ADVENTURES IN SURROUND SOUND PRODUCTION
By George Petersen
I JUST PRODUCED A SURROUND SOUND ALBUM, which evidently is something akin to admitting you have mononucleosis or herpes simplex. Consumers seemingly have no problem sitting for hours in the safe cocoon of their living room/home theater, yet these days, don’t seem to be too engaged with any kind of audio format that requires the listener to remain in the listening area. Why? The reasons are many I suppose, but being deluged with a variety of short-lived surround audio formats never helped the situation. And if truth be told, there have been far too many unlistenable surround audio releases in past years. In fact, within my own recorded media collection, only a few dozen audio-only multichannel releases stand out.
With that in mind, co-producer JJ Jenkins and I could easily have been taken to the nuthouse for even attempting to do a new surround album in this day and age, but we had our reasons. For one, the band (Chelle and Friends) actually lends itself to a surround sound medium. The project (Voodooville: A Celebration of New Orleans) is a collection of songs by/about the Big Easy, performed by four world-class vocalists, accompanied by bass, drums, hand percussion and reeds (the latter mostly playing fills and solos). As a departure from the usual approach, the group has a whole lotta vocals, but no melody instruments, which opens up a lot of spatial possibilities without resorting to the whirling pans and “ping-ponged” sounds designed more for speaker demos than musical enjoyment.
One oft-overlooked aspect of modern production is the performances themselves. Nothing sterile or pre-programmed here. This thing jumps. Voodooville’s musical genre is not easily defined—it’s jazz, funk, soul, rock, blues, gospel, Cajun, Creole, Caribbean, African and more—all stirred into this stewpot of musical gumbo that’s sweet, spicy, aromatic and definitely intoxicating.
Any performance by New Orleans native Michelle Jacques (and her very special friends) is like Mardi Gras itself. Swamp pop classics such as “Hey Pocky Way” and “Wang Dang Doodle” are followed by a breathtaking version of “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans”—a song far more poignant in light of recent events. From that depth of emotion, we’re lifted up by “Fire Water” and “See You Later, Alligator” before the title track, which emphasizes “There ain’t no getting out of Voodooville,” with the infectious rhythms and mystic images that still haunt the Vieux Carre. Despite its name, “Pearly Gates” is anything but gospel, and concludes the album like a glass of fine cognac after a great meal.
In selecting a surround release format, we sidestepped the lure of releasing the music on a specialty format du jour, instead opting for the universality of a standard DVD-Video disk. So it’s an audio album released on a video DVD format—playable on any DVD player—but with still images accompanied by a choice of three soundtracks (5.1 surround sound in Dolby Digital or DTS formats) and an uncompressed 24-bit stereo PCM track—a pretty nice bonus item, if you ask me. Also, in creating the 5.1 masters we spent hours experimenting with various mix parameters to optimize the surround codecs and it shows in the final product.
I’m probably crazy, but the notion of releasing surround audio on a format that’s actually accessible to the average consumer has a lot of merit. Recently, my co-producer JJ Jenkins heard the familiar sounds of “Voodooville” playing in a Sears store, where the sales guy was using the disk to demo a home theater setup, and a small crowd of people gathered. They weren’t elite audiophiles and probably most of them had never heard a surround audio album, but were certainly enjoying the sounds. And that’s always the point of any musical performance—live or recorded. Works for me.
As a sidenote, I should admit that yes, we also released the project as a stereo physical CD and as Internet downloads, but mixing (and listening) in 5.1 is definitely a lot of fun and with the ease of playback folddown from surround to 2-channel, it’s too bad that a single universal surround format doesn’t exist, although I guess there’s always MP3-surround…
If you’re curious, click here to check out a taste of “Voodooville” on You Tube. Unfortunately, the clip is merely stereo, but with a little imagination, anything is possible.
George Petersen is an independent journalist/author/producer. Visit him on Facebook or at www.audioinfosource.com.
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