Michael S. Palmer chats with Tim Hoogenakker, senior mixer for POP Sound in Santa Monica, California about the ins and outs of DTS sound mixing.
Raise your hand if you love surround sound. If you love to flip on a Blu-ray so well crafted it drops the collective jaws of friends and family. If you love to sit back at the end of a hard day and fall away into fantastic, terrifying, and triumphant cinema-made worlds by encasing your living room or home theater in heart-stopping bass and searing, swirling high notes.
If this was the Bosley Surround Sound Club for Men and Women, I would now say something like, "I'm not only the president…I'm also a member."
Which makes it absolutely fantastic when companies like DTS want to update us about their innovative technologies, or put us in contact with the artisans who use these sonic advancements to impress us every time we turn on our A/V Receivers. Last month, we spoke with Dolby about bringing 7.1 to cinemas, but as it turns out, I got a few details wrong.
Yes, Dolby 7.1 (a theatrical format with four rear channels; not to be confused with SDDS which has five front channels and two rears) debuted this year on 'Toy Story 3' and was the first feature film to be mixed in 7.1 for cinemas worldwide, but I erroneously took away from this short conversation that "most" 7.1 Blu-ray releases are not actually discrete, but "more akin to an expanded 5.1 mix; similar to the results of using products like Dolby Pro Logic IIx and IIz."
Friends, I have sinned.
DTS was gracious enough to put High-Def Digest in touch with Tim Hoogenakker so we could learn more about how films adapt from their original 5.1 theatrical runs into full blown, discretely mixed DTS-HD MA 7.1 experiences. Tim is a senior re-recording mixer for POP Sound in Santa Monica, California, who not only specializes in theatrical surround sound mixing, but has mixed over forty 7.1-encoded Blu-rays discretely since the format's debut in 2006, including go-to reference audio titles from Lionsgate like '3:10 to Yuma' and 'Gamer'.
POP Sound has been in the professional audio post production business for sixteen years, working in every aspect of sound from feature films to television, home entertainment, and video games. Tim has been with the company since 1996, where in the early days of DVD, he helped restore and re-master older mono and stereo mixes into 5.1, including some of the James Bond titles. We can also thank him for the very solid DTS re-master on the 'First Blood' Blu-ray which I've personally enjoyed. He has seen sound progress from 5.1 to 6.1, and now finally to 7.1. Tim was at first skeptical of 7.1, but after working in it, he noticed a "really cool difference" and "added depth." Now 7.1 makes more sense to him personally than say 6.1 with its mono rear, not simply because there is one more channel, but rather because there's so much more detail we're capable of experiencing thanks to the added stereo. Tim also said some interesting things about 7.1 in the cinemas versus the home theater, which I've discussed with some readers in our forum. My hypothesis was that theatrical 7.1 is more effective, given the width of the auditoriums, but Tim corrected me, saying that in cinemas, 7.1 may become lost or less clear depending on where in the auditorium people are seated, but at home in a smaller room, sitting in your sweet spot, 7.1 is so much more specific and apparent. Damn, I so need to get two more speakers.
Tim was kind enough to speak slowly about the challenging, highly technical process, so let's see if I can share what simplified nuggets I picked up:
For any audio restoration or re-master, companies like POP Sound and artisans like Tim are not always involved with initial theatrical mix. Remember when we spoke to the Emmy-nominated sound re-recording mixers for 'Dexter'? There we learned how re-recording mixers mold elements like Foley-generated sound effects, musical score, and dialogue into 5.1 and stereo mixes. For Blu-ray and DVD, Tim and POP Sound are who/what comes next (unless of course this is one of the many films or television shows where POP did the original mix as well).
Tim starts every job with "stems" from the original mixes. Stems are separate, analogue tapes (for older films) or digital files of music (for newer films), dialogue, and sound effects. Depending on the age of the original film, he'll get mono, stereo, or up to 5.1 stems. His goal then is one of preservation and artistic intent -- to keep the films true to studio and filmmaker requests, but to also expand the soundstage for a modern home theater presentation. With his Pro Tools HD editorial system, a Neve DFC Gemini film mixing console, and a number of secret tricks of the trade he's mastered over his career, Tim then spreads the original elements out into the multi-channel sound field. For example, he can take mono sound effects, like crickets, and put them in every channel while keeping dialogue centered.
5.1 remains standard for most Blu-rays, but as anyone who reads this site well knows, 7.1 (featuring three front channels, four rear channels, and one low frequency channel) is now readily available on most moderately priced AVRs.
According to Tim, there are two ways he typically approaches a discrete 7.1 re-mix: the first (where I most likely was confused before) is more of an enhancement. Tim starts with the 5.1 stems and expands the two rear channels into four, taking specific sound elements like the panning of a helicopter and applying them to individual channels. From what I understand, this enhancement is only subtly different from the original 5.1 mix (which of course is a good thing, in a world of retaining artistic intent).
