How to Mix Film Surround Sound Audio on A Budget

I used to think certain projects were off-limits for your typical home-studio freelancer.  I wrongly assumed that some projects could not be done by those that do not have the funds to afford costly equipment.

A friend of mine was on a tight deadline and needed a freshsurround-sound audio mix for his short film Kolory Listopada that would debut at the Festival du Novéau Cinema. I obliged,taking up the challenge of figuring out how I could do it without the equipment,forcing me to be creative and resourceful

I knew 3D audio could be simulated. In fact, I had a mind-blowing experience of an A/B comparison of 7.1 surround sound audio being played through a home theater setup, and then through DTS Xperi’s technology of simulating it through headphones (mimicking the existence of virtual sound sources).

What the hell does that mean?

Imagine you are a caveman 100,000 years ago. You hear a rustling in the bushes a few feet away and your survival depended on discerning the origin of that sound. In the off chance that it was a hungry saber-tooth tiger, it meant you knew which direction to run. Our brains have developed a finely tuned mechanism to understand how sonic waves interact with not only the shape of our ears, but with our shoulders, face, head, etc, before the sound finally reaches the inner ear. In mathematical terms, this is known as the head-related-transfer-function (HRTF).

In today’s age of AR/VR, simulating HRTF has been one of the greatest challenges. A few audio plugin companies such as Waves have used this concept to create innovative tools for musicians and engineers.

Now it is possible for a home-studio freelancer to mix in surround sound with just a pair of headphones. Using Ableton Live 10, the Soundflower virtual audio interface, a plugin host (LiveProfessor 2) and the Waves NX Virtual Room plugin, I was able to do just this.

Here’s how it works:

  • Six output channels (L, C, R, LS, RS, LFE) were set up in Ableton Live using Soundflower 64ch as the audio out device.
  • These channels were then fed into a plugin host (LiveProfessor 2), which hosted the Waves NX Virtual Room and Izotope Insight (for metering).
  • NX Virtual room then mixes down to a 2ch stereo mix (i.e. your headphones) – All of the audio-processing to simulate the effects of HRTF and room ambience is taken care of. The Waves NX Virtual Room also tracks the orientation of your head, so that the positions of the virtual sound sources remain fixed.

Kolory Listopada successfully premiered at the 47th edition of Festival du Noveau Cinéma in Montreal earlier this month with fresh new sound design and surround-sound audio mixed by yours truly.

Keep your eyes peeled for the web release! And let me know if you’d like a more detailed tutorial on how to mix in surround-sound with headphones.

 – Kontejas