlety was the goal. "My impression is that enhancement of the material was what was being sought, not a radical remixing of the stereo images. Everything's just a bit more clear, with more space for the important aural elements. The 5.1 mixes offer distinctly different experiences from the stereo ones."
The soon-to-be-approved DVD-A standard supports sampling frequencies up to 96 kHz. Sony recently remixed the Titanic soundtrack, in part to take advantage of the higher sampling rate. "We took the audio elements from the original multitracks as 6-channel programs on Genex machines. Genex is a good container because the newer recorders use a 5.2-Gig Mo disk. We're also seeing a lot of interest in Tascam's DA-78HR recorders."
Sony has been anticipating multichannel mixing for several years. The company has, in fact, been developing its own delivery format. Construction of new rooms here in their New York complex has been a part of their strategy for some time. "We have rooms that were originally built as surround mix and mastering rooms. We've also adapted several other rooms by reworking the speakers and monitoring systems. It's definitely more complicated than simply throwing extra speakers into a room. Your monitor channels have to be six channels wide, not two. Where do you put the surrounds? How far should the spread be? There's no specific standard that studios can refer to yet. As an industry, we're going to have to address this issue."
How convinced is Sony that DVD-A or some other format will catch on with the public? "There's a lot of promise there. our clients are major record labels. At least in the short run, most of them have DVD-A releases scheduled, and we see that their intention is to go forward with surround records, so it's something we have to address."
Phil Burnett is the chief engineer at River Sound. He participated in Elliot Scheiner's 5.1 remix of Steely Dan's most recent album, Two Against Nature. "The stereo mixes were laid to a variety of media," says Burnett. "We went 96kHz/24-bit to Genex, with 48kHz/24-bit safeties as well. We also backed up to Pro Tools and half-inch analog tape."
Steely Dan's Gaucho has been remixed to 5.1, and Burnett says that the possibility of remixing Two Against Nature in this format was on everyone's mind during the initial tracking sessions, but no special setups were used to create tracks that could be mixed differently for surround.
"The interesting thing about the 5.1 session was that we had planned to track using a 6-channel, 24-bit/48kHz setup," Burnett says. "The day before we were to start mixing, the label called and asked for a 96kHz version, to take advantage of the DVD-A spec. That's when the problems started! We got a Genex recorder in here because it can track at 96 kHz, and, to be honest, we had a lot of problems with it. You'd assign material to tracks 1 and 2, for example, and when you went to playback, this material might be showing up on tracks 5 and 6! or you'd play back a mix and it was fine, only to come back two hours later and nothing was there! We had to find another way of working."
The solution centered around tracking to a Tascam DA-78HR. But wait-this machine tops out at a 48kHz sampling rate, and the label required tracks delivered at 96 kHz, right? "That's right, so we came up with a get-around. We locked up two of these 8-channel recorders and split each of the six channels into two. Using three Apogee PSX 100 96kHz converters, we split each of our tracks, sending, for example, the left channel into tracks 1 and 2 on the Tascam, which recorded the information at 48 kHz. on the way out of these two recorders, each of the channel pairs was summed into a single 96kHz track. The process worked flawlessly.
"As far as the construction issue goes," Burnett continues, "our control room is 650 square feet-plenty large enough for a surround sound mix. We brought in a KRK E-8 monitor system for this project, and they sounded great. Elliot feels very comfortable using them. There's definitely a difference between the stereo and surround mixes. The fun part about 5.1 mixing is that we're still in the experimental phase; there's no rules. You can place the listener in the drummer's space or in the horn section, whatever you want. Elliot started out mixing this project with the drums and bass up front, but Donald and Walter felt that the mixes weren't lively enough, so Elliot spread this material all around so that it comes at the listener from different angles. These mixes sound great!
"one point I would like to make is that you don't have to run out and buy all new technology to begin mixing in surround. We've got an old Neve 8078 board, not some newfangled digital console. We did have to do some work on the Neve in order to get a 6-channel mix to go out the way we needed, but other than that it worked fine. People are going to figure out that they don't always need a million-dollar console; I expect great surround mixes to come out of an 02R some day soon."