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The Point Of 5.1

Leader
By Paul White

Last month I related the mysterious case of my tripping mains supply, which I finally tracked down to our cat peeing on a mains socket in the hallway! Now, a month on, I can tell you that everything worked perfectly once I'd replaced the socket, until I awoke one morning to find the power off once again. This time the problem was traced to the kitchen and sure enough, the cat was the culprit! I don't want to go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that I had to buy a new toaster — and not because the old one had burnt out! The moral of the story is that if you have a cat that is similarly disposed, don't let it into your studio — ever — no matter how much it likes the music! You could find yourself with a very large repair bill that your home insurance probably won't cover.

Paul White with two Apple monitors and Mackie controllers.Anyway, once I'd replaced the toaster, I set about demolishing and rebuilding my studio — a process that has become something of an annual tradition. Part of the reason for doing this is to prune out all those unused lengths of cable and items of outboard gear no longer in use. It also gives me a reason to tighten up all my mains connections, abrade away any excess oxidation on my mains plug pins (I refuse to go as far as Martin Walker and use metal polish!) and to spray Deoxit on everything that looks vaguely like a connector. However, the main reason for this year's rebuild was to install a surround monitoring system so that I could get down to doing some practical surround articles based on the techniques related to me by some of the top mix engineers I've been fortunate enough to talk to over the past year.

Surround has been slow to take off, not least because of the bewildering array of different formats, and because there's no affordable way of making playable surround DVDs at the moment. My feeling is that, for the project studio owner, burning video DVDs to carry the audio encoded in the data-compressed AC3 format is the best option, and will ensure universal compatibility. We're planning a technical interview with a major duplicator of CDs and DVDs, in which a lot of these arcane matters should be explained (not least to me!).

Another reason surround hasn't taken off yet is that almost anyone who hasn't worked with it thinks it's all a gimmick. I have to admit that I wasn't entirely convinced myself, until I did some surround mixes on my own system in early January. As soon as you switch back to stereo monitoring, the sense of disappointment is akin to hearing the vocal reverb turned off in a mix or bypassing a harmonic enhancer/exciter on a dull track.

One of the arguments against surround is that music is supposed to be in front of you, and, in the main, I agree with that — I don't want to hear guitar solos behind the sofa, especially when I can see the guitarist on the TV at the front of the room. However, surround is not necessarily about surrounding yourself with sound but rather creating a wider and more believable stereo image. It's also about recreating the three-dimensional ambience of a real venue — in a typical concert hall, over 90 percent of what you hear may be reflected sound, and most of that comes at you from all directions. In fact when you switch back to stereo, where the speakers typically cover an angle of only 60 degrees, you realise that what you have been listening to all these years isn't truly stereo at all — it's more like wide mono, and it sounds very flat and two-dimensional. In fact, I was so impressed with the results of remixing some of my old stuff in surround that I'm thinking of upgrading my live sound system to four channels. If it works out, I'll let you know!

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published March 2004