5.1 Surround Sound From the Engineer's Perspective

An interview with legendary recording engineer Elliot Scheiner

Elliot Scheiner has been making records, in his words, "for longer than I care to remember." He got his start when he was quite young, under the direct guidance of the legendary Phil Ramone at A&R Recording. Within just a few months, he graduated from assistant to engineer.

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Elliot Scheiner began his career working for Phil Ramone in 1967. Today he is considered a leading authority on surround sound mixing.

Since then, Scheiner has recorded many albums that have become gold standards in the industry. He's responsible for the pristine sound of Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, and his list of credits reads like a Who's Who in the music business, from Aerosmith to Grover Washington, Jr. More importantly, he's become the "go-to" guy for producing and mixing surround music. He's breathed 5.1 life into such great recordings as The Eagles' Hell Freezes Over and Sting's Brand New Day.

Elliot has put his stamp of approval on the Panasonic DVD-Audio system that now comes standard on the Acura TL, personally tuning the sound system in the vehicle. When I called, he was driving into Manhattan in his Acura TL, of course. First thing that I wanted to know is what music did he have loaded up in the car.

Elliot Scheiner: I have Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, R.E.M., Faith Hill, The Flaming Lips, and the demo DVD-Audio disc that came with the car.

Leslie Shapiro: What do you listen to at home when you're not working?

Scheiner: Well, I'm working most of the time, but if I'm not, I'll usually listen to some jazz, like Diana Krall.


LS: These days, people are listening to your music on a variety of systems. How do you feel about home-theater-in-a-box, 'satellite/sub' systems? Are they the demise of music as we know it?

Scheiner: I gotta say that I'm in favor of them, only because it gets them out there to the masses. It's important for the music industry that we can make this changeover [to surround sound] sooner rather than later. So the more people that have home theaters that are capable of playing DVD-Audio, I'm happy about it, regardless of what it sounds like. [DVD-Audio discs can be played on a DVD-Video player, which will play the DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 mix].

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Many home theater systems, such as the JVC TH-M505, can decode DVD-Audio discs and play them back in 5.1 surround sound.

LS: Why do you think that DVD-Audio and surround music hasn't taken off? What's holding it back?

Scheiner: It's a combination of things. People are unfamiliar with it, and it's not easy to get a hold of. I've told Acura and Honda to tell people to go to Amazon.com or DVDEmpire.com where you can get a good selection of DVD-Audio. If you walk into your local record store, they send you to the video department because they don't know what DVD-Audio is, or they just have a small amount. Even the dealers aren't aware of it. It hasn't been easy, and people need systems to play it on. They can play DVD-Audio on their DVD-Video players either in DTS or Dolby Digital, [it will play the Dolby Digital or DTS tracks found on most DVD-Audio discs, but it will not play the high-resolution DVD-Audio tracks].

What the major labels are working on right now are the flipdiscs — the new DualDisc formats, with PCM CD audio on one side, and DVD-Audio or DVD-Video on the other. That could have a big impact; people might be buying it for the CD layer, but they might get curious about what's on the other side. I also believe that the biggest impact is going to be the automobile. Any time the industry has made a change, it was never successful until it was in the car. So I'm convinced it's going to take a lot of cars to make surround music successful.

LS: What do you tell someone who thinks that two-channel stereo is good enough?

Scheiner: That they haven't experienced surround sound. Every person that I've taken into the studio or the car that is hearing it for the first time is completely blown away. They go, 'Wow, I've never heard anything like this before, it's incredible!' And, then it's hard to go back to stereo, and I agree! Once you've heard 5.1, it's difficult to go back.

LS: What was the first 5.1 recording you ever heard, and what was your first impression?

Scheiner: The first one I heard was a Boyz2Men CD on DTS. They [DTS Entertainment] gave it to me as a demo because I was getting ready to mix The Eagles Hell Freezes Over, so I wanted some kind of idea of what people were doing, what was going on. They had one voice in every speaker, and it was kind of cool! People are being adventurous, and there's no sense of 'mono' or 'stereo', and that's just great. It gave me the lead-in to how to approach 5.1, especially for The Eagles.

