The plugin world doesn't love surround

I’m doing my first mix in 5.1 and it made me realize that I had a wrong assumption; that all plugins were channel agnostic and they were capable of handling as many channels as the project has.

Well, apparently most of them are just stereo. Even some that come in the same package, like Fabfilter’s Pro Bundle, are a mixed bag, with the EQ and Limiter being surround capable (at least 5.1), and the compressor and mastering plugins being just stereo.

So what happens if you put a stereo mastering plugin as an insert in the main 5.1 bus? Does it work for only left and right and the other channels just pass through untouched?

And for those of you who work in 5.1, what are the best plugins for mastering, within a reasonable price?

This might be where the stock plugins from Cubase come in handy again.
grafik

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Which ones in particular?

I feel this would be entirely up to you. You can give them a go since you already paid for them.

You can see whether a plugin supports surround by looking at the routing tab of the insert fx section in the channel settings.
grafik
The first plugin is Cubase’s stock compressor on a 5.1 bus. You see 6 connectors. The plugin below is a 3rd party compressor only for stereo use. It has only 2 out of 6 channels connected.

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OK, but what I was asking for was advice from experienced engineers that mix in 5.1 as to what plugins to use, either Steinberg’s or third party.

The mastering folder in the plugins list feels a little lonely:

Screenshot 2024-06-11 at 17.01.15

If I didn’t have Ozone 11, there would be just one thing, which for just one purpose as far as I can tell. I’m looking for the equivalent of stereo mastering plugins but that work in 5.1. To name a few, Ozone 11, Fabfilter’s Pro-MB, bx Masterdesk Classic, Shadow Hills Class A Mastering Comp, etc.

Those plug-in categories are determined by each manufacture for their plugs. You are unlikely to see lots of items listed there as most of tools you use while mastering aren’t exclusively used for mastering. You see a dithering plug listed because typically that only gets used when mastering. But you don’t see any compressors listed, even though most mastering is going to use compression. I wouldn’t put much weight on the manufacture’s categorization - its often as much about marketing as anything else.

Many (most? all?) of the Steinberg plug-ins seem to support 5.1. As @Johnny_Moneto pointed out you can easily check and see for yourself. Below I randomly loaded some different plug-ins on a 5.1 Group Channel, and as you can see they all support 5.1 plus a bunch of other options.

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What about the Waves 360° package? Depending on which forum you read, every sound engineer in the industry uses them and they make your song sound like a million bucks, or they are mediocre and nobody uses them.

Not knowing any sound engineers personally, it’s hard to tell.

Try them. All Waves plugins can be demoed.

Sure I can. But my point in asking here is to get opinions from people who might’ve used them and they have some experience with them.

This likely isn’t the advice you are looking for, and it is partially based on an assumption that you are moderately new to audio engineering - so take it with a grain of salt & adjust as necessary.

I think you’d be better off ignoring all the different varieties of Compressors, for example, which you could possibly be using, and instead focus on the ones you currently have at hand. The truth is the differences between plugs is often pretty subtle and maybe not even audible unless you are skilled at dialing it in. That’s how you end up with the same plug-in being both great and useless.

As an analogy, I can’t play violin. So if you had me try to play both a cheap student violin and a Stradivarius, the results would be similarly ugly for both attempts. And it would probably take many years of practice before anyone could hear the differences between the two.

The bottom line - the skills you develop are way more important than the tools you use.

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Indeed, I’m very new at it, although I’ve been a videographer for 20 years, so that kind of gives me a foot in the door because I’ve had to work with sound for decades. Obviously not at this level, with many tracks with instruments, certainly not virtual ones.

But my philosophy when it comes to plugins is this. I’d rather find out the one plugin most of the industry uses for each specific task (for example, the best reverb, the best limiter, and so on), and focus on learn it well, rather than go through several reverbs to figure out that Cinematic Rooms is the best one for my needs (at least when it comes to accessible ones, because I would love to have the VSL Mir something that allows you to position instruments in a 3D space but it’s over 600 € so that’s out of my reach.

And I though I was pretty much setup in that respect, but then I found out that a lot of the plugins I have are only stereo. Sure, my bad for assuming they all were, but live and learn I guess.

In this case I would ask the question on the Nuendo forum and on a ProTools forum. You probably find more professionals using surround over there.

OK, that makes sense.

At first glance that seems like a reasonable approach - except I don’t think anything even close to a consensus exists on the topic. It’s kind of like electric guitarists - if you gathered 10 of them together and asked about their favorite distortion pedal, you’d likely get 60 different pedal names.

Have you confirmed this by looking at them in the Channel Settings Routing tab?

Yes. Tell me if I’m wrong, but if you insert a plugin that supports 5.1, it shows it on the window for the plugin:

And also the routing editor:

If you add a plugin that doesn’t support it, it shows as stereo:

Now, you can click the drop down menu and select 5.1 but it will stay in stereo.

It would be good if the plugin manager had a way to identify and sort by supported channels.

When I finally got to my studio PC I loaded a bunch of plug-ins from different manufactures to take a look. All the Steinberg plug-ins I looked at support 5.1, but hardly anything else did. Some of that is because I’ve never shopped specifically for 5.1 tools.

So I asked the Copilot AI about it and below is the response. It tended to want to focus on tools for creating 5.1 over tools that process a 5.1 signal, so it took a few questions. Seems to give a sense of who’s playing in this space.


Which VST audio plugins support 5.1 sound?

