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FCP X: Exploring Surround Audio Handling

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With the introduction of FCP X, Apple introduced a trackless, rippling timeline, much greater format support, and many other features. One of those is a less obvious innovation: surround audio editing. If you have a surround system hooked up to your Mac (through optical connection or through a simple minijack into a surround decoder) yes, you can use it. Let’s find out how.

step 1 - Audio Configuration Options

While many cameras simply record in stereo—or even mono—other cameras can record multiple audio tracks at once. Specifically, some professional cameras can record eight tracks of audio: primary and backup versions of on-camera, boom, handheld and lavalier (lapel) microphones, all at once.

Often though, such a camera won’t actually use all those tracks, and Final Cut Pro X can detect and remove blank tracks on import. Look for the Remove silent channels option at the bottom of each import dialog. A related option in the same place is to Separate mono and group stereo audio. Importing with this option checked can make sense of a complex audio setup. Here’s an example of the same XDCAM source file, once with the options enabled:

2 channels

And once without:

8 channels

(In this case, none of the source audio was in stereo .)

If you’ve already imported footage with silent channels, no need to despair. Right-click, then choose Analyze and Fix, and check the box there:

The easy way to remove excess audio channels after import

The easy way to remove excess audio channels after import 

Note: On rare occasions, a complex set of audio inputs can lead FCP X to guess the audio type (Stereo/Mono, etc.) wrongly, so don’t be afraid to override it if needed. Specifically, if you’re unable to pan in the next step, you might need to manually set the audio type to Stereo or Mono.

step 2 - Panning in Stereo

Edit your clip into a sequence, then select the clip. Open the Inspector, and choose the Audio pane. Now, choose Stereo Left/Right from the Pan Mode drop-down menu in the Volume and Pan section.

This is a basic technique you’re probably familiar with. Using the Pan Amount slider, you can set the position in the sound space from left to right, and create keyframes by pressing the button to the right of the Pan Amount slider. To pan from left to right:

Put the playhead on the beginning of the clip. Create a keyframe by pressing the keyframe button, then drag the Pan Amount all the way to the left.

Pan part 1

Now, move the playhead to near the end of that same clip, create another keyframe by pressing the keyframe button again, then drag the Pan Amount slider all the way to the right.

Pan part 2

step 3 - Enabling Surround audio

However, if you’ve created a project which uses Surround audio (the new default) then things get a little more interesting: A project with Surround will show six meters in the Audio Meters pane, while a project using Stereo will show only two.

A project can be easily switched from one to the other. Jump back to the Project Library with Command-0, select a project, then open the Inspector with Command-4.

The Inspector with a Project selected, where you can find the “spanner” button

The Inspector with a Project selected, where you can find the “spanner” button

Click on Properties at the top, then click the spanner icon at the bottom right of this pane. You can now change the audio standard to Surround if needed.

Project Settings, after pressing the “spanner” button

Project Settings, after pressing the “spanner” button

step 4 - Positioning in Surround space

Instead of Stereo Left/Right, you can position anywhere in surround space by choosing Create Space as the Pan mode. While it’s easy enough to pick a spot in the space this way, there are also a number of Advanced options hidden by default. But how do you hear any of this? Well, even a simple 5.1 speaker set comes with a little box that does a passable job of decoding “matrix surround” output. In other words, you can connect your speakers to a normal stereo minijack and hear sound go to the front of the back of the sound stage live in Final Cut Pro. 

It’s also possible to connect an optical cable to a surround amplifier, but it’s using the same trick, outputting two channels with matrixed surround information.

This solution is a long way from perfect — the center speaker is muddled in with the front speakers for starters — but still, it’s much better than nothing. Without additional hardware with discrete channels, only pre-encoded surround audio (such as that found on a DVD or Blu-ray) will be interpreted as such.

Surround options, including Advanced options

Surround options, including Advanced options 

step 5 - Panning in Surround space

Some neat tricks are possible to move a clip in surround space. Choosing the Dialogue option, for example, turns the Left-Right slider into a Center-Front slider. Ambience turns it into a Center-Back slider. Most intriguing are the Left Surround to Right Front and Right Surround to Left Front options, which let a clip fly over the audience’s shoulder. Keyframe any of these options in the same way as before; just remember that a one-dimensional slider is being mapped to a movement in two dimensions.

Partway through a pan from Left Rear to Right Front

Partway through a pan from Left Rear to Right Front

step 6 - Sharing the surround around

Good news: if you export using Share > Apple Devices and choose an export option such as iPad, you’ll get a file which even Quick Look can play back with surround audio. However, if you use Share > Export Movie, you’ll get all 5.1 channels separately — which won’t play back as surround audio using Quick Look.

While the latter might be better for further processing in an audio application, it will only mix down to stereo for playback, losing the surround in the process. Some playback apps deal with discrete audio slightly differently from others, but none that I tried (QuickTime Player 7, QuickTime Player X, Quick Look, iTunes, VLC, Mplayer, Plex) got it right. My older version of Plex simply crashed, and the VLC that I tried couldn’t play the audio at all.

So, the moral of the story: Export directly from FCP X to a compressed format (for example, with Share > Apple Devices) to keep your surround effects intact — but don’t be afraid to use them!

Finally, if you have a device that can record surround audio natively, such as a Zoom H2 or a fancy camcorder, let it loose with FCP X, and please tell us about it in the comments.

Check out our Final Cut Pro: Working With Audio course!

Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.


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