I went to a speech on surround mixing (5.1) last night by Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering. He spent a lot of time talking about gear and technicalities of mastering, and also discussed the different stages in mastering for various formats SACD, DVD-Audio etc. An interesting thing he commented on is the fact that when Dolby Digital is downmixed to stereo in consumer gear, the LFE channel is left out. So he advised to use the LFE (.1) channel sparsely, if at all.
I always find it strange that people working with music end up playing no music at all during a presentation, but he finally got to some examples in the end. Although I am very much a surround sound person (but seldom 5.1), his examples really demonstrated all the challenges encountered when mixing popular music in surround. Choosing whether to go for a “best seat” in the house (i.e. widened mono field) or “in the middle of the band” mix is certainly not easy. While I think it is very much fun being in the middle of the action, this really requires a good listening spot. The presentation was in the new sound recording hall at McGill with a wonderful speaker setup, which would call for a great listening experience. However, I had a rather bad seat, to the far back left of the sweet spot and then all the surround mixes just fell apart. Sitting there, listening to some of the more extreme mixes of popular songs, was really an unpleasant experience as I only got decent sound from one of the channels. A regular stereo field would have been so much better!