There are several VST audio plugins that support 5.1 surround sound. Here are a few of them:

  1. iZotope Insight and RX 6 Advanced: iZotope’s products are crucial for many workflows. Insight provides loudness and true peak metering, ensuring that each project complies with the technical specifications it requires1. RX6 has modules like Mouth De-Click, Leveler, Ambience Match, EQ Match, De-Plosive, and Dialogue Isolate that are used to clean and enhance audio in projects1.
  2. Waves 360° Surround Tools: This is a bundle of plugins created by Waves that integrates all the functions needed to process surround sound in a single powerful tool2. It includes 12 plugins: C360 Surround Compressor, Dorrough Stereo, Dorrough Surround, IDR360 Bit Re-Quantizer, L360 Surround Limiter, LFE360 Low-Pass Filter, LoAir, M360 Surround Manager & Mixdown, MV360, R360 Surround Reverb, S360 Surround Imager & Panner, and UM225/UM2262.

what about other manufacturers

Sure, there are other manufacturers that offer VST audio plugins supporting 5.1 surround sound. Here are a few:

  1. V.I Stereo to 5.1 Converter Suite: This suite is designed to convert stereo audio into 5.1 sound1.
  2. MS EQ COMP for Macintosh: This is an imaging plugin by INTERNET Co. that can be used for surround sound1.
  3. Mid-Side: stereophonic harmonic generator/vitaliser+: This is an imaging plugin by G-Sonique that can be used for surround sound1.
  4. StereooeretS: This is an imaging plugin by DDMF that can be used for surround sound1.
  5. UM225 / UM226: This is an imaging plugin by Waves that can be used for surround sound1.
  6. Headphone Mix: This is an imaging plugin by Sound Magic that can be used for surround sound1.

Please note that the compatibility and functionality of these plugins may vary depending on the DAW you are using23. Always check the specifications and requirements of the plugins before purchasing or installing them. Also, remember that to use these plugins, your DAW must have surround support, which allows you to work with 5.1 sound23.

Please note that to use these plugins, your DAW must have surround support, which allows you to work with 5.1 sound2. Some DAWs have this feature built-in, while others will need to support Dolby Atmos or some external host2.

What about compressors, limiters, EQs and similar plugins that support 5.1?

Sure, there are several VST audio plugins that support 5.1 surround sound and offer functionalities like compression, limiting, and equalization. Here are a few:

  1. iZotope Insight and RX 6 Advanced: iZotope’s products are crucial for many workflows. Insight provides loudness and true peak metering, ensuring that each project complies with the technical specifications it requires1. RX6 has modules like Mouth De-Click, Leveler, Ambience Match, EQ Match, De-Plosive, and Dialogue Isolate that are used to clean and enhance audio in projects1.
  2. Waves 360° Surround Tools: This bundle includes 12 plugins: C360 Surround Compressor, IDR360 Bit Re-Quantizer, L360 Surround Limiter, LFE360 Low-Pass Filter, LoAir, and more1. These plugins are built specifically for multichannel use and have become invaluable to many workflows in 5.11.
  3. Oxford Dynamics: This is an all-in-one dynamics control plugin by Sonnox. It features six independent processes for precision dynamic sculpting of your tracks. It offers a Gate, Expander, Compressor, Limiter, and 2-band side-chain EQ2.
  4. Waves Audio: Waves offers a comprehensive line of plugins for 5.1 and 5.0 surround sound, including reverb, compression, limiting, imaging, metering, and upmixing3.

Please note that the compatibility and functionality of these plugins may vary depending on the DAW you are using123. Always check the specifications and requirements of the plugins before purchasing or installing them. Also, remember that to use these plugins, your DAW must have surround support, which allows you to work with 5.1 sound123.

Well, that information is a bit outdated, since RX is on version 11. But Ozone 11 was crucial for my workflow, until I found out that it only does stereo. What a waste. Same for the Fabfilter $400 Pro bundle I bought a few months ago. Why would a bundle have an EQ and a limiter that support 5.1 but the compressor and mastering plugin only support stereo? It doesn’t make sense to me. Had I known that, I would’ve spent that money in the Waves 360 suite.

Is there perhaps a way to route a 5.1 bus to 3 separate stereo buses that I can apply Ozone 11 to, then merge them back into a 5.1 for output? I know it’s a bit Frankensteinish, but Ozone 11 was the final touch for my mixes. It didn’t always get it right, but most times it did, after I tamed it down a bit.

For the last 20 years I work in 5.1 and it is very difficult to find tools and plugins.

Some of the best for me are:

Those are the main plugins I use for the surround channel/busses and of course the Cubase stock plugins are very handy.
In general I avoid using plugins on a 5.1 busses stage, I try to do the processing as much as possible on stereo/mono bus (for example: snares, kicks, guitars, basses, voice etc. ) and than the sonically ready sound goes to 5.1 bus for stage placement. On 5.1 bus I use only the Cubase bus EQ and on very rare cases I will use limiter or compressor.

For EQ, the Cubase Studio EQ works great. I use Brickwall Limiter as well, with a transparent stereo compressor or limiter or two ahead of that on the mains (typically UAD Precision Buss Compressor or Limiter).

When it comes to mastering the surround mix, I try to take care of any major issues/jobs (levels, dynamic EQ, etc.) ahead of time. Way too easy to butcher the surround mix if you have to do any major level changes or EQ surgery…

Thank you all for your advice. I’m tempted to buy the Waves 360 surround tools since it seems like a very decent package for $300, but I bought a lot of bundles like that that I ended up regretting because they were not as good as I thought. In fact, the $400 Fabfilter Pro package was a huge disappointment when I found out that some of its plugins are only stereo.

So I guess I’m going to do more digging on the Waves ones, give it a few weeks, then download the demos and see from there.

It’s an AI Jake