Sync Sound’s Ken Hahn talks surround and more

Sync Sound is a mainstay in terms of audio post production in New York City. Started by partners Ken Hahn and Bill Marino in August of 1984, they began with one mix room. As business grew they added two more mix rooms, a ADR/Foley stage and six sound design/edit rooms.

These guys have seen everything. Small studios swallowed up by larger ones, companies closing their doors, a tough economy, but over the years they have not only survived but thrived.

Co-owner and supervising sound editor Ken Hahn, who specializes in mixing for television, film, home video, CD and DVD, in stereo and 5.1 surround, recently answered some questions about his work using the Penteo stereo-to-surround plug-in on the Master Class section of the Penteo website.

postPerspective grabbed some of those questions and added a few of our own. Enjoy.

To what do you attribute your long-time success as a studio since these days privately owned companies are few and far between.
Good question, but not an easy one to answer. First, I think we’ve had success because we love what we do. We also have the privilege of working with many like-minded, creative people while collaborating on their projects.

I also think that because of our structure we’ve been able to adapt to the ever-changing technology. Many of the techniques that we use remain the same, and of course, the demand for high quality has never diminished.

What gear do you use in-house?
We, like most audio post facilities, use Avid Pro Tools. My everyday favorites are iZotolpe RX3, iZotope Ozone 5, iZotope Insight, Prolimit, Waves SSL G channel, Anymix Pro from Iosono and Fabfilter Pro-Q. And, of course, Penteo for surround work.

Ken Hahn and Bill Marino  on their digital cinema stage.

Ken Hahn and Bill Marino on their digital cinema stage. Photo: James David Redding III

You work a lot in 5.1 and 7.1. What do you think of the even-more immersive formats like Dolby Atmos? And do you believe it all depends on the project?
I do think that it is project dependent, just as some projects benefit from mixes in 5.1 or 7.1. Professional audio has a history of attempting to create environments with processing and multiple speakers. It can be interesting and fun, but it can also be distracting. I don’t think we’ve yet discovered the perfect playback system.

What’s your favorite part of mixing and for what genre, TV, films?
I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to work on so many wonderful projects. I love the diversity of projects that come to me. I love remixing live concerts and events, especially once we started mixing in 5.1 and 7.1. Meeting the challenges presented in a verte documentary films is also rewarding. I equally enjoy mixing a dramatic series for television. What I love most is that I have been involved with such a variety of projects.

You’ve been up-mixing stereo to surround for some time now. In your mind, what has changed? 
What has changed the most is that new technology is now an essential tool in my surround sound workflow. Let me step back first. If you grew up in the business when I did, and someone said, “I have an outboard processor called a stereo synthesizer — I can take your mono and turn into stereo,” you would get excited. But then when you heard it, and it didn’t sound very good, you would be disappointed and a bit jaded.

So when Penteo came along and told me they had an easy way to take stereo and turn it into good sounding 5.1, I was automatically pessimistic. This is because up-mixing to surround is difficult, for two reasons: how do you generate a clean, yet fully immersive surround up-mix? And if you are doing anything for broadcast, how do you ensure that your 5.1 mix will sound great in the likely event that it would be played back in stereo?

If you try to use delays and re-panning to turn stereo into 5.1, bad things just happen. You get unwanted audible artifacts in your surround mix. It loses it clarity and definition, coloring it in ways that don’t reflect the original stereo mix.

Your new surround mix might sound wonderful, but when you fold it back down to the stereo the results are unacceptable: it’s a dirty secret that many “5.1 surround TV mixes” are really optimized for listening in stereo, not surround. I think we have all experienced that issue: “Boy, that sounds great in 5.1. Let me hear the stereo. Oh no, that sounds awful.” So the answer is “we can’t do that” and it’s because the stereo up-mix was artificially manipulated in such a way that it introduced sonic anomalies. It’s almost as if the more wonderful the 5.1 sounds, the worse the stereo fold-down will sound.

What does Penteo do for you at Sync Sound?
Simply stated, Penteo 4 Pro takes a stereo mix and makes a 5.1 surround mix out of it. But here’s what’s most important: Penteo generates the 5.1 surround without adding any additional delays, equalization, frequency shifting, dynamic change, alteration, or any of those tricks. It uses a new method to up-mix that doesn’t alter the original stereo, so when folding back down to stereo, the stereo sounds just like the original.

