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Audio alchemy: 3D sound, localised audio and acoustic enhancements

When simple stereo won’t suffice, there are number of technologies currently in use to add extra sparkle – an added dimension, if you will – to the live sound experience and transform it from average to awe-inspiring.

There is something about enhancing the quality of live sound that has captivated audiences ever since (and probably before) the Greeks built Epidaurus (pictured).

The theatre, designed by Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC, is renown for its exceptional acoustics that allow all 15,000 would-be spectators to hear the sound of a match struck at centre-stage without any amplification system whatsoever; a fairly impressive feat even by modern standards.
We now know that the sonic quality is derived from the rows of limestone seats that filter out low-frequency sounds, such as the murmur of the crowd, and amplify high-frequency sounds from the stage.
We’re also a far more sophisticated breed of audio enthusiast here in the 21st century, and while Epidaurus remains a must-visit tourist attraction for the sonically inclined travelling to Greece, pro-audio manufacturers have invested far more than blocks of limestone into improving live audio. Augmenting Acoustics RCA was one of the first pro-audio companies to experiment with acoustic enhancement at the Philadelphia Academy of Music during the 1930s, using adjacent stairwells to increase the reverberant energy in the main concert space. Today, DSP accounts for the majority of enhancements found in live venues.
Yamaha’s Active Field Control (AFC) is an acoustic conditioning system that adjusts the acoustic characteristics of a space by using an acoustic feedback system using microphones and speakers that ‘re-uses’ a room’s natural reverberation in order to extend it. However, a proper acoustic foundation is still key to AFC3’s success.
“AFC3 partly relies on its own convolution samples, but also partly on the existing acoustics. If the existing acoustics are poor, then AFC3 might also sound poor. In general, we think that if a room has acoustic anomalies, they have to be solved first before we apply an AFC3 system,” said Ron Bakker, systems marketing manager at Yamaha Commercial Audio.
AFC has been available since the mid ‘80s, but its latest incarnation – AFC3 – has only recently been deployed in Europe at a rehearsal and performance space used by the Stockholm Royal Opera House. It was an unusual use of the system as the sound sources and the listeners were the same person – and acoustic enhancement Bakker says “was almost a mission impossible up to now.”

Acoustic enhancement of any type was once seen as controversial but, says Bakker, “it’s changing fast. In the past decade we have seen the introduction of the internet, smart phones and tablets, so even the most pure acoustical-focused classical musician is now used to place his or her trust in electronic devices,” Meyer Sound’s Constellation has equally been embraced by the world of classical music, most recently installed at Moscow’s Svetlanov Hall. Unlike Yamaha’s AFC, which enhances a space’s natural acoustics, Constellation relies on a patented algorithm, advanced digital processing, and miniature transducer technology combination – and then some.

