360 in a 2-Track World

by John Pellegrini

Tonight, just before you go to bed I want you to try something. Go outside for a few minutes and close your eyes. (If you live in an area where it’s not exactly safe to be outside after dark with your eyes closed then try doing this in the early morning daylight before you go to work) What you should do after you close your eyes is listen to everything around you. Now while keeping your eyes closed try to identify certain sounds that you hear – and without turning your head try to pinpoint the direction from which those sounds are coming.

Very likely this is something you’ve either never done before or haven’t tried since you were a little kid. However, this is where I’ve been spending a lot of time for the last five years. Welcome to the world of recording sound in surround. Most of you probably know that I’m out of radio and now have my own audio company Iguana Kitchen (www.iguanakitchen.com) and concentrating on creating and selling the first ever 12-channel surround effects library – Quantum Audio Mechanics. However this article is not about how I got into doing this or how I make these recordings. Nor is it an attempt to get you to purchase my product. Okay, let me re-write that. I really do want you to purchase Quantum Audio Mechanics. But that’s not the reason for the article, and I’m only going to mention it here and in one other place (which is an isolated paragraph at the end that is easy to remove with scissors) - promise.

Instead this is an article about the necessity of surround sound in YOUR world.

Yes, your world Mr. or Ms. Stereo, Mr. or Ms. Mono, Mr. or Ms. Two Track – you need to get into surround sound and you need to do it sooner than later. In fact, the smart ones reading this article already have, or are planning on investing in surround some time before the end of this year. I hope you’re one of them. If you aren’t or don’t see any reason why or think you should wait until radio finally approves surround, this article is designed to convince you that to wait is to lose money and lose business potential. How much is entirely dependent on you and how long you decide to wait.

The cold hard fact of the matter is whether you’re ready for it or not surround sound for radio is already reality. XM and Sirius have some channels in surround and plan to offer more. NPR both at the national level and in local Public Radio outlets is offering surround sound programming. Surround is also being adopted by broadcast television – many cable channels are also already in surround. Many new vehicles have surround audio receivers as standard equipment and most homes have surround sound home theater systems. From what I hear, iPods will soon offer some form of surround sound – especially when used with a docking station, and most other mp3 players are going that way was well.

Commercial broadcast radio is going to have to adopt surround sound for broadcast whether the head honchos like it or not, and they’re going to have to do it much faster than the way they delayed and hemmed and hawed over HD.

Why? Because HD stereo isn’t the answer… the listening public just isn’t interested in it. No real surprise there since anyone who had been paying attention should have noticed that when HD was introduced in Europe back in the early 1990s (yes American radio is that far behind), the response was the same level of disinterest that we’re seeing here now. But broadcast surround is generating interesting buzz – and ratings are picking up where it’s being offered. If American radio wants to stay competitive with the rest of the world’s media options, then it MUST adopt surround technology. And the technology is improving way beyond what surround sound currently offers.

In just the past few months three brand new products have been introduced that will make broadcasting in surround sound much easier and affordable, yet they also offer something that revolutionizes the way we currently think of surround sound. Here’s a brief overview of them:

Gen Audio (www.genaudio.com) offers AstoundSound – offering much larger panning ranges for stereo and full 360 degree panning for surround sound. They’re promoting it as 4-D sound. Judge for yourself with their online demo. Immersive Media Research (www.im-research.com) offers Vortex Surround, a new method of writing and controlling surround sound environments, also with full 360 degree panning capability. Finally, Neural Audio (www.neuralaudio.com) offers broadcast surround that is already being used on NPR programs and television. And (surprise) they also offer a product range with full 360 degree panning capability.

And for those of you wondering — as I used to before I really got into this — if 360 degree sound would really catch on because of the greater numbers of speakers that would need to occupy the listening area, another new company FeONIC (www.feonic.com) has announced the delivery date of a new technology they invented called the “F-Drive”, which is a small device that can be attached to many different surfaces that then transforms that surface into a high-fidelity loudspeaker. “Invisible speakers” is what they call it, and according to the early press the device will eliminate the need for traditional loudspeakers in any setting from home listening areas to theaters to stadiums and train stations.

