How Is A Dub Made in 5.1 When The Japanese Version Isn't?
by Justin Sevakis,
I've noticed that many US disc releases of anime titles (especially in the past decade) have English dub tracks that were listed as having 5.1 or "Dolby Digital" English audio, which would lead one to believe that it features "surround sound." However, the Japanese audio tracks are usually only stereo, and the discs sold in Japan are usually only stereo as well, so I presume that the US licensors would only have stereo M&E (music & effects) tracks to work from. It sounds like it'd be an enormous amount of work to make a proper 5.1 mix out of them, if that's even possible. With that being the case, are the English tracks that are listed as "5.1" really that? Is there anything special about them over a basic stereo track, and what kind of extra effort is being put into them, if any?
Japan normally doesn't do 5.1 surround mixes for their TV shows. Only high-end OVAs and movies get that treatment. But in the early days of DVDs in the US, the ability to have 5.1 was considered a huge selling point of the format. People that could afford it would spend a lot of money tricking out their home theaters with 6 speakers -- 3 in front, two in back and a subwoofer on the floor -- and would really enjoy the immersive effect. It was especially important for action movies.
It's important to note here that while 5.1 tracks and "Dolby Digital" were often used in the same sentence, they are not the same thing. 5.1 is what we call having discreet 6-channel audio (the 5 speakers plus the ".1" of the subwoofer), as opposed to Stereo, which is just two channels (left and right). Dolby Digital, or AC3, is just the compression format it's stored in, like MP3. (There are others too, like DTS.) Dolby Digital sound was heavily marketed in the early days of DVD, with publishers often including annoying 3D logos for the format on their discs. It wasn't special -- nearly every DVD uses Dolby Digital. But just because something is in Dolby Digital doesn't mean it's in 5.1.
Anyway, lots of US anime publishers spent a lot of money making 5.1 mixes for their dubs. They generally left the original Japanese audio tracks alone, but since they were directly in charge of the dubs, and those dubs needed to be mixed anyway, they decided to pay the extra money and have those dubs finished in 5.1.
Mixing in 5.1 isn't very different than mixing in stereo, but it does require a lot more expensive equipment and an engineer that knows what they're doing. When recording a dub, each individual element is laid out in a digital audio workstation software, like ProTools. Every element is given its own separate "track", much like how every element of a piece of art is on a separate layer in Photoshop. Every character has its own track, music has its own tracks (usually two, 'cause it's stereo), and sound effects get their own tracks.
After everything is recorded and laid out, a mixer will go through the whole show and "position" each audio element according to the speakers. Most characters are speaking from directly on-screen, so they come out of the center channel. Music usually goes on the front left and front right speakers. And sound effects could come from any direction, according to what's happening on-screen. Additionally, some effects can add an echo, so something that might come strongly out of some speakers might echo slightly from their opposite speakers. All of this is done to give the sound a feeling of space, and of realistically re-creating the acoustics of a scene.
With a stereo mix, each element can only come from the left or the right speaker, so a mixer really only has to decide how far off-center to put each element. With 5.1, they suddenly have a lot more options. (Newer technologies, like Dolby Atmos, adds even more directionality.) There's an art to it, and a mixer can do a really amazing job or get lazy at this step. Finally, once every sound is positioned and effects are added, they "bounce," or export, the final mix to 6 separate audio files, which are then re-combined with the picture.
The anime publishers eventually learned that, while 5.1 was a nice thing to have on a disc, it wasn't a make-or-break thing, and having a 5.1 track didn't really make people buy a show when they weren't going to already. So after a few years, 5.1 tracks became a luxury -- much like Japan, only being used for movies and high-profile titles. But for a few years in the early 2000s, a huge percentage of anime DVDs had 5.1 dub tracks.
So, how DO you make a 5.1 dub mix when the original version itself is only in stereo? There are two ways. The first method is called up-mixing, which is that you use software (such as NUGEN Audio's Halo Upmix, or Waves DTS Neural Surround Upmix) to artificially expand a finished stereo dub to 5.1. This is surprisingly difficult to do, because once an audio track is mixed, you really can't easily separate the different elements again. This software gets around that by analyzing the audio and trying to figure out what everything is. They generally it try to keep all the dialogue coming from the front speakers, and expand everything else to fill the room without making anything very directional (because, obviously, the software has no idea what's actually happening on-screen).
The quality of these upmixes varies greatly (and snobs call this "fake 5.1") but they're never as good as a "native" 5.1 mix. Also, most home theater gear has built-in technology like Dolby Pro-Logic or DTS NEO that attempts to do similar upmixes right in your own home, when you're watching the program. If an engineer performing an upmix wants to really go the extra mile, he or she can add in new sound effects that really make use of directionality, but that's very labor intensive, and Japan might not like it. So, the end result is seldom much better than having a plain old stereo track. Manga Entertainment used to do a lot of upmixes, but these days most companies don't bother.
If a dub is being newly recorded, or all of the unmixed "stems" of each track were saved, it's possible to make a new mix in "real" 5.1. Dialogue tracks, obviously, are all separate elements and can be freely positioned in a mix. However, if the Japanese-provided music and effects tracks (M&E's) were sent as pre-mixed stereo, there's not a whole lot that can be done with those, particularly if background music and sound effects are mashed together. The mixer won't be able to position the sound effects without also shuffling the music from speaker to speaker. Luckily, these days it's much more common for music and sound effects to be delivered separately, which gives a mixer enough freedom to position all of the individual elements in a realistic way.
A good 5.1 mix can really add a lot to a viewing experience. A bad mix will just sort of lay there. Of course, these days, half of us are watching anime on a phone or tablet, so 5.1 mixes are something we probably wouldn't even notice.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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