Penteo Surround Master Class Series

Ken Hahn

Ken Hahn at Sync Sound


Class #4: A Conversation with Film & TV Mixer Ken Hahn


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 KEN HAHN: Ken Hahn, co-owner of New York’s Sync Sound is one of the best-known names in both the post-production and music world. Ken has 25 years of experience in audio post-production and has received 2 Cinema Audio Society Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing Awards, 5 Emmy Awards, 13 ITS Monitor Awards, a Mix Magazine TEC Award for Best Audio Post Production Mixer and has engineered several Grammy Award-winning albums. Ken is the co-owner and supervising editor on projects for TV, film and DVD of New York’s Sync Sound Inc. – a complex consisting of four mixing studios, six Sound Design rooms and a feature facility called Digital Cinema, LLC. Ken specializes in mixing for television, film, home video, CD and DVD, in Stereo, and 5.1 Surround.

Penteo: Today we are meeting with Ken Hahn, co-owner and supervising sound editor at Sync Sound in New York City. Ken, you’ve been up-mixing stereo to surround for some time now — in your mind, what has changed?

Hahn: 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 out board 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.

Penteo: What does Penteo do for you here at Sync Sound?

Hahn: Simply stated, Penteo 4 Pro takes a stereo mix and make a 5.1 surround mix out of it. But here’s what’s most important: Penteo generates makes its 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.

Penteo: Do you use Penteo on all types of music – pop, opera, symphony, soul?

Hahn: 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 popular 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.

Penteo: What is Penteo’s “Music Mode”?

Hahn: Penteo has several different modes which divides up the energy going to the five surround channels in different ways. For example, the Penteo Music mode takes a 2-channel stereo mix, and then nicely spreads it across the Left, Center and Right speakers at the front, so if there’s a vocal that is center, it stays in the center, but if the vocals are not so centered, it keeps the stereo imaging in a 5.1 framework. Penteo also generates a very discrete left and right surround channel. You get a nice solid center, and the ability to control the center and surround energy with a fader. When the vocals are isolated to the center then I like to use the Hard Center mode.

Penteo: Why is dialogue isolation so difficult and how does Penteo’s Hard Center Mode work?

Penteo: 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, Penteo Hard Center Mode is pretty spectacular.

Because 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.

Penteo: So Penteo helps keep the integrity of the original stereo mix – is that right?

Hahn: Yes, absolutely, and Penteo is the only up-mixer I know that does that.

Penteo: What are the other main controls you use?

Hahn: 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.

Penteo: You have been a long time user of Penteo – how do you find the latest release?

Hahn: We have used Penteo for some time and are now using Penteo 4 Pro. It’s very stable, and it sounds better than ever. Quite frankly, Penteo has become one of my “go-to” plug-ins.

Penteo: You mentioned earlier the work that you do here for the Metropolitan Opera – the world famous Met. Can you tell me more about the work you do at the Met?

Hahn: 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.

Penteo: What goes into mixing from a live opera recording? How is it different from a television broadcast show?

Hahn: 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 video tape 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, and that’s why we use Penteo.

Penteo: Why is that important?

Hahn: 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.

Penteo: What is the reaction you get when you play your mix back for the team at the Met?

Hahn: If the job that you need to do is take stereo music tracks and make them into 5.1, then Penteo is the best way, period, whether it’s classical or not. But classical happens to fit very well in this. I’ve had a number of classical artists, conductors, and producers hear the Penteo 5.1 surround version of their stereo mix, and they’ll say, “Oh my goodness, that’s what I expected the stereo to sound like. It’s got depth. It’s got width. I can hear placement of instruments that I didn’t across the stereo field that I wish I had.”

It’s quite interesting to see people’s first reaction to that. Because when you tell someone, “I’m going to take your stereo mix that you spent so many hours and so much time deliberating over, making a million decisions on, and I’m going to run it through this magic process called Penteo and you’re going to like it.” Who hasn’t heard that before?

A lot of classical people, and I’m making a generalization, haven’t really bought into 5.1, because I think that a lot of it has not been very well done.

Penteo: So treating them like an Audiophile?

Hahn: Audiophile mentality — absolutely. And you need to keep in mind that they usually think of orchestras and opera as very high-end stereo. They haven’t jumped in to buy a new system in order to really have the 5.1 experience.

Penteo: Well, with classical music, there are so many instruments involved. To be able to hear it in 5.1 seems like it would be very attractive to these very serious classical music appreciators.

Hahn: Especially because it’s more of a live experience, for sure.

Penteo: When you’re working on a surround project, do you ever get surprised at what Penteo is able to do?

Hahn: Well, I come across a people who are looking for some new technology to help them, if I tell them about Penteo, and they often want to know what else it can do. But its purpose built and there is no trickery. Penteo does what it says it will do, and does it really well. So if you do this for a living, and you’re not using Penteo, I think you’re making your life harder than it has to be.

Penteo: If you wanted to share with a colleague some tips for success with Penteo, what would you say?

Hahn: 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!