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‘With immersive technology we can take things another big step further’: Exploring the potential of immersive audio

Immersive audio will have to get past the same old barriers to break fully into the live music arena – and there are more of them than before, says PSNLive's Phil Ward

Björk live in NYC

Whether or not he really said it, Henry Ford is usually attributed to this famous quote about technological innovation: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Genuine or apocryphal, people in pro audio know what he meant. Innovation is abundant, on a plate: the only problem is in getting people to understand it enough to make a difference. This was certainly the paradigm of digital consoles, and when it comes to immersive audio there is a similar frontier on which some stand, some stand and watch and some, whisper it gently, look the other way…

Art attack

It can be a hard sell. “For rental companies, audio takes the longest to get a return on investment,” says Steve Jones, application support and education, d&b audiotechnik, “even though eventually it has greater shelf life than video and lighting. Plus, most people think ‘immersive’ means putting speakers everywhere, so production will hate that. In fact, it’s quite often the same quantity of gear, just deployed differently.

“For the creatives, sound is overlooked. Even in theatre, where ‘sound designers’ are credited, it’s still quite often bottom of the pile – as demonstrated by the 2015/16 dropping of the Tony Awards for sound design. And if you’re not seen as a creative, you’re not at the table at the beginning of a production – so video and lighting have already bagged their positions and there’s nowhere left for optimum speaker placement. Look at this year’s bad press – the majority was caused by sound being an afterthought. The number one criterion for good sound design is to put the speaker in the right place to begin with.”

Nonetheless, when talent and production do witness immersive sound, Jones adds, the penny drops. “They become a lot more engaged, and it elevates sound to the creative level. Just in rock and roll, that would be a massive leap forward for the audio industry. I’ve just come off the Björk shows in New York, and that worked because she herself was part of the audio discussion from the start. That’s what has to happen.”

“In pop and rock there is always a defined video designer and lighting designer – rarely a defined sound designer,” says Scott Sugden, product manager at L-Acoustics, who has supported all of the L-ISA Live shows in the US. “Having a sound designer involved at the beginning of production will change the relative importance of audio in a show. Some engineers are beginning to evolve a design role, possibly working with the artist in the studio as well. It’s the same development curve with any technology: there are the pioneers and, if it has genuine value, eventually everyone becomes interested and carries it forward.”

Both Aerosmith and Lady Gaga currently have residencies in Las Vegas that deploy L-Acoustics’ Immersive Hypperreal version of L-ISA, meaning full surround and overheads. “These decisions are made by creatives,” Sugden confirms. “As soon as someone perceives what it can do for their art, the project accelerates much faster.”

In-ear equations

There may be a quicker route. The new relationship between DiGiCo and KLANG:technologies suggests a new agenda for immersive monitoring across the console range. If nothing else, this places immersive audio right where the artist lives and breathes and should elevate its concerns above the current status quo. Furthermore, traditional monitoring may have its own immersive roadmap.

“If you talk to monitor engineers, you’ll know that wedges haven’t gone away,” says Steve Ellison, director, spatial sound at Meyer Sound. “The complexity of modern live production means that the artist is not standing in front of the same monitor throughout a show, and they have been trying to solve those issues with snapshots and matrixing for years. You hear stories of engineers twiddling the matrix to move the mix around the stage, and actually Spacemap LIVE will lend itself to the control of onstage monitor mixes in the same way. That’s a very interesting application.”

Steve Ellison at Moogfest

At last year’s Moogfest music festival in North Carolina, Suzanne Ciani and an ensemble performed with a multi-channel system in the Armory, mixed by a student from Berklee College of Music using a prototype of Spacemap LIVE, set up to create a quad sub-mix automatically for on-stage monitoring and build an immersive experience for both musicians and audience.

“It’s an interesting creative challenge,” continues Ellison, “because if the artist is working specifically with immersive they need to know what’s happening for the audience. At the same time, if you’re doing 16 channels of immersive you might not be doing 16 channels of monitoring. We’re opening up a whole new ball game, one that should involve the artist a lot more. At Monash University, Professor Paul Grabowsky – a brilliant jazz musician – talks about how the room ‘becomes the instrument’, which is how we’ve always thought of Constellation, our active acoustics system. That’s what happens with this technology, so the challenge is this: how does the ‘instrument’ around the artists mimic the ‘instrument’ around the audience? The sky’s the limit.”

For Astro Spatial Audio founder Bjorn Van Munster, immersive audio for classical music could take the creative agenda as far back as the original manuscript. “When concerts and operas were first performed, there was no reinforcement at all, but audiences have come to accept a stereo or LCR system,” he says. “Why accept this? It’s not what was intended, and it destroys what the composer had in mind. He had no concept of an audio system. Taking that one step further, if you take the opportunity of a full immersive system – as at the Berlin Opera – you can re-visit the opera and investigate how it would sound as an immersive experience.”In other words: if you’re going to reinforce at all, reinforce using immersive techniques. Not only does this re-connect with something approaching the natural sonic settings of pieces conceived centuries ago – or even simply before electronics invaded the inner sanctum of the opera house – it also enhances the experience without the reductive compromises of traditional PA, however subtle.

