Surround Sound Field of Dreams

I recently attended the Audio Engineering Society's Technical Conference on Multichannel Audio, held in late June in Banff, Canada. It was a nice place for a conference, and particularly appropriate for Surround Sound as we were constantly reminded by the huge granite monolithic mountains surrounding us of the nature and power of such surroundings, in both visual and auditory grandeur.


The keynote speaker was George Massenburg, audio's "Renaissance Man" (if you don't know who he is, you're missing out big time), who provided an extremely thoughtful and articulate summary of the state of things multichannel. I thought I would share with you some of what he had to say, as well as some of my own thoughts on the whole thing. So, according to George (roughly):

The theme of the conference "Multichannel Audio: The New Reality," might not be a very substantial reality yet. Massenburg noted that "Googling" the term "multichannel" yielded far more hits for multichannel marketing than for multichannel audio. Interesting. (I took a look, and found there were approximately 356,000 references to "Multichannel" and about 25 percent of them referred to "multichannel audio." Not a world force yet, but not insignificant either.)

The world of classical music recording seems to be doing extremely well with multichannel audio. That's the good news. The bad news, though, is that the world of classical music recording is not doing well at all.

More than 50,000 movie venues are presenting in multichannel, and as a general rule, films are being produced with multichannel audio.

DVD video and music sales are encouraging, and the rosiest estimates of the number of DVD players in service range up to 125 million! However, the estimated number of viable multichannel home theater setups remains dismally small, at probably less than a million (approximately 1 percent?).

In broadcasting, the Europeans are beginning to get into it, including Digital Video Broadcasting with DTS multichannel audio. Happily, there appears to be some public enthusiasm for the effort. In the U.S., it's going much more slowly. Although HD broadcasting is beginning to take hold, multichannel audio remains tentative and well outside the mainstream of audio for video production. We've got a long way to go.

In pop music production, numerous labels are beginning to call for 5.1 masters as well as stereo, and numerous music DVD-Vs are currently in release. Progress is being made.

The hi-res formats (DVD-A and SACD) remain marginal in terms of volume-it's way too soon to tell. (Incidentally, I recently heard Tom Jung of DMP Records and TV Technology's sister publication Pro Audio Review play some of his SACD multichannel recordings over a set of Genelecs and they did sound sublime!)

Format wars, ´a la quad, continue to plague us. Massenburg fervently hopes that the manufacturers will learn that it benefits everybody to have universality and stop waging their unproductive wars to obtain larger bits of smaller, scorched-earth pies.

Cars remain a tantalizing venue, and a surprisingly natural one for multichannel audio, for a variety of reasons. However, current installed systems seem more oriented to deriving a surround effect from stereo than to an authentic discrete Surround Sound experience. Massenburg expressed considerable frustration at (a) the lack of a viable center speaker in the dash and (b) the expropriation of Surround Sound aesthetics by "automotive sound designers" away from those of us who actually produce the stuff (as in "We know best, whether we actually do or not").

Video games have grown to be a surprisingly big piece of the whole pie (they are bigger than movies, for instance). Multichannel is being implemented in the players, but it is still subordinated to the picture in production. Approximately 5 percent of the bitstream capacity is now used for audio, and preproduction doesn't build in much in the way of resources for audio, much less multichannel audio. However, Moore's law suggests...


Massenburg called multichannel audio a "mixed bag" of successes to date. He noted the "Parisian Effect" (as in "it's hard to keep us down on the farm once we've had a taste of...") on those of us engaged in multichannel production, and called for us to all serve as the evangelists, the pioneers, the advocates, the sursoundistas that pave the way for the viewing and listening public to get it! He noted that the appropriate delivery formats are coming, and it is our responsibility to generate the product, spectacularly good product in fact, and get it in the can and ready to roll when the pipeline really begins to open for business. He recalled and honored the stereo pioneers who did exactly that while the recording industry clung desperately to mono, back before we finally got stereo FM and cheap stereo players.

Sprinkled through the speech was a number of calls for five (or more) identical full-range loudspeakers, more user -- friendly and pop -- music-friendly production tools (reverbs especially). Massenburg also wisely warned us that in 30 years' time, the delivery paradigms are likely to change dramatically. Amen!


The whole conference got me to thinking a lot about the relationship between Surround Sound, loudspeakers and surround formats, and it opened up several avenues of exploration to me. At the same time, I was struck by the pervasive lack of interest shown in loudspeakers, and how little their behavior was either noted or accounted for in the numerous and passionate descriptions of various formats, production techniques, perceptions and/or room acoustics. To hear the talk, loudspeakers have the same generic meanings, qualities and consistencies as patchcords. The willing suspension of disbelief that I have referred to before in this column was in full bloom in Banff.

On the other hand, I was heartened to see a growing awareness that our existing surround playback topologies are (a) less than ideal, (b) amenable to change and (c) evolved for purposes unrelated to "good audio."

The broad range of demonstrations, from Tom Holman's 10.2 system to Wavefield Synthesis (WFS) to Ambiophonics, suggested a lot of contrarian and/or expansionist thinking. So, to me, the most exciting aspect of the conference was the sense that multichannel audio is very much a work in progress, and that there is plenty of room for us all to play. Now's the time to get good at it, to try new things, to say "Wait a minute, I can do that a better way!" and to keep grinding away at the big unfinished granite mountain of multichannel knowledge.

In future columns, I'll share with you some of what I'm working on and what I find in this regard.

Thanks for listening.

Dave Moulton