Multichannel Music vs. 2-Channel Stereo
A couple of recent emails and discussions regarding the relative merits of multichannel music vs. 2-channel stereo prompts me to open up the topic once again. I'll state my preference right out front…I absolutely love multichannel music! Of course, AIX Records (my record company) has been recording in high definition and delivering music albums with both multichannel (2-mch mixes "audience" and "stage") and 2-channel mixes since our very first DVD-Audio/Video release back in 2000. For me there's no going back. In fact, I purchased a new 2005 Acura TL automobile partly because it has a great 5.1 DVD-Audio playback system in it.
So what is it that I prefer about 5.1 surround tracks? When I listen to multichannel music recordings I get a more involving sense of musical space. There is more room into which a mixer can distribute the individual musical instruments. In a traditional 2-channel stereo mix, the mixers have fewer choices when it comes to crowding all of the instruments/parts into a simple left and right panorama. We call it 5 position stereo (L, LC, C, RC and R). There are also some rather inflexible norms when it comes to mixing for stereo. The drums are spread across the entire sonic space, the bass is in the center along with the lead vocal and other guitar/keyboard parts are grouped to one side or the other. Not as much creativity as there is with multichannel.
In a multichannel mix, there are no rules…yet. Presenting surround recordings is still such a small segment of the marketplace and so new that mixing engineers and record companies don't really know what's normal. We're making it up as we go. The traditionalists prefer to model there mixes on the acoustic realities of a concert stage. The sound of the band is presented in front of the listener and the ambiance of the hall is mixed into the left and right surround speakers. If it doesn't sound different enough from standard stereo, then why bother?
Those that are more adventuresome in their distribution of musical parts spread the instruments all around the room (with or without an acoustic model). Mixing in this way can immerse the listener "in the middle" of the band or ensemble. The left and right surround speakers contain real instrumental sounds…not just reverberation. The music is coming from all directions and while arguably "unreal", it has been my experience that listeners giving mixes a real chance…ultimately are converted. They come to prefer the experience.
A couple of years ago, I presented some of my tracks to the Bay Area Audio Society. The assembled members were patient and polite but it was obvious that these were solidly vinyl, tube and 2-channel guys. At the end of the presentation, I gave each attendee a copy of my "High Resolution Audio Experience disc. About a week later, I received a lengthy email from one of the guys from the club. He wrote that he "forced himself" to listen to the "stage" mixes of all 29 tracks (which encompassed a large number of musical genres). Initially, he was uncomfortable with the newness of the presentation and the strangeness of having the drums come from one side of the room while the piano came from another side. Near the end of the disc, he decided to switch back to the less aggressive "audience" mix (not the 2-channel stereo). He told me that, "his involvement of the music fell completely flat. It was lifeless and pale in comparison to the more immersive mixes." He was a convert…and he was right. I certainly appreciated his honesty.
The same experience happens time and time again in my demonstrations at trade shows and in my own facility. Music fans just haven't had a real chance to experience really well recorded music presented in multiple 5.1 surround mixes. But when they do…there is whole new dimension that opens up.
Yes, it's true that the cost of acquiring a really good stereo setup can be taxing and upgrading to equal quality in full 5.1 surround might then be out of reach (or at odds with the spousal factor). But if you're careful in your equipment purchases, you can move up to the world of surround (and keep your spouse happy…who knows she might come to enjoy it).
Give surround music a try. There's a lot of content out there that is mixed in multichannel…unfortunately, not all of it is worth the listen. As I said, there's no rules when it comes to 5.1 surround…so expect a great deal of variety. Most mixes will be on the conservative side…more of the "audience" variety. This makes the reviewers happy but is not my cup of tea. Why waste the added speakers and then not put any signal through them.
I'll come back to this subject regularly. But once you've heard a big band in full surround…there's no going back!