How to Mix in 5.1 Surround Under Your Budget [Pro Tip]

Surround sound is now an integral part of our life. Whether watching movies in a theater or listening to songs on your iPad, surround sound is always there.

Today, most of the devices come with surround sound technology. If it’s a mobile device with stereo headphones, it features a virtual surround sound converter that allows you to listen to surround sound even in headphones.

Surround sound speaker systems are also in trend. Connecting a 5.1 o 7.1 surround sound speaker system with your smart TV or iPad is very easy.

So the influence of surround sound is all around in modern sound technology.

That’s why, if you are a music producer, you should mix your projects in surround sound format and make them compatible with those devices.

But there is a rumor that surround sound mixing equipment is very costly that an indie producer can’t afford. But, it’s actually not true. You can set up and mix in surround right in your home studio under budget.

In this guide, I will show you how you can set up and mix 5.1 surround sound under your budget.

So, let’s begin…

What is Surround Sound Mixing

What is Surround Sound Mixing

When you mixdown your project to more than 2 speakers, then it’s called surround sound mixing?

Is that simple, as I have elaborated above? Just output the mixdown in more than 2 speakers called surround sound mixing?

No…

Suppose you have recorded vocals and route that to all the 6 speakers of the standard surround sound system. Is it surround sound mixing?

Well, no.

Actually, routing the same thing in several speakers is not called surround sound mixing. The actual definition of surround sound mixing should be,

When you create a virtual stage or movie scene environment using a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system so that the listener would feel like he is actually in between that environment, then it’s called surround sound mixing.

Now, remember, when you watch a movie in a theater and during a scene when someone opens a door, maybe you listen to the door opening sound from your behind or either side.

If the door is located behind you as per the scene, you will listen to the door opening sound from behind you.

That’s the effect of surround sound. It’s all done by surround sound mixing.

However, surround sound is mostly used in movies, games, etc., but today producers are also using this technology with songs.

By the way, whatever you do as a producer, you should learn surround sound.

But before learning surround sound technology, you should first learn stereo technology which I have described in my article, “Mono VS Stereo Audio – Which One Should You Use – Why!“.

Surround sound history

Surround sound history

According to Wikipedia, surround sound was first introduced in 1940 in the Disney studio’s animated film Fantasia.

Walt Disney, the founder of Disney Studio, was inspired by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic piece Flight of the Bumblebee in the movie and featured it in his musical Fantasia, where he wanted it to sound as if it was flying all around the theater.

Dolby Labs, the main contributor to this technology, was founded by Ray Dolby in 1965, and then it’s evolved with every new release.

From Dolby Stereo to Dolby Atmos, it’s evolved a much today.

Different versions of Surround Sound Technology

Here are all the versions of Dolby surround sound technology as per the release year.

DecoderEncoderYear
Dolby StereoDolby MP Matrix1975
Dolby Surround1982
Dolby Stereo SRDolby MP Matrix1986
Dolby Pro Logic1986 Modern
1987
Dolby DigitalAC-31986 Modern
1992 Film
1995 Laser Disc
Dolby Digital Surround EXAC-31999
Dolby Pro Logic IIN/A2000
Dolby Pro Logic IIxN/A2002
Dolby Digital PlusEnhanced AC-32005
Dolby TrueHDMLP2005
Dolby Pro Logic IIzN/A2009
Dolby Surround 7.12010
Dolby 3D
Dolby Atmos2012

However, not all of them can not be replicated in your home studio, so that we will focus on Dolby 5.1 or Dolby 7.1 System.

Equipment and Software used in Professional Surround Studios

In the next section, I will show you how to set up a surround sound studio under a low budget.

But, before getting into the affordable ways to surround sound setup, let me explain the professional surround sound setup used to produce Hollywood movies, games, and other professional tasks.

Because you should know about the professional way of surround sound technology to evaluate both the professional setup and budget set up side by side.

First thing first,

Surround sound hardware

Surround sound hardware

The most recent version of surround sound technology is Dolby Atmos; we’ll see the list of hardware used in it.

