1. Check your monitoring setup
It’s worth taking a few minutes at the beginning of a mix session to ensure that your system is properly set up and calibrated. The Recording Academy’s P&E wing has published a handy PDF reference with their recommendations for surround sound production. While you read it, sketch out a checklist that you can review before each session. You might even build some customized test sessions so that you can quickly assess your system’s accuracy and troubleshoot any problems right from your regular DAW or NLE. Using a test disc on a separate DVD or Blu-ray player may not reveal problems in your software configuration or audio interface.
2. Listen outside the sweet spot
Sitting right in the middle of carefully configured studio monitors may give you beautiful imaging of all of your surround effects, but don’t forget to think about all the viewers in a theater or living room. There’s a very good chance that most viewers won’t be able to sit right in the sweet spot and get that same immersive experience you have at your mix position. Take an opportunity to stand up and walk around during your mix session, sitting in a few different places and observing how your mix translates. Is the dialogue still clear? Does that dramatic fly-over effect translate from the back of the room? Did all the violas disappear when you moved to the left side of the room? Does anyone care about violas anyway?
3. Support the storytelling
It’s important to make sure that the sound design, score, and mix are always complementing the script, performances, and storytelling, and never become a distraction. Take a minute to close your eyes or even turn off the video monitor and listen to how the story translates without visuals. What can you do with the mix to make sure that all the intensity and emotion of the performances are coming through? Are effects or backgrounds distracting from the dialogue? Less may be more!
4. Carve out space for dialogue
A dense mix of music, effects, and ambience can sometimes mask dialogue tracks. Sometimes an adjustment in the frequency area between 2-5 kHz can help with dialogue clarity. You can take this a step further by using the dialogue track to sidechain a dynamic equalizer or multiband compressor on music, FX, and background stems, so that frequency cuts only happen when the dialogue is present.
5. Mix beyond the speakers
Don’t forget all the stereo techniques we’ve used in the past to create depth and width with just two speakers. A gentle high-shelf filter can help place sounds far in the distance, like they’re coming from behind the speakers. Automate the gain and frequency cutoff of a filter to add extra drama to a distant sound effect as it comes into view or disappears behind the viewer.
There are other creative ways you can use filters and EQ to help complement the cinematography of a film. Look at the depth-of-field inside a shot and listen to hear if subtle EQ gestures applied to individual dialogue tracks can help follow the focus of the camera.
6. Upmixing from stereo to surround
Did that film you mixed in stereo just get picked up for distribution? Suddenly need surround mixes overnight? If you have individual stems or submixes of the dialogue, music, and sound effects, you can use these guidelines as a starting point for creating your 5.1/7.1 mix:
Dialogue: 100% Center Channel
Foley: 100% Front L/R (but usually panned to phantom center)
Hard Effects: 100% Front L/R + 50% LFE
Backgrounds/Ambience: 50% Front L/R, 50% Sides/Rear
Music: 75% Front L/R, 25% Sides/Rear
If you don’t have stems or submixes, there are powerful tools available like Nugen’s Halo Upmix that can help create surround from your completed stereo mix.