The ability of an immersive system to ‘dissolve’ into the auditorium is symbiotic with its ability to lift a production “to a new level”, according to Van Munster. “You really miss it when it isn’t there,” he confirms.“We do a demo with an Astro remix of Billy Jean by Michael Jackson, and whenever I hear the original stereo version now it sounds empty. I believe it’s not a case of ‘if’ immersive audio will happen, it’s a case of ‘when.’”

The Knopfler effect

SSE Audio is currently supplying an L-ISA Live system for Mark Knopfler’s Down The Road Wherever world tour, and Pete Hughes is audio crew chief and PA tech. From a tour bus somewhere in Europe, Hughes outlines the rig: “There are five hangs across the front: three of K2 centre-left, centre and centre-right; and two extensions of KARA on each side. The system designer Max Menelec works very closely with L-Acoustics, including R&D. It’s 34m between the extensions, creating a very wide field of sound – and it sounds exactly the same in every seat across the auditorium. There are nine sends to the PA, and only one sub – but less is more.”

All the inputs, some grouped, are sent directly from the SD7 to the L-ISA Processor via an Optocore loop in the stage rack using MADI. “It’s a very different way of mixing,” admits Hughes, “but you feel a direct audio and visual connection with every member of the band.”

Mark Knopfler immersive sound crew – L-R: Guillaume Richards PA tech, Klaus (Bob) Bolender PA tech, Max Menelec system design and engineer, Pete Hughes audio crew chief PA tech, Christophe Combet L’Acoustics director of Sound System Design

In truth, Knopfler’s sets these days are light, bluesy and folk-influenced, and there are no video screens anywhere. But apart from the artistic conceits of pop and rock, there are business concerns among the professionals that should be heard.

“If the right project demands an immersive solution, it has my full support,” says Gareth Collyer, Nexo’s sales manager for the UK and Ireland. “But in the rock and roll world, there are always caveats: cost, of course; and noise pollution – especially outdoors. There isn’t the infrastructure to deploy immersive systems properly, on top of which it’s hard enough to get a conventional system to work in amongst all the video screens and stage sets.

“Where is this expansion going to happen? You currently have a limited number of high-end rental companies in a position to adopt this technology. I’m reminded of the line array paradigm: suddenly it was the ‘only’ thing that worked. Well, guess what: point source is still here, and working perfectly for a great many professionals. Small to mid-size rental companies are the future of our industry. That’s where the growth is, unless they’re priced out of the race – and that would lead to far less choice.

Bryan Grant, founder and MD of Britannia Row, sounds a similar note of caution. “In principle, I love the idea,” he says. “The separation, the spatial definition… terrific. The problem is making sure the artistes and their production fully understand the implications and logistics of using a system in this configuration. If it’s going to work, the audio department has to be involved from the get-go – from the earliest discussions about the look of the stage set, where the video screens are going to go, the lighting design and so on. It won’t work if the attitude is: great idea – could you turn up for the last three days of production rehearsals and fit it in around the other elements of the production? In that situation, the poor engineer has no time to program; the artist is not particularly involved; the tour accountant is not sure about it; the lighting designer hates it and it’s a struggle from that point on.

“Although audio has improved enormously over the years, it has all too often been relegated to just being a given and, for so many productions, so much more can be done to enhance the sound of a performance. With immersive technology we can take things another big step further. Will we get that commitment?”

“The technology is rapidly advancing but it’s still early days”, adds Dave Kay, a director at Adlib in Liverpool. “Adlib is actively advising venues to look at installing immersive options when upgrading systems or setting up new venues. It is a very exciting technology – and we’ve had the pleasure of working with Hackney EartH to deliver the UK’s first L-ISA accredited venue.

“It’s a very creative technology which requires the artists and show producers to be on board with the concept from the start both to create the content and to maximise the experience – to allow the immersive elements to be given consideration in the whole production build. In its simplest form, I can’t wait to experience a live orchestra placed within a large immersive system, to reinforce the actual placement of the orchestra.”

Another market driver could be tracking, a technique well advanced in the portfolios of pioneers such as UK- based spatial audio trailblazer, Out Board.

According to Kay, a bit of AI might be needed… “To make it easier in the future,” he suggests, “more integration is required within mixing consoles to place sound sources in the immersive space with geo-location devices such as BlackTrax, which then moves the sound source without engineer interaction – for example, as an actor or guitarist moves from one side of the stage to the other.”

So, there are myriad positions from which immersive audio could advance, and perhaps all of them would have to align for push to become shove. In the meantime, though, one thing is clear: the horses are definitely getting faster.