  • Dolby Atmos Renderer – To convert your project into Dolby Atmos, you need Dolby Renderer. This will convert your surround sound mix into a single audio file for distribution.
  • Madi Interfaces – Generally for surround sound mixing and mastering in a professional studio, MADI interfaces are combined with Mixing consoles that support MADI technology.
  • 7.1.4 Monitor Controller – To mix in Dolby Atmos surround sound technology, you need a monitor control system that routes and controls all the monitors and subwoofers. There are 2 very popular 7.1.4 monitor control systems Colin Broad A-Mon And TMC-1.
  • 7 high-quality Monitors and 1 Subwoofer – In Dolby Atmos, you need atleast 7 high-quality monitor speakers and 1 subwoofer. Yamaha or KRK monitors are good to go.
  • High-end Computer – Most professional Dolby studios prefer Mac PCs because of the ease of use and better performance.
  • Mixing Console – Professional Dolby studios also use big mixing racks to record and controls all things from one place.
  • Cables and accessories – Obviously, tons of cables and accessories are required to connect and set up the equipment properly.

DAWs and Software

pro tools first free daw
  • Pro Tools – Most Dolby Atmos studios prefer Pro Tools because It has some great Dolby plugins. Also, it’s one of the most popular DAWs among music professionals.
  • Dolby Atmos Production Suite – This is the set off Dolby mixing tools that allows you to mix your project in Dolby Atmos format.
  • Dolby Atmos Mastering Suite – Dolby Atmos mastering suite is a set of surround mastering tools designed for post-production and music production. It helps you create, edit, mix and master high-quality Dolby Atmos projects for Blu-ray and Streaming Delivery.

Acoustic Treatment for professional studios

It costs thousands of dollars to precise acoustic Treatment in professional studios. Professional studios hire highly skilled architects to design the interior with precise acoustic Treatment.

Glass Wools are used in between the actual wall and the false wall and ceiling of the studio to reduce the outside noise.

Wooden work is essential in professional studios. Whether it’s walls, ceiling, floors, and other areas, all the things are precisely managed to reduce the outside noise and sound reflections.

To make this type of interior takes too much money, which is ideally possible for an indie producer.

That’s why I have written this guide which shows you how you can mix and master surround sound right in your home studio without spending thousands of dollars.

Well, above, you have learned the professional way of surround sound mixing. Now I’m going to show you the budget way of surround sound mixing.

So, keep on reading…

Affordable Ways to Setup 5.1 Surround Sound Mixing Environment

When it comes to the surround studio setup, you should never compromise with the environment of the control room. After all, you are creating a virtual environment in your mixes, so you will never want your surroundings to interfere with your projects.

That’s why I always recommend making your room environment as flat as you can. Don’t compromise with the standard length, width, and height of the room. It should be a minimum of 15’X10’X8′ in size.

Also, you have to implement a good acoustic treatment in your control room.

Professional acoustic Treatment costs you more, but there are affordable ways to do it under your budget. If you apply them wisely in your room, I think you can achieve up to 80-90% results of the professional acoustic control rooms.

So, let’s see those affordable ways of acoustic Treatment.

Acoustic Treatment For Budget 5.1 surround setup

acoustic foam panels

Acoustic Treatment is the essential thing for any recording studio. Especially when dealing with surround sound, you must have at least a 20’X15′ size room that should be acoustically treated as per the guidelines.

But, a traditional acoustic treatment costs you thousands of dollars which is obviously out of budget for indie composers.

Hopefully, some tips and techniques help you add acoustic Treatment to your control room on a low budget.

Here are my tips and tricks to go with a budget-friendly acoustic treatment for your home studio.

  • Readymade acoustic panels are very cheap. Most of them come under a few dollars that you can stick on your studio walls.
  • Curtains are very effective in absorbing the mid and high-frequency reflections. You can use them throughout the walls to reduce th reflections. There is a wide range of acoustic curtains available on Amazon and other online marketplaces. Also, I have a great article on Acoustic curtains, so don’t forget to check out that article.
  • Diffusers are very useful for acoustic Treatment. However, they are costly if you buy them readymade, but you can ask your local wood-worker to make them for you. It would be relatively cheaper than the readymade pieces.
  • Bass Traps – Bass traps reduce the bass reflections collects at the corners of the room. There are readymade bass traps available in the market which comes under your budget.
  • Mat for floor – Acoustic flooring is very costly for indie composers. So you can use mats on the floor to make it reflection-free. Mats are affordable and work great against noise.
  • Rubber seal strips – Rubber seal strips are very popular among home studio owners to make windows, doors, and glass partitions. You can buy rubber seal strips for a few dollars online.
  • Pillows – Pillows act as a good bass trap. You can use them to reduce the bass reflections on room corners and below the monitors.

