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Setting up your Studio
for Surround Sound

With Tips on Audio Configuration

by Rich the Tweak

Sony Vegas Digital Video and Audio Software (Windows)
Vegas 5 software is an all-in-one professional solution for editing video and audio on the PC platform. It is perfect for A/V production, multitrack recording, compositing, titling, scoring and finishing in nearly any format -- from NTSC and PAL to RealVideo, Apple QuickTime, and Windows Media file formats. With a reputation for pristine broadcast video and high-fidelity audio output, Vegas 5 software provides an integrated solution for scalable DV production, sound editing, mixing, surround sound production, and more.

Apple Soundtrack Pro Music Production Software (Macintosh)
Introducing Soundtrack Pro, Apple's revolutionary new audio editing and sound design application. Now you can use action-based editing to creatively design new sounds, instantly repair imperfect location recordings, add perfect sound effects or musical Apple Loops, script and batch process common tasks, and save hours bringing audio in and out of your video editor thanks to seamless integration with Final Cut Pro. Tweak: SoundTrack pro is now In the Logic Studio Package

Sony Vegas+DVD Production Suite (Windows)
The Vegas+DVD Production Suite is a powerful set of three programs that seamlessly edits video and audio, produces 5.1 surround mixes, encodes to Dolby Digital AC-3 file formats and authors DVDs. From short-form videos to widescreen 5.1 DVDs, Vegas+DVD software provides comprehensive video, audio, and DVD production features for the professional media producer.

What used to be fantasy for the home recordist is now in the realm of spectacular reality.  Yes!  you can set up a full out surround sound recording system at home and produce full quality 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes that can be burned to DVDRs that will play back on everypersons's home DVD players connected to your average surround hifi receiver.  I have just gone through the process myself and I am here to tell you how to do it.  I'll point you to some sources to do it as inexpensively as I know how, but bear in mind, surround sound creation, until relatively recently, forced you to use pro-only gear and cost big bucks.  Nowadays, thanks to software advances, the average working person can get in and make a a surround sound master recording with video right on your PC or Mac.

The Surround Mixer in Vegas 4.0

This process is not for newbies. It is for those already familiar with their sequencers, MIDI, audio, plugins to the point where they are able to achieve a satisfactory stereo mix.   There is simply too much to learn at first; so for you, Mr. or Mrs. Noob, adding surround may complicate your struggle to achieve great sounding music.  Its far easier to learn studio chops in stereo. Once you have a solid mastery of the stereo field you are ready to expand that to new sonic landscapes that surround allows.  Ok! Now that I have kicked the newbs out, we may proceed.

Basic elements

1. Surround encoder (these are now available as software, that's the joy)  An example is Sonic foundry's AC3 plugin, which works in ACID4 and Vegas4. I use it.  Also, Steinberg has released an AC-3 encoder for Nuendo Details

2. Surround Decoder to playback DVDs (a home hi fi surround receiver works, ideally it needs to have either 5 analog DVD inputs or a digital input (coax or optical, whatever your DVD player has).  The price of these are now really low.  $150-200 will get you in.

3. An 8x8 audio interface.  Any of these will do. Delta 1010, Aardvark Q10, etc. (A 6x6 is the minimum).  5.1 surround has 6 speakers; hence we need 6 outputs.

4. A sequencer that can make surround audio files (Logic, Cubase SX, Vegas Video 4, ACID 4)  These make the 6 individual mono audio files (standard 16/44.1 MONO .wav files will work) from your source tracks.  This application needs to have a surround panner, which can route the source track to the 6 outputs. 

5. A DVDR recorder and DVD burning software.  These come as computer peripherals, connected by USB2.0 or Firewire IEEE 1394 (recommended) and as standalone components. If you go standalone, make sure it has Firewire.  I use a Sony DRX-500ULX that cost me about $425

6. A 5.1 monitoring system or 5 speakers and a subwoofer--That's Left, Right, Rear Left, Rear Right, Center and Subwoofer (also called LFE). 5.1 means 5 speakers:1 subwoofer

7. A mixer is optional, but can help.  It has to have at least 6 ins and outs (i.e. main mix, plus 4 sends, or main mix, 2 sends and 2 sub outs as long as the total discrete outs equals 6. (Don't confuse tape outs, or control room outs as a as a discrete (or independent) outs.  Those are merely copies (a tap off off) of the the main mix and will not work. Aux. sends, sub-outs, and direct outs are discrete, independent of the main mix, outputs),  You can get away without a mixer by connecting active speakers direct to your audio interface or connecting your audio interface outs to amplifiers and passive speakers.

