Whilst we were recording podcast 117 on Monday evening Nigel Heath from Hackenbacker Audio Post Production was demoing the new Penteo 4 Pro Up-mix plug-in at Mark Kopfler’s British Grove Studios showing the many and varied ways to convert any stereo programme into a perfect and true surround sound. We should stress that Nigel doesn’t work for Penteo, but he does use it a lot as we will discover….
Pro Tools Expert managed to catch up with Nigel after the event and we had a chat about his experiences using the Penteo 4 Pro Up-mix plug-in. Tom Allom, probably best known for recording heavy metal artists like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest did a live mix of a Judas Priest song from around 1984 using the EMI TG 12345 console from Lagos that Paul McCartney had recorded Wings’ Band On The Run that now has found a home at British Grove Studios along with another sound board with, arguably, even more historical significance, the only surviving example of an EMI REDD.51.
NH. They had a 24 track machine with stems coming into this TG and Tom was mixing on this clearly stereo console out of the stereo buss via a couple of Fairchild compressors into Pro Tools with an instance of the Penteo 4 Pro plug-in. Tome was panning stuff on the stereo TG console and it was moving stuff around in the 5.1 environment accordingly. You would have to be a very sad sound person not to feel a few goose bumps appearing. For me it was a great example of some stunning old technology, more than classic technology, with the latest digital stuff going on with the Penteo. It was a lovely marriage between the two and a golden moment to see it happen. To see Tom doing it was one of those lovely moments.
PTE. So as he moved stuff around in the stereo image there was the possibility to move stuff across the front but how did he move material into the surrounds?
NH. Because Penteo works by expanding the stereo panorama, so in the case of where we were working with the TG console, if Tom wants to put a guitar in the hard left surround then he just pan it hard left on the TG console, so he was able to move stuff around the full 5.1 panorama.
PTE. So the EMI TG desk was the highlight of the evening but was else did you get up to?
NH. We took some stereo mixes of shows that I have mixed and with no access to the separate dialog, music and FXs elements, we ran the stereo mix live into the Penteo plug-in in the hard centre mode and produced a 5.1 mix of the whole soundtrack very successfully. I think that was something that impressed a lot of people, that the dialog and foley were rock solid and hit the centre speaker and didn’t go anywhere, no matter what was going on around it. Where as with other systems you can get a lot of steering happening with big stereo panned music around centre events where the dialog can be pulled around by the music or the music can be pulled around by dialog or door slams, so I deliberately chose sections that had wide strings in the music and said door slams, gun shots, sword clashes, that would encourage steering from lesser systems and people in the room looked at me and said this is as solid as a rock. I ran some mixes that I have done for large format installations which some very impressive sub bass and massive imagery happening between the front and back, the thing that impressed a lot of people was the ability for Penteo to up-mix from a combined track, the rock solidness of the centre image, the things that you didn’t intend to wander, didn’t wander of their own free will.
Another thing I really like is that, for example, it doesn’t put the snare reverb to the back, it keeps everything as you originally intended and just spreads it out and that’s what I love about it. It enables us to work with composers and music producers and take their work and when they come and have a listen, their first reaction is usually “wow!” and the second reaction is it sounds just like the stereo but it is in 5.1, you don’t have anything dancing around that you weren’t expecting.
Of course you still have control of the plug-in, if the surround gets too hot you can pull them down a bit but it doesn’t throw content away, it just re-steers it back into the other parts of the panorama. Time is money and I am happy to say that I can set it and forget it, which is great because we are in an expensive room and what’s more we are in an expensive industry and if you don’t deliver then it gets even more expensive like closing the company expensive.
PTE. Are you personally using the Penteo plug-in in your day to day work?
NH. I have had the privilege to have had access to the Penteo process for a little while and it’s down mix compatibility is second to none. We work on very tight deadline trailers and stuff that is going on TV and to do a very complex 5.1 trailer and to be able to create a problem free down mix with no weirdness happening, it doesn’t take an age to set up and the integrity is retained, and the fold own capability of the Penteo is extraordinary.
PTE. That for me is its winning point because for a long time we are going to be creating surround sound content where the majority of our audience are still consuming it in stereo so we have to make sure that the down mix compatibility is excellent.
NH. Absolutely, the statistics of the people who listen to 5.1 compared to those who listen in stereo is very small, most peole are still listening to the stereo version and now more and more are listening in mono on tablet type devices with iPlayer or other on demand services. For me the work from our studio should not only sound fantastic, be impressive and fulfil all the directors requirements in the 5.1 realm, it should be equally enjoyable when you are watching it in the bathroom on your iPad. The down mixing is hugely important, and it can be forgotten, but for me it is a big part of it.
PTE. Which modes in Penteo do you use and why?
NH. I will use the Quad mode for really busy trailers where I want to keep the centre channel clear for dialog. We also use the Hard Centre for certain kinds of trailers where the music has to slam and perhaps thee isn’t as much dialog so I love the hard centre mode working in large screen 5.1. The LCR mode is great, the other day I had to spread some classical music and I wanted to spread it just across the fronts, I didn’t want solo violins going outside their normal geography.
PTE. Do you use the LFE part of the Penteo plug-in much?
NH. Yeah I do, for music work I tend to use the Split mode, which splits the low frequency elements between the screen and LFE channels, and on trailers I will use the Boost mode.
PTE. So you are working for both small and big screen?
NH. Yes I did a big American TV show where the show was prepared in 5.1 for sound effects and sound design but the music was delivered in stereo so that the composer was able to work on their favourite valve stereo console and we up-mixed on Penteo and the composer came round to approve it and loved it. Penteo just does what you want so I cannot talk about it for hours because there isn’t more to say.
PTE. Thank you Nigel fro taking the time to talk to us and we must remind that Nigel doesn’t not work for Penteo Surround, he founded Hackenbacker Audio Production in the mid 80s. Hackenbacker was originally a sound transfer company with sound editing and mixing added within five years of it starting operating. Nigel is proud to have worked on many ground breaking and landmark projects and to this day enjoys working on projects sometimes seen as a little ‘out of the ordinary’! He is a keen promoter of bringing new talent into the industry with the correct training and is proud of the unique family atmosphere at Hackenbacker.
Thanks to Mike Aiton for the picture of Nigel Heath. You can still enter the competition to win a copy of Penteo 4 Pro until the end of May 2014