Immersive audio: Object of desire

TiMax Hive MilanExpo
Ti-Max handled the complex audio inside the Hive at Milan Expo

The definition might be hazy but what is clear is that immersive/spatial/3D audio can play a major part in improving the sound in a variety of market sectors. Paul Milligan investigates the technology available.

There’s a range of products available in the 3D audio/immersive audio/spatial audio  sphere, each one different but created by the same feeling of  frustration.

“L-ISA was started  five  years  ago  by  the  CEO,  by  his personal  frustration  with  localisation  of  sound at classical music concerts,” says Guillaume Le Nost, director of R&D L-ISA, L-Acoustics.  “The performers would be in the centre of the stage, but if you sat slightly to the left of the stage you would only hear the left speaker, which is not where the performers where.” 

Ralf Zuleeg, head of sales services and application engineering at d&b audiotechnik, has a similar tale, “For me it’s a crusade, I’m fed up with stereo.  I went to a concert and had a great seat five rows from the front.  I was sat in front of the left stack, and I lost all of the magic of the music.  We have used all of the effects and compression, it’s time for something else.”  

L-Acoustics uae 2

It’s worthwhile investigating all the products out  there  in  this  particular  field,  but  for  this article we will be concentrating on four different immersive/spatial  audio  products  in  AMBEO from Sennheiser, Soundscape  from  d&b,  L-ISA from L-Acoustics and Ti-Max from Outboard.  AMBEO  is  an  umbrella  term  for  a  range  of products from Sennheiser covering the capture or  processing  or  playback  of  immersive  audio.  

Although  launched  before  the  AMBEO  brand was  established,  Sennheiser  was  already  active in  this  market  with  the  TeamConnect  Ceiling microphone.  It scans a meeting room to identify the space then uses a sound beam to focus on a specific voice. The AMBEO VR mic for 3D sound capture  followed  next,  and  the manufacturer now  offers  a  plug-in  for  professional  mixing engineers  for  streaming  platforms  so  they  can mix  live  sound  inputs  in  3D  for  headphone rendering.    Sennheiser  also  offers  the  Pro2 headset  that  uses  3D  audio  to  reduce listener fatigue for call centre employees who have to listen to people all day long.  Coming later this year  is  an  AMBEO  soundbar,  which  although initially  aimed  at  the consumer  market,  could have  applications  in  virtual  meetings  rooms, where participants wear headphones. 

Veronique Larcher,  co-director  AMBEO,  explains  its potential,  “3D  sound rendering  could  be  used when  you  have  multiple  people  in  a  remote meeting you don’t know that well.  You could have them all positioned at different angles so you knew who was speaking and when.”  

Soundscape was launched by d&b at ISE 2018 and has three components, the  DS100 signal processing engine (with Dante networking and a 64x64 matrix) and two software modules.

L-Acoustics coachella
The first module is called En-Scene, an object positional tool that allows individual placement and movement of up to 64 ‘sound objects’. The second,  called  En-Space,  is  a  room  emulation tool to add and modify reverberation signatures for any given space.  L-ISA from L-Acoustics is what the French manufacturer calls ‘immersive sound  art  platform’, the L-ISA Processor manages 96 inputs and 64 outputs, and merges professional loudspeakers  with  processing  hardware  and software audio tools.  Ti-Max from Out Board is a DSP matrix with playback built-in and show control.  Because it has a delay matrix built-in it means users can focus all of the loudspeakers on a particular spot in the stage or on a particular exhibit  in  a  museum.  Ti-Max  has  an  audio spatial rendering platform that has two ways of making sound move in a three dimensional way.  

TimeLine allows users to sequence content in 64 tracks, and apply movement to them by dropping objects, while PanSpace creates pan effects on a virtual representation of the space, which are then automatically dropped by the system into the timeline so they can be sequenced into the show.

Just  where  do  these  different  vendors  see their  immersive  audio  tools  being  installed? The  answer  seems  to  be  just  about  anywhere.   “The people we are talking to right now are not limited to (market) segments, we are talking to hip-hop  bands,  we  are  talking  to  conferences centres, you name it,” says Zuleeg. 