As John McMahon, executive director of operations & digital products, says, Constellation has been developed partly in order to create “sonic environments that are impossible to build in the physical world” – just what certain theatrical spectaculars require, in these days were audiences demand greater and greater thrills. To wit: as reported in PSNEurope March 2013, Constellation was deployed as part of a €15.5million production of Rocky by Germany’s Stage Entertainment, staged in Hamburg’s 1,400-seat TUI Operettenhaus. Sound designer Peter Hylenski used the system to provide “enhanced ‘environments’ to match specific locales in the story”. Fueling the demand for flexible acoustic solutions has been the rise of multi-purpose venues “because the acoustics that sound best for one type of performance often lead to compromise for another,” says McMahon, and the alternative – mechanical means of acoustic adjustments – can cost a substantial amount more.
These factors are what lead Bakker to predict that in the near future, Yahama’s AFC3 “will be everywhere”, he boldly asserts. “Up to now, the total number of active acoustic enhancement systems built in the past 50 years in the world is just a few hundred, all high-priced systems, installed in high-priced venues. With AFC3, we expect to also become a viable option in the smaller venues, with the total number of installations growing into the thousands fast.”
How it’s deployed is also likely to change, with McMahon citing several “new uses” of Constellation in the recent past: in Miami, for instance, over 160 loudspeakers replicate the sonic experience of the New World Center’s 756-set hall outdoors at the Miami Beach SoundScape.
At the Tamalpais Research Institute (TRI Studios) the video streaming venue and recording facility created by Grateful Dead founding member, Bob Weir, Constellation is used for live steaming of concerts on the web. “We believe we’re only scratching the surface of how Constellation can benefit the audience experience,” concludes McMahon. “Where it goes from here is a question best suited to the talented sound designers and show creators we work with.”
3D to no D? Just a day prior to Andy Murray’s epic Wimbledon win, which was made available by the BBC in 3D video, the broadcaster announced it was putting the 3D format on hold indefinitely. Kim Shillinglaw, the BBC’s head of 3D, said it has “not taken off” with audiences who find wearing special glasses “quite hassly”.
As PSNLive went to press, James Cameron lashed out at Hollywood directors, telling The Guardian that film-makers are ‘not using 3D properly’ and that blockbusters such as “Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and all those movies should not necessarily be in 3D”. If these recent events are any indication, 3D video’s popularity is on the wane. Conversely, 3D audio has the distinct advantage of requiring nothing more than a good pair of ears to enjoy – and is seemingly enjoying a surge in popularity. Just don’t confuse it with ‘localised’ or surround audio: “Surround is not 3D. It’s only when you add height speakers to the system that you have a real third dimension,” says Gregor Zielinsky, international recording applications manager and audio specialist at Sennheiser.
Zielinsky developed an algorithm to up-mix old stereo and mono Bowie recordings into a true 3D mash-up produced by Tony Visconti specifically for the David Bowie is exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Unlike 3D video, Zielinsky says the general public is embracing 3D audio more and more: “I know from Geoffrey Marsh, one of the V&A curators, that they found the audio experience so smashing, so incredible that they are thinking about using the system for other exhibitions as well. You can see in general that the topic of 3D audio, be it at home, in cinemas or other applications, is definitely becoming more and more important.”
Zielinsky’s algorithm has also caught the ear of manufacturers outside the pro-audio sphere, with Mercedes and Audi interested in using it for future car models, and certain other companies interested in the algorithm for simulation purposes.
So will we ever see a 3D rock gig? Zielinsky’s not so sure: “The first thing I said was ‘nobody would do that’. It’s not used in rock n roll. However we did do 3D recordings of our friends from [metal legends] Manowar. Joey DeMaio is a real sound and tech freak. He was thinking about doing live performances in 3D I have to say I don’t believe that would really make sense, but Joey is so crazy and so freaky he might do it!”

@page_break@ Sound in space “3D Sound has become an oft-overused term for a wide range of things,” says Dave Haydon from TiMax developers Out Board. “It differs from the more empirical ‘localised audio’ – enhanced spatialisation of usually surround sound environments using a variety techniques including ambisonics, wavefield synthesis and our TiMax delay-imaging processes.” If true 3D audio ‘doesn’t make sense’ for live performances, localised audio “is becoming an industry standard for vocal sound reinforcement across Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Scandinavia and UK, in premier opera, drama and certain types of musical theatre and special events,” says Haydon, adding that “producers and directors who’ve will often not work any other way once they’ve experienced it.” Out Board’s TiMax SoundHub source-oriented reinforcement (SOR) spatialisation and TiMax Tracker have been deployed in an increasing number of stage and musical productions as of late, most notably for the German touring rock musical Tabaluga, where the complex stage configuration had to change to suit each arena venue’s dimensions and audience layout. At the Royal Albert Hall in London, TiMax audio localisation has featured in Bobby Aitken’s sound designs for over a dozen years and is set to return again February 2014, dispelling any notion that localised audio may be simply a gimmick. “Usually people are excited about 3D audio the moment they hear it, not needing time to get used to it,” adds IOSONO’s Katja Lehmann. A newer kid on the surround audio block (the company’s first processor was released in 2011), IOSONO “started with a lot of cinema and permanent installations but noticed a growing demand for 3D audio solutions for live and event installations in the past year.”
At Prolight + Sound in Frankfurt this year, berlin-based phase7’s production of Neither – the “world’s first 3D opera” won the German Stage Award’s Opus for Technical Realisation based in part on the IOSONO-enabled immersive audio.
It was artistic director Sven Soeren Beyer’s first project using the surround processor, but more are planned: In August phase7 will produce a “walk-through opera” – Mauricio Kagel’s Celestial Mechanics – in the foyers of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The audience will then walk through a soundfield created by 75 loudspeakers as the sounds of weather phenomena swirl through the air.
“We use the technology that’s available, and try and use it in a creative way,” said Beyer. “It’s the tools of our time. If I had lived 200 years ago I would’ve been happy with a gas lamp.”
Or perhaps, some limestone.

Story: Erica Basnicki