Setting Up  Surround Creation and Playback systems

Two separate systems are ideal.  A studio creation system and a playback system. On system, perhaps in the living room, is for playback of DVDs with your surround receiver.  The second system, in the studio, with active monitors connected directly to an audio interface or through a mixer.  This is where you assemble your tracks.   Why two systems? You do not need a surround decoder in the studio, you just need a way to route tracks to different speakers to assemble the mix.  Most hi fi surround amps do not have pre-outs for active speakers, or if they do, it might just be for the subwoofer and a rear center channel (which is not use in a 5.1 mix).  Rather, they have terminals for 5 passive speakers.   

You can try to make it all work on one system.  I have not tried this yet, but think it will work. Here you would route the 6 outs of the audio interface or mixer into the 6 DVD analog inputs of the surround receiver.  You'd also connect the DVD player's audio by Coax or Optical.  This way you can hear both the output of the DVD player and the 6 channel source mix by switching between the two. The receiver then passes the 6 streams to the 6 speakers.   Or, if you have active monitors, you might consider connecting them directly to a dvd player with 6 analog outs, but that requires a repatch of the speakers to the mixer when you want to monitor the source mix.  Or consider a surround receiver that offers 6 "pre-outs" or preamp outs.  These tend to be high priced, though.  

Setting up your software and hardware mixer for surround

Any hardware mixer will help in the process if it has at least 6 discrete (i.e., separate, or independent) outputs. (12 are ideal).  You can get away with 6 if you monitor direct off the audio interface and do not pass through the mixer.  This should be clear in a bit.

Step One: In your software mixer, set up 6 busses, once for each surround stream (that is, one for center, subwoofer, Left, right, and rear left, rear right.  Your sequencer may already have a template for this.   These busses send sound directly to the audio interface outputs and to the speakers (or to the mixer where they may be bussed to the speakers)

Configuration with a large mixers
  • Synths, Mics, Samplers, etc to Mixer inputs
  • Mixer Sends (6) to audio interface inputs
  • Audio Interface outs to Mixer Subgroup ins
  • Mixer Subgroup outs (4) plus Control room outs to Speakers
Configuration with a Small mixers
  • Synths, Mics, Samplers, etc to Mixer inputs
  • Connect the active speakers to audio interface outs (6).  If you use passive speakers, you should probably use a surround receiver.  Plug the audio interface outs (6) into the 6 channel DVD inputs.
  • Connect as many sends as you have to the audio interface inputs for the rear channels and center and subwoofer channels.  Connect the main or control room outs to audio interface 1-2 in.  If you don't have enough sends, use the sub outs for the center and subwoofer channels. 
Mixerless Configuration with 8x8 audio interface
  • Connect the active speakers to audio interface outs (6).  If you use passive speakers, you should probably use a surround receiver.  Plug the audio interface outs (6) into the 6 channel DVD inputs.

Step Two: Route your hardware mixer outs to your audio interface inputs.  You can use sends, sub-outs and direct outs here.  The most flexible of these are the aux sends as you can send any channel's signal in variable amounts to all six streams at once if you want.  Or you can use subgroups outs and that way you can direct the full signal of each channel to any or all audio interface inputs.  Note for those with 8 bus large hardware mixers:  You are in luck, you can both monitor and record from your mixer, directing the audio interface outs to 6 channels which may go to sub outs to speakers and 6 sends which go back to the audio interface inputs.  Whatever channels you have left over can be used for mics, midi synths, and effects.  There are lots of possibilities here. 

Step Three: Back in the software mixer, route audio interface inputs to the 6 busses you created. Simple huh? 

Lets recap the signal flow of a microphone.  The Mic goes through a preamp to a channel input, eq and compress through an insert if you want as usual, and send the signal out an aux send.  It arrives at the audio interface and can be recorded.  You take the wave file, place it on a track and route it to a bus that goes to an audio interface out that goes to a speaker or back to the board where it goes out a sub out to a speaker.  Lets take the example of a synth.  You play the keyboard and get midi data on a midi track.  The track triggers the synth, the synth is connected to a mixer channel, goes out a send to the audio interface.  If software monitoring is turned on, then you can hear it routed through the software bus as it goes out the audio interface to the speaker (or back to the mixer)

Now you are ready to create.

The Creation Process

First you make your tracks the same way you do a stereo mix.  You can use midi if you want, and if you use a mixer and software monitoring in your sequencer through your audio interface you can audition your midi tracks anywhere in the surround matrix.  Understand though, that eventually these will be rendered (bounced/mixed down) to audio files.  Using software monitoring of these midi tracks lets you tweak them with effects and plugins in the sequencer until the song is ready to be encoded.  Here's where you do all the tweaking as the song progresses.  You create as many busses as you want in the sequencer to get the output you desire.  For example, you can use a reverb plugin on only the rear channels, with 2 different delays on each rear channel.  You can position your vocal so that it goes to all 5 speakers but when it goes to the left, it has a slight delay, to the right, a pitch shifter, to the back, a harmonizer or vocoder and in the center it can be bone dry.  You can make your pads spin front to rear in a circle but only pass to the subwoofer when it is in the rear.  As you see, a lot of restrictions imposed by a stereo field are eased--there is more room for sounds. 

