- About Us
Levels Audio | Brian Riordan
Meeting 5.1 Upmix Challenges at Levels Audio
- Article first appeared in Post Magazine
Having been an audio engineer for the better part of two decades, I’ve been witness to a sea change in the way music is recorded, mixed, marketed, and consumed. Not only has the business model changed drastically – from the age of the big studio and album-driven sales to the Internet revolution and the growth of online music services – but technology advances have completely redefined the industry. With the latest innovations in software and hardware, what we’re able to accomplish now, both technically and creatively and within extremely limited timeframes, is nothing short of astounding.
In 1989, I opened an audio postproduction facility, Levels Audio, in Hollywood, California, to address a shortage of independently owned and operated post audio facilities, which at that time were fleeing to Santa Monica and the west side of Los Angeles in a rash of corporate mergers. As the traditional music business model began to deteriorate, migrating into commercial post seemed like the ideal move. In addition to discovering that I could still mix music in the post world, I was able to expand into longer-form television projects – a solid niche that has served us well ever since.
Levels Audio began working on American Idol in 2003 and it remained one of our most active clients for many years – along with ongoing projects for Fox, ABC, NBC,CBS, MTV, VH1, HBO, Comedy Central, and The Disney Channel. In 2006 we expanded into a 14,000-square-foot (1,200 m2) facility specializing in 5.1 audio post production, music production, and sound design services. Levels Audio includes seven ICON–equipped 5.1 audio dub stages along with an ADR/Foley stage, three audio editorial suites, two visual effects suites, and a central machine room.
Since post audio is the final stop on the train before a program goes to air, we continually deal with "out of time/out of money" scenarios. Every minute counts, and to handle the volume of shows we are turning out every week, we’ve had to develop facility-wise workflows that enable us to work as efficiently as possible. Audio upmixing is a great example of a workflow that is extremely important and yet requires the utmost efficiency, especially since we mix 95 percent of our projects in 5.1 surround. The Voice, American Idol, Drunk History, Teen Wolf, Awkward, and The Bachelor are just a few of the programs for which we upmix the music.
In rare cases, we’re lucky enough to receive individual stems of the score from the composers that allow us to create an excellent 5.1 field without upmixing. Most of the time, however, we’re required to upmix stereo music tracks into 5.1, which can yield numerous issues with downmix compatibility since consumer set-top boxes typically play out stereo downmixed from broadcast 5.1. We’ve had middling luck with most downmix plugins, which often destroy the integrity of the original track or, in one of my big pet peeves, react poorly to songs with vocals or instruments with long reverb decay times. Additionally, many upmix plugins create phase issues. If care is not taken with downmix compatibility, networks will often kick upmixed music back during the QC process, disrupting the schedule and budget.
Given all these considerations, we naturally jumped at the chance to be one of NUGEN Audio’s beta customers for its brand-new Halo Upmix tool. Halo Upmix is based on NUGEN Audio’s proprietary processes for creating a stereo-to-5.1/7.1 downmix-compatible upmix for television and film productions. Among all of the sonic upmixing tools and plug-ins we’ve tried, Halo is by far the best. It not only works transparently and sounds great, but it handles phase and downmix compatibility extremely well.
With Halo, we can target various upmix goals including full stable surrounds, exact downmix matching, and/or full dialog isolation. Even better, the tool’s center channel control and management enables us to fine-tune a surround mix and create intricate mixes when there is no access to the original stems. Halo performs powerful real-time analysis of the original stereo material by identifying and extracting locational cues, which enables us to extend the sound panorama naturally without introducing artificial reverberation, chorusing, or delay into the downmix.
With nine Emmy Awards under our belts, we feel we’re doing something right – but we know we can’t rest on our laurels. Our biggest ongoing challenge is the limited amount of time we are given to perform the amount of work needed to make shows sound great. Partners like NUGEN Audio offer the solution because they help us continuously adapt workflows and leverage the latest technological advancements. We’ll not only keep using Halo on some of our most successful programs but we’re also planning to migrate all of our stages to NUGEN Audio’s ISL 2 inter-sample peak limiter.
Brian Riordan is a re-recording mixer, music mixer, music producer, musician, entrepreneur, and founder of Levels Audio. Riordan has received a staggering 19 Primetime Emmy nominations and is a four-time Emmy Award winner, for the 84th Academy Awards, 82nd Academy Awards, 81st Academy Awards, and 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert. He founded his audio postproduction facility, Levels Audio, in 1999 and began working on American Idol in 2003. In 2006, Levels Audio occupied a new state-of-the-art facility at the famous site of the Birns & Sawyer Camera Sales and Rental Company in Hollywood, California. Riordan and the Levels Audio team have a long list of credits including American Idol, The Voice, Shark Tank, Flight of The Conchords, So You Think You Can Dance?, The Academy Awards, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, America’s Got Talent, Teen Wolf, Finding Carter, Drunk History, Top Gear, MTV Movie Awards, Awkward, The Amazing Race, The Bachelor, HBO’s Kobe Bryant: Muse, and the 2009 Grammy Award-winning documentary film “Tom Petty: 'Runnin' Down a Dream',” directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
Mix & Mastering