Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Adding value to music; Making more use of surround sound

Surround sound systems are more prevalent than ever in our homes, and even in our cars and now smart phones. Nearly everything is now broadcast or designed to be enjoyed with the added sonic fidelity that surround sound brings, so isn´t it about time it should be more fully embraced?  

As I was leafing through a music magazine I picked up the other day, I noticed a slew of bands are gearing up for album releases throughout this year. All genres were covered, and hence all styles and tastes should hopefully be catered for. There´s nothing unusual in that, as gigging, recording and releasing musical output are part of the cycle of most working musicians. Even the alleged demise of the recording industry, which has been predicted for the last 10 years, hasn´t prevented that cycle from continuing. However, from an innovative and technology laden perspective,  maybe there could be just a little more that perhaps all artists could be adding to album release sales, in order to make the finished product more enticing to the end consumer.

Some of this has already been done, in the form of the occasional "making of" films, high quality, well produced studio session photo books, and even USB memory sticks have been included in the packages. These contain extra content such as the album itself in audio codecs such as MP3 in various bitrates, digital photo stills, web links which lead to downloadable bonus content and so on. Yet what really interests me as an audiophile and a musician, is something that is occasionally offered as part of a higher priced package deal on an album release, which I believe should be made mandatory in the content list of every album release these days. Quite simply, it´s a surround sound mix of the album. 

The commonly known interpretation of a domestic surround sound set up. This is 5.1, with 5 speakers and the "0.1" being the subwoofer unit.

In brief, surround sound was pioneered in a cruder form for use in cinemas, over 70 years ago. It was designed to go with the larger and more spectacular visual experience that cinema offered the viewer. However, like most groundbreaking innovations, it didn´t become a mainstream proposition until many years later. In essence, it turned out to be a bit of a logistical nightmare, in terms of dealing with the technology of the day. Specialised audio equipment was needed to decode the audio process, which at the time wasn´t seen as something that could be successfully implemented en masse, bearing fiscal and logistical considerations in mind.

The first commercial film utilising the surround concept, was Disney´s FANTASIA (1940), and the technique was called "fantasound". In effect, it was Walt Disney who can be thought of as an instigator to bringing the technique to widespread use, as he was fed up with the aural limitations of conventional sound in cinema. Until then, this relied on a low bandwidth, highly compressed and (for its time), very noisy audio-optical strip on celluloid film, which was effectively in mono. 

William E Garity, who was the head of audio engineering for Disney, designed what was essentially an 8 track recording process which could be condensed into 3 tracks, with a separate "control" track for use with 35mm film. The control track was a series of what sounded like test-tones, which could automatically control the signal level to the amplifiers, which in turn powered between 30 to 80 individual speakers in the auditorium. 

As mentioned earlier, it wasn´t deemed a success at the time, for economic and logistical reasons. However, the newest version of fantasia on DVD DOES have an audio track which is meant to be a faithful recreation of the original "fantasound" concept, painstakingly remade from magnetic sound film copies from 1956.

After stereo gradually became more widespread from the 1950´s onwards, it took the music industry another few decades before this technology metamorphosised into quadraphonic sound , which was now more practical in terms of being ( at least for the time), readily deliverable for domestic use. Quadraphonic amplifiers, four speakers (one for each corner of the room), and quad LP records started to proliferate the market during the 1970´s. 

Interestingly, the major slew of output was classical concert style recordings of renowned composers´ works, with the extra channels allowing many instruments more aural room to breathe and timbrally dissipate, but artists such as Pink Floyd and even Elvis were amongst those who had albums reissued (and in Floyd’s case, even remixed) in quadraphonic sound.

Again, however, by the latter part of that decade, the whole format had gradually succumbed to the law of diminishing returns. This was due to a combination of differing and incompatible standards in the implementation of sound rendering at the user stage; the L.P.´s themselves had a shorter useful playing life, there were fidelity problems in rendering, and of course the set-up required wasn´t as wallet-friendly or even as "plug and play" as conventional stereo equipment.

But by the late 1990´s, the 5.1 version of surround sound which is very commonplace today , was making major inroads in domestic markets. This was effectively due to the surge in available DVD and home cinema technologies also becoming far more affordable and attainable. It offered c.d. (compact disc) and higher quality levels of audio reproduction from a five speaker (with subwoofer) set up, for a much lower price than ever before.

This version of surround sound originated in 1987 at the famous French cabaret Moulin Rouge. A French engineer, Dominique Bertrand, used a mixing board specially designed in co-operation with Solid State Logic (SSL), which was based around a 6 channel encoding process. This entails the use of a front left, front right, rear left, rear right, bass ( subwoofer), and of course a dialogue or vocal speaker, which is usually front centre. Newer incarnations (e.g. BLU RAY based technologies) offer 7.1 surround, with additional aural field depth and power offered if your amplifier and speaker set up support it.

