What Working in Surround Sound Did to My Stereo Mixes

Stephen Bartlett mixing audio at the desk

Stephen Bartlett mixing audio at the desk

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By Stephen Bartlett

We all know the saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

For me, when I’m mixing a track or an album, I feel like I’m painting a three-dimensional picture. Using panning, frequency sculpting, and volume adjustments as my tools, I’m creating something that will transport the listener somewhere else in space and time (which is why I love music so much). So surely, this three-dimensional, transformative picture is worth like ten thousand words!

Of all the memorable lessons I’ve been taught over the last 15 years, I think learning to mix in surround sound has helped me paint that picture as vividly as possible, each and every time. Here’s why.

A few years ago, I got an incredible opportunity to go work at Wisseloord Studios in the Netherlands, on a multi-year placement. For those who don’t know about Wisseloord, it’s truly one of the greatest studios in the world, not just for the richness of its history (The Police, Def Leopard, Elton John), but for its spellbinding rebuild, led by engineering great Ronald Prent between 2010 and 2012.

recording studio interior.

During the rebuild, they brought back the very best of their long past, including spending six entire weeks seeking out the original wax that was used on the wood — because nothing else they tried had the same reflective qualities.

They invested in the future too. They had a new type of cable designed for them, that was oval in shape because it offered greater signal to noise ratios for their long, multi-room cable runs. Both studios 1 and 2 were configured with identical control rooms, both set up with PMC BB5 XBD speakers for 5.1, and both could be bumped up to 9.1 or 10.1 when required. For the next few years, Ronald and I switched between working the two studios, and two different consoles, never having to worry how the room or speakers sounded.

Ronald, who at the time was a co-owner of the studio, is considered by many to be one of the greatest music surround mixers of all time. Early in my stint in Wisseloord, Ronald suggested to me that every mix I do, I do in surround and stereo. Given his résumé, I acquiesced, and thus began my journey into surround.

Technical Sidebar: On Panning

The two consoles we used were an API Vision and a Euphonix System 5. Both of these had multiple mix busses (the 9.1 and 10.1 on the API did require some extra attention) allowing us to simultaneously mix in stereo and 5.1, with the stereo not being a fold-down of the surround. This is crucial, otherwise I would have been doubling my mixing time. The API also had linear pan controls, allowing me to quickly switch the position of a channel without having to compensate for volume change. (*Be sure to read up on panning rules and how they apply to movement within the spectrum vs volume.)

Having spent the prior decade mixing only in stereo, my first forays into the world of 5.1 channel surround sound were as subtle as being hit by a dump truck. I’d pan one guitar to the hard back right and another to the hard front left. The drums were all over the place, and I tried some panning automation that was truly gross.

My prior experience with surround sound was mostly through blockbuster movies, which tend to over-exaggerate the positioning of sounds to create an atmosphere that is larger than the room you’re in. But, and perhaps more importantly, the sounds are assisted by visuals, while the music is not. So any exaggeration in the sound is, well, like it’s being exaggerated.

“I felt like I was inside the music — not like I was in the band on the stage, with guitars, and drums around me, but like I was submerged within the music. It was the pool and I was swimming in it.”

For those who aren’t familiar with 10.1, it’s a 5.1 setup with both a quad set up in the air facing down, toward the listener, and a “voice of god” speaker directly above the listener. It is becoming more widespread in home entertainment, and Audi, BWM, and Mercedes are all beginning to add it to the sound systems in their higher-end luxury cars.

When I walked into one of Ronald’s mix sessions in 10.1, the impact was instant and game-changing for me. I felt like I was inside the music — not like I was in the band on the stage, with guitars, and drums around me, but like I was submerged within the music. It was the pool and I was swimming in it. I remember turning to my assistant and saying, “this is how music is meant to be heard.”

When you’re mixing music in surround, you shouldn’t hear the speakers, you shouldn’t know where they are in the room, you should just be in the music. That might sound obvious. That’s also how I’d felt about stereo mixes: that a good mix should seem larger, wider, and deeper than the speakers, so that they seem to ultimately disappear.

“Turning down is often more effective than turning up.”

So began my 5.1 mixing in truth. Subtly changing the panning and the front to back (which can equate somewhat to volume within a stereo mix) allowed me to create mixes which were immersive. There wasn’t a huge amount coming out of the rear speakers, but that’s  alright, after all, everything we have in a studio is a tool to create. That doesn’t mean we need to use everything or turn every effect up. Turning down is often more effective than turning up.

Having extra depth and space allowed me to find more room in my stereo mixes — room that already existed, but that I hadn’t even considered filling.

So, hidden space can be used by turning things down that don’t need to be at the forefront. And you can EQ and pan things together to move them to the upper left, even if there are only two speakers. In the end, like everything involving mixing, it’s about learning how to hear differently, how to explore the tiny amount of space you have, and how to fully use it to transport the listener somewhere else entirely.

It may not be easy to get access to a 5.1 system for mixing, but if you ever do have this opportunity (or if you can seek it out), after a few days, you’ll find that your stereo mixes will vastly improve as well.

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on mixing, DIY home recording, electronic music production, beat making, and much more, with Soundfly’s in-depth courses, like Modern Pop Vocal ProductionAdvanced Synths & Patch Designand Modern Mix Techniques. Subscribe for unlimited access here.

With over 15 years of experience Stephen Bartlett has worked on multiple top ten records in 11 countries, with albums that include #1’s in Austria and Norway, and with multiple Gold and Platinum certifications with charting albums in over 20 countries. His work in music therapy research awarded him the Intelligent Health Award in 2017 and a place as a finalist in the 2018 SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards. He originally hails from Australia, where albums he worked on have received OzMusic and QMusic awards, and have been shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize.

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