My Masters Project – Surround Sound Recording – An Informal Run Through

Hello, long time no blog!

Today, I want to talk in brief about my final project for my masters which is designed to be a piece of research in the general area of audio production. This is an informal post, meant to be gloss over certain points in an effort to keep things short and to the point in an effort to make the topic as accessible as possible. Once the project is finished, I will be able to make new posts about each part of the project in more detail! If you have any questions, just get in touch through here. The final dissertation can be read here.

Recently, I recorded a choir for surround sound playback. What this means is that when listening back to the recording in a room properly equipped, you will feel inside the room where the music was being performed. The sound will envelop you from all around you, simulating what it would have been like to be in the concert hall which is a very cool experience. In surround sound you have five speakers. Three at the front for the left, centre and right with two are the rear. Check out the below image from Sound On Sound Magazine about the placement of these speakers.


Recording Arrays
Many ways of recording surround sound have been developed over the years. The most common are what I call traditional arrays which is a catch all term for multi-microphone recording arrays. If you take note of the image above, there would be one microphone for each speaker. In general, the left, centre and right point at the respective areas of the stage and the rears point into the rear corners of the space. What the microphones “listen” to then gets recorded and played through their respective speakers outlined in the picture.

The collection of these microphones is called an array and then can usually subdivided into the front array and rear array as there can be a larger spacing between the front and rear. If you are at a concert and stand at the very front, you will get a great clean sound. If you stand at the back you get a more reverberant sound so an aim of these types of arrays is to capture both as best possible for use in the production. A pleasing recording for the listener can be achieved by placing the front array fairly close to the performers to get a clear sound and then by placing the rear array into something known as the reverberant field.

Here is a photo of a traditional array called INA5 from You can see the distances and angles involved, especially between the front and rear.

The Soundfield
For the recording engineer,  traditional arrays have around five microphones which means there are a lot of cables  which are sometimes quite long, a lot of stands which are usually heavy and/or wobbly, a lot of measurements and angles which can be cumbersome to get correct and then possible headaches to worry about when setting everything up, for example, someone walking into or moving the stands.

There is a relatively new microphone called The Soundfield microphone. Roughly speaking, this is 4 microphones in one. This can be placed in a recording environment just like the front section of a traditional array can. The Soundfield microphones pickup can be  seen as mainly based on figure of 8 microphone pattern, to keep things simple. A microphones capsule is in the shape of a big coin and listens in certain ways around it. Some microphones listen to just what is in front and on either side of it. Others listen all around it. The figure of 8 listens to the front and back while ignoring the sides. Imagine two tennis balls placed on either side of those big chocolate coins, this gives an impression of what directions the microphone is picking up from. Here is a photo of a microphone capsule from


Here is a diagram of a figure of 8 microphone from the Recording Review Forum, think of those tennis balls.

Basically, these types of microphones are listening in a shape on front and behind the microphone while ignoring what is going on at the sides (includes top and bottom). For the sake of example, imagine there are two of you and if you say something and your duplicate says the exact same thing in the exact same way. If the two of you are placed either side of the microphone and you both say something, anyone that is listening to what the microphone is listening to will hear nothing. That is because one side the microphone listens in a positive way and the other negative, which doesn’t mean one side is happy and the other angry, what it means is that everything can be boiled down to numbers.

What this means means is that what one of you saying could gets turned into the number 1 and the other gets turned into a -1. When the microphone combines these things you get 0, or nothing being heard. With that admittedly odd example out of the way, the Soundfield works in a similar enough way. Depending on what way you add and subtract the signal that the microphone creates, you can hear what is happening at any direction. Think of it as a 360 degree security camera. If you are watching something from the left and then move to the right, you use a control to point the camera in that direction. The Soundfield is similar, but for sound and instead of the camera moving around, the mathematics are being changed to adjust the direction of what the microphone is listening to.

Why mention all this?
Well, it is easier to setup that a traditional array. One stand, one main cable and less headaches. More importantly, after the recording is done and you are mixing the recording you can change where the microphone is pointing as you wish. This is because you are combining what was recorded from the microphone, not having to adjust the direction its pointing in on the day of the recording itself as you would with a traditional array. On top of that you can derive the five different directions at the same time which are the signals you need for the 5 speakers in a surround sound setup. With modern technology and the ease of having a powerful computer for audio production, this can be automated which means no more messing with angles and protractors at 6 feet in the air! With a traditional array things need to be set up exactly and if you make a mistake or something happens to the array which you didn’t know about, you can not fix the problems in the mix!

The Soundfield is also fairly expensive compared to the five standard microphones you need for a traditional array. Expensive not only in terms of money but also in versatility as if you are an engineer who does recording work with bands and close micing, the five standard mics can be much more useful to you than the single Soundfield mic.