These days, some DVD players come with built in amp technology and even speaker bundles that allow you to keep everything a little bit more streamlined, easy to set up and even wallet friendly too. I won´t go into the ramifications and logistics concerning premium priced vs. wallet-friendly systems, or even wired vs. soundbar and the pros/cons of wireless set ups, as that´s a series of articles in itself . Instead, I´ll try to cover a plethora of reasons why surround sound could and should be more de-rigueur, in terms of music releases.

It must be noted that most of these reasons are not directly related to the content of the music itself (that´s entirely subjective), but more towards why there should be a better embracing of the surround sound concept in the domestic market AS A WHOLE 


* AFFORDABILITY OF HARDWARE – As already mentioned above, the technology now required to decode and perform the task of re-iterating the signal is ALREADY built-in to almost every DVD player on the market available today. All that you need – and even this isn´t strictly necessary – is a separate amplifier and some extra speakers to feel the full effect of surround sound. 

The best part, is that most DVD´s you  own probably have a surround audio track on there for you to try whilst watching the film. Furthermore, there is no longer an issue with regards to format incompatibility either; all DVD AUDIO albums can be played on all DVD players. Imagine what your favourite albums would sound like with the potential for added clarity and spatial depth..

* GO WIRELESS – People can find the cumbersome nature of wire- trails having to be tucked away under carpets, or being hidden by stapling / cable tying them near skirting boards, a real problem. To that end, the current availability of "soundbars" by companies such as Yamaha, which contain an elegant array of motorised speakers in a single horizontal enclosure, are a viable alternative. These fire-off the sound after careful interpolation by a set of remarkable software algorithms, to be bounced around the room, thereby creating a very convincing virtual surround effect for the listener. The other alternative to a soundbar is the wireless systems, used by KEF and other manufacturers.

Having owned a wireless surround system myself for some time, I can wholeheartedly recommend it for performance and price. Just shop around for the best deals available, of which there are plenty to be had on the internet.

* SET UP IS NO LONGER A PAIN – Compared to days of old with hours and hours spent firing odd sounding test tones and interpreting strange readouts on amplifier LED displays, now it really is a breeze to plug in, set your speakers up and enjoy the music. This is partially down to the auto-calibration technologies offered by many amplifier manufacturers, which take a large amount of the guesswork out of the equation.

It entails the use of a small unidirectional microphone, which is supplied with the amplifier or DVD player/amp combination, which is to be plugged in and placed at the position that you and (maybe) others will be seated in, to enjoy the sound. You then press start on the calibration menu, and leave the room for a few minutes, whilst the speakers are firing test tones which the microphone picks up and lets the amplifier know about. This is in terms of the registered/ received loudness levels for each speaker and hence automatic adjustments which the system will make for optimal surround listening pleasure.

After you come back, it will have made a remarkably good job of calibrating the set up – I´ve used it and its spookily accurate – and you can still make manual tweaks yourself, if necessary. Furthermore, if you move rooms, or even house, you just set up, place the microphone in the new spot and recalibrate. It´s a simple, neat and effective solution.

* COMPUTERS AND EVEN CARS, TOO – Years ago, if you bought a DVD-AUDIO album or indeed just wanted to watch a film in surround sound , you had no choice but to enjoy it in your "home theatre" area, thereby potentially inconveniencing others if they weren´t in the mood to sit it out with you. But in the last decade, there has been a notable increase in the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) computer suppliers putting machines onto the market with surround sound as a standard, into their machines. These also come with the relatively cheap option of adding extra speakers for a full surround set up.

Having owned one of these machines with a 5.1 set up, I was astonished as to the power and clarity offered. This was a surprise, as up until then I never thought home computer speakers would have the finesse to deliver the goods, but the technologies offered in the domestic computer market are now vastly improved. This has been in part driven by the OEM´S and also perhaps O/S ( operating system) manufacturers wanting the home computer to become more of a "home entertainment centre", which then knocks onto the other driver of technologies, which is the games industry.
In short, games developers now spend huge budgets on near lifelike, cinematic audio-visual vistas, for a deeper, encapsulating gaming experience. This entails ever increasingly crisper rendering of visuals and of course, incredible sound and music to  go with the experience. So graphics cards and soundcards are constantly being tweaked and/or redeveloped, in order to provide higher fidelity and better signal to noise ratios and resolution.