These all are affordable ways to use as an acoustic treatment for your control room. By using them, you can easily build a home studio for under $1000-$2000.

Don’t forget to read my Ultimate Guide To Acoustic Treatment For Home Studios. This article has all the information needed to set up acoustic Treatment under a small budget in your room.

Basic equipment

Now, let’s come to the basic equipment required to set up a 5.1 surround mixing in-home studio.

The first one is,

Computer

audio recording computer

Maybe you are already using a computer in your home studio. So, you can use the same computer to budget set up a surround mixing studio. However, according to this article, the minimum hardware requirement should be how to Choose Audio Recording computers in 2021.

This article also helps you upgrade your existing computer if it does not fit the minimum hardware requirement.

Audio Interface

motu 8pre es sideview

Look at the outputs of your existing audio interface. Has it 6+ outputs excluding the headphone outs? If yes, then you don’t need to upgrade the audio interface. If not, then you need a new one that has 6+ simultaneous outs.

I recommend Motu 8Pre es. I am using this in my studio, and it provides me several features above all other audio interfaces.

You can choose any other audio interface which has 6+ dedicated outs, excluding the headphone outs.

Monitors and Subwoofer

KRK RP8G3 budget studio monitor

Well, I have 5 pieces of KRK Rokit-5 monitors, and one KRK 12sHO subwoofer, which all combine as a 5.1 surround sound monitor system.

You can use other monitors and subs. If you have an existing monitor pair, you can buy the same new pairs to build a 5.1 system.

There are several affordable studio monitors available in the market. To choose the best ones under your budget, you can refer to my article Best Budget Studio Monitors For Home Studios [Ultimate List 2021]. Just keep in mind, you need 5 normal monitors and one subwoofer.

Headphone

closed back headphone

To implement an effect properly in 5.1 systems, you need headphones. Headphones paint the virtual environment more effectively than studio monitors. 5.1 converter software is used to route the signals to headphones.

So, don’t forget to get a good mixing headphone set for your 5.1 surround studio.

Here are 9 Hacks To Choose Studio Headphones that will help you choose the best budget headphones for your studio.

Cables and Assesories

surround sound cables and assessories

And, finally, you need a lot of cables and accessories to set up all things as required. Such as, you need extra pair of long output cables for monitor-outs and monitor stands and clips to set them up as per the requirement.

It would help if you also had more power sockets to power up your equipment.

So, please make a list of all the cables and accessories required and get them before setting up your surround studio.

Surround sound Software

When it comes to the home studio, the Software is a vital part of the recording. Due to the lack of budget, home studio owners cannot buy costly hardware. That’s where Software helps them out.

We can achieve 90-95% of the hardware quality with Software if the basic equipment, room acoustics, and your skills are good.

Surround sound mixing in home studios is not an exception. There are countless surround sound plugins and Software available in the market to mix in surround.

We can divide them into 3 parts. DAW, surround sound plugin, and surround converter.

In this section, we’ll see some good software that helps you mix 5.1 in surround.

DAW 

protools daw

DAW or digital audio workstation is the heart of digital recording. All the processes are done in the DAW. So choosing the right DAW can transform your mix.

For surround sound mixing, I recommend two DAWs, Pro Tools and Logic Pro X.

Pro Tools works like a charm with film scoring, where Logic Pro X is best for music production. You can decide which one you should use as per your need.

A few years back, Pro Tools was only compatible with AVID hardware, but now it’s compatible with any hardware. That’s the best thing for home studio owners.

You can read more about the DAWs in my article, “11 Best DAWs in 2021 [The Best Audio Editing Software for Beginners].

Surround Sound Plugin

surround plugins

Not every DAW is built for surround mixing. So you need some specialized surround sound plugins to do this. AVID Surround Suite is the best surround mixing plugin for Pro Tools.

For Logic Pro X, you can use Waves 360° Surround Tools.

These two plugins work like a charm for surround sound mixing.

Surround sound converter

surround converter

Now we have a good DAW and a 5.1 surround sound plugin handy; it’s time to introduce you to a Surround sound converter. Without a surround sound converter, it’s impossible to mix down a project in broadcasting quality.

