Surround Sound Mastering

There have been many attempts to get immersive, surround sound music into people’s homes over the years but they’ve had only limited success until recently.


Quadraphonic sound was an early incarnation of surround sound. It was around in various forms from the 1950s to the 1970s and it inspired many ingenious adaptations of recording techniques, recording media and playback systems.

However none of it was enough to tip the format into the mainstream and into peoples’ living rooms, and stereo remains the default format in music to this day.

Recent success, thanks to the film industry!

The film industry has been more successful than the music industry at getting surround sound systems into people’s homes.

This was achieved by offering two things:

  • compelling content on high quality media such as films (already mixed in surround) on DVD, BlueRay and now from the Internet.
  • affordable and easy to install home entertainment systems like huge TV screens and 5.1 surround hi-fi systems.

As a result, the music industry has an opportunity to offer surround sound music releases on compatible media (such as DVD-Audio and SACD) that can be played on these home cinema systems. (Though we petulantly note that rear speakers in surround sound hi-fi systems are normally not of the quality we’d like for decent music playback.)

Mainstream or niche?

Surround sound will probably never be a mainstream music format but its popularity is increasing and will keep growing as surround sound hi-fi systems are installed in more homes.

A number of influential artists now release their new material in surround sound as well as in stereo, established artists are remixing and re-releasing legacy albums in surround and, of course, some of those amazing analogue quadraphonic recordings from the ‘60s and ‘70s are being remastered and released on these new formats.

Surround sound in the future

Peering into our crystal ball we can see that, much as the CD is inevitably being replaced by permanent Internet connectivity, an abundance of cheap storage and the ease of streaming media, the same will happen in time for these disc-based home entertainment systems.

This development is likely to favour surround sound and high resolution music in the long run because once you have super-fast fibre and terabytes of local and cloud storage then the large files you need for music in, say, 5.1 surround sound at 96kHz 24bit become viable. And even when the 5” disc is long gone, people will still want surround sound hi-fi systems for their movies so music will still be able to piggyback on these systems.

Producing surround sound v stereo

One interesting observation on surround sound is how its use has settled over the decades as musicians, producers and music listeners work out the capabilities, strengths and weaknesses of making music in surround sound.

When stereo was first invented, the pioneering record producers, such as George Martin with the Beatles, took full advantage of the new format and hard panned various instruments, drums and voices to create a novel and exciting listening experience.

With time, however, a convention has evolved where by now most modern recordings pan the key elements dead centre - bass, kick, vocals etc - then create a stereo image with the remaining instruments. This gives a more solid and powerful sound and makes music more compatible with less-than-ideal listening conditions. Anybody who has sat in a pub listening to a Beatles album, only able to hear half the band through the one speaker that’s nearby will know about that.

The same has happened to surround sound over time, though the convention is less strictly adhered to than a standard stereo image.

Early surround recordings experimented with putting the listener in the middle of the sound stage and panning different instruments all around. This can sound fantastic if you’re sitting in the correct place, are playing it loud and concentrating solely on the music, however if you just want some background music then instruments popping up all around your living room doesn’t always work.

Surround mixes have found some kind of equilibrium too, with vocals sent to the centre channel or in mono across all three front channels and the rear channels are now used more frequently for ambience and quieter sound than horn sections, guitars and backing vocals.

Classical recordings can make impressive use of surround sound by having the sound stage of the orchestra spread across the front channels and the surround channels recreating the ambience of the concert hall.

Mastering for Surround Sound

Not all mastering studios are set up for surround sound mastering.

There is a need for three times as many speakers, a further investment in outboard hardware and specialist software and computer systems to handle the mastering and delivery formats. Studios are careful about such expenditure if the work is not certain to come.

At Mastering World we’re very proud to have the extraordinary talents of Simon Heyworth on our roster, in his incredible studio on Dartmoor in England.

His studio is purpose-built to cater for surround sound and high resolution mastering, even naming the studio after a high res audio format, Super Audio CD. He’s mastered and remastered an impressive list of high profile clients such as Brian Eno, George Harrison, Thomas Dolby, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and Imogen Heap.

He has a choice of surround speaker sets, the studio is wired fully in surround, he has a range of specialist outboard gear and a variety of workstations. Surround sound and high resolution audio come in a bewildering variety of speaker formats, audio resolutions, delivery formats and destination media, and Super Audio Mastering have used them all!

If you’re considering a surround sound release, we highly recommend hiring a seasoned professional like Simon Heyworth to make sure the result is truly immersive.