‘The inevitable future of live sound’: Inside the world of 360 audio

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Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett Projections by 59 Productions (2) copy

In recent years, strides in 360 audio have began to gather pace, with numerous pro audio companies placing it square and centre of their business focus. Daniel Gumble spoke to some of the sector’s foremost exponents to check its pulse…

Immersive audio, 360 audio, 3D Sound, call it what you will, is becoming an ever more lucrative corner of the live market. As demand for immersive sound within live applications grows – let’s call it 3D audio for the sake of this study – so too does the focus of some of the market’s leading brands as they look increase their capabilities in what many view as the future of sound reinforcement.

As with every area of the industry, technological innovation continues to maintain a status of perpetual evolution, and with immersive audio events popping up in venues ranging from small theatres to stadiums, a nimble approach and a sustained focus on market development is the order of the day.

For Ralf Zuleeg, head of education and application support at d&b audiotechnik, there is no bigger growth area in the market. And with the its Soundscape system, he believes it is ideally placed to blaze a trail.

“[360 audio] is the inevitable future of live sound,” he tells Pro Sound News Europe. “It is the logical consequence of a source-oriented sound reinforcement system, taken to its optimum performance. d&b has always looked for improved approaches for sound system solutions, from Delta Stereophonie, via so-called Wave Field Synthesis, to Ambisonics. What we wanted was to have a real, 360-degree sound system, which worked with our familiar workflow and existing loudspeaker systems. Now I’m pleased to be able to say that we’re there. We call it the d&b Soundscape.

“The d&b Soundscape is the acoustic environment in context, as perceived, experienced and understood in a time and place. It defines acoustic environments in which people ‘feel’ performances or presentations, real or abstract. It introduces another dimension to the d&b system approach, aligning the aural and visual perception. This can be done in a realistic manner – for example, locating the sound of a guitar on a stage – or in an entirely imaginative, creative manner – for example, swirling sound effects around an audience.”

Another key player making moves in the market is Sennheiser, which has made its presence felt over the past year in both the live and installed sound sectors.

“Sennheiser actually made 3D audio a strategic key topic and created the AMBEO programme and trademark in 2016,” says Dr. Véronique Larcher, director AMBEO Immersive Audio, Sennheiser, about the company’s commitment to the sector. “That gives you an indication of the huge potential we see in these immersive technologies. 3D audio opens up great possibilities and offers a totally new and emotionally engaging sound experience for listeners.

This is especially true for the live events space with its high demand for powerful, emotional sound, and its inherent challenges to create the perfect listening environment for large crowds. Sennheiser provided such an environment for star DJ Robin Schulz in 2016, when he premiered a song in a night club using an immersive 9.1 set-up. A current installation example is The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It hosts a dedicated performance area, where a 17-channel AMBEO mix of Comfortably Numb is played back by 25 loudspeakers, totally enveloping visitors and recreating the original live experience of the Live 8 concert.”

Likewise, loudspeaker giant L-Acoustics has demonstrated its commitment to the cause with the opening of an R&D facility dedicated to immersive technologies. Dominic Purvis, director of marketing and corporate development for L-Group, the parent company of L-Acoustics, explains: “There is a very strong focus on [360 audio] at L-Acoustics; indeed, we have created a new R&D facility in London for our L-ISA immersive sound programme. We have also run a number of successful events with artists from both classical and contemporary music.”

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He continues: “L-Acoustics has a long history of challenging and improving on the way that the professional audio world goes about its business, and this is no different. Our R&D teams have been working on L-ISA for several years now, which is why we already have a full ecosystem in place for immersive, hyperrealistic sound. As the industry moves towards multichannel audio, we are in a great position to take advantage of that shift.”

What’s next?

In many ways, staying ahead of the curve is the key for those looking to prosper in the immersive world. Whether its ensuring that they are constantly at the cutting edge of technological breakthroughs and/or being nimble enough to keep pace with the sector’s innovations.

For Bjorn Van Munster, managing director of Astro Spatial Audio – manufacturer of the SARA II rendering engine that creates scalable, object-based 3D audio productions – keeping an ear close to the ground is fundamental to the brand’s success.

“We always listen carefully to the market and we’re currently working further integration of OSC as well as ongoing improvements in the GUI,” he tells us. “One advantage we’ve become aware of is that because we are brand agnostic, a lot of manufacturers want to work with us. That gives us a wonderful opportunity to talk about their individual needs and requirements, and to work on ensuring our system addresses the whole of the market.”

Van Munster’s sentiments are echoed by Out Board director and co-owner Dave Haydon, who explains that flexibility and versatility are crucial to the firm’s place in the market.

“Out Board and our TiMax products have been working in various types of spatial and immersive live events for a couple of decades.,” he comments. “We actually invented years ago the now much-vaunted ‘object-based’ programming and management of multi-source, multi-speaker live spatial audio, and have constantly evolved our approach, also diversifying its application to new sectors such as corporate and experience markets.