The car industry has similarly offered much more in terms of ICE ( in car entertainment) systems in the last decade, too. Premium sound upgrades are no longer the preserve of the high end car manufacturers, and surround sound is commonly found as an option on many cars on the market today. This allows you to take your DVD-AUDIO album(s) and enjoy the experience quite literally on the move, which is obviously freeing you up from the traditional, static living room or "home theatre" area experience.

* ADDING VALUE – I own over 30 albums in surround sound, and would happily buy more if they were available. These days, it´s not even the price at POS (point of sale) that´s an issue – there are bargains to be had for the judicious shopper - but more a decision by record labels and quite possibly the artists themselves to not spend time and money actively pursuing surround mixes, as a whole. I won´t go into the logistics behind what constitutes putting out an album by major artists, as that´s a very complex set of decisions with marketing, promotion, and product placement concepts encapsulated therein. However, being a musician myself, I know that for at least a decade now, most DAW´S ( digital audio workstation software applications) which are used to record, edit and mix down the final product, come with surround sound recording and mixing capabilities, as standard. There isn´t a leviathan like leap into the terrifying dark, in order to make a surround mix anymore, so the possibilities are always there to be used.

Furthermore, let´s say a musician or various musicians provide the soundtrack to a movie, only to release it on c.d. It doesn´t take a huge amount of intelligence to deduce that in these tougher unit-shifting times, soundtrack c.d. albums don´t shift as many units as in days of old. Why not also offer the soundtrack as a separate extra on the DVD film package itself, in its fully intended 5.1 surround splendour? How’s that for adding some extra value to the package?

There is also a huge untapped market of many classic albums and back catalogues being remixed and mastered in surround for the fans. Now this is entirely subjective, but I own all THE DOORS´ studio albums in 5.1 surround, so there is no reason why THE BEATLES´ back catalogue couldn´t be remixed and remastered in 5.1; some of it was done for the LOVE/
Cirque du Soleil project a few years ago.

Other albums such as Chorus by ERASURE (near perfect, crisp analogue synthesizer, pop song writing goodness), Penthouse and Pavement by HEAVEN 17 (A classic mix of electronics with soul overtones), Morning Glory by OASIS (a surround mix does exist in the now much neglected SACD format) and Brian Eno´s Ambient 1 and other works, are surely ripe for a remix in surround sound. In fact many albums may even benefit from the extra space that a surround mix would offer them, with multiple instrument and vocal tracks given far more room to breathe in the soundscape.

I´ve looked at the joys of surround sound, which Is difficult to articulate in words, such is the nature of the experience; it really has to be experienced first-hand to be appreciated. Even older equipment and earlier albums with slightly overdone swirling audio effects, will sound breathtaking to the new or novice listener, perhaps convincing them to invest in the technology.

So if the surround sound experience is no longer as complex, expensive or even cumbersome to implement as it used to be, then what are the barriers to engaging with it and implementing the technology on a more regular basis? 


* THE MP3 REVOLUTION – There´s no denying the impact that this technological innovation has had on anyone who enjoys music for pleasure. It´s allowed us to carry our entire music collections on slabs or slithers of plastic and metal, for maximum choice and portable, private listening enjoyment.

Apple was the first to produce a globally embraced product, but almost any corporation that has an electronics division in their structure has been making them for almost a decade. It has created a network of sub industries, where people no longer need a record or c.d. to own the licensed right to play the music over and over again.

It´s convenient for sure, but it could be argued that we´re now all comfortable with less fidelity in reproduced sound at end product point, compared to the resolution of c.d.; this applies even more so to DVD AUDIO sonic fidelity, which is higher still. In any case, as all of us (me included) are happier to travel around sound tracking our lives like never before, then the inability to successfully reproduce a disc-free, high quality "mp3 type version/codec" in 5.1. or 7.1, means that surround sound may become an anachronism for at least one generation.

Furthermore, it may eventually become an inconvenience for others who have to be relatively stationary – even in a car, you´re sitting there in one position – to enjoy the experience.

* STILL A BIT CLUTTERED – As the wireless speaker options continue to be refined and further developed for the larger domestic market, most people still envisage the surround experience as a miasma of buying speaker stands, metres and metres of wiring, cable tidies, duct tape and wire cutters/strippers, etc. This can be off-putting for some due to the time taken to select the right system, assembling it, and then setting it up, along with calibration and so on.

Furthermore, where spouses, partners and others share the listening or home theatre room(s), they tend to sometimes find the aesthetic articulations of wires and oblongs of wood, metal and plastic in surround systems, unsightly and even uncomfortable. All of this equipment also sometimes includes, lest we forget, more power consumption from the power sockets, with all the extra wiring and plugs there, too. 