Here is a photo of one of my recordings with the traditional array of five microhones in red and the single Soundfield in blue. (very well drawn eh?)


What my project is about.
The Soundfield may be much easier to set up and it may be versatile after the recording in terms of changing its settings to fix issue but does it sound as good as the traditional setup? Remember when I said that the rear microphones of a traditional array are placed further back into the reverberant field? You can’t do that with the Soundfield. The Soundfield is one microphone in the sense it is a single enclosed unit. If you move it further back to get more reverb, you make the front more reverberant too and lose the clarity. Compromise! Additionally, the two concepts simply sound different to each other, not necessarily worse than the other but finding out what a sample of listeners think could help in making the decision between what to use or what to buy.

What I want to do is find out what is “better” when asking a sample of listeners. I intend to record a choir and set of classical musicians with a Soundfield microphone and a traditional array simultaneously. Then, I want to play sections of the songs in a subjective listening test where expert and not so expert listeners can sit in a surround sound listening room and decide what is their favourite, without knowing which is which. The result of this, paired comparison test, will hopefully highlight which recording method is the most preferred. That said, they could be equally preferred, showing parity, and that would not be a bad result. All that means is that the engineer can be faced with a choice of what type of sound they want rather than facing one which could have an impact on listener enjoyment.

Thanks for reading, this was intended to be an informal and accessible look into the background of the project. More detailed and precise information can be found in the final dissertation here. If you are new to the concepts I outlined here and are interested, do let me know and I can guide you to more formal information. =)

Music Production – Back to Basics

I am left a bit inspired and overjoyed after watching the Sound City documentary which was written and directed by Dave Grohl.

The documentary follows the Los Angeles based Sound City studios from its birth in the late 60s through to the present day and recent closure. It talks about the various musicians, producers, engineers who have worked and been touched by the studios. The list of albums coming from this studio is amazing. The Kyuss album “Welcome to Sky Valley” and The Queen’s of the Stone Age album “Rated R” take special places in my heart and since I found out that their sound comes from the Sound City attitude and ethic of doing things, I am left motivated in my own decisions regarding music production workflow. I do not want to give too much away but there is one point which I want to talk about in this blog. This point is the attitude and ethic I mentioned.

24 Tracks

The most thought provoking point it raises for me is the development and modern use of digital audio equipment compared to the Sound City days. The studio itself revolved around a very special Neve mixing console.

Having no real knowledge of the Sound City story before this documentary, I sighed and rolled my eyes when Pro Tools was mentioned. Happily, it went on to criticising the DAW. I am not going to start slagging Pro Tools off because that is not what I mean. This line was one of the first indications to the theme of the documentary. This theme was that live, emotional and powerful music is what the aim of production should be and the digital revolution can and had some very negative impacts on this due to misuse. It outlined what digital audio workstations as a whole have allowed anyone to do and allowed cheaply. This could be a factor to production issues that we have had to deal with over the years, such as the loudness wars and overly produces, polished and edited music.

This is something I have believed for quite a while. It has never been easier to do some tracking and then edit or generally manipulate the material until it is deemed perfect. In essence what we are doing is opening the floodgates for the pushing of this concept to an extreme.

Newbies, through no fault of their own, can be sucked into The “fix it in the mix” mindset. Word processing and laptops do this too; I can now say to people that I am a writer. I am a blogger; I write important opinion pieces and post them on a fantastic server. Well, I am not that great. I don’t have perfect grammar and I am sure the spell check has made some confusing corrections in this regard for me. That and I am not for one moment going to tell anyone I am an authority on anything! Where I think my blog is decent, on the other extreme you can have utterly horrendous blogs which are just a means for someone to massage their ego or simply write about things badly. With fancy themes, they can be seen to be great.

To take what I am saying and bring it into an audio context let’s look at this in a digital context. Essentially, it has never been easier for people to write what they feel and post it to an audience which could possibly be millions of people. Digital has also revolutionised the audio industry which allows anyone to become a music producer. This dilutes the first principles which many people have worked extremely hard to work along and with. This dilution is in some ways something which every single one of us do. We all have phases of not knowing what we are doing so we will always produce something which is simply not done in the way it should have been.

In the audio world, vocals can be auto tuned heavily. Bass and drum takes can be edited to the point of technical perfection but all these examples result in musically deficient music. What this Sound City documentary told me was not to let the possibilities of digital to pull me into a place where I mix and produce this music without the music in mind. Record live, overdub what you really need to and keep the energy intact.