“Dante lets people plug multiple channels straight into our spatial matrix and get audio back out to multi-channel speaker systems with ease, and MIDI, timecode or XML allow any form of performance or show control software to interact with us. So this opens up endless creative potential, as long as the artist engagement and tour production spirits are willing.”

According to d&B’s Zuleeg, the rise in companies ramping up their efforts in 360 audio, there is now ample opportunity for the industry to move forward together and push sound reinforcement forward.

“The time is right for this technology,” he says. “We are not the only ones going in this direction; other major sound system companies are also making progress with similar concepts. If we’re all moving the idea forward together, there is a very good chance that this will replace outdated concepts of sound reinforcement. We see a bright future.”

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While there is huge potential for immersive audio technologies to really come into their own in the long-term, L-Acoustics’ Purvis anticipates a significant shift in the sands for the short-term.

“We expect that by the end of this year, a number of big name tours will announce that they are using one form or another of immersive audio to bring greater clarity, immersion and natural sound to their performances,” he states. “We are confident that there will be a migration towards multi-channel audio over the coming three years or so, after which it will become the standard for larger and more sophisticated events.”

Challenges

Like any burgeoning sector, where big opportunities lie, so too do challenges. Whether its mastering new technology, understanding its trajectory or predicting the direction in which it is headed.

“As with any major change of this type, it’s a combination of providing the right technical solutions as well as convincing the various people involved at the different parts of the decision-making process,” Purvis elaborates. “We’ve had tremendously positive feedback from the people who have visited our research facilities and/or seen our multichannel installations in action, so now the challenge is to convert that enthusiasm into action.

“L-Acoustics has a long history of challenging and improving on the way that the professional audio world goes about its business, and this is no different. Our R&D teams have been working on L-ISA for several years now, which is why we already have a full ecosystem in place for immersive, hyperrealistic sound. As the industry moves towards multichannel audio, we are in a great position to take advantage of that shift.

For Zuleeg, the biggest difficulty facing the business are imposed by physics and education as to utilising the technology to its maximum potential: “360-degree systems work up to a certain size,” he points out. “Our enemy is the speed of sound and its travel times: 30m distance is equal to 90ms, 60m to 180ms - at which point any beat is going bust! Productions must be arranged to suit the size of the system. Where musicians are moving around, that needs to be given some thought and handled correctly.

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“Another challenge is the need to deploy the extra speakers in a venue. Usually venues are not designed to support large numbers of speakers around the audience area. On the tour with Kraftwerk, we came across all sorts of venues, and it was certainly real creative work to get that all in and tuned in time! As much as this enhances the experience, it requires a commitment to proper solutions from all parties involved in the gig - the artist, the venue, the sound designer – and the accountant. It can be done - we have proved it!

“Perhaps the biggest challenge is one of education, not just in system design and handling the technology, but in getting the artists, sound designers, engineers and production designers on board. It might be necessary to readjust the picture in our heads of what we want and need to achieve, to use this to its full extent.”

Other areas of concern include budgets and logistics, particularly when it comes to large-scale events.

“Musical timing, production budgets and logistics are all challenges” adds Haydon. “We have looked at designs and quotes for some of the biggest arena and stadium acts, but plans have usually stalled due to production costs for extra speaker channels, rigging and time. Occasionally the sheer scale of a venue and nature of the musical content also precludes an effective outcome. Although it can work well for music beds and delay effects in a Pink Floyd mix, there’s not much in a typical four-on-the-floor heavy rock mix that you can distribute or pan around Hyde Park without it sounding like a clattering train wreck.”

The future

Despite the presence of any potential bumps in the road ahead, the outlook for 360 audio is without doubt a prosperous one. As immersive technology continues to evolve, live events demanding its benefits will become more and more sophisticated in their knowledge of how best to incorporate its benefits.

“We believe that immersive live entertainment will continue to rise in popularity and importance, and we feel that momentum growing already,” says Van Munster. “But like any developing technology, people are now starting to recognise what works and what doesn’t. The more traditional solutions that require very rigid loudspeaker set-ups and which limit the user’s choices in terms of loudspeakers and other technology, they are not really designed with the live and touring sector in mind. They require large investment, lots of additional work and much larger overheads. That’s why our object based, scalable approach is already proving popular from Europe to Asia and the United States – we don’t make demands of our customers, we work with you to make your show a truly spectacular, immersive event.”

Zuleeg concludes: “Performers want to create a unique and memorable experience for their fans to engage them and inspire social media buzz during and after the show. Whether in the venue or with remote streaming, 360 audio provides additional dimensions that artists and producers can play with in order to create new forms of interaction and emotional connection.”

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