The main thing to remember about Gen Audio, Immersive Media Research, and Neural Audio is that their products are extremely affordable and that each application not only works for broadcast, but also offers full 360 degree panning ability. What you should notice while looking at their web information is that they all talk more about 360 than traditional 5.1! In fact most of the new technology for surround that is being introduced this year is exclusively devoted to the creation of 360 degree sound environments. And it would seem that FeONIC is out to make 360 degree sound more acceptable and adaptable in virtually any listening environment

Why? Because 5.1 surround is dying off as well. This, of course, is going to come as a quite a shock to all the recording and post studios in America that only have 5.1 capability – but the fact is the ONLY place you’ll ever hear anything in 5.1 is American Home Theater. In the rest of the world (including movie theaters here and abroad and home theater around the world) it’s 6.1 and 7.1. And the really big push right now is full 360 degree perspective. That push is being screamed for by an industry that’s doing billions of dollars in sales every year – and it’s NOT Hollywood.

The old joke for the last 15 years is that all major changes in Internet and digital technology were driven by the porn industry. Not any more. Now all the major changes in cutting edge computer applications for internet and computer based video graphics and surround sound audio technology are being driven by the video game industry.

I’ve been discussing surround formats with game audio producers who are utilizing “virtual surround speakers” in the games they create. Wherever the action shifts for the game player (left, right, behind, above, down) the sound changes perspectives with the screen view, and not just on your X-box, Playstation, or Wii; you can experience this feature in online games where you play live in real time against other players around the world. One example: Blizzard Entertainment’s, “World of Warcraft” Internet game features 3-D graphics and 360 degree surround perspectives in live real time. “World of Warcraft” currently has over nine million subscribers worldwide each paying fifteen dollars a month to play the game. Do the math – ignore those numbers at your peril.

The sales generated by the video game industry has become so huge that now all the major companies who develop video and audio technology boast of their new improvements for video game production. The rush to create even greater cutting edge technology for game developers is so hot right now that in just a few years most people will think of 5.1 as antiquated and stereo as obsolete. This is one of the main reasons why Apple dumped IBM chips and went with Intel – IBM just wasn’t paying attention to the massive growth of the game industry, and they weren’t keeping up with the demand that Apple was placing on improving speed performance.

This puts us right back to the heart of the matter. Hollywood is slowly but finally waking up to the technology explosion and is figuring out that 5.1 is on the way out. Now that the war between the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray has been won by Blu-Ray (not surprising considering the Blu-Ray disc holds more gigs and is a superior technology than the HD-DVD), you’re going to see vast improvements in home theater including 7.1 Surround becoming the standard. Also, Hewlett Packard announced last year that they are nearing completion with a home theater version of IMAX. It’s a new tech console that integrates with your home theater that will allow you to link together multiple flat-screen panels to create a huge picture capacity of up to a dozen screens. Once that becomes available you can bet there will be a rush of home theater audio products offering an IMAX channel (ceiling speaker for overhead sounds – originally added to compensate for the ceiling height of IMAX theaters) and the rush toward full 360 degree for home theater will be as hot as it is right now for video games.

And now here’s your dilemma – where are you in this future? Standing on the sidelines thinking about it? Thinking that you don’t need to think about it for a few more years? Keep this fact in mind – investing in surround sound right now is not all that expensive. Most current DAWs and DAEs support surround in their basic programs. Unfortunately, most are only 5.1. But that is better than nothing. You’ll still need to add the correct sound cards, monitoring, and a few other pieces of the puzzle, but the fact is most people with a basic stereo digital setup can convert to surround for a few thousand dollars or less. It doesn’t have to be a phenomenal setup (although I would certainly encourage you to consider “higher quality” to be more important in your surround investment than “lowest price”).

However the one thing you don’t want to do is wait much longer. Whether your station goes with surround sound or not is completely beside the point. If you have any aspirations of continuing to have a career in any form of audio production, then you MUST embrace and learn everything you can about surround sound, even if it’s only 5.1. And you MUST do it NOW.

Why? Because editing and mixing in surround is an entirely different discipline than editing in stereo. The reason is there is a lot more channels with a lot more sound to consider – that makes edits more difficult. Let’s say you have all six tracks of a 5.1 sound – but there is a slight noise of some sort in your left rear channel. How do you edit out that noise without disturbing the other channels? You have to really plan and choose where you can make your edits when you’re using multiple channels because the cuts are much harder to hide than with just two tracks of sound. That kind of editing requires experience – and you won’t get any of that by sticking with stereo. Even though everything is eventually going to go to 360 degree surround, the basics of multi-channel editing and mixing can be learned now in 5.1 – but not in stereo. That’s why it’s important to get into 5.1 NOW so that you’ll be further along the familiarity margin than if you wait.