For Pro Tools, they have their in-house plugin “Dolby Atmos Production Suite,” which works great, where if you are using Logic Pro X, you can get “Halo Downmix with 3D Immersive Extension” by NUGEN Audio.

Sound monitor setup and calibration

Setting up studio monitors for 5.1 surround is a bit lengthy process. You should follow the below setup image to put your monitors as per the requirement.

Image Credit: Flypaper

The subwoofer should have to be put just below the Centre monitor. In the typical surround monitor placement, 5+1 monitors are used.

  • 1. Centre monitor – C
  • 2. Left monitor – Front L
  • 3. Right monitor – Front R
  • 4. Rear left monitor – Surround L
  • 5. Rear right monitor – Surround R
  • 5.1 Subwoofer – LFE

All the monitors should be pointed towards the control chair, and the distance between the left and right should be the same.

Just putting the monitors as described in the image above is not sufficient. You have to calibrate each of the monitors so that you get equal sound intensity in your ear.

If you do not calibrate the monitors, then you will end up with unbalanced mixing.

Sound Monitor calibrators are available online. From there, you can buy one, or if any of your friends do have one, then borrow the calibrator.

The calibration process is described in my ultimate guide to monitor setup article.

DAW routing

daw routing for surround

The next step is to set up a 5.1 surround routing in your DAW. You have created 6 output channels in your DAW and route all the 6 audio interface monitor outs to them. Name the channels as C, Front L, front R, Surround L, Surround R, and LFE.

After setting up the channels, connect the monitors as per the name, and that’s it.

Your DAW is ready to output 5.1 surround sound.

In Pro Tools and Logic Pro X, surround sound template presets are available to choose from. You can also use them to record and mix in 5.1 surround sound.

Mix and Master

You have chosen a big room, set up the room acoustics as per the standard, got the basic equipment, DAW, and software, set up and calibrated your monitors and DAW routing.

Now all set.

It’s time to mix and master your projects in surround sound. If you have set up all things right, you will mix like a professional.

FAQ on How to Mix in 5.1 Surround Under Budget

In this section, I have compiled some common questions that I received from my followers. These would be helpful for you too.

Will you get the same professional quality with cheap alternatives?

No, you will not get the same quality as professional surround studios. Home studios have limitations in hardware and room acoustics which definitely affect the quality. However, you will get up to 80-90% quality.

What skills do you need to mix in surround?

You need to know how basic surround sound works and have good audio mixing skills. You also need expertise in analyzing and creating a virtual environment to implement in the project. It would help if you had expertise in track automation and your DAW operation.

How is surround different than LCR mixing?

LCR mixing is based on 2 speakers system in that the left and right speakers create a 90-degree stereo field, and you have to place the objects inside that field. While in surround, there are 6 speakers in different locations, which in combination create a 360-degree stereo field, feels like you are inside the environment.

Should you mix your songs in surround or LCR stereo?

Surround is mostly used in film and game scoring. However, today’s devices support surround sound technology, so you can also mix your songs in surround sound, but it’s not mandatory.

Can I use headphones in surround sound mixing?

Yes, you can use headphones in surround sound mixing. But you should have a virtual surround sound emulator plugin installed in your DAW. This plugin emulates the surround sound environment for headphones. So, you can mix in surround with headphones but not precisely. You can checkout my headphone buying guide to choose the best mixing headphones.

How much does it cost to set up a budget 5.1 surround sound studio?

You need at least $4000-$5000 to set up a budget 5.1 surround sound studio. You can also upgrade your LCR setup in surround.

Wrapping Up

Above, I have described all things about setting up a 5.1 surround sound setup in your existing home studio. With that setup, you can easily set up a budget 5.1 surround mixing setup in your studio and start getting local film scoring work.

But keep in mind, the room should be at least 20X15 feet to allow the sound to play. Otherwise, you can’t mix well. Also, the room acoustics and monitor calibration should be precise.

The digitization of audio production makes it easy and affordable for everyone to set up a surround sound studio. If you do things right, you will get the results.

Well, I’m wrapping up this guide here. If you have any queries, then comment below. I will answer all your questions. Also, I was hoping you could share this article on social media as it encourages me to write other valuable content.

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Gautam Roy is a recording engineer and a blogger from India. He loves music, writing and travelling. He is also an active investor and a successful entrepreneur.

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