FX's The Americans

FX’s The Americans

Do you use Penteo on all types of music?
Almost all the music up-mixing that we do involves pre-mixed stereo, usually a classical archival recording, like what we do for the Metropolitan Opera here in New York, or for a TV show like FX’s The Americans, which we also mix here, and which may use more pop recordings or specialized sound effects. They’re pre-mixed commercial recordings, basically, that are being used in this program. I like to use Penteo’s music mode for those.

Why is dialogue isolation so difficult?
Dialog isolation is key so that you can balance the levels between dialog and music or effects. We’ve all heard stereo mixes, especially the old ‘60s and ‘70s recordings, when there was a lot of experimentation with extreme left and right panning, which rarely up-mixes well to surround. But in the traditional vocal in the center recordings, solo instruments in the center.

Because Penteo’s Hard Center Mode creates, as its name implies, a fully discrete hard center channel, we use it when must up-mix an existing stereo mix of a program that’s got dialogue or narration in the center. This is designed to keep that dialogue in the center. It is amazing how well Penteo 5.1 mix replicates the original stereo mix.

What are the other main controls you use?
We use the center fader and the LS and RS faders all the time, meaning we can add or reduce the energy to the center, left surround and right surround channels. We also use some of the low frequency controls which are pretty comprehensive for an up-mixer — these controls allow you to send more LF energy to the center, L/R or LFE and or it allows you to change the frequency you want to cut it off at.

You have been a long time user of Penteo. How do you find the latest release?
We have used Penteo for some time and are now using Penteo 4 Pro. It’s very stable, and it sounds better than ever. Penteo has become one of my “go-to” plug-ins.

You mentioned earlier the work that you do here for the Metropolitan Opera – the world famous Met. Can you tell us more about the work you do at the Met?
We do the audio post-production for all of the Live From The Met series. First the operas are “broadcast” live in HD into theaters across the world. Then those recordings are post produced, and made available on DVD and Blue-ray, as well as broadcast on PBS.

What goes into mixing from a live opera recording? How is it different from a television broadcast show?
For Opera or symphonic, it’s all about a very big sound, attempting to reproduce the dynamics and energy of the live performance. We sometimes have 80 or 90 tracks sub mixes that we work with to produce the remix of the live performance. But where we use the Penteo is in a lot of the additional elements that go into making the 5.1, everything from the PBS logos, other packaging materials that only exist in stereo.

In addition to the remixing of the new “live” Met Operas, we also provide audio restoration services for the re-release of Met Opera archival recordings that are going to DVD. These are performances that only exist on videotape with a stereo mix. We restore the stereo mix and then generate a 5.1 mix. Because of the historical nature of these recordings, it is imperative that we not alter the sound when up-mixing.

Why is that important?
Penteo maintains the same image of the original stereo recording, but panoramically slices it into a surround field without any delays or reverb. Because of its familiarity and popularity, people don’t want to hear it in any other way than the way they’ve always heard it. That is what I am most pleased with, with Penteo 4 Pro, that I can take a stereo mix and up-mix it to get a very, very good-sounding 5.1, and then be assured that when it is brought back down to stereo it sounds as good as it did when it began.

If you wanted to share with a colleague some tips for success with Penteo, what would you say?
Well, whenever I’m using a lot of tracks in my Pro Tools system, I need to keep an eye on my system’s processing capacity. If I’m working in a track and plug in that are particularly heavy, I might choose to pre-process the material that I’m going to up-mix into 5.1 surround. I can make a pre-mix using one of my Penteo templates. Once I’ve Penteo processed my materials, I I’ll import them back into my session.

You also need to be cognizant of the fact that a lot of premixed material is going to come to you right on the verge of clipping, or already clipped. So I normally lower the input to Penteo by 2 or 3 dB, just to give it a little more headroom, because we are going to reprocess, and there’s no sense clipping the input.

You should be also be aware that you’re making a 5.1 that’s going to be inevitably be folded back down to stereo. You just have to watch what you’re putting in, and what you’re getting out. As in almost every process that we do in mixing, it’s a good idea to set the processing where you like it – for instance, this is how much surround I want —and then back it off a little. Always leave yourself a little room for adjust in your surround mix — you can always add more, but you can’t take it away!

Ken Hahn has 25 years of experience in audio post production and has received two Cinema Audio Society Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing Awards, five Emmy Awards, and has engineered several Grammy Award-winning albums.

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