The Basics of Surround Sound - Part 1

The Basics of Surround Sound - Part 1

Learn How to Harness the Power of Immersive Audio

Not too long ago, the field of immersive audio was referred by the home and pro-audio communities as “surround sound,” usually involving 5.1 and more recently 7.1 multi-channel audio that would come at you from the left, right, center, side and rear speakers, and the ".1" — the subwoofer.

The idea behind such production and playback setups is to create a “you are there” aspect to movies, video games, TV shows, and music making everything bigger, Better, MORE!

And although surround has been embraced by the film, tv, and gaming communities to such an extent that it has become an integral part of their respective experience, music has had its struggles with surround sound over the years and is now primarily a selling feature for high-end classical and special edition Blu Ray sets — until recently.

Listening to a killer electronic, rock or experimental piece in surround where all of the speakers are going “full out” can be truly a wonder to behold.

A well-crafted immersive audio production can place you in a favorite concert hall, studio or imaginary space in ways that stereo simply can’t, placing you directly “in the action.”

A large part of the audio community has never expressed an interest in immersive audio. This is mostly because they haven’t had any experience with surround production, or have even heard a project in 5.1, 7.1 or — let’s get crazy — and add height speakers for 9.1.

Of course, the only way to begin to understand immersive is to sit down and listen to a killer mix, either in the studio or on a home theater system. Quite literally, the emotional connection that immersive audio can give to a mix can’t be overstated.

It's never too much — an 11.1 surround system at Bowling Green State University.

Live and VR

Additionally, the concept of performing in an immersive live environment is becoming more and more of a reality. Many top rock bands and even more electronic artists are beginning to do performances in 4.0 (Quad), 5.1, and even 8.0 (Quad at ear level and another quad set in the height channels). Many DAWS, such as Ableton Live, give you creative routing over a multitude of channels in ways that can create performance soundscapes that literally must be heard to be believed.

Why Should You Know About Immersive Audio?

Bottom line as to why you should be at least open to the idea of producing, post, or mixing in multi-channel — your pocketbook and your professional skill set.

For example, say a band that you worked with just broke and a production company needs a 5.1 mix of the single for an upcoming movie or for use in a video game. Would you rather say, “Sure I can do that!” or “Sorry, I don’t do surround sound." It’s the difference between getting the gig or passing it on to someone else with the chops.

Personally, I got into immersive audio for one reason — I loved it! The experience you get from breaking the rules and creating a bold mix that few would ever attempt is simply thrilling.

The Two Faces of Immersive

Discrete Multi-channel Audio: This is the more traditional (if there is such a thing), use of surround, in that speakers are set up within the production/playback environment using multiple speakers in a 5.1 or 7.1 configuration.

In very special production environments, the use of height speakers will be added in a 9.1, 10.1 and/or Dolby Atmos environment. In movies and video, the use of height channels allow airplanes to sonically fly over your head or let us hear birds chirping up in the trees. In music, height can be used to extend the spaciousness and panning possibilities of a mix in ways that can add excitement and new dimensions to the mix.

2-Channel Immersive Audio: This method is totally a horse of a different color, and one that I’ll dive deeper into in a later article, as there's too much to properly cover here. In a nutshell, 2-channel immersive audio makes use of our natural human ability to discern 360° directionality, delivering an immersive mix over traditional stereo headphones.

VR, or virtual reality, is where surround sound mixes have been thriving — and pushing boundaries.

We’re in the Wild West Baby!

Although this technology is deep, the true art and techniques of immersive audio is almost totally devoid of production rules. This is the great part! Some producers might create a conservative mix that is basically stereo with a bit of center speakers and some reverb in the rear speakers, while others might place instruments, effects and reverbs in ALL corners of the soundscape, so as to put you smack in the middle of the action. The tools, techniques and art of this medium is simply an open field, so don’t worry about it. Paint that canvas the way that you, the artist, or the producer wants. Seriously, just have fun and forge your own path!

Make sure and stay tuned for Part II to learn how to setup your surround sound system!

Read More: The Basics of Surround Sound - Part 2

— David Miles Huber

David Miles Huber is a four-time Grammy-nominated producer and author of the industry-standard text “Modern Recording Techniques.” His latest music and collaborations can be heard at davidmileshuber.com.

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