Remixing Patriots and Tyrants in Surround

Okay, so I need to vent a little bit today about the sound mixing for my short film, Patriots and Tyrants, which has its world premiere coming up in about two weeks in Washington DC.

The film has been pretty much set to go since August 19, when I submitted it to Sundance, and subsequently launched the trailer and website a few days later. At that time, Patriots and Tyrants was mixed into stereo, which, if you don’t know, is two channel sound. Half the sound comes out of the left speaker, half out of the right. Been around for a few decades, but it’s fairly standard.

However, films at the theater have many more channels than this. My personal home theater system has 7 speakers – three in the front, two in the middle on the side and two in the back. This gives you the “surround sound” effect you hear so much about when people try to market you a home theater system. Movie theaters themselves can have more; I understand IMAX runs on something like 12 channels.

Why do we care about this?

1. If you see any film, including Patriots and Tyrants, in the theater, you’re used to having a certain set of expectations when it comes to your sound. The dialogue mostly comes from the screen – or, really, the center speaker which is mounted behind or just above or below your screen (the former in theaters and the latter at home). The music and effects tend to come in from the sides. An oversimplification – but anyone who goes to the theater is subconsciously attuned to this balance. Anything else will seem slightly off, and could be distracting. And the last thing you want your viewer to be in a film is distracted by weird sound.

2. Apparently, to qualify for an Academy Award nomination, your film HAS to have a minimum of three channels. Not to say that we’re expecting (though of course HOPING!) Patriots and Tyrants to do that well right out of the box, but no point in NOT being able to qualify due to a technical glitch. That’d be just plain stupid.

So, for the last week, I’ve been teaching myself how to re-master Patriots and Tyrants into Dolby Digital 5.1 – which means, essentially, five channels of audio, with the .1 denoting an LFE channel. Without getting any more technical, the LFE is for the subwoofer – the thing that makes the room vibrate when shit gets blowed up.

I went through a shit-ton of trial and error on this to get it right. Eventually, I decided the following:

1. I created a dialogue-only track (which also contains a little bit of ambient sound in the backgrounds, a downside to shooting on location instead of on a sound stage). I did this by mixing all of the dialogue together into a single MONO track. Mono – for those of you keeping score at home – is all of the sound coming out of one speaker with equal power. This gave me a nice, well-balanced dialogue track coming out of the center.

2. I’d leave my left and right audio tracks of Patriots and Tyrants alone as the front left and right tracks. These have a combination of music, dialogue and sound effects, with the person on the left side of the room coming out of the left speaker and the person on the right side coming more out of the right speaker. I figured with the center channel track, that would still give me some nice play with the dialogue while also mixing in good effects and music. I broke these into individual mono tracks (more on this below).

3. Finally, I made a stereo track with just the sound effects and music for placement in the rear speakers. I broke these up into individual mono tracks as well.

The reason why I broke up my two stereo tracks into four mono tracks for Patriots and Tyrants was that it allowed me to do what’s called “sound mapping”. I learned that this was necessary after a TON of experimenting with creating 5.1 tracks within Premiere. They look and sound fantastic within the program: everything is where it’s supposed to be. But, when you go to export, no matter how carefully you plan, Adobe Premiere,of its own volition, takes the center channel audio and dumps it into the left rear speaker. Then it puts the left rear speaker into the right rear speaker, finally moving the sound from the right rear speaker into the center channel. Can’t tell you how many times I screamed, “WTF??” at the ceiling.

The solution? Sound mapping and a Dolby Digital plugin.

So, I added all five of these tracks to my timeline under the video portion of the film in Adobe Premiere CC. Premiere’s near little digital sound mixing board makes it very easy to pick which channel goes where. For instance, if Audio 3 needs to be the center channel track, drag the dot in the sound map to the center front of the room. If Audio 4 needs to go to the right rear surround sound speaker, drag that dot to the SE corner of the board. Easy, right?

Quite by accident, I happened upon a Dolby Digital audio option in the exporting menu. Somewhat ridiculously, even though Premiere has all kinds of options for five channel sound mixing, if I wanted to actually EXPORT Patriots and Tyrants in five channels, I needed another piece of software (called a plug-in) to do it! More screaming ensued, but finally my testing paid off. I had created true 5.1 dolby digital audio.

Finally, I went back and created all new tracks for the audio for Patriots and Tyrants: now that I knew how to do it, I wanted to start fresh with tracks that were created with this process in mind. Put them together, mixed them down, exported them and SUCCESS! HD, 1080p video, 5.1 dolby digital sound for Patriots and Tyrants. All good right?

Not so fast. This is where Adobe Encore CS6, Adobe’s integrated software for burring digital videos and film to Blu-Ray (DVDs don’t support HD video) regrets to inform you that it only supports two channel sound. No plug-ins available for this problem.

At this, I let out a stream of expletives that stretch from here to Adobe’s headquarters in California.

After trying to purchase another piece of software (which also only supported two channels despite its claims otherwise), I dug around on Google a little bit more and finally found the answer. For some reason, Encore will allow you to import the video and the surround sound audio SEPARATELY.

So the long and the short of it is: Patriots and Tyrants is DONE. Both in stereo and surround sound.

Other than venting, hopefully my post here can help other would-be filmmakers. Note to self in the future: cut EVERYTHING in surround sound.