Penteo Surround Master Class Series

Class #3: A Conversation with Score Mixer Phil McGowan

Phil McGowan

Score Mixer Phil McGowan using Penteo 4 Pro at Trevor Morris Studios.
Photo by David Goggin.

Welcome to Penteo Surround’s Master Class – a series of definitive  interviews with award-winning sound designers, mixers, composers and DJs.  Our goal is to share best practices, key learnings, workflow innovations and other useful tips across the Penteo community.


ABOUT PHIL MCGOWAN:  Phil McGowan was born in Waterville, Maine.  At a young age he took a great interest in music and began taking piano lessons in grade school.  Both of his parents play keyboards and inspired Phil to study music deeper.  In addition to his interest in music, Phil garnered a fascination with audio engineering and music technology at a young age that resulted in a great deal of personal research and experimentation within these fields.  Phil’s early musical experiences and inspirations eventually led him to make the decision to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.  He subsequently applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts where in 2009 he graduated with a Bachelors of Music in Music Production & Engineering.  Phil’s experiences at Berklee gained him invaluable knowledge and experience involving a wide variety of topics relating to music and audio.  In 2010, Phil began working with renowned film and television composer Trevor Morris and currently holds the position of Engineer and Studio Manager at his state of the art score mixing studio, TMS, located in Santa Monica, CA.

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Penteo:            It’s great to be here at the beautiful Trevor Morris Studios, and for today’s Master Class we are talking to Phil McGowan.  What is your role here at TMS?

McGowan:    I’ve been at TMS for about three and a half years and my primary role here is on-site, on-staff mixer and engineer for Trevor and all of his projects.  This studio is also booked out to other score mixers and projects, so I’m half studio manager too.  I also assist on those sessions and engineer recording sessions here as well.  I’m often co-producer with Trevor on many of the solo musician sessions that we do here for various projects.  I’m also the general Pro Tools guru and jack of all trades for technical things like server maintenance and such, so I work with Trevor’s other staff members — we’re always busy with lots of various interesting projects.

Penteo:          How did you first hear about Penteo?

McGowan:    I heard about it from our main equipment contact over at Guitar Center Pro, Bill Learned.  I was looking for a new stereo to surround up-mixer because the ones I had been using weren’t being updated to AAX.  I started searching for a replacement and received a trial license. Penteo ended up blowing away my expectations of what an up-mixer really could do.

Penteo:          What is an up-mixer to you?

McGowan:    Basically up-mixer means taking two-track stereo material and unwrapping it into a surround field, typically 5.0 or 5.1.

Penteo:          Before Penteo, how were you up-mixing to surround?

McGowan:    I used various surround reverbs or sometimes I just panned things dry into the surrounds.  I often also used modulation plug-ins in the surrounds and fed pads and various elements there, so there’d be another version of the signal in the surrounds.  That signal is already modulated so when it folds back down into stereo from the surrounds it still worked okay and didn’t phase out with itself during the fold-down back to stereo.  I used a multitude of various tricks to try to get things spread out, while keeping the full dynamic range, which obviously is very important. At the time, it was more time consuming and took more effort.

Penteo:          Is it different for you now?

McGowan:    Yes, certainly – Penteo makes immediate, great sounding surround. A lot of the composers that I mix for will typically give me stereo material that has a lot of very stylized effects, delays and reverbs that they’re attached to – Penteo handles it all very well.

These elements are things that the directors and producers have heard and have approved. Instead of me trying to recreate the feeling and intention of these sounds with my own surround plug-ins and trying to figure out an interesting way to recreate all of those effects in surround, I can simply feed them into Penteo.  Somehow Penteo figures out how to keep the source material in the center channel and then spreads out all those effects into surround really well.  It greatly helps to maintain the vibe of the pre recorded elements from the composer whilst also “surroundizing” them.

Penteo:          How long have you been working with Penteo?

McGowan:    I started a little over a year ago and recently I upgraded to Penteo 4 Pro to run it 64 bit AAX.  The new version is great – controls are even smoother and I can use many more instances than on 32 bit.

Penteo:          Can you tell me a little about the gear you use?

