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HFR Feature Article

 High Fidelity Review Feature:
 Brothers in Arms 20th Anniversary Edition
 High-Resolution Mixing in 5.1 — the Chuck Ainlay Way ~ Part Two

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Chuck Ainlay with the Nuendo software suite (background).
Preserving the Original Intent

In essence, for the 20th Anniversary edition of ‘Brothers in Arms’, Ainlay stresses how he certainly didn’t want to deviate to any degree with regards to the creative approach which Neil Dorfsman had applied all those years ago. “I referenced continually back and forth since I was creating a mix to be as true to his work as I possibly could,” he recalls. “Of course he didn’t have available to him the same sort of quality converters as I do now. Back then Neil was mixing to something like a Sony 1630 which were pretty awful converters by today’s standards, and moreover, he was mixing from one of the original 3324 DASH machines with inferior converters to those in the HR.

He adds: “This time around I definitely feel I had some advantages as far as being able to ‘warm up’ the album, and take advantage of new technology. But I also tried where possible to use the same sort of equipment which Neil would have used — i.e. space stations and plates and chambers which are the real analogue devices, rather than some digital emulation of them. Having said that, I also took advantage of the digital domain, where it made sense, by using some of the cool hip things which are available now as Nuendo plug-ins. For example, to make the surround more interesting, I used fair bit of Universal Audio’s UAD1 card which has a really effective EMT plate emulation, not to mention Fairchild, Pultec, LA2As and 1176s which are some of the best plug-ins available which use dedicated processors on the PCI board, as opposed draining the processor of the PC itself. But at the same time I also used some host based plug-ins in the PC itself where necessary. Of course the analogue Neve console has great compressors and equalisers as well as allowing me to use all my other vintage outboard equipment.

Readers of High Fidelity Review are no doubt aware that some so-called audiophile purists become alarmed whenever the terms ‘compression’ and ‘equalisation’ are mentioned. When this point was put to Ainlay, he acknowledged this widespread perception. “Many well-meaning observers simply don’t understand what it takes to make a record such as this. For a start, the output from the microphones — depending on where they are placed — invariably doesn’t sound like the source or the instrument. In many cases there is ambience which needs to be dealt with, such as when mic-ing a drum kit, where the microphone is unnaturally close to it. In such a situation, what that microphone hears is not what you would hear in the room.

Furthermore, he stresses that recording and mixing is an ‘art’ which is all about allowing a sound which is actually quite loud to still sound good at a lower volumes. As for the dreaded ‘EQ’, what he also points out is when one sound has the same tonal spectrum as another, it would tend to mask that other sound. For example, if one would put these two full range sounds up against each other, one might well cancel-out the other. “I therefore need to use EQ to ‘carve-out’ a place for an instrument to ‘live’ in. I believe that the only way you could even conceive of doing an album without any EQ or compression is if you just put up a pair of stereo mics in the hall and leave it at that. But making a pop album — where you have to make it exciting to hear, with many discrete sounds from several speakers — is a wholly different creative process which takes many years to learn how to do. Moreover, compression and EQ are an essential part of that.

Bass Management — Avoiding the Pitfalls

Now to the vexed question of bass management — a stage which is so often badly implemented from disc to disc, and from consumer player to player. Ainlay insists that studios should never apply bass management onto the disc itself, i.e. applying a crossover filter to the main channels and redirecting all the bass below a certain frequency slope into the subwoofer channel. “The problem which arises is that when this is reproduced in the home on a machine which already has 5.1 bass management, the end result coming out of the speakers would be dual-bass managed, leading to all kinds of phasing problems with the different filter slopes [i.e. one in the studio, and another in the player/HT system]. This issue is especially critical today, given that more and more people now have bass management on their home system.

To this end, the approach with the BIA 5.1 remix was to assume that the listeners would have either a full-range centre, left, right, and surround speakers, or will have their own bass management. In short, would be listening to full-range reproduction on each channel. “My feeling is not to use the sub as an accompaniment to what I have in the front and rear speakers, but rather, to use it as what it is indicated as — i.e. an LFE channel which was originally intended to be only used for effects in theatres.

In the end result, Ainlay acknowledges that a discrete sub channel does have a useful purpose for multichannel music: “I do use it, for example, to accentuate the bass drums, but that is very sparingly applied. On BIA there is also some thunder and some low-frequency percussion elements for which I logically use the sub channel to do what it does best, without taking anything away from the main speakers.

