Penteo Surround Master Class Series
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Steve Pederson with Penteo 4 Pro at Sony Pictures Studios.
Photo by David Goggin.

Class #5: Oscar Winning Sound Designer Steve Pederson

Steve Pederson was first introduced to sound in the late 70s when a good friend from high school brought him to the Warner Bros. Studios lot to visit her dad on a mixing stage. Having a fascination with aviation ever since he was a boy, he had planned on a career as a pilot, and excelled in math and engineering studies. However, his trip to the studio that day set about a course change. He was blown away by the scoring stage full of musicians recording music in sync to the movie playing on the big screen, the looping stage where actors were in studio to recapture their performance, and the re-recording stage blending it all together. The mixing consoles reminded him of being in a cockpit and the whole process intrigued him enough to change his career pursuit to become a re-recording mixer.

After many years of on the job training, Steve began mixing in 1986. He has been nominated for numerous awards including three BAFTAs, and twice for an Academy Award. He won the Academy Award for “Apollo 13” in the category of Best Sound. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and it is in the post production side that all the pieces of a film come together, a finished product in which everyone agrees “that’s our movie” and the challenge of “landing that plane” is something he loves.

Steve has worked mostly at Warner Bros. Studio for more than fifteen years, and enjoys the talented people, the historic property and top-of-the-line facilities offered. Throughout his career, he has seen the contribution of sound continue to evolve for the better. More channels to fill the theater, greater dynamic range, and improving fidelity give the audience a more powerful experience, and perhaps even evoke greater emotion to serve the story.

Penteo: Today’s Master Class is with the Oscar-winning sound mixer, Steve Pederson. It is great to be with you today Steve. To begin, can you tell our followers how you first got into the world of film post production?

Pederson: When I graduated from high school, I got my pilot’s license and was flying small planes, thinking about a career in aviation. I won a scholarship for a BS degree at Northrop Institute of Technology, and began studies to become an aerospace engineer.

Months before, in my senior year at high school, a friend whose father was a rerecording mixer at what was then the Burbank Studios, now Warner Bros. invited me to join her for a day at the studio. It was really an eye opener for me because I didn’t know much about the movie business, but learning about post production and observing the sound department specifically, I thought this could be a great career.

The more I learned about aerospace engineering attending Northrop, the more I felt a sound career could be for me. The consoles reminded me of an aircraft cockpit and the science of sound intrigued me. Coupled with the art side of movies, the science/art combo was a win-win I changed career goals, and pursued a job in the sound business. After about a year of different schooling and interviewing, I landed a job at Universal Studios.

Penteo: How did you start upmixing surround from stereo?

Pederson: Well, the theaters during the time of my career, have had more than two channels to fill. Songs are mixed for the most part in stereo. That’s fine for the car or the home stereo, but I’ve got more to do for a theatrical presentation. For example, I may pan into the center speaker slightly to put some “glue” between the spread of the left and right speakers in a theater. I might low pass the tracks on a feed to a sub synthesizer and put that in the sub channel, and then I would either use reverbs or other up mixing software to derive something that I can place in the surrounds.

The problem with reverbs or some of the other up mixing plug’s surround material is it tends to sound ‘mushy’ or ‘washy’. I think of it as an “ambient smear”. It may fill the theater but there isn’t any clarity. There’s no delineating of instrumentation, lead vocals can be “swimming” around which can diffuse the punch. It doesn’t seem like a purposeful extraction of certain instruments or background vocals selectively positioned for a 5.1 mix.

Having your hands tied with the 2-track master was something the rerecording mixer had to accept generally, and we would spread sound into the theater with compromised results. I wondered if at some point that software would develop which could allow us to “magically” pull some elements out of the combine mix. Imagining the capability, as if you were in the music studio, to manipulate the different stems and place some guitar in the surrounds, synth pads and background vocals behind us, but the lead vocals up front, and stem by stem, contour the 5.1 surround mix. I didn’t think that really possible until I heard a demo of Penteo.

Penteo: How is mixing surround now different with Penteo?

Pederson: I was first made aware of a new technology called Penteo at an all-day seminar held at Warner Bros. Penteo claimed their technology would take any 2-track stereo mix and upmix/unwrap them from stereo into a better sounding 5.1 surround mix. Considering all the 2-track songs I’ve dropped into films, I was more than a little curious in hearing the results of their claims. We were invited to bring our own stereo material so we could hear how our tracks fared so I, along with many others, went over to Stage 5 with our favorite stereo CDs to hear the 5.1 results of the Penteo process. I was impressed that for the first time, I heard a stereo mix which was wrapped really tightly but it totally unwrapped and played out of 5.1 speakers as if it were constructed that way. The 5.1 format is still the primary film release, think home theater as well, but as we venture out more into 7.1 or beyond, clarity off the screen makes for a more satisfying movie going experience.

I use Penteo as a ‘one stop shop’ tool to take any stereo track and generate a warm, precise and effective sounding 5.1 surround mix. I was amazed how Penteo could isolate channels so cleanly, so discreetly and then populate the surrounds. After hearing Penteo in action, I realized that I can use it to really fill out a theater in a much more interesting way. Not just an ambient “something” in the surrounds, but like it might have been taken straight from a 5.1 mix.

Penteo is very different from the other plug-ins, and remarkably, if you were to mute the front channels and just listen to whatever was being derived for the surrounds, you hear two discrete channels – no ambient smear at all.

