While the surround sound system has been around for decades, it wasn’t until recently that the technology really took off in homes. Thanks to the adoption of surround sound by big-name streaming platforms, it’s more accessible than ever.
I learned that the hard way when I was hired to mix music for a digital ad. The piece was going to stream in surround sound. My studio was only set up for stereo, so I mixed the music like I normally would.
When I was finally able to hear the finished product with their 5.1 studio monitor setup, I couldn’t believe how different that piece sounded. There were so many glaring issues that I didn’t even notice in stereo!
That’s when I decided to learn how to set up a surround sound system in my home studio. Come to find out, having surround sound provides more benefits than I could have ever imagined.
- What is Surround Sound?
- 5.1, 7.1, and 9.1 surround sound: What Does It All Mean?
- Why Listen To Music in Surround Sound Speakers?
- What Speakers Do You Need for 5.1 Surround Sound?
- Surround Sound Speakers Placement
- The Calibration Process
- What About Setting Up Surround Sound for Home Theater
- 5.1 Studio Monitor Setup, All Clear!
What is Surround Sound?
First things first, what exactly is surround sound?
There’s a good chance that you have experienced surround sound at some point or another. One of the earliest examples of this technology was Disney’s Fantasia film, which debuted back in 1941. Since then, it has become a staple in cinemas across the world.
Basically, surround sound is a mixing and encoding process that directs sound to individual speakers around the room. It’s meant to create an immersive listening experience that’s true to life.
You see, traditional stereo sound works on the principles of delivering sound to each ear. When you’re mixing music, various parts of the song are panned to the left and right cans, giving each of your ears something unique to pick up.
While this is great in theory, it doesn’t replicate spacial awareness. That’s where surround sound picks up the slack.
By splitting up the audio signal into multiple channels, you’re able to manipulate where sounds come from and how people hear them. Have you ever wondered how movies manage to make the action sound like it’s happening all around you? Well, you have to thank the surround sound for that!
5.1, 7.1, and 9.1 surround sound: What Does It All Mean?
Surround sound has evolved quite a bit in the last couple of decades. There are now multiple formats available.
If you have ever taken a look at a home surround sound system, you might have seen some labels like 5.1, 7.1, and 9.1. This isn’t complicated technical jargon.
The numbers simply represent the number of channels and speakers the system has.
5.1 surround sound system is one of the most common setups for consumer products. These surround speakers have a left and right to recreate stereo outputs.
To accompany those two speakers, there’s a center channel, a rear left channel, and a rear right channel. Add those channels up and you have five of the 5.1 studio monitor setup.
But what about the .1? Well, the .1 refers to the LFE channel, or Low-Frequency Effects channel. This channel is what gives you the booming sound you’re after. The LFE is connected to a subwoofer and has a limited frequency response. Depending on the particular model, most will have a frequency cutoff between 100 and 200 Hz.
The LFE doesn’t replace your bass. But rather, it gives it that extra punch. Lower frequencies still come out of the other channels. The LFE only complements them, which is why it doesn’t receive a full number.
Higher figures, such as 7.1 and 9.1, simply mean that the system has additional channels. 7.1 has an additional two channels over 5.1 while 9.1 has four extra channels. 5.1 studio monitor setup is the most used by the majority of people.
Why Listen To Music in Surround Sound Speakers?
As you might have gathered, surround sound is typically reserved for films and television. With that said, there are many reasons why you may want to learn how to set up a surround sound system in your home studio.
First and foremost, surround sound speakers gives you the opportunity to hear every detail of your music. The beauty of having more audio channels to work with is that there’s less information coming out of each individual speaker.
This helps to reduce the overall muddiness that’s often associated with stereo mixes. As a result, you’re able to hear fine details that would otherwise be lost. It’s a great way to catch mistakes and correct issues that get buried in traditional stereo setups.
Appealing to a Wider Audience
The popularity of home surround sound systems is quickly rising. As such, more and more people are turning their home cinemas into multi-functional entertainment spaces where they can enjoy music.
Having surround sound speakers in your home studio allows you to cater to those listeners. You can fine-tune your mixes to sound great in all situations.
Whether your audience is enjoying your tunes in stereo, surround sound, or simulated surround sound in headphones, perfecting the mix at the source ensures that everyone is enjoying it how it was intended to be heard.
Another big benefit of surround sound is that it gives you more control over the final product. With a stereo mix, you can only pan in one dimension. Surround sound lets you manipulate signals in two dimensions.
Not only does this give you more room to create the listening experience you’re after, but you’re able to layer sounds more strategically. This is especially useful with orchestral music and sound effects. Rather than placing the signal in some random space on the spectrum, you can be more selective and adjust everything to perfection.
Future-Proofing Your Work
Last, but not least, a surround setup can help you prepare for any future releases. Say, for example, that you want to include your work in a project that takes advantage of 5.1 audio.
If you worked in surround sound, most of the job is already done. The cool thing about using the surround setup in your home studio is that you can still publish in stereo.
While the immersive soundscape you created won’t be replicated exactly, that information is still present and available. It’s simply compressed and encoded into stereo for your listeners that don’t have surround sound.
What Speakers Do You Need for 5.1 Surround Sound?
To create a 5.1 studio monitor setup in your home studio, you need a series of five speakers and one subwoofer for the LFE channel. These speakers correspond with the following channels:
- 1 Left
- 2 Right
- 3 Center
- 4 Left surround (LS)
- 5 Right surround (RS)
- 5.1 LFE
When you’re choosing speakers, it’s recommended that you go with nearfield studio monitors rather than consumer-grade speakers.
