Is there any true advantage of mixing a feature film nowadays in stereo as apposed to the more standard 5.1 format ?

11 Answers 11


Some conceptual reasons have been expressed by Walter Murch and Michel Chion: mono/stereo centre the viewer's focus on the screen and diegetic world, further supporting the suspension of disbelief.

Having sounds emanating from the physical theatre space can draw the audience's attention the fact that they are in a cinema and divides their attention between the film and the space. It's a concept similar to Brecht's alienation of the audience.


A lot of people are mentioning cost and overlooking the concept of aesthetic choice (props to Brendan Rehill for mentioning it). Multichannel surround isn't necessarily the best choice for all theatrically distributed films. Documentaries are a prime example. Yes, you can mix a documentary in surround (and some/many do), but few suffer aesthetically in 2 (or 2.1) channel stereo.

There can also be a personal choice involved. I remember hearing somewhere that all of Woody Allen's films are still done in mono. That's how he wants them. That's not a cop-out, just his personal stylistic choice.

It can't be denied that cost is part of the equation, but ultimately the sound in a film has to support the narrative. Surround simply for the sake of surround is misdirection of effort. If it becomes apparent that use of surround does little to support the film, wouldn't it be better to apply more effort in areas that would have more impact? Stereo might be the better choice in that scenario.

Apocalypse Now is an excellent example of a film that finds a middle ground. In the most basic sense, it is a surround film...but that is only a generalization. The film freqeuently drops the surrounds or pulls all the way down to mono to meet the needs of specific scenes...creating focus or immersion to add depth to the narrative.

It's like that old adage, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."


This is a great discussion.

Last year I finished up a walk-and-talk feature, a la Before Sunrise. While meeting with the director, he was pretty sure he only wanted a stereo mix of the film - there was no distribution deal, no theatrical run set up at that point, and in the interest of keeping budgets (both financial and time) low and tight, we agreed that perhaps this was the best course of action. Additionally, there was little to no hard action where the sound design would totally benefit from the surround field.

Film was completed, sold out at Tribeca (stereo theatrical mix), started gaining interest. Distro deal locked. Studio wanted a 5.1 mix for distribution and theatrical runs.


Even if there is money for the studio to pay for the 5.1 mix, it can be very complicated to find the time and scheduling needed to fulfill a request with what are usually tight turnarounds like this, especially in a facility. Add to that the need to go through QC, etc. - remixing can be an extremely time consuming and costly process to everyone involved.

I have been pushing my film clients to at least time budget for a 5.1 workflow in the case that a distro deal is secured. I will deliver the LtRt as a viable stereo mix, but have the 5.1 at the ready should it need to be broken out.

Just keep in mind that it's not always up to the filmmaker what the final deliverables will be, and it is not always a creative decision. I think the director could have argued for the stereo mix and held his ground, but the studio saw the benefit of having a 5.1 mix and pushed for it.

Cheers all!

  • excellent perspective to bring into this discussion. Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 15:24

It's a lot like asking why movies are still made in 2D. The number one reason is adoptibility. A small percentage of the public actually owns a 5.1 system. So you need to make stereo. It's the same reason we don't have SACD or DVD-A anymore. The public doesn't accept it as a necessity.


My 2 cents,

I agree with Shaun that it all comes down to the choice of the filmmaker. I much rather like the idea of shifting focus as part of storytelling than to just plop the viewer in the middle of every environment in the film by way of surround audio. It also doesn't always serve the story.

I myself as a viewer can't count how many times I have sat in a theater and have been pulled out of the film by a sound bursting from the surrounds. My focus is shifts from the screen as I turn my head looking for the source sound. After a second I realize its part of the film but by then all dramatic tension and suspension of disbelief has been broken.

One clear example of creative use of surrounds would be "Black Swan". There are moments in that film where the focus shifts in between characters and you have dialog being delivered from the back of the theater. In my opinion this choice allowed the viewer the sense of being being with the main character in the middle of this world that threatens to close in on us. This technique is used extensively in this film to the point where we accept these sounds as part of the experience and the suspension of disbelief remains intact.

It certainly isn't a given that film sound should always utilize the maximum allowable playback options simply because they are there. Film making as we know it, (in the U.S.), emerged from the assembly line mentality of Hollywood in the late 60's because filmmakers wanted to make bold new films and had to break away from tried and true conventions to make them. Yet today it seems that we have once again slipped back into complacency with the tried and true methods of today being things like CGI and surround formats. I for one would like to see more films deviate from the norm.

Good story, believable acting, good direction: these are the things that should pull the viewer in and immerse them in the film, not technological gimmicks.


Cost would be the only motivating factor I would think. It takes more editing for a 5.1 sound track. Also building/renting space for a 5.1 mix is also much more expensive.

To have the option for 5.1 and choosing to go Stereo seems silly to me.


Cost could be a factor but are there any audio benefits? Will a stereo mix play correctly in theatres?

  • What kind of benefits do you have in mind? It won't improve sound quality if that's what you mean. Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 22:25

Best bet is to do a proper 5.1 mix. Theatrical equipment will often treat stereo mixes as if they were LtRt encoded - not the best recipe for predictability.


Cost. Money. Cash.


Txs allot to all the contributors " DIE ,Shaun Farley , Chris Bishop , nicol , Chris Davis and Brendan Rehill for your great insight . Mixing film i believe is about choice and no true harden rules "except delivery specs"

Im busy with 2 movies at the moment , 1 action which will be done in 5.1 the other comedy in dolby stereo . think the expansion to 5.1 in the comedy will be distracting to the script.

I love Brendan Rehill insight and have started doing some reading regarding his thoughts. More knowledge more growth i say..txs all


Biggest problem in theaters with stereo sound is that things that are panned to center come right only to audience sitting in the center axis of the room. Others will loose phantom center effect as they sit closer to left or right speakers. The result is that audio center is panned from center closer to the side where one sits in the room.

If surround channels are the problem and for some reason you don't want to use them, then don't. But there is no reason NOT to use front center speaker. This way things that belong to the center stay there no matter where listeners sit on the room.

Bye / Tumppi

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