Automation really comes in handy for special soundtrack like effects.  In both SX and Logic, the surround panners are automatable as are effects busses, which allows you to go really wild if you want. 

Using the surround panner in the application, you position each element to where it makes a nice blend.  You can have a different surround panner setting for every track, midi or audio or soft synth.  At the end of the creation process, you render these using the applications rendering facility, where 6 mono audio files are created, one for each speaker.

The Surround Panner in
Cubase SX

The Encoding process

Time Out!
What is Dolby Digital Surround?
Dolby Digital is a 5.1 surround system that was introduced in the film industry in 1992. It has since become the common format on DVDs.  The format has 5 full frequency range channels for Left, Right, Center, Rear Left and Rear Right. The subwoofer, or LFE channel is the ".1" in 5.1. The name for the process that encodes Dolby Digital sound is called Dolby AC-3. In the past few years Dolby Digital has incorporated a sixth channel for the rear center or "back" channel.  This 6:1 system is called Dolby Digital EX
What is Dolby Pro-Logic?
This is an earlier approach that has 4 channels of audio or 4.1 (left, center, right, rear plus a subwoofer.  The 4 channels are encoded to stereo then decoded back to 4 tracks on playback.   The left and right rear channels carry the same information and have limited bandwidth (100hz-7000kHz) in home Pro Logic systems
What does Dolby AC-3 do?
Basically, AC-3 encodes the 5 digital audio streams into a single file.  The unique feature of this data format is that it includes not only the data for 5 audio streams but for other downmixes, such as for stereo, mono. and the older Pro-Logic 4:1 systems.  This ensures that regardless of the playback system, the audio will sound good.  Because of this intelligent decoding process, the audio producer only has to make one 5:1 mix, and does not have to make a separate stereo or Pro Logic mix.
What is THX? 
THX is a trademark of Lucasfilm that identifies a cinema's compliance with standards for the playback equipment and its acoustical environment. It is not an encoding/decoding process.
What is DTS?
DTS Digital Surround is an alternative encode/decode system like Dolby Digital that offers playback of 5.1 20 bit audio. Both systems are based on perceptual coding of the audio that is actually heard by the listener, like MP3s.  DTS, however, compresses the full signal less that Dolby digital and is theoretically able to deliver higher resolution audio.

Many sequencers do not encode these 6 files into a single .ac3 file.  You need an application that does. What the encoder does is take these six .wav files and puts all 6 audio streams in one file, that is recognized by surround decoders as bonifide Dolby digital surround file.  Much like mastering is to stereo files, encoding is to surround files.  Instead of 2 tracks, you have 6. You can do gentle volume adjustments, gain compensation, compression and limiting if you want, if the encoder will use them. 

The Burning Process

You need an application that allows DVD burning and allows you to set up the menu structure of the DVD so people can make selections with their remote controls.  On the index screen, you create text and images that work much like a web page.  you click on the "links" and the DVD goes to the selection and allows you to play the piece.  Your link will point to two files, a video file in MPEG format and the audio .AC3 file.  You can add as many songs as the DVD will hold (4.7 gigabytes).  When you are done adding songs, each with their MPEG video and AC3 audio, you burn the disk.  

The Review Process

Here is where you review your new masterpiece on a common DVD player and surround receiver. If you did everything right, your mix will sound just like it did in the studio with the addition of digital compression that AC3 adds.  Also, if your surround receiver has a "listen" mode, it will sense a Dolby digital sound track and automatically switch to Dolby digital playback.  Always a good idea to use DVDRW disks as you may need to do it over a few times.  I suggest using the digital output of your DVD player direct to the digital input of the receiver, so you don't go through the receiver's digital audio converter. 

The Kick back and Relax process

You did it.  You made a surround sound master piece.  Now potential significant others will flock to you in droves.  No more of that tired line "Wanna hear my CD?" You can now state, with simple quiet eloquence, "Wanna hear my 5.1 dolby digital encoded DVD?"  They will giggle and gasp as 6 streams of sound envelop them and lure them into awestruck acquiescence. 

Talk about this article in the Studio-Central Audio for Video Games and Podcasts forum

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Cool Quote:

Keeping time, time, time
In a sort of Runic rhyme
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells.

The Bells,

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)


Where you can Learn More

Dolby Digital  Has a lot of useful FAQs for learning more on the subject of surround sound and its past and future.
Frequently Asked Questions about Surround Sound
Surround Professional
Surround Sound Articles
Choosing and Installing Subwoofers 

Thanks to Doktorziplock and Dalachriser for the links.



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