McGowan:    I mix on a Euphonix System 5 console.  As far as monitoring goes, our LCR or front speakers are a trio of PMC IB2’s complemented by built-in M&K tripoles for surrounds and a pair of JL Audio Fathom 13 subwoofers for the LFE channel.  The LCR is lightly bass managed on the monitoring end into the subs as well as for a little extra low end extension.

Penteo:          What type of music does Penteo handle the best?

McGowan:    Penteo really handles everything well.  Our projects vary from rock based scores, with various drums, guitars, synths, and a touch of orchestra, to full on orchestral scores and it works well on all of those sources.  I feed plenty of orchestral samples through Penteo because for some of the shows that we do for television, we don’t always get the chance to record live orchestra.  Penteo allows me to turn the orchestral samples into surround elements without colorizing the sound too much.  I mix the surround stems that we send to the dub stage, and Penteo is very useful in taking the samples that sound good in stereo from the composer’s studio and placing them into the surround field.

Penteo:          Do you ever use old stereo rock and roll records and then give it your 5.1 touch?

McGowan:    I’ve tried that for fun.  Since I predominantly just do score mixing and deliver score cues to the dub, I don’t typically need to work with the source material or songs.  But just for my own enjoyment, I’ve tried running iTunes or Spotify through Penteo just to see what it does.  It’s pretty amazing to take full mixes of music that I love and have enjoyed for years in stereo and hear what it does in surround. It’s inspiring how open everything sounds coming through Penteo.

Penteo:          When looking into Penteo, was it the actual sonic quality that you focused on?

McGowan:    Absolutely, Penteo is definitely the cleanest up-mixer that I’ve ever heard.  I’ve had coloration problems with other up-mixers, especially when working with delicate orchestral samples.  Oftentimes with other up-mixers that I’ve tried to use, when I solo their surround outputs, it sounded really phasey and processed.  They do some sort of odd delay or phase effect that doesn’t fold back down to stereo very well and just muddies the sound.  But Penteo translates everything back perfectly during fold-down, and it sounds really clean.

Penteo:          Penteo comes with six different pre-set modes – do you have preference for one of them?

McGowan:    I generally leave it on the Penteo Music mode – that really works 95 plus percent of the time for me.    I’ve also experimented with the ‘Quad’ mode where all the energy is in the four corners, which leaves the center channel free for dialogue. There’s a ‘Triangle’ setting that just generates center and surround, which leaves left and right open for placing stereo elements as they exist in the left and right.  I at times want to leave some stereo material in the LR as it was so I would use the Triangle mode for just blending in a touch of center and surround.

That being said, for the most part, I feed stereo elements directly into Penteo and leave it Penteo music and adjust the surround to front balance until I’m happy with it – I just use the Penteo fader to balance that.

Penteo:          How would you explain to a newcomer how to use Penteo?  Do you have any quick tips or tricks that would help a new user get up to speed?

McGowan:    From the stance of a score mixer, we’re always mixing everything down into a multitude of surround stems that we’re going to deliver to the final dub.  I usually get many, many orchestral samples, typically assorted into long and short strings, long and short brass, woodwinds, all separate, and of course I can’t put a plug-in on every single one of those tracks, or else I’d quickly run out of system resources.

Typically, for every stem that I know I’m going to use Penteo on in my mixing template, I have a Penteo on an aux setup already, pre routed, all ready to go.  Anything that I want to send to it I’ll simply just change the output of the track from where it’s going to the console and just send it to Penteo first, which then goes out to the stem output that’s hitting the console.

I usually end up mixing down to about five to ten stems so it keeps things more efficient to just have a single instance of Penteo per stem.  I’m essentially sending the stereo submix of the strings to one Penteo and all the brass to another Penteo, and all the long pads and synths to another Penteo, and so on – which I then blend together with other effects and elements.

Penteo:          How is the fold back to the original stereo and why is that important to you as a sound designer?

McGowan:    Fold back is perfect with Penteo.  Obviously it’s important for any surround to stereo conversion, because a lot of films and shows are going to be listened to in stereo on home theater systems, televisions, or personal devices.  For us music guys, we’re also always thinking about the sound track release of the scores that we’re doing as well and we often don’t have the time or budget to do a completely new stereo mix from scratch.