Don’t forget that with the Blu-Ray as the new standard, all HD audio is expected to be delivered with 24-bit 96kHz sampling rates. 16-bit, 44.1 or even 48kHz is dying fast. Even 24-bit 48kHz isn’t good enough. Why? The higher sampling rate allows greater sound manipulation ability with less disintegration of audio quality. That may not mean anything to you, but to the audio techs and engineers of the video game universe who take sound cuts and push them through dozens of processors and synthesizers to stretch the pitches, speeds, and directions of the sounds, having a 24-bit 96kHz sampling rate is an absolute necessity. However, the drawback of the higher sampling rate is totally unforgiving audio quality for editing purposes. You can hear every cut you make with a crystal clarity that will startle you if you’ve only done stereo editing up till now. Hiding or “smoothing out” the edits is complicated. Covering your edits with a “swoosh” or a “zap” or a laser hit is difficult in surround because you’ll throw off the perspective of the level (aka scene) in the game -- especially if those are the sounds you’re editing. There is no room for error. Also, adding compression, limiting, and noise reduction in 24-bit 96kHz surround has a whole universe of dynamics to consider that don’t exist with 16-bit 44.1 stereo, and you really have to experiment with the nuances before you can begin to really get the hang of it. The good news is that these skills don’t take too long to master once you have the right setup in place.

By investing in your own surround sound studio NOW you can practice on your own and learn the tricks you’ll need to know – before you need to know them. That way, when your station does announce that they’re adopting surround sound (and, as with every technology improvement in the broadcast world, you will likely get no advance warning), you’ll be ready for it. For that matter you can go to your station’s GM before all this happens and say, “just wanted to let you know that I’ve invested in a surround sound audio production suite for my home studio, so when corporate decides to go with broadcast surround sound, I’ll be ready.”

Or maybe you don’t want to tell your boss because you can’t stand where you are and you’re dying to get out of radio; investing in surround sound and practicing with it NOW will allow you a better chance of getting in on some of that video game audio action that’s out there. Because I can tell you with absolute certainty that NO video game companies are interested in an audio tech without experience in surround sound production. Or, this could help you could find an easier path to audio post production for video and film – which, like the video game industry, pays a heck of a lot better than radio does.

The handwriting is on the wall: surround sound is the future. The shear scope and numbers of the sales and money that can be made with surround sound products versus stereo products is mind-blowing. There is no turning back. As I wrote earlier, “Ignore these numbers at your peril.” If you have any plans on staying in business as an audio production specialist you MUST learn surround sound – and the sooner you do it the better your chances of succeeding. There will come a time in the very near future – some people in the industry say in less than five years – where stereo will be considered obsolete and anyone still using it will find themselves with a smaller and smaller ability to keep clients and attract new business. The music industry has also taken note of the video game sales numbers and the film industry’s needs and is responding with surround music mixing as well. Certainly, the new generations of music makers are far more interested in the potentials of surround sound music – especially with the quality of the audio improving so much (Blu-Ray also works as a great Audio DVD).

The question of whether you should adopt surround into your business is the same old question every business owner faces when confronted with changing market dynamics: If you already have most of the tools needed and can learn the skills with a small investment, why limit your customer base and income growth potential by not taking that step?

Warning: the shameless plug: Quantum Audio Mechanics – from Iguana Kitchen (www.iguanakitchen.com) is a great investment tool for this kind of project because you’ll get every audio channel for every surround sound format currently in use NOW (that’s 12 channels) in AIFF and WAV and gives you full 360 degree perspective shifting ability. That means it will be current for all the changes in the future of surround. QAM also has a massive sampling rate (24 bit 192 kHz) so you can experiment with all the mixing and editing stuff I wrote about. PLUS we’ve added pre-made stereo mixdowns of each sound (24 bit 192 kHz in AIIF and WAV), which you can use in your regular two-track mixes and also use to audition the surround tracks. And all the tracks easily down-sample to any rate including 16 bit 44.1 and even lower Mp3 (okay that’s the last time I’m mentioning it).

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