SURROUND PANNING FOR PRO TOOLSAs soon as multichannel sound appeared as a viable commercial format, engineers were confronted with the task of controlling the position and panning motion of multiple sound sources being directed to multiple speakers. Stereo panpots and quad joysticks have been with us for several decades, but 5.1 playback standards call for more sophisticated routing options. Kind of Loud Technologies (KOL) has addressed the problem with an amazing suite of surround production plug-ins: SmartPan Pro, a 5.1 panner, the Woofie bass management and re-direction plug in, and the Tweetie monitoring and calibration plug-in. On the creative side, KOL also provides RealVerb 5.1, a reverb built for surround, with a focus on sophisticated modeling of acoustic spaces.
SmartPan Pro brings true discrete 5.1 surround sound mixing to Pro Tools, providing complete control of all panning and preview functions for a full 6-channel mix. There is no complex busing required, no exporting of tracks and no "mad scientist" routing tricks. SmartPan's templates provide for true plug and play operation, and even engineers entirely new to surround sound mixing will be off and running with just a quick clicks.
SmartPan Pro offers two straightforward interfaces for panning control: the Polar Joystick[TM] and the SmartKnob[TM]. The Polar Joystick will be immediately familiar to anyone accustomed to a traditional joystick controller or video game controller. The user simply clicks on the "puck" to position audio elements in the soundfield - as the puck is moved the changing parameters of the soundfield are displayed via an intuitive and amusing graphical interface while the selected sound source moves dynamically around the room.
The SmartKnob interface more closely resembles a panpot and may be used to position a sound source between any selected pair of speakers as well as control the width or spatial character of the sound. Both panning methods provide precise control over the direction, spatial extent and placement of the selected audio.
SmartPan Pro also features a modifiable divergence control for adjusting to different implementations of the L/C/R panning law. A basic subwoofer LFE management control offers adjustable filtering and independent level control. All SmartPan parameter adjustments and changes may be stored and recalled.
One of the most impressive facets of SmartPan Pro is the amazing number of instances available to the user with the minimal amount of DSP usage: Up to SmartPan 24 instances can be managed on a single DSP. SmartPan also provides independent metering for all inputs and LCR, LFE, Ls and Rs channel outputs.
Woofie, a bass management and redirection plug-in for Pro Tools, offers several useful tools for managing the LFE channel. Woofie's flexible bass redirection function selects which of the surround channels are directed to the subwoofer and allows the user to evaluate the LFE signal prior to encoding. A menu of LF crossover types for the full-frequency signals includes Butterworth, Linkwitz-Riley and elliptic types. Crossover frequencies are adjustable and both HF and LF filters may be 6-, 12-, 18- or 24-dB/octave (Woofie's LFE filter is designed to meet the Dolby Digital AC-3 specification and provides a 110Hz brickwall filter). Woofie also provides individual gain controllers for input, sub gain and LFE gain, as well as a master mute and a selectable 10dB boost for the LFE channel.
Tweetie is a separate monitoring and calibration plug-in designed to assist in setting up and testing a surround sound monitoring environment. Proper speaker placement, matched monitor levels, correct delay times, phase correlation and level trim are all essential to the professional production environment and are even more critical for surround sound productions. Also, any surround project needs to be checked in potential downmix formats, such as mono and stereo for television broadcast. This is where Tweetie really goes to work.
Tweetie generates test signals directly from within Pro Tools, automatically calibrates relative speaker levels and provides user control over trim settings. Six separate trim pots enable the engineer to individually calibrate each surround speaker and six delay pots may be used to compensate for different speaker placements. Tweetie provides individual mutes and solos for each monitoring channel, a master mute control and a 20dB dim function. The plug-in also provides an "intelligent" downmixing function that automatically reduces a 5.1 mix to stereo. Metering options include Peak and VU metering for each channel. KOL has thought of just about everything here! An engineer's delight!
KOL's suite of plug-ins for Pro Tools provides all of the facilities an engineer needs to prepare and implement a range of surround sound monitoring options. Within seconds of implementing the KOL solutions I felt in near total control of my 5.1 system. The supplied templates provided complete configurations for a multitude of different mixing scenarios, and the DSP management was nearly invisible.
The colorful, fun and intuitive interface makes visualization of sound and spectrum motion readily apparent as well as providing multiple ways to implement precise control of all sound sources in the environment. I especially liked the snap-to functionality of the SmartPan panner - click on any of the speaker icons and the sound source immediately localizes itself to that particular channel. This feature proved to be extremely useful for mixing a sequence in which a different voice needed to appear from each speaker in the room. All of the voices were on the same channel and all the cuts were tight. I found that dragging the puck from speaker to speaker caused a bit of a time lapse, whereas simply clicking on the target speaker icon to invoke the snap-to function immediately placed the voice in only that channel.
No matter what challenges I faced in configuring my system for a variety of different mixing scenarios, the SmartPan Pro bundle provided a powerful set of tools that left me feeling completely secure in the integrity of my system configuration. Not only was I happy with my mixes, but I was confident that the surround program I had produced would downmix to stereo without a hitch. SmartPan Pro lists for $995, Tweetie is $395, Woofie is $395 and RealVerb 5.1 is $1,495.