So you have a surround sound audio file (DTS, 5.1, quadrophonic, whatever) that you want to play back on your old-skool stereo hi-fi system. It’ll play, but you only get to hear front-left & front-right of the many channels. What’s needed is a way to mix the content of those other channels into FL & FR at an appropriate volume. ffmpeg, our favourite audio swiss-army knife, has the capability built in to downmix to a chosen number of output channel with the -ac option, as follows:

ffmpeg -i input_filename -ac 2 output_filename.wav

I could not however find any documentation on the panning and gain levels this option uses for the surround channels, and to my ear the rear channels are mixed too low (possibly because in my case the source was an old Quadrophonic record release with four equally-utilized channels). Luckily, ffmpeg also exposes the ability to finely tune downmixing, using the ‘pan’ filter. From the excellent and exhaustive documentation (here), plus gain values from someone who trod this path before using mplayer, I synthesised this command line:

ffmpeg -i input_filename -af "pan=stereo|FL<FL+0.5*FC+BL+0.6*SL|FR<FR+0.5*FC+BR+0.6*SR" -acodec pcm_s32le output_filename.wav


  1. For quadrophonic source material the ‘+0.5*FC’ and ‘+0.6*SL’ (and right channel equivalents) are superfluous but are included for compatibility with more modern x.1 surround source material.
  2. The output file uses the wav suffix and I am specifying 32 bit samples (ffmpeg passes through sample rate as-is from the source to destination file). Modern multi-channel content is usually ‘hi-rez’, that is to say higher resolution than the usual 16bit/44kHz of CD quality audio and we want to ensure the mixdown does not reduce the quality of the source material; these conversion choices ensure that the quality of the source material is retained . Once you’ve used this approach to downmix to a .wav file you can then use your converter of choice to turn the .wav into a more manageable format such as FLAC or MP3.
  3. If your source material is a DVD-A disc or .iso, the audio files can be found in the AUDIO_TS subfolder. Filename suffixes vary, but you’ll be looking for the huge files in that folder.