HT Talks To . . . Elliot Scheiner

Producer/Engineer Elliot Scheiner is a driving force for 5.1-channel music.

After working with some of the biggest names in music, producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner—also a pioneer in and champion for multichannel music—wanted to take us for a ride. Working closely with Acura and Panasonic, Scheiner developed his namesake ELS 5.1 sound system, first for the Acura TL and now for Acura's new luxury SUV, the RDX.One of Panasonic's finest recently chaufferred me in a DVD-Audio-blasting Acura TL to Scheiner's secluded home studio to discuss the artistry, technology, and business of music.


So, is 5.1 the natural evolution of stereo?
For me, stereo was the natural evolution from mono. So, this absolutely is an evolution from stereo. There was that very small period in the 1970s where it went from stereo to quad. But it was just too soon, and there was just no way to deliver it to the consumer. Now we can. Most people, when they hear 5.1 for the first time, go wild.

When did you first suspect that 5.1 surround was going to be the Next Big Thing?
I felt it the first time I worked in it. By just being able to create music in this genre, I knew it had to be successful, and that's why I embraced it so much. It was a huge push for me to get surround music in the car. People can now buy a car with it already in there. And they're hearing it in ideal circumstances.

Which artists have been the most eager to embrace surround music?
The Flaming Lips, for sure. When Wayne Coyne got the whole picture, he went wild. The Eagles like it now, and so do the Talking Heads. Jerry Harrison [of the Talking Heads] loves this format. Phish loves the format. Beck's a huge supporter. He wanted to release DVD-Audio only, no CDs. But the record company wouldn't let him do that.

How do you convince someone who's stuck on two-channel audio? Put him in the car?
Walter Becker [of Steely Dan] thinks it's pretty great, whereas he didn't like it originally. When he heard his stuff in the TL for the first time, it changed his whole perspective. He feels that surround sound is meant to be in the car. It's a fixed seating position, with fixed speakers. Everything's fixed, so you don't have to worry about how somebody sets up their system. The Foo Fighters were committed to doing a surround sound [remix]. I was working over at Capitol, and they were working in their studio in the Valley. They couldn't take the time to drive all that way, so Acura got a TL up there for them to use. Every time I finished a mix, I'd burn a disc and send it up to them, and they'd listen to it in the car.

Should people be surprised that a car is, in a sense, the ultimate DVD-Audio listening environment?
Well, for right now. And I don't know that I would call it the "ultimate," because there are people who have facilities in their homes that are amazing. They've really taken the time and the effort to make it something great. But you are right: For most people, it would be the ideal. It's just a turnkey operation. You get in a car and pop the disc in.

Is it true that You even considered details like the thickness of the glass for the TL?
Acura was so committed to doing this that they actually put a layer of insulation in the front windshield. So, I guess it's two layers of glass, and it's separated by an acoustic layer to keep noise out—and also to keep the "noise" in. When you're standing outside a TL, you don't really hear what's going on.

Chris Chiarella and Elliot Scheiner in the studio

Might we someday see an ELS-branded home system?
I'm hoping so, yeah. There have been discussions about it.

Any Thoughts in the aftermath of the DVD-Audio/SACD war?
I like both formats. Unfortunately, Sony did the same thing that they did with Beta, trying to push their own hardware. Whereas, with DVD-Audio, if you weren't prepared to make that move, you could at least play it in your DVD-Video player. And I think the notion of buying another piece of gear to hear SACDs pissed off the consumer enough that they weren't going to do it. So, DVD-Audio won, because of all the other features on there, as well. There's the backwards compatibility of it, there's images, there's a video zone, and there's high-rez stereo. You can play it on your computer, and you can play it on a PlayStation 2. You just couldn't do that with SACD.

When you listen to music by, say, Steely Dan, in your leisure hours, do you hear the band, or do you hear the production?
I listen to it for the music. I'll remember certain things, like, I think it's on the Gaucho record, there's one part that's got a bit of distortion on it. When we were doing it, I said, "This is distorted. Why don't we replace it?" Donald just didn't want to do it. And, every time it would come, I would wince. But genuinely, I just listen for the music, the parts, and the songs as a whole thing.

We were really cranking the ELS system on the drive up here, so here's probably the most subjective question I've ever asked: How loud should a person listen to one of your DVD-Audios?
I wouldn't recommend a volume to play music at, because, when I mix, I probably mix at –40 [decibels]. The speakers are hardly on, but that's the way I've always mixed. And I'm concerned about my ears. So, I personally would never take it above 100 dB.

Chiarella, Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, and Scheiner with an Acura TL

What was your association with Panasonic on the design of the ELS system?
I worked mainly with this one engineer in Detroit. His name's Mark Ziemba, and he's a genius. His knowledge of what actually goes into preparing a system for a car is amazing. We both worked very closely with the engineers at Acura. We worked with the car not moving and the engine off. And then we worked with the engine on, and we'd work with it out on the track. Mark would sit there next to me, and we'd tune the vehicle. Then he's sitting there with a laptop. He could just burn a chip, and there's all the tuning that we just worked on. The vehicle came out in October of 2003, and we started tuning it in December of '02.

Are you doing anything differently on the next round of cars?
Absolutely. Acura's marketing had determined that seldom was anybody in the back seat of this vehicle, so it was great if you were sitting in the front seats. But, in the back seats, you didn't hear as much. Now, in any car we're doing, every seat is primary. We're doing the RDX for Acura this year, and it's just going to be incredible. Even for the kids in the back seat.