While it is technically possible to use traditional speakers, studio monitors offer a couple of advantages. For one, they’re usually active speakers. Standard speakers are typically passive and require external power from an amp to operate.
Studio monitors have all of the components built-in. Not only that, but they often have separate drivers for bass, mids, and treble, ensuring that your music has the appropriate dynamic response. Plus, active speakers allow for a better audio crossover, which is paramount with surround sound.
Secondly, the primary goal in the studio is to listen to music without any unique tone. Critical listening is all about hearing the audio how it was recorded. Studio monitors are specifically made to provide a flat frequency response without any coloring whatsoever, making the audio sound as true to life as possible.
Surround Sound Speakers Placement
One of the trickiest parts of speaker placement, whether it’s for a stereo speaker setup or surround sound setup, is finding that elusive “sweet spot.”
The “sweet spot” is the part of the room where you will be hearing the speakers best. Small factors like reverb, sound reflection off the walls, and overall room tone can affect what you hear. In the “sweet spot,” all of that is minimized and you’re hearing the speakers above everything else.
There are several factors that come into play when determining the right speaker placement. This includes room size, low-frequency control, absorption techniques, and more. It can be tough to get things just right, but it is manageable with some basic guidelines and fine-tune tweaking.
The best way to look at placement is to treat the mixing position as a circle. The “sweet spot” will be the center.
First, let’s start with the left and right stereo speakers. Place the speakers in front of the monitoring spot and place them equidistant from one another. So, if the speakers are placed four feet away from you, they should be approximately four feet away from one another.
Aim for a distance of about 67.5 inches from the “sweet spot.” This is often regarded as the optimal position for tweeters. Though, it may vary based on the parameters of your room. Then, angle the speakers about 30 degrees towards the monitoring spot.
Now, you can place the center speaker directly in front of you. Again, use the same distance as the left and right speakers. When you’re done, all three speakers should be the same distance away from the “sweet spot.”
When it comes to height, your speakers should be placed at the approximate height of your ears when sitting. This is usually at least 47 inches off the floor. Make sure that the speakers are pointed straight ahead rather than angled downward.
Now, let’s move on to the rear surround speakers. Using the same distance guidelines as the front speakers, you’ll need to place the left surround and right surround at an angle.
To find the right angle and placement, think back at that circle we discussed earlier. You want to place the speakers at about 110 degrees from the center speaker line. This will be a bit farther back than 90 degrees to your side.
You may need to do some fine-tuning here to get things just right. Generally, there are about 10 degrees of wiggle room in both directions, so do some experimenting.
Finally, there’s the LFE subwoofer. The great thing about the LFE is that there are no exact placement guidelines. Remember, the subwoofer is only supplementing the bass frequencies. The low-frequency response from the subwoofer will be omnidirectional, so you can place it under a desk or to the rear of the room and still get the same effect.
The Calibration Process
After all your speakers are placed, there’s still some work to do!
Your monitors need to be calibrated in order to provide you with accurate sound. The calibration process ensures that all speakers have the right Sound Pressure Level or SPL.
There are a couple of ways to go about this. There are some automatic systems that will calibrate the monitors using a microphone. However, for most home studios, you can get the job done with an SPL meter (Sound Pressure Level).
The desired SPL for your studio will depend on its size. Usually, this figure should fall somewhere between 78 and 85 decibels.
Start by turning any independent level controls on the monitors all the way down. Then, set your DAW or interface to unity gain.
Now, launch a signal generator to output pink noise and set the output to -18 dB or -20 dB depending on how much headroom you want.
Set your SPL meter in the “sweet spot” and set it to the C-weighted scale function. This scale includes the full spectrum with frequencies humans can’t hear. It’s ideal for calibration.
At this point, you can pan the signal to individual monitors and adjust the levels accordingly. The goal is to fine-tune the level knob on the back of the monitor until your meter is showing you the desired SPL rating.
While it seems tough, it’s a relatively simple process that can make a huge difference when you’re listening.
What About Setting Up Surround Sound for Home Theater
A surround sound system in your home studio will give you a pristine listening environment. You’ll be able to listen critically and hear fine details that were lost in the stereo soundscape.
As any seasoned audio engineer will tell you, it’s important to listen to your final mix in a real-world environment after you’re done. Studios are highly controlled spaces.
A vast majority of your listeners aren’t going to have that high-quality equipment and proper placement. So, it’s a good idea to create an area where you can hear how your mix will sound to your audience.
The best way to do that is in a home theater setup.
The good news is that a lot of the elements are the same in a home cinema as they are in a home studio. You can use the previous techniques to find the sweet spot. Of course, there’s a lot more leeway in your home cinema. Thus, it’s easier to get things to sound good.
The primary difference with your home cinema surround sound is that you’re going to need an AV receiver. The AV receiver is responsible for decoding all of that surround sound information and sending the right signals to the right speakers.
This component acts as the nerve center for your home theater. Not only will it send signals to the appropriate channel, but it will take the input from your media player and send it to the television.
Most AV receivers feature a slew of inputs on the back. Typically, they’re labeled for simplicity. Just follow the 5.1 surround sound inputs to connect all of your speakers accordingly.
5.1 Studio Monitor Setup, All Clear!
Surround sound is the way of the future whether engineers like it or not. While the immersive sound is typically associated with blockbuster hits, music can benefit from it, too!
Thanks to the unique listening experience surround sound offers, you’re able to take your music to a new level. Whether you’re monitoring music as it’s being recorded or trying to create the best mix possible, a surround sound system in your home studio will provide you with all the feedback and information you need to make it happen.
Now that you know all this, time to make your own 5.1 studio monitor setup, or more!