LS: On Hell Freezes Over, you've put many things besides the vocals in the center channel. Some car systems use a tiny speaker for the center channel. Are you worried about that?

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The Kenwood Excelon KVT-915DVD offers DVD-Audio playback, built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, and a center channel output for true multichannel sound in your car.

Scheiner: No, I'm not. In fact, I'm actually going to start putting more information in the center because of the car. That center speaker really does 'center' the information. If you're using primarily phantom stereo, you get the impression that maybe the center is off to the left a little bit, whereas if you're using the center more aggressively, you actually feel the center. I was always worried about where people would put their center speaker, in the car and in the home — is it going to be over the TV, in the ceiling, is it going to be on the floor, is it going to be there at all?!? So, I was worried about putting critical information in the center speaker only. I used a Linda Ronstadt disc, mixed by George Massenburg, that primarily used her voice in the center speaker and the reverbs all around in the surrounds to help tune the Acura system.


LS: How much input did you have on the Acura design?

Scheiner: Really nothing — Mark Ziemba, the lead engineer from Panasonic Automotive Systems, designed it. I tried to talk Panasonic into a system based on the concept that I make music for a living, I know what music should sound like, especially in the car. But, they didn't really buy into it at first. They had already acquired the Acura account and they had been talking about surround sound, and Acura thought it was a great idea to have someone involved in the music industry involved with them. It was the first time that someone who recorded music was also responsible for the playback. The design had been predetermined before I got there, so my job was to see what it was going to sound like: the tuning and levels — the overall playback of the system. Since that time, because we've got systems coming out in other cars soon, I've gotten a little more involved with where we should have speakers, and more overall 'stuff.'

LS: How should driver position be compensated for in the car?

Scheiner: Sometimes delay, sometimes just level and EQ — it really depends on each situation. It all plays a factor in tuning for the car.

LS: For aftermarket systems, do you feel that center and subwoofer channels are necessities?

Scheiner: Absolutely! Right now, everything's been predetermined for 5.1, basically by the film and video worlds. We've got to have a center channel. The center channel is needed for dialogue, and we (the music industry) have made concessions to accommodate for that. When I started, I didn't think the center was needed, but I was told that people wanted to hear things from all of their speakers, or else they would think the disc was bad and return it. Now it's become more important. The center channel has become part of the whole scheme, and I find myself putting elements in the center speaker to create an image from the rear, or just dedicate something only to the center speaker.

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A typical 5.1 set-up in a car. See our article on Multichannel Music in Your Car for more information on how to get surround sound in your vehicle.

In the home or the car, the subwoofer's importance isn't even questionable. The subwoofer is equally important, especially when you consider how much it is used in movies for dramatic impact. People love low-end in their cars. I'm not a huge fan of that, but there's a subwoofer in the Acura, and it's important.

LS: Is 5.1 enough, or are you looking at 7.1, or even 10.2?

Scheiner: I'm completely satisfied with 5.1, and I think that 10.2 is just ridiculous. 5.1 is just fine, and when I hear talk about 6.1 or 7.1, I think it must be coming from speaker manufacturers. We've been struggling for so long to get people to switch to 5.1; now are you going to ask them to buy a new amplifier, more speakers? And where are they going to put them? Stereo was fine for 47 years — 5.1 is all we can handle right now.


LS: As an engineer, I have a stack of discs that I use as a reference — they're discs that I know and have listened to in many different situations, so I can load one of these up and know how the speakers are coloring the sound. What discs, if any, do you rely on?
Porcupinetree

Scheiner: I really don't have any. If I'm working in a new studio, I trust that the monitor speakers are going to be flat. And honestly, I rarely work in a studio with a sound that I'm unfamiliar with. You do your work and you feel confident in certain places. The fear factor is that you'll go to a new place and screw things up. I'm actually going to mix a 5.1 album in the UK (for Porcupine Tree). It's in a new studio for me, which I haven't done in a long time. I've really only done 5.1 mixes in about 3 or 4 studios. But, I'm going to insist that they have my speakers — I still use Yamaha NS-10's for stereo.

