The amazing world of the 5.1 surround sound. Even before I discovered my passion in Audio, my excitement every time I listened to music or watched a movie on surround sound left me with a sense of contentment. Let’s explore the 5.1 surround sound. It can be defined as basically 3 or more speakers surrounding a listener to create a realistic feeling. Why is it so important? With our ever evolving world, people have become more aware and want to touch, feel and taste things. They are looking for a sense of realness, for example look at the increasing number of viewers glued to the reality shows.

Above is a diagram setup for a 5.1 surround sound speaker placement

Speaker Calibration

  • Dialogues: 100% Center Monitor (sometimes 20% L/R)
  • Foley: 100% Front L/R (but usually panned to phantom center)
  • Impact and strong Effects: 100% Front L/R + 50% LFE
  • Backgrounds and Ambience: 50% Front L/R, 50% Sides/Rear
  • Music Stereo: 75% Front L/R, 25% Sides/RearMusic by Stems: 50% Front L/R, 25% Sides, 25% Rear

Calibaration is another important element in recording and all it is in summary is finding ‘the sweet spot’. This involves placing the speakers in angled positions to ensure they have equal Sound Pressure Level also known as (SPL). The SPL will vary depending on the room size and this will affect the calibration. The basic requirements for a 5.1 setup require the left (L) and right (R) speakers are to be placed at 60 degrees the listeners position and this is in the classic equilateral triangle formation. Lets talk about the centre speaker (C) which maintains the main dialogue aside from the other sounds. It works well with the (L) and (R) speakers and the (C) must be placed in between the two for an effective surround effect.

The surround would be incomplete if we did not include the subwoofer that gives us that bass. The bass frequencies have minimal directionality and this gives us the liberty to place it anywhere however I would suggest a great starting point is under the desk facing the mix position. There are a ton of speakers out there and the choice is up to the user. The only recommendation I can offer is consistency by buying the same speakers to ensure your mixing is uniform across the board. In saying this the sub can be the exception to the rule because it does not have to be from the same brand but has to be relatively equal to the rest of the other speakers in terms of size.

Movie Theatrical release85dB85dB85dB82dB82dB85dB
Movie DVD release85dB85dB85dB85dB85dB85dB
Broadcast / 85dBC or78dB78dB78dB78dB78dB78dB
Music( Stereo)85dB85dB85dB
Music ( 5.1)85dB85dB85dB85dB85dB85dB

Setup Pro tools I/O Settings

  • First step create a Pro tools session
  • Go to settings & open the I/O settings window
  • Select output panel & delete all the previous paths available
  • Create a new 5.1 path which will be the main output path going to the interface then to your monitor speakers.

Click create so it shows a new output path with a 5.1 path order on the bottom left of the I/O setting window . If it is in the S6 studio configuration will be as described on the diagram below (L C R Ls Rs LFE which is the C|24/Film)

I/O setup

On the bus page notice that Pro tools has created 5.1 output bus automatically & mapped to the monitor output. Once opened you can see all sub paths are created as well. You have the choice to use them or delete & recreate them. Click on the new path button 7 again select dropdown menu & name it 5.1 making sure the auto-create subpaths is checked so its easy to delete those that are not needed. Hit create section & it will come up with name (in this case 5.1) & the format will be 5.1 with channels L C R Ls Rs LFE as seen on image above. I/O setup is good to go

Assigning busses

5.1 Track Routing

Now let’s create routing for a 5.1 recorded track. Go to the output path sector on the channels strip & select 5.1 then it will route to the 5.1 output path & we should be able to listen to the surround content directly to the monitors.

Mono Tracks

For the mono track there are two types of routing that are commonly used. The first routing will be for lead vocals in a piece of music & the dialog in a film. The process is to route the track to the centre speaker only by going on to the output path selector on the track then select 5.1 C sub path which will separately route the vocal/ main dialog to the centre speaker.

You may notice the channel strip will not have a panning section reason being that the sound is routed separately to the centre channel only through the sub path created earlier as mentioned above.

Now for the second most commonly used mono track in a 5.1 session is routed to the L C R Sub Path this is used so that you can pan the sound across the 3 front speakers but don’t want any sound in the rear speakers.

Stereo Tracks

You may opt to have stereo tracks come out of the front speakers at the same time not wanting them coming out of the centre speaker by routing the stereo sub path then pan it hard left & right.

Second option maybe having the stereo coming out of the rear speakers by routing the LsRs sub path & pan them anyhow you like. You are able also to route them directly to 5.1 then place them anywhere in the mix & your channel strip would look like the diagram below.

These are some of the guidelines of setting up a 5.1 surround mix. There is more information required if there be need to go further to 7.1 or 10.2 surround. I would like to conclude & my thoughts on doing a 5.1 surround mix are very much excited to try it & will give it a go.


Savage, S. (2014). Mixing and mastering in the box : The guide to making great mixes and final masters on your computer. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2014). Retrieved April 17, 2020

Holman, T. (2008). Surround sound : Up and running (2nd ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier/Focal Press.

Holman, T. (2000). 5.1 surround sound : Up and running. Boston: Focal.

Tozzoli, R. (2005). Pro tools surround sound mixing. San Francisco: Backbeat Books.

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