The second option is more involved and for our non-technical purposes here, could be labeled a discrete 7.1 upgrade. Working with the filmmakers directly, Tim and others at POP Sound re-do entire scenes or sequences with brand new sound design (for example, on a monster movie, they might replace the monster's roar, or add more monster sounds -- I then asked about Tim working with Guillermo Del Toro on Del Toro's yet-to-be-released Director's Cut of 'Mimic' which will feature a must-own 7.1 re-mix. Sadly, Tim wouldn't comment.), additional background ambience, or even different, discrete bits of music score which can be separately mixed to the front, side, or back.
In the case of Lionsgate's '3:10 to Yuma' Blu-ray, director James Mangold and his team of original sound supervisors opted to personally work with Tim at POP Sound to re-mix the film specifically for home theater. Tim is particularly proud of the climax, which features a rumbling train approaching (house-shaking LFE is a favorite of Tim's, which he first tests on his studio's -- I hope you're sitting down for this -- 18-inch subwoofers! He doesn't know this yet, but Tim just invited me over for movie night.) where 7.1 listeners will get very specific and discrete train whistles as well as gun shots.
The truth is it's different with every film -- some changes are drastic and others quite sparse -- but at the end of the day, Blu-ray audiences are getting 7.1 discretely mixed channels where even the "enhanced" version mentioned above is much more accurate then any audio-processing software built into the most sophisticated receivers. In fact, Tim even checks, running his discrete 7.1 mixes against 5.1 in Pro Logic IIx (creating a matrixed 7.1) and to his expert ears, there's no contest. Hopefully, dear reader, you are no longer feeling cheated by any of your 7.1 Blu-rays. They are discrete, to one degree or another, and have been that way since the beginning. That's not to say in the 5.1 world, Pro Logic IIx and IIz don't have their benefits or uses -- they clearly do -- but then again, who listens to Stereo Surround when there's a discrete 5.1 mix available?
Perhaps most fascinating about this whole process to a novice such as myself is how Tim creates a successful 7.1 mix that must also down-convert to 5.1 or even stereo. For this purpose, Tim not only has settings on his mixing console to hear every version, but he also prefers working with audio codecs like DTS-HD MA, which he personally encodes. He says that PCM is great, but has no quality control assurance across various receivers. Within the DTS-HD MA encoding, there are parameters to handle down-mixing and ensure things like dialogue don't get lost amidst explosions and ricocheting gunfire. As another example, let's say you have an original 7.1 mix, which features the film's score blasting in the four, rear channels. If improperly mixed, or without the safety net of a DTS, when a receiver combines these four elements into two for 5.1, the sound levels could be too loud, or different than the filmmaker intended. Tim is less worried about how his work translates on a DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD soundtrack because he knows and has heard his bit-for-bit identical mixes time and again (by the way, let's not forget he is the second sound professional we have personally spoke to, who is thrilled to hear his original mixes for the first time in a home environment thanks to Blu-ray and lossless audio).
As for Tim's at-home set up, much like the 'Dexter' sound team, he's running very affordable gear: a 50-inch Samsung Plasma TV, a Denon 2309 AVR (which coincidentally I also have), a Samsung Blu-ray Player, and a 7.1 set up that is an alternating combination of Sony and Fluance speakers.
Thanks to DTS for putting me in touch with Tim at POP Sound for a layman's look into 7.1 discrete mixing in DTS-HD MA.
Author's Post Script Tangent: I wanted to ask our readers a tangential question because this article will be read directly by film studios and audio companies: how do you feel about forced trailers? Knowing years after you fork over your hard earned money, you still have to manually one-by-one click through advertisements for movies you either never want to see or have already purchased?
All debating aside, I'm not generally a fan because they can be a tedious waste of time, but there are two types of forced trailers I personally love and wish were on every Blu-ray:
1) Sound Codec demo trailers. Who doesn't replay those 30-second tributes to DTS, THX, or Dolby? I know I do. It makes me feel like I've gone to the cinema.
2) Studio and Production Company Logos. I love them, either as a part of the film, or simply before a Blu-ray's main menu. I'm not talking about the ones that just add the word "Blu-ray" (looking at you, Foxy Boxing); I mean the literal logo along with the various fanfares (okay, you're back in Fox). Lionsgate -- both the regular and red-tinged horror one -- is great, Walt Disney's makes me feel like a kid again, Universal always packs a punch, and new-comer Relativity provides a logo almost as good as the sound codec demos mentioned above. I say "please, sir, I want some more," but that's just one man's opinion.
What do you think? Where do you stand on forced trailers, surround sound codec demos, and studio logos? Hit up the forum below to share your comments. They are listening.