What a mess! Nowadays, this is much easier to reduce and avoid with the availability of wireless systems. 

* SUPPLY AND DEMAND – I’ve already touched upon this in an earlier section, but until more artists are willing to commit themselves to having a surround sound mix as standard on each release, then the pool of albums available is significantly less, in comparison to the full on availability of the conventional stereo format recordings in hard and software options.

This also reflects in the advertising of the music, where it´s only the special or "box set" style editions that carry the surround versions of the album, and even then, you won´t hear this mentioned in the same glory, for want of a better phrase, as accompanying books, posters, badges and so on. It´s a pity, as surround mixes are much more of an aurally fulfilling experience in my humble opinion; there’s a noticeable feeling of greater involvement and connectedness to the performance of the soundscape and music, which cannot be ignored.

* TIME, PATIENCE, SKILL AND MONEY - Making a surround sound mix isn´t as easy as creating a stereo mix of musical material. That´s assuming you know how to balance and mix in stereo to a professional, marketable standard, which in itself is a fairly subjective range of opinions and constructs. I´ve heard some strange surround mixes of albums, where it seems that there has been some kind of artificial "upmixing" involved, as if a plug-in (software) algorithm has been used to do the bulk of the work, with only perfunctory tweaks done to add some level colouring and aural movement.

In effect, it´s as if there wasn´t much thought involved to create something that could be distinctly "surround friendly", which to me doesn’t mean constantly swirling whole tracks and sounds around the room clockwise or anti clockwise for forty five minutes and beyond.

I had the pleasure many years ago of making a surround mix of one of my own pieces for an art installation. Unfortunately, a week prior to the event, it transpired that the venue couldn´t get a surround system installed or working effectively enough, so I remixed the whole thing in stereo and also implemented a very low-tech version of surround ( or "pseudo surround") by firing off composite parts from different corners of the room, in a loop, using laptops and a stopwatch.

To my delight and surprise, it did work pretty well, with the effect being something else, along with the flavour of surround sound added into the fray. As an aside, due to a backup drive failure later on down the line, I lost the surround mix as well as other pieces, forever.  

You don't have to have a pro-standard studio like this one, to make a surround mix, but it still needs time, care and patience to make a great finished product.

The point I´m making, is that creating a surround mix of an album´s worth of music is still seen to be a fairly complex and potentially more laborious process than the conventional mix down to stereo. The greater the number of tracks within a piece of music, the more detailed the decision making process becomes, in terms of macro and micro aural spatial placement; this includes movement of sound, effects such as delay and reverb, grouping, busses, and so on. So it´s still not considered de rigueur to make a surround sound master for every release for all the aforementioned reasons above, which end up equating to extra time and money spent. This to a degree is understandable in our current music sales climate.
In essence, there are many positive and reinforcing reasons for the music industry to try and make surround sound a more commonplace choice across the board, so it’s not just for archival re-releases, but current albums too. What hasn´t yet been mentioned, which is one of the strongest reasons for its advocacy, is that (at the time of writing) manufacturers of software and hardware aren´t in any tangible hurry to stop making surround based products that are used for recording and playback. 

As a result, it could be argued that the main reasons for continual manufacture and support, are that nearly every other form of what can be considered mainstream entertainment of a domestic ( e.g. TV, film and computer or console gaming) and non-domestic ( e.g. the cinema) nature,  all use the surround format in their presentational output. Furthermore, there have been vast improvements in audio technologies, with newer laptops featuring a virtual surround effect, which is very effective; it’s akin to a kind of holophonic effect.

SRS LABS, for example, have a plethora of effects already available on our mp3 players and their algorithmic implementations are a pleasure to savour. Even my android based Smartphone has a wonderful 7.1 surround effect, which although not the real thing, has a great usefulness when listening to a plethora of material, revealing all kinds of details and making the sound that extra bit richer, fuller and clearer.

In the meantime, I´m going to get the Dépêche Mode and Yazoo surround remasters out for another spin, whilst I wonder whether Vince Clarke will hopefully get around to making/ supervising surround sound (re)mixes of Erasure´s back catalogue, sooner rather than later. Maybe someone at will do the same for the entire Beatles´ catalogue, too. Come to think of it, how about Oasis, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, Coldplay, Kraftwerk... the list can go on forever. 

With some care, patience, teamwork and a whole lot of love, surround based systems and audio can not only be kept alive for the next generation and beyond, but they can be given a better place and position in the pantheon of innovatory developments, than they have done for the last few decades.

(c) S R DHAIN (Revised and updated) 
The original article was available via The American Chronicles  publication & website 

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