Penteo: What is it like mixing surround for film – is it different from television broadcast mixing?

Pederson: I mix mainly theatrical sound so we mix in 5.1 or sometimes a 7.1 format. Dolby Atmos and other higher channel formats are out there and although I’ve heard a home theater Atmos is in the works, for now in television mixing you mix a 5.1 surround mix and then have to check that it also works well in stereo since many people still watch TV using just their TV’s stereo speakers. So how that 5.1 mix ‘folds-down’ to stereo is very important. In the theatrical world, we still collapse down to an old stereo optical format that is an encoded LtRt with a center channel and a mono surround “cooked” in. The matrix that steers the center channel and surround channel can play with any source of music, and I’ve found that the Penteo tracks work fine in this LtRt down mix.

Penteo: What recent projects have you mixed surround using Penteo?

Pederson: I used Penteo 4 Pro on the just released “Into the Storm” from New Line Cinema, and also recently finished a mix at Sony for a new film called “The Equalizer”  coming out from Columbia Pictures in September. For this film I had a 2-track stereo file of a Moby song used for the closing, and then an added new Eminem track featuring Sia, also a 2-track. Using the Penteo 4 Pro, I upmixed “Into the Storm” to 5.1 and “The Equalizer” to a 7.1 surround format and I was very pleased with the results. Penteo gets you to a great sounding up mix with little fuss, and is an efficient tool to have handy.

Penteo: How is the Penteo for creating bass/low frequency information in film mixes?

Pederson: I’m very happy with the sub channel sound I get from Penteo In the past I would take a 2-track stereo file and may try to first filter it to get some of the higher frequencies out, and then put it through a sub-synthesizer who’s output goes into the sub speakers of a theater. The result would be a more muddled sub channel that has less definition, giving a ‘rolling’ and ‘defused’ sub-woofer sound.

What I like about Penteo’s sub is the definition. If you mute all the full range speakers in the theater and just listen to the sub you’ll hear a nice, tight, punchy bass. Penteo is more musical, it defines the beat of the music better. Penteo doesn’t rumble and roll, it rock and rolls!

Penteo: How does Penteo help with low frequency management? 

Pederson: Penteo has very good low frequency management. It gives you options of selecting crossover frequencies of what to send to the LFE channel, or leave LF in the mains and boost/augment in the LFE. With music, I use mostly the ‘Boost’ setting which adds LFE content without removing LF energy from the main channels. I may also use the ‘Split’ setting if I want to tweak the music – for example like a source treatment – or play with sound effects. – Split keeps the total low frequency content the same as the input, allowing the LFE channel to share the workload of the main channels.

Penteo: Penteo has six pre-set modes to make surround mixing easier – which modes do you use? 

Pederson: Initially, I started using the Penteo Music mode to do a simple but great job of taking a 2-track mix and working it into the theater’s 5.1 sound system. This mode works the 2-track for a more apparent 5.1 design.  Lately, I find myself leaning more to Penteo’s Stereo Plus mode for a more subtle effect, protecting the punch of the 2-track in the main left and right speakers, but still deriving some great surround material and that tight LFE sound. Stereo Plus is a good “set and forget” mode for me, until I want to shape the music differently.

Penteo: Are you still getting what you want in the surround speakers?

Pederson: Absolutely. Basically for me, what’s important is how Penteo keeps the integrity of the 2-track file, isolates the center channel just right, generates the interesting and isolated surround channels, and keep the tight bass. Penteo is THE up-mix plugin for me when I’m mixing.

Penteo: You mentioned a couple of recent films you worked on, dealing with the 2-track music of Moby and Eminem. What other kinds of music have you used Penteo for?

Pederson: Any type of stereo music I am given sounds great when I run it through Penteo.  Another area where Penteo can really help is during the early stages of mixing.

Penteo: How so?

Pederson: At the start of a movie’s soundtrack, we create temporary mixes, aka “the temp” to craft a sound mix to take out and test the film with an audience or screen for studio executives.

When it comes to music for the temp, a music editor will basically go to a CD library for 2-track stereo files of movie scores and will “compose” a temp score. It might live in the movie for a couple months while they discover what’s needed to tune it just right. So I will take those stereo tracks and run them through the Penteo plugin to immediately give the temp score a full and rich 5.1 feel that emulates a proper mixed final score and elevate the quality of the temp mix.

Penteo: How would you introduce another sound mixer to Penteo?

Pederson: Obviously, music is a huge part of a films impact. Theaters today are adding more and more channels to envelope the audience. Even home theater is 5.1 or 7.1 with ATMOS coming soon. To get that music off the screen and surround the audience in a rich immersive sound with clarity and detail, including the subwoofer – I would tell them “Here’s what I use to upmix to 5.1 on every film: The Penteo 4 Pro plug-in”.

Whenever I have a mix scheduled, I’ll call the engineers in advance giving them a heads-up that I need to have the Penteo 4 Pro plugin installed on the music rig, it’s a must have.

Penteo: Can you sum up what Penteo does for you? 

Pederson: I would say that the Penteo is the most clever up mixing tool I’ve encountered to create interesting surrounds and musical bass. It opens up the sound in a theater richly and with much detail. Penteo is simple to use and has a variety of parameter adjustments available. It the perfect tool to “magically” unlock a 2-track and fill the theater in a very interesting way.­­­