The Mix — From the Listener’s Perspective

Unlike many so called surround-sound mixes which just use the rears sparingly and for ambience, Ainlay intended that for this project, the rear speakers would be highly utilised. Indeed, there is information placed in the rears which is as loud as that in the fronts. And we are not just talking about effects and ‘jingle-jangles’ in the back. To this end, and since this is not a live performance, Ainlay takes the artistic liberty of utilising the rears to a large extent thus surrounding the listener by the music as if he/she is ‘centre-stage’. He also makes the soundstage even larger by using effects to produce dimension ‘beyond’ the speakers themselves. He was of course mindful of the fact that the two ‘featured’ parts of Dire Straits were Mark Knopfler’s lead singing and also his solo guitar playing. Consequently, Ainlay feels that for the most part, Mark’s guitar playing needs to be in front of the listener. “However, there are some deviations from that idea,” he notes, “such as when some of Marks’ acoustic guitars and rhythm instruments are placed left and right rear, complemented by various ethereal ‘off-in-the-distance’ effects.

For example on one of the songs the saxophone is placed in the right rear while a guitar comes from a far-off place using the left rear, and all this whilst not distracting the listener from focusing on the actual lead subjects in the front and centre. Regarding the lead vocals, Ainlay carefully keeps these in the centre channel primarily, which also spreads out to the adjacent left and right fronts, being about 6dB down in these. The result is that even if the listener is off-centre, he would still find the vocal imaging to be anchored straight up in the front centre.

However, so as to make the vocals ‘float’ a bit more, Ainlay pulls them very subtly away the front speakers and towards the back by putting a sparing amount also in the rear speakers. This effect is also aided by the judicious application of delay effects, harmonisers and reverb etc. to create dimensions beyond the front speakers and give that same sort of depth which one would be used to hearing in a stereo presentation.

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The now famous National on top of Mark Knopfler’s tube EMI desk.
Now for drums and percussion: Where possible, and with the help of ambient microphones, Ainlay draws the cymbals back slightly and by putting them mostly in the front but with some also in the rear. The toms also float back into the room somewhat by doing the same thing, whereas the snare and the kick-drum are more obviously anchored on the front wall, whilst the piano is spread with effects so it fills the room entirely. There are also appearances of a venerable Hammond B3 organ, which, in some cases has been doubled-tracked such that there are moments when one of the Hammond B3 tracks is in the front left/right, while the other emanates from the rear left/right, to result in a huge swirling sound all round the listener.

Synth pads are also used to effect in both the fronts and the rears simultaneously which ‘fill-up’ the room. But besides these more ethereal ‘paddy’ elements, Ainlay is deliberately more discrete about placement of other cornerstone elements including accordions, saxes or percussion instruments which usually feature in the front left/right or surrounds.

It is worth noting that listeners generally become pretty used to the speakers in the rear, and in terms of our human auditory perception, they start ‘going away’ — unless there is activity which moves around, such as percussive hits,” observes Ainlay. “This is illustrated when you take a synth pad and place it in a rear speaker, and pretty soon you just don’t hear it in the rear anymore. This phenomenon occurs in real life where we are just so used to hearing things in front of us and turning our head to find out where that sound is coming from, so your mind just tends to start ignoring sounds that are continuous from the rear. So what I have accomplished, hopefully, makes for a lot of entertaining movement.

Thoughts on DVD-Audio and SACD Formats…

And now to the very end product: As touched-upon earlier, Bob Ludwig performed all the EQ in the digital domain from the PCM 96kHz 24-bit 5.1 Nuendo tracks at his extensive facility in Portland, Maine. This was basically just a digital transfer through his EQ and compression at 96/24 for the DVD-Audio version, but then he had to resample it for SACD.

I think both the SACD and DVD-Audio products sound great,” enthuses Ainlay. “However, from the purist point of view, I do prefer the 24-bit Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) DVD-Audio (on the DualDisc) over the DSD hybrid-SACD version. On a previous Mark Knopfler album, ‘Shangri-La’, we mixed to lots of different formats: We had a Nuendo session running 96/24; We also mixed to a DSD Sonoma system. Interestingly, as much as we had heard about how great DSD recording technology was, we nevertheless felt that it altered the sound to some degree, whereas the 96/24 LPCM was more representative of the original mix straight out of the console. In addition, we also mixed it to half-inch analogue tape at 30 IPS, as well as to 15 IPS, one-inch tape in two-track. And everyone in the room had the same opinion that the 96kHz 24-bit PCM was the closest representation of the console bus, and coming second was the 15 IPS one-inch analogue tape. Thereafter, it was a toss-up of which came in third and fourth — i.e. was it the Sonoma DSD, or the half inch 30 IPS tape? So going forward now, we have basically determined that we prefer 96kHz 24-bit PCM for recording over the Sonoma DSD. I was really surprised at that. I thought that I would like the Sonoma DSD recording the best, but after speaking with other people and Bob Ludwig himself — who is highly knowledgeable of DSD — we feel there is nevertheless is an inescapable ‘softening’ effect which DSD imparts. To me this seems to emulate analogue to some degree, but is not necessarily the closest representation of the console output.

High Fidelity Review would like to thank Chuck Ainlay for all the time he spent talking to us and for providing the extensive background information found within this article. We’d also like to thank him for allowing to use some of his photographs.


Martin Fendt - 22/11/2005


 •  Part One - DASH and Analogue Mixdowns...

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