For sound track mix downs, I take the surround stems and fold them back into stereo and just do adjustments to the individual stem channels, a little more surrounds on some cue, a little less on others, and then balance the stem levels against each other.  It’s very important that what Penteo prints into those stems folds back into stereo well. I’ve never had any issues with Penteo being out of phase or changing the characteristics of the mix after I fold down to stereo.  Never.  We usually have one to three days to do sound track fold downs, so Penteo saves me a ton of time and reduces headaches.

Penteo:          You mentioned 64 bit AAX?

McGowan:    Yes, I’m on Avid Pro Tools 11 now, which runs AAX – 64 bit processing versus 32 bit on the older versions.  AAX processing is so much faster.  Sessions open and close a lot quicker and the processing is way, way more efficient.  I don’t have a lot of CPU related issues with Penteo because it’s really using all the system resources now.  The new metering options in Pro Tools 11 are really great.  I love being able to choose between VU and peak monitoring, or the scales I really want.  I like having the bigger faders and the larger meters and the different views.  Being able to open up multiple sends and see faders for different sends is a really nice feature.  All the new gain reduction metering, which is now on every plug-in and on every channel, like on the System 5, is now in Pro Tools too, which is a nice feature to have.

Penteo:          Looking around the studio, I see you’ve been working on “Vikings,” which is one of my favorite new shows.  I think I’ll be listening more carefully now that I know you’re using Penteo.  How has it been working on “Vikings”?

McGowan:    Well “Vikings” is an interesting show because not many of the cues are what you would really call traditional scoring. Trevor doesn’t use a lot of orchestra in that show.  Maybe a little strings and brass, but it’s predominantly synthetic elements, percussion, and ethnic materials.

We’ve been working with a Norwegian musician – he has a rock band that uses a lot of traditional Norse instruments and musical techniques.  His name is Einar Selvik and we’ve been working together completely over the internet.  He sends me a variety of stems for certain cues in the show.  The material he sends us includes stringed instruments, group vocals, solo vocals, and percussion. He usually has some effects printed to his stems that he’s happy with.  Feeding his material into Penteo gives me a big surround spread of the different elements and it really feels cinematic, warm, and full.

Penteo:          The composer sends you stereo tracks?

McGowan:    Yes, he sends us overlays for different cues in stereo, with various elements spread out. I’m able to mix them into the cue with whatever we’ve done here and Penteo definitely comes into play.  Also, we use a lot of pads and arpeggiated synths to give it the hybrid sound of ethnic and modern elements.  All those things benefit really well from Penteo placing them in the surround field.

Penteo:          Any other up-mix projects that you’ve been working on?

McGowan:    Yes.  Recently I’ve been mixing the score for CW’s “Reign,” that Trevor scored as well.   It’s actually a much more traditional score with a lot more orchestra, but we didn’t have the budget to record live, so Penteo allows me to do a nice surround mix of the orchestral samples.  I send things through Penteo and it cleanly up-mixes those stereo sources.

Orchestral elements are always a delicate thing for us.  Before Penteo, it could be a challenge to make stereo orchestral elements surround due to the modulation and phasing that many up mix plugins introduce during their process.  But Penteo doesn’t add any coloration to the sound: Penteo is so clean, which is really, really important for orchestral music, because we don’t want to muddy the sound.  We don’t want it to sound like a processed orchestra.  We just want it to sound like a live orchestra that was recorded in surround.

I also recently mixed the score for the movie “Brick Mansions.”  Penteo was used on that quite a bit.  I received drum kit samples that weren’t done in surround.  I often had a stereo room sound printed separately, so it was nice to send that track to Penteo to get a surround room sound while the close mics were panned as usual in the front speakers.  Penteo works great on so many elements.

Penteo:         What do you tell other sound designers about Penteo?

McGowan:    I’ve actually introduced it to a lot of other mixers.  I started calling it “Dark Magic”, because it really does blow my mind.  It’s always pleasantly surprising what Penteo delivers when you feed it stereo material.  I don’t know how Penteo figures out how to do certain things, how it actually can spread reverbs separately from the dry elements.  Penteo just does wonderful things and  I’m always happy with the results.