I'm starting my Honours project for my final year at University and I'd like to ask all you pros out there for some advice on my initial idea.

I've decided to explore spatial audio, specifically 5.1/7.1 cinema systems.

Being able to create diegetic immersion in your sound design is one of the many things that fascinate me about it and I'd like to see if there is a basis on which I could investigate ways in which diegetic immersion is created effectively. I already understand simple things like the fact that the use of your surround channels to create immersion are only necessary in certain types of scenes/genres. For example, if I were working on a documentary film I'd find myself using very little of the surround channels as I wouldn't want to distract the viewer from the dialog on screen. Whereas, if I were designing sound for a horror, I'd want to stick the viewer right in the middle of the haunted house by making full use of the surround channels.

But is it worth investigating this further? Could there be further 'unwritten rules' for the individual components of the sound track? Such as, appropriate uses of artefacts in the surround channels at certain moods in the on-screen performance. When does something become distracting?

My tutor said he thinks the project will work but the more I think about it, the more I feel like the whole thing is a completely subjective matter and I'm wasting my time..

Any ideas? Or any ideas of a different direction I could go from here? Would be very much appreciated. :)


3 Answers 3


My 2 cents: You may be disappointed in the end if you pursue that topic. I believe your suspicion that the use of surround sound in cinema being highly subjective is true. What is "correct" for one filmmaker may be "incorrect" for another. And even using your two examples of the documentary and the haunted house may not get you very far, in that some documentaries (The Rolling Stones: Crossfire Hurricane) make full use of the surround channels to immerse the audience, while some horror films or thrillers may only use the surround channels to shock or scare the audience, rather than creating the illusion that they are "there".

I suppose your Honors project could exhaust all of the different uses of surround sound across the genres, tracing the evolution of how soundtracks have changed since the advent of different surround technologies (stereo, mono surround, 5.1, 7.1, SDDS, Dolby EX, Atmos, etc). That could be interesting. But don't expect to uncover any "unwritten rules" because 90% of the time there just aren't any.

  • @Jay Jennings Agreed! Thanks very much for your input. Feb 12, 2013 at 16:24

I haven't seen a single formula on "how to do sound design, when the scene is x" or a standard way for measuring the goodness or effectiveness of a particular practice. Plus, it's practically impossible to follow formulas when working with sound, because nothing can never sound the same and the interpretation and taste varies from person to person, unless the practice is strictly tied to/limited by technology for example.

Isn't most/all sound design, and art for that matter, aiming for some kind of "diagetic immersion" in the first place? So aiming to define "effectiveness" or "goodness" in something that by definition is based on a particular view on what is effective and good, according to the artist himself/herself, is just stating another opinion on top of it, and unfortunately there are very few or no ways, or for that matter need to prove why something is better.

I don't think it's interesting or publicly useful to go through the differences in technological frameworks either. By default most technology, at least in these sound systems, has come to exist because of the need or desire to improve particular aspects in the technologies that preceded it, and the engineers have already defined why the technology improves on the existing technologies or "why x is better than y", when they designed and rolled out the technology. One can only speculate on "how does this technology improve MY work/life/etc".


I too will suggest that trying to come up with a definitive list of rules for 5.1/7.1/92.7.3 audio is a bit of a waste of time. On the one hand, every room sounds different, and every listener hears differently, so the precision (and therefore purpose) of the rule goes out the window, on the other, I don't know a single person who actually follows any of the "rules" for working with sound (I mean, what would be the point?).

However, there's nothing wrong with doing a dissertation that investigates 3-5 particular "possible rules" drawn either from your observations about 5.1 film mixing or your reading about film-sound theory.

For example:

  • Take a 5 minute scene from a film (preferably something you can get rights to use, in case you manage to get your paper published) and sound design it the way you think it should be done.
  • Read up on both film-sound theory and psycho-acoustics.
  • Draw up a list of interesting looking ideas/theories/techniques that you've found in your reading.
  • Mix your sound design according to those ideas/theories/techniques.
  • In your dissertation explain (with examples of your work bounced directly from the scene!) what each theory/technique was supposed to do, and whether it worked or not.
    • If not, then explain why, hopefully by way of an idea/theory that you've come across in your reading.

A big thing that most people don't realise when they're doing stuff like this is that doing shitty work, or having things not turn out the way you expect them to, is actually better than proving that you actually are as much of a genius as you always thought you were. In many cases the failures (or deliberate muckings up) prove to be much more interesting than a intellectually safe compare/contrast essay. So, even if you do a whole bunch of work and it all totally sucks, as long as you find an intellectually interesting (and properly justified) way of presenting it, you should be totally fine. Which, I think, is why your tutor says that it will work, there's still a whole bunch of unexplored territory in multi-channel sound, and the best way to find the good stuff if to figure out what sucks.

  • Your example is ok, but I guess one could add the idea of maybe trying to come up with an idea/"theory" by oneself as well and not only reflect "what's already known", which is possible, because there are really no limitations. There's of course the uncertainty of stating something in a way that comes across as uninformed, if you don't know "what's already known" or what's been said, but there's also the aspect/opportunity to describe what one found out, and that in turn may provide an idea that someone else could expand on or benefit from, were they ever read about what one did. Feb 12, 2013 at 17:56
  • @g.a.harry I think your right. If I am going to satisfy all the criteria set for me then I will have to refer to more theory based ideas/techniques, rather than exploring and questioning subjective ideas. And yes, sometimes failures and non-results make for a great way to bulk up the word count :) Feb 12, 2013 at 20:44
  • +1 for that last paragraph, I completely agree. Even though you think the results might lack subjectivity there's still reason to do it. I read a journal article on this a while ago - Enlarging the Diegetic Space: Uses of the Multi-channel Soundtrack in Cinematic Narrative - intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=1715 Feb 12, 2013 at 22:44

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