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The Basics of Surround Sound Part 5

The Basics of Surround Sound Part 5

Learn How to Mix Music in Immersive Audio

Everyone who has a home theater system knows that mixing for film or television will roughly follow one basic rule — keep the dialog in the center channel. This can, of course, be broken if the attention is to be drawn to the left or right, but for the most part, you’ll find the story line smack dab in the middle. Music, on the other hand, has far fewer rules for where sounds can be placed.

For surround classical and concerts of most types (especially rock music and videos), you’ll almost always find the sound coming from the stereo left/right field, often with a bit of kick, bass and other incidental material coming from the center. Most of the time, the rear speakers will be reserved for room ambience, reverb and general audience sounds. The idea here is to play it safe by mimicking what the audience would hear in the actual hall or venue.

Here is a common surround mix setup mimicking what the audience would hear in a concert hall.

If your music project doesn’t fall into the concert or visual category, congrats, you’re free to do pretty much anything that you want.

For example, my personal style for getting my music across to the surround/immersive listener is to go nuts by letting the sounds, delays, and reverbs come from all of the speakers in the soundfield. I find that electronic music lends itself to “immersing” the listener deep inside of the music.

This image shows a much more "immersive" mix with delays and instruments placed around the soundfield.

Mixing in Immersive

In the past, I would compose directly in 5.1 surround and then later attack the stereo mix version. Nowadays, I’ll take the more traditional approach of composing in stereo and then, at the end, move on to the surround mix. How you do it is totally up to you.

I will say this — I found early on that making a fold-down mix (the process of automatically blending the surround tracks into a stereo mix) doesn’t work for me. I prefer to do two separate mixes.

When setting up a session, I’ll organize the various instrument types (drums, synths, etc) together into grouped folders, using my own set of standardized track colors. These can then each be routed to their respective sub-group channels of the same color that will then be placed to the far-left of the mixer screen. Likewise, I’ll place my main effects sends to the right of the mixer screen, after the channel tracks and just before the main mix output channel.

I find that this general folder/grouping combination makes it much easier to identify, solo and process the tracks in an orderly, fluid way. It also has the added advantage of letting us move from stereo to an immersive mix (or vice versa) by simply changing the output and routing of each track and group, without having to change the relative mix levels — you can simply go about the task of picking up the new mix format where you left off.

Some say that mixing in stereo vs. surround is basically twice the work. I actually think that this is wrong. I think it’s much harder than that, in that immersive demands a lot more attention to detail — both technically and artistically — than stereo.

The careful attention to reverb placement, room re-amping, and delays can take more time and attention to get head-turning results, but the flip-side is that the process can be a lot more fun and satisfying when done right.

Processing in Immersive

Compression — and the general over-use of — can be quite different in an immersive mix. Often, a wider dynamic range is expected within a music or feature-film mix. Overly compressing or limiting a mix will probably be more noticeable. As a result, you may want to pull back from using compression on your master bus.

When inserting an effects processor on an immersive channel, group, or master, it should be noted that not all plug-ins are able to handle multi-channel routing in the same way.

For example, some plug-ins have been designed, so that when they’re inserted into a 5.1, 7.1, or higher, all of the channels will automatically route and work across all of the immersive outs. No muss, no fuss — it all just works.

However, it’s far more common that an effect will only be able to be inserted into a surround channel as a stereo bus. In this case, you’ll need to access the channels “insert routing controls” (you might need to consult with your DAW’s manual). Here, the goal would be to insert multiple stereo instances of an effect (compression, tape emulation, etc.) into that surround channel.

For example, say you insert a stereo compressor into a single 5.1 strip. Once inserted, you’ll notice that the compressor has probably been automatically routed to the L/R bus on that strip. Now, let’s insert another instance of the same compressor type into the channel and assign it to the Ls/Rs bus. If necessary, you could then insert another instance of the compressor and assign that to the C/LFE bus. Once done, you could then fine tune the L/R compressor settings to your liking and then copy these settings over to the remaining effects inserts, giving you effects control over the entire surround channel.

The Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-in used in a surround sound mix.

Room Setup

Finally, I’d like to refer you back to the second installment in this series, when we talked about the need for balancing your overall monitor channel levels. Just as with your main stereo pair, having an immersive system that isn’t properly calibrated with respect to its relative speaker output levels can wreak havoc with your carefully-crafted project.

In the end, how you approach your mix is completely up to you. I feel the way to put your best foot forward is to be true to yourself and the music, while forging your own personal mixing and production path.

Almost without exception, those who have most shined in this niche field have done so by creating their own style and by working hard at their craft. As always, be yourself, follow your own path, and have fun.

— 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

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