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The Revolution has arrived: Spatial audio mixing – 3D sound for the stage

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The Revolution has arrived: Spatial audio mixing – 3D sound for the stage

In 1999 Adelaide Festival Theatre installed a Lares system. It was the first local implantation of an acoustic enhancement system, where 156 loudspeakers were installed to bring concert hall reproduction of an orchestra. Each speaker was fed by an amplifier, and the whole thing controlled from a processor. Microphones sent sound in, the processor did the rest.

The Adelaide system garnered this kind of review: “Thankfully, the disagreeable old acoustic has at last been banished. In its place on this occasion there was considerably increased volume and resonance coupled with freshness and even some edginess to the sound” said Rodney Smith in the Adelaide Advertiser.

Since then Meyer’s Constellation and Müller-BBM Acoustic Solutions Vivace system have battled it out, both scoring many installations in many venues, some in Australia. The price ticket for these systems is around A$1 million, plus.

These acoustic enhancement systems are a great way to electronically change the acoustics of a venue, at the press of a button.

But the A.E. system is really a bespoke solution where architects and acousticians strike agreement, and typically where an orchestra is involved or where a dead conference hall looks to shift acoustic character for various different kinds of events.

ENTER SPATIAL AUDIO MIXING- OR ‘3D’ FOR LIVE SOUND

Around 2010 the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology in Germany started demonstrating their SpatialSound Wave technology. Audio designers recognized straight away that if implemented properly, this had the potential to revolutionalise live sound.

While A.E. passively changed a venue’s acoustic, S.A. (as I’ll now call it) put the sound where the performer was. Instead of mono, or stereo, or even left-centre-right, a stage show could suddenly ‘come alive’ with voices seeming to come from each actor’s mouth, wherever they were.

Orchestral mixes suddenly expanded so that the various sections and instruments were separated in space.

Stunningly, a sound source could ‘follow’ a performer as they moved across a stage. Creatives and producers realized they could send sound anywhere, and are now dreaming up new material that embraces this technology.

IT TOOK UNTIL NOW

Behind the scenes a lot was done by many. Fraunhofer met some loudspeaker manufacturers who reasoned that instead of installing a left / right loudspeaker system, they would now get a better slice of the pie by installing more.

A typical S.A. (3D) system requires at LEAST five separate speaker systems, typically across the top of the stage. Not every venue is suitable for this, but some A.E. is more nimble than that, allowing for compromises – but typically needing as many speaker systems as possible.

Subwoofers can still be used, as can outfill and sidefill which typically would take regular signal and serve traditional roles – while audience in ‘the zone’ will be treated to something they have not yet experienced.

Unlike A.E. with it’s ‘constellation’ of speakers, S.A. gives a designer options. With your minimum five speaker systems, you can add on front fill, and also place speakers in a ring around the outside of the listening area – if that’s what you want.

The developers at Fraunhofer licensed elements of their technology, and the four current systems emerged. Two of them have direct lineage to Fraunhofer dna, the other two are written from the ground up.

CX has heard three of the four systems during October. It needs to be said: this is difficult story to follow UNTIL you hear a demo. Once you do, it is akin to suddenly getting colour where until now you had black and white.

The four systems are, in no particular order, L-Acoustics L-ISA; the d&b Soundscape; Barco’s IOSONO; and Astro Spatial Audio from VanMunster BV.

The first two are tied to loudspeaker systems and commissioning. The latter two are not. The order of arrival: Iosono has been in the market for some years, as has Astro Spatial, while L-Acoustics and d&b have both been offering demos and are now in production with mass release starting in 2018.

Iosono and Astro have systems in use, but the entry of the ‘big two’ loudspeaker brands, each of which has a similar market share (they both employ 400 people and ship 600 – 900 boxes a week) will bring spatial audio mixing to the masses.

More in December CX Magazine

  • By Julius Grafton

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