A lot of people say click tracks kill the musicality of a piece. I would argue that recording music track by track does this and as it happens, clicks are used a lot in that and get the blame. Something which I have done a lot is use the least number of tracks I can. What I would love to do in the ideal recording setup is live, live and live with minimal and only necessary overdubs. Id keep the editing to reasonable amount and learn when enough is enough and tell the musician we need to get it recorded better. Okay, maybe that is just so my job is easier but I cant help but think that a song which could sound amazing spread across 24 tracks would sound much better than a 40 track traffic jam.

Does it have to be Analogue?

The documentary talks about how the Neve mixing board contributes to the music. Where I felt that sometimes I was being told that the mixer was the reason I ended up appreciating that it is the analogue way of recording that stitches musicians together. This is not because it was recorded on tape, it is not because that particular mixing board was being used as such. For me I was being told that it was because of the limitations of a fully analogue system where we ended up recording bands live, overdubbing only when we really needed to and all I can say is that the music which we could hear being recorded in this way in the documentary is just fantastic. It may not float everyone’s boat but as an engineer I can feel the feel. I can sense the energy, the spontaneity, the music. What needs to be realised is that this production is not about DAW bashing and is not an anti technology group of people whining about the digital domain. What it is about is an attempt to get the audience appreciate the methodologies that the tape medium allowed or probably forced upon us. Even though it has been made extremely easy thanks to digital we should not to let these methodologies go.

So, for anyone reading please don’t get too caught up in the possibilities of digital. It is only going to offer us a consistently increasing number of possible track counts and plug in instances. This documentary shows us all how it used to be done and I think what we have to face is that maybe we reached the peak and musically best way to record and mix just as the digital revolution began. Maybe all the digital revolution has done is allow us build on and streamline aspects of the old way of doing things but at the expense of allowing more misuse and technique abuse in.

The title of this blog post is back to basics which, I hope you can appreciate actually are not basics at all. They are extremely complex recording and mixing techniques driven by experience and genius. They are techniques developed over years of work which demanded certain technological improvements which digital as delivered on.

Who are we to ask for unlimited track counts and millions of plugin instances with surgical editing capabilities when we are clueless about recording and mixing in a fashion which has produced some of the best sounding music ever? Who knows, maybe fighting the noise floor was a much more significant and positive development than any increase in track count or auto tuner could ever imagine to be.

Where does this change our development focus? Well, readers, where do you think?

Thanks for reading!


Why Listening Matters

I am not a heavy YouTube user. At the most, I will look at chunks of concerts by my favourite musicians or possibly a long interview. That said, I have been glued to YouTube for about two and a half hours listening to round table discussion with Steve Berkowitz (Senior Vice President of Sony Legacy), Greg Calbi (Mastering Engineer), Evan Cornog (Audiophile), Michael Fremer (Editor of Stereophile Magazine), Kevin Killen (Record and Mix Engineer), and Craig Street (Record Producer). The panel span the music production process from inception to playback.

Music as a Rewarding Experience

First, they talked about how people need to set aside time to listen to things. In our modern listening world, everything is done in a rush; probably more so since this video was recorded. Services like Spotify and TuneIn are amazing for allowing us to listen to what we like, when we like. However, the chances are that we will mostly listen to them while we do something else. Music is not seen as an enriching experience as much as it should.

Technology and Music

Interestingly, the question of technology advancing and whether the standard of low quality MP3 would move on and be replaced by something better was raised. The panel were mainly positive that it would; however, one person felt that there is no demand for anything better as no one knows that there is better; which, is a fascinating thing to think about. The term “sonic junkfood” was extremely apt. I would be confident in saying that the breakthrough in the ability of storing more music than you would ever want in your pocket greatly outweighed any sonic disadvantages which were inherent. One good sign is that since this was recorded, the emergence of Spotify and its premium 320mbps streaming service has taken quite a hold; which is definitely a great place to start. Hopefully, this will become the norm for free subscriptions.

The panel asked could the digital recording process recreate old analogue recordings? For me, this is one of the audio myths. If a single performance is simultaneously recorded with analogue and digital (properly), I am of the belief that both performances will be captured adequately. In fact, I would go as far to say that the democratisation of audio production to the masses is what gives digital systems a more negative reputation that deserved as productions can be more often than not, low quality. This democratisation is also the most positive development in terms of promoting music which may not have otherwise gotten out into the world.

An interesting point touched on in the video is how DAWs nowadays give users almost limitless possibilities with huge track counts and processing that would have been considered magic in the olden days! Perhaps we have reached a point where we need to combine the working methodologies of analogue and digital, which is what I do everyday as a sound engineer. If a song can’t be put down in 24 tracks, then chances are, there needs to be a rethink!

The Video

The video has been muted by YouTube due to it having real life songs played as musical examples. I have re-uploaded the video without these musical pieces in the hope that YouTube does not mute it again, so apologies if you are disappointed by the back of musical examples.