Surround Sound for your Documentary

e-left-surround-demoMany people would suggest that it’s not necessary to enhance sound with effects, foley or speaker separation in a documentary as in 5.1 surround sound.  As if to think that you spend a year or two or three or more of your life creating a film with hopes of drawing a viewer into your story and that using audio to enhance the experience isn’t necessary.  I happen to be one of those people who believe that sound is as important, if not more important, than the video quality.  That is why I decided to add a 5.1 surround sound mix to my DIY documentary.

It did take some time to learn how to do it on FCPX, but it wasn’t too bad.  The biggest challenge is making sure that the mix I made for my doc was going to sound good when someone would watch it in their own surround sound viewing location (i.e. their living room).  Once I understood the best way to mix the sounds between the front stereo speakers, the front center speaker, the two rear speakers and the sub woofer I was able to go through all the scenes in the film and create a sound for the documentary that was close to what someone would hear if they were standing at the location that is depicted in the film.

Believe it or not, I did this on my iMac with the internal speakers that are in the iMac.  In other words I didn’t have any external speakers that were consistent with what you need to mix sound in six different speakers as expected for mixing 5.1 surround sound.  BTW – 5.1 stands for five speakers and one sub woofer.  Below is a diagram of the speakers used in a 5.1 surround sound system.  FL & FR are the Front Left & Right Speakers.  C is the Center speaker.  SW is the Sub Woofer.  SL & SR are the Surround Left and Right Speakers.


Anyway, the way I was able to monitor my mix was by using the audio meters and a ton of trial and error on DVD playback.  If you do this enough times you will get the hang of mixing on your iMac and then burning a DVD to use for monitoring the mix.  What you do is you bring the DVD into a room where you have a surround sound speaker system.  Hold on…you must have access to a 5.1 playback system somewhere for this to work.  So let’s be clear here…you do need either a sound studio in your editing room that has 5.1 surround sound speakers to monitor while you are editing or you will need to have access to a 5.1 surround sound screening room or maybe your living room with 5.1.

The tricky part is to figure out how to make sure your sound mix will sound good on other people’s 5.1 sound system and that they will hear it the way you did when you mixed it.  Now remember, this is DIY filmmaking and I stand behind it, but I do want to remind you that this is how we roll here and it’s not necessarily the easiest way to approach mixing 5.1.  But it does work.  It works great actually if you are willing to put the time in and calibrate your 5.1 listening system to high end production standards.  Don’t worry, I’ll show you how…

What I did was I to take three DVDs of relatively successful films from major studios (they don’t have to be documentaries).  I played each one in my DVD player through my 5.1 surround system in my living room.  I watched 10,15 or 20 minutes or so of each DVD and made a point of listening to scenes that had interesting sound involved that was close to what I was looking for in my film’s sound mix.  I went up to each speaker for a few minutes and listened closely to how their sound tech mixed it. By doing this I started learning what should be in each speaker as well as when to use it and how to use it.  I don’t want to go into what goes in each speaker because that is what you’ll learn if you follow my suggestions here and do a little research on the internet.

What I do want to get into in this post is how important it is to calibrate the speakers in the 5.1 sound system that you are using to what you are hearing in your edit room with the iMac internal speakers and your Surround Panner settings.  This is why you will use your 5.1 sound system to watch several other DVDs with 5.1 and find the levels and sound that you feel is a good listening level.  As you change DVDs and hear different sounds from different types of scenes you will start getting comfortable with the sound levels you like and want to match.  For example, where would you put birds tweeting and dogs barking in your mix?  Easy…find a DVD movie in 5.1 with an outdoor scene in nature and listen to all the speakers and see where the ambient sounds are coming from and the volume level that feels and sounds best.  That is the key by the way…getting the volume right.  Same thing with your sub-woofer, listen to DVDs with low frequency sounds and adjust the volume and frequency adjustments according to what levels sound good in your three DVD calibration tests.


In this screen shot you can see how I added sound effects and background sounds throughout these five scenes.  The sounds were placed in certain speakers at certain times to create the natural sound I was looking for.  All the way to the left you see a person walking in the woods. The dark blue track is his voice speaking.  The green track at the bottom is ambient sound from the woods that include occasional bird tweets that sit nicely in the front and rear speakers under the vocal track.  On the next scene where people are walking on cement I put light footsteps there.  You will also see a track of what I call ambient city sounds that sit lightly in the background of the front and rear speakers.  I consider this sound to be equal in the back and front because it’s low and not specific.  Make sure you put distinctive sounds that happen in front of the viewer in the scene you are watching primarily in the front speakers, center speakers or both. However, you may want to also drop a little of that front sound in the back speakers too just to keep the mix subtle.  In most cases the viewer should not consciously hear change from front to back…they should hear the film as if they were there by allowing front and back to blend naturally.

In the next scene the people are walking up steps.  Again, I used a light foot step effect in the front speakers but as you can see I put traffic sounds in the scene too.  The traffic sound is primarily in the rear speakers , behind  the viewer, with a little traffic sound much lower in volume in the front.  It’s important for your mix to sound real and true to the scene.  Like I said, many times you will have to mix the front and back together.  Because if you just add the traffic sounds to the back (even though the street is behind the viewer) the viewer may be distracted by the unbalanced mix.  Think of it this way, if you were standing there in real life you would hear the street traffic sounds mixed a little.  The primary sound would come from you, but it would blend in a little with what you hear in front of you.

In the second to last scene you can see that I dropped in a “clink” sound as the door closed to end the scene.  That clink sound went primarily in the front center with some left and right as well.  It could also go slightly in the rear speakers too, you have to try it both ways to see if the full sound helps.  The next shot was from across the street where I dropped in traffic in front primarily with a slight sound of traffic in the rear to make it a comfortable mix for the viewer.  What you can’t see in this image is that a truck drove right in front of the camera from left to right on the screen.  There I mixed in a loud truck sound and started it in the left speaker and phased into the right speaker as the truck drove by.  I also picked up the LFE in the sub to bring a slight rumble to the viewer that would match being on the street.  LFE stands for Low Frequency Effects and is an important adjustment you will make in creating sounds that are low and sometimes vibrate the room.  For example, a roller coaster ride may have the LFE brought up to give the viewer a perspective of the metal wheels on metal tracks sounds and feel of the ride.  In this case with the truck I wanted the viewer to feel the truck driving past the viewer.  The bottom line is this…a great left to right stereo mix with front and rear surround topped off with a true to life rumble of a truck after hearing a loud door clink sounds and feels great to the viewer watching the film.

This may sound complicated but believe me it’s not.  It’s what DIY doc making is all about and what I teach when it comes to learning from others who have had success.  Watch, study and duplicate what the best sound mixers are doing.  Yes, watch Disney, Sony and Paramount films and then copy their style for mixing.  Remember one thing…there are no rules in mixing surround sound.  Take chances and have fun…keep your viewer interested and then throw them a curve once in a while with a sound that brings your film to life.

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