Stop what you’re doing and take a moment to appreciate the sounds around you. Some loud, others quiet. Some close, others far away. Some in motion, others still. Our ears and brain are quite the dynamic duo when it comes to capturing and interpreting not only what a sound is but where it’s coming from, how far away it is, whether it’s moving or still, and so on. This capability is something that can be harnessed by producers to take events to the next level.
Our brains were made for spatial audio
It’s thought that our brains handle 100,000 bits of information from our ears every second. Without thinking about it, we mind map our surroundings using the sounds around us. We are adept at handling this 3D soundscape, so much so that most of us take it for granted. But when it’s used in amplified sound, things can get very interesting.
In his recent talk for Sova Labs, Funktion-One founder Tony Andrews points out that hearing is a marginalised sense – whether it's poor acoustic environments or less attention being placed on the importance of audio compared to other technologies. From an evolutionary perspective, our hearing has been extremely important to our survival as a species, yet it is often drastically undervalued in the modern world.
Spatial audio is often referred to as immersive, 3D, surround sound or ambisonics. Though the terms are used interchangeably, there are some differences. For the purpose of this article, we’re talking about multiple speaker positions being used to create sound fields, locations and movement. It is object-based rather than channel-based sound. Release yourself from the idea of left and right loudspeaker configurations and enter into the possibilities of spatial audio environments.
Funktion One and Dolby - the early pioneers
A number of sound companies have attempted to present their version of immersive technologies in recent years, some driven more by marketing leverage than technological innovation. Funktion-One was an early pioneer with the Experimental Soundfield at Glastonbury in 1992. The four-point speaker setup featured a central front of house position in the middle, which doubled up as a performance space, and Pink Floyd's quad mixer for panning between the four stacks.
The same year, Dolby deployed its digital surround sound compression scheme for the first time. Dolby Stereo Digital (now known as Dolby Digital) was first featured in cinemas for the 1992 film Batman Returns.
Timax's evolution in spatial audio processing
TiMax has been at the centre of spatial audio conversation for the last 20 years. The company specialises in immersive and location-based audio processing and control, with TiMax SoundHub setting standards in immersive audio for performances, experiences and presentations.
How to create a spatial audio setup
The starting point for most spatial audio enthusiasts is the ubiquitous 4.1 surround sound configuration, which comprises four mid-high speakers with a single bass unit. This can be expanded with the addition of more mid-high speakers to create 5.1, 6.1, 7.1 and so on. As spatial audio has expanded from the surround sound format to become even more immersive – the idea being that listeners are enveloped in a sphere of sound – the possibilities have become more expansive.
Making an impact in spatial audio environments
From electronic and live music to experiential brand experiences, arts, culture and fashion events and academic research, spatial audio can deliver deeper levels of audience engagement.
Sova Audio partnered with Sound Designer Ewa Awe, Harlesden High Street and Underground Flower for the Casting The Runes exhibition at 108 Fleet Street. Ewa Awe’s contribution to the show examines this idea in an auditory sense, highlighting the interplay between the way we orientate ourselves within the world and the impression we take away. For her work, Of Perpetual 2021, she cooked up a shifting miasma of drones, bass tones and spectral flickers. This piece was augmented with real-time recordings of audience members taken from a microphone placed on the floor above and the result was then played through a 7-piece spatial audio system provided by Sova Audio, allowing Ewa to envelope the listener in a dizzying cacophony of sound and motion. The actions on the floor above feed into the experience below, blurring and questioning the boundaries between the visitors’ experience and the artwork itself.
Our 4.1 set-up for The Rabbit Hole’s Funkingham Palace at Glastonbury in 2019 had ravers raving about the 360-degree Funktion-One speaker and TiMax processing combination. Described by Greg Wilson as “delicious sound,” the immersive dancefloor was replicated by the four-point monitoring system in the DJ booth. Taking the original ‘dry’ track from the mixer, audio effects were panned around the system at various speeds to create a unique dancefloor experience.
When Rolls Royce wanted to add spatial dimension and a speedy room re-configuration to its annual sales meeting, it turned to our partners TiMax. At the push of a button, the audio set-up could be changed from a traditional presentation mode to traverse seating or gala dining – featuring a 22.6 loudspeaker setup that delivered immersive audio to every seat
We worked with Senscapes to create an immersive audiovisual experience at King’s College London, which took influence from the phenomenology of a psilocybin trip. Audience immersion was achieved using cymatics visuals and 3D soundscapes, taking them through a perception-altering journey.
Spatial audio and its special possibilities
When sound is separated and presented in this way, it is more natural and easier for our brains to decipher and understand. This opens the door to deeper emotional engagement. Add movement, effects and object/location-based details into the mix and the impact can be even greater. For experiential events, product launches, music events, theatrical productions and festival showpieces this can be very powerful in delivering unique and unforgettable experiences.
At Sova Audio, we’re passionate about spatial audio and are experts in spatial audio design and reproduction. If you’re interested in what spatial audio can add to your project, drop us a line – we’d be happy to discuss the possibilities and support you in delivering something extra special.