New York, NY—Sony Corp. rolled out its new immersive audio mixing and playback platform, Sony 360 Reality Audio, in late 2019 with a launch event in New York City. Previewed at the beginning of that year at CES 2019 in Las Vegas, Sony 360 Reality Audio is based on the MPEG-H Audio object-based open audio standard developed by Fraunhofer IIS for television, virtual reality and streaming applications.
Of course, there’s little point in launching a new playback format without content. At the launch, Sony announced that it already had a library of around 1,000 songs available for listening. The company has been working with a variety of artists, producers and engineers to mix and remix music for the format, which can be experienced via several premium streaming platforms.
“Artists and creators such as Pharrell Williams, Kane Brown and Tony Visconti got involved in remixing their 360 Reality Audio content,” according to a Sony spokesman responding to emailed questions. “Additionally, Sony has already collaborated with the global entertainment company Live Nation Entertainment to utilize several artists’ recorded performances, such as Charli XCX and Kodaline.”
The company has access to an immense catalog through Sony Music Entertainment (SME), one of the “big three” labels, but it is also working with other record companies, the spokesperson said. In addition to music from SME artists, Dua Lipa’s latest album, Future Nostalgia; David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” remixed by Visconti; Liam Gallagher’s latest album, MTV Unplugged; and Clean Bandit’s New Eyes and What Is Love albums have been mixed using the spatial technology. Music by Mark Ronson, The Neptunes, Monsta X, Jesse McCartney and The Glitch Mob is also available in the format.
Sony has developed a 360 Reality Audio licensing program for music studios that includes a software mixing tool and a recommended mixing infrastructure, which encompasses 13 speakers configured essentially as an upper and a lower 5.0 layer plus an LCR array at floor level. The company reports that a half-dozen facilities have already outfitted rooms for work in the format, including Valhalla Studios New York in Auburn, NY; Gold Diggers in Hollywood, CA; The Crypt Studio in London; Brazilian game company Black River Studio in Manaus; and Chiller Sound and SME’s own Battery Studios, both in Midtown Manhattan.
Content is created using Sony’s 360 Reality Audio Architect software suite, which includes mixing, encoding, decoding and rendering tools. “Working closely with industry professionals, we have crafted a set of tools that look to empower a new way of creative expression,” according to Sony. “Whether you want to use your existing multitracks and stems or create new music from scratch, Sony’s tools fit as an extension of your creative process. Over time, we will continue to improve our tools and work with leaders in the industry to empower more robust and flexible options that enable continued creative freedom while maintaining excellence in quality.”
According to surround sound and immersive audio veteran Ronald Prent, recording engineer and mixer at Valhalla Studios New York, “Once the room is measured and complies with Sony’s specification, the nice thing about the format is that you can mix on speakers and it translates really well to headphones.” Like many mixers working in multichannel formats, Prent reports that his speaker setup is slightly modified from the ITU 5.1 channel recommendation, with his rears positioned 135 degrees from the center line. “That works great in headphones,” he says. The five speakers in the upper layer are angled downward at 30 degrees, he adds.
Prent says that Sony 360 Reality Audio is a significant improvement over binaural and other immersive headphone delivery formats, which he has never enjoyed. “I’ve hated headphones my whole life, but this is the first time where I’ve put headphones on and said, ‘I want to hear more of this!’ I can hear stuff fly over my head and behind me. I can really hear the space.”
The underlying MPEG-H Audio standard was published in 2015 and was adopted, along with Dolby’s AC-4 codec, in the ATSC 3.0 next-generation audio broadcast standard. Fraunhofer’s immersive scheme supports up to 64 speaker channels and 128 core channels. Channels, objects and higher-order Ambisonics components may be used in combination in the MPEG-H Audio standard.
Immersive music mixed in Sony 360 Reality Audio can be easily experienced by consumers on headphones or through a suitable smart speaker. “Currently, 360 Reality Audio is supported on the Amazon Echo Studio and can be experienced using headphones from most manufacturers when combined with an Android/iOS smartphone that has a participating streaming services app installed,” Sony reports. “The service is currently available through Amazon Music HD [currently only for Amazon Echo Studio], Deezer, nugs.net and TIDAL.”
An app optimizes the listening experience on compatible devices by applying an acoustic transfer function based on the physical characteristics of each individual’s outer ear, or pinna. “360 Reality Audio can be enjoyed on any model of headphones. Additionally, listeners can enjoy a custom immersive musical field that is perfectly optimized for each individual user when using select Sony headphones and the Headphones Connect app,” says Sony. “This one-of-a-kind app analyzes the listener’s hearing characteristics by estimating the 3D shape of the ear based on a photo of their ear. The app sends the photos to the server operated by Sony and analyzes users’ hearing characteristics using a proprietary estimation algorithm. Once the analysis is completed, the user can use their profile with select Sony headphones for any 360 Reality Audio streaming.”
Sony reports, “We are working with partners such as Sony Music, Warner Music, Music.com and TIDAL to give demonstrations of 360 Reality Audio and its creation process to engineers, producers and artists.” The company has been marketing the new music format at public events such as the Something in the Water festival in Virginia Beach, VA, and has been posting videos of artists and producers reacting to hearing 360 Reality Audio for the first time. Examples of immersive mixes and artists’ stories can also be heard on Sony’s Music.com website.
Sony 360 Reality Audio • www.music.com/360RA