LS: Those are my home speakers!

Scheiner: Yeah, mine too! I still find that they're the most reliable and accurate speakers ever built!

LS: What can we see from surround sound in the future?

Scheiner: The DualDisc might be the next 'big deal', and I think you're going to see exponential growth of surround in automobiles over the next five years. There's a huge aftermarket for that, but I know there are a couple of more vehicles coming out this year — not with my system in it — but competitive systems with discrete surround sound. I'm hoping that more and more systems get out there and become available to consumers. It's important that we make this format change — we're not going to survive on CD anymore. It's been proliferated to the max, and people just can't make a living from it anymore.

LS: How do you feel about downloading music and piracy?

Scheiner: Obviously, I don't feel good about it. If it were controlled, then it would be okay. But, it was 'free' for so long that the kids don't feel that they should pay for it. There are ways — WindowsMedia9 is capable of downloading 5.1 at a very high resolution. I've heard this, and it's amazing. And, it's controlled — they can determine what you get and whether you can make a copy of it or not. That's the way to go.

It's nice that iTunes is doing that, and people are actually using it! My kids buy stuff from iTunes. My son doesn't download without paying; he's a musician and he's appreciative of all of these issues. I would say that ninety percent of the people working at record companies have minimal jobs — it affects the economy pretty severely when people pirate like that.


LS: On a brighter note, what can we expect to see from Elliot Scheiner in the future?

Scheiner: I'm hoping to continue working on cars. I really enjoy that. Doing something that you've never been involved in and had no knowledge of, and learning a whole new thing has been outstanding for me. Being able to take part in the development of the system and take that vehicle out on the test track and drive it at 100 mph - now that stuff is thrilling to me! I spend how many hours a day in studios?

So to get out of the studio and do stuff like that is really incredible — awesome. So, I'm looking to do a lot more cars, but I'm not looking to stop doing what I do as far as making music. I truly love recording and mixing music. I'm going to make a solo record with Donald Fagen later this year, so that should be fun. My son is actually working with him right now on that project.

LS: Are there any classic recordings that you want the opportunity to mix in surround?

Scheiner: Well, I'm doing the whole Steely Dan catalog — that'll be fun - and the Cars' first record?

LS: So basically you can do whatever you want.

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Scheiner did the surround mix for Sting's latest album, Brand New Day.

Scheiner: No, no, I can't, but I've developed a pretty decent reputation, so guys do call me to do some of their stuff. You know, I don't get all the calls, mainly just from Warner Brothers and Universal. I haven't done any for BMG, and only one or two for Sony, and one piece for EMI. I don't know who's doing it for them. I know that BMG is getting ready to release a lot of stuff, and I'm not doing any of it.

LS: Besides your own recordings, and the Linda Ronstadt album you mentioned, what other surround recordings do you enjoy?

Scheiner: You should check out Insane Clown Posse — ah, it's outstanding! Nathaniel Kunkel did it — it's absolutely amazing.

LS: What would you do if you weren't an engineer and producer?

Scheiner: [Without a moment hesitation] A baseball player.

LS: What position?

Scheiner: Third base.

LS: What team?

Scheiner: Mets.

LS: XM or SIRIUS?

Scheiner: I've got XM in my car, and I really love the programming. It sounds great in my car! It's such a great way to listen to music. I'm so disappointed that they're using a matrix for surround sound. I just wish they would carry a true 5.1 signal. If anyone has any pull with them?

LS: What's your favorite sound?

Scheiner: It's got to be the sound of Ray Charles' voice.

LS: Any final thoughts?

Scheiner: Go out and buy surround music. At least listen to it, and not just in a movie theater. I saw a woman at the supermarket driving the Acura with my sound system in it, and when I asked if she enjoyed the surround system and had listened to DVD-Audio, she didn't even know what I was talking about. Listen to surround music. Once you hear it, you'll be hooked.

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