“There are many  possibilities,  you  have  the  creative  and artistic side, you have the immersive side, but my first idea is to improve the situation for the entire audience, give them all a proper perspective of what they hear linked to what they see.”
Dave Haydon, director and co-founder of Out Board has seen it used in a range of applications in the last four to five years, from car shows to art galleries to the World Expo in Milan (the Hive exhibit on the UK pavilion) to Kennedy Space Centre.  “People now expect better production standards, we were doing car shows with moving sound 10-12 years ago, in live performances and theatres  there  are  whole  countries  (Denmark, Austria  and  Switzerland  as  examples)  so  used to having localised vocals they won’t do it any other way. For open air shows it can work for intelligibility, in a space for 4,000-6,000 people you can make performers sound like the audio is coming from the right place and it makes a huge difference.”

puy du fou 1
L-Acoustics  sees  its  L-ISA  business  split between  fixed  install  and  touring,  and  it  was in fixed install where it had its first success, at the Puy du Fou historical theme park in France.  In the main arena the audience rotates around the  stage,  and  the  spatial  audio  follows  the audience in real time as they move. Alongside visitor attractions, another market with potential is planetariums, with L-Acoustics supplying the audio for the Antarctic Dome at the Coachella and Panorama music festivals in the US.  “Using immersive  sound  in  a  planetarium  produces  a collective  VR experience  without  headsets  and headphones.  Its  much  more  enjoyable  as  you can share the experience but still communicate with others around you. It’s a way to scale VR to the masses,” says Le Nost.

Sennheiser partnered with Pink Floyd for its most  high  profile  use  of  AMBEO  technology.  Used as part of an exhibition at London’s Victoria &  Albert  Museum,  AMBEO  3D  technology delivered  360-degree  surround  audio  of  an immersive mix of the song ‘Comfortably Numb’ using 25 loudspeakers.       

There  are  many  terms  for  this  technology, object-based  audio,  360-deg  audio,  spatial audio, 3D audio, immersive audio, but are some of these vague terms just meaningless marketing buzzwords? Do customers know what they are buying? The  confusion  can  be  used  to  our advantage says Le Nost; “Having everyone talk about immersive audio is helping the industry.  Because the term is still unclear it means we can go in and explain real use cases. We can explain, depending  on  the  sound  design  aspect,  how we can enhance the frontal system or define a surround system or add elevation speakers.”

Haydon  explains  how  we  have  got  to  this point, “Unfortunately we are all marketeers, and we all have to come up with terms for a concept in order to sell it.  3D audio is an old term that means nothing really.”

Varcher  feels  the  technology  will  succeed because it is has a universal appeal, “Immersive audio  raises  the  hairs  on  your  arms,  that’s what  it  provides.  3D  or  immersive  audio  is  an experience, that in itself is universal.  There are many technologies to deliver it, depending on the content some are better than others. Is it for 100 people or 5 people in a room? Are those people  moving  around? 3D audio requires a Swiss Army knife of tools.”

Do  any  of  the  vendors  feel  the  AV  market, specifically  integrators  and  consultants,  fully understand  object-based/immersive  audio  yet, or is there still some education needed? “There is some Luddite-ism in the market, but this is happening right now, and we can make it easy for them, but like in all industries there is some conservatism,”  says  Haydon.  He  has  found that  because  projects  are  often  multi-layered integrators/consultants  will  outsource  any requirement for immersive audio to specialists.  

A  change  of  mindset  is  needed  says  Le  Nost, “Usually when you talk to a consultant there is always  the  notion  of  what  is  the  specification for a given project.  The overall specification is always about the sound pressure levels – will it be  loud  enough  or  not  loud  enough?  We  are trying to evolve from simple sound metrics such as sound levels to qualitative metrics such as is it going to sound immersive? Is it going to be localised well enough?”  

This situation right now might not be ideal, but is improving says Larcher; “Since ISE 2018 I have seen a lot of integrators who want to know more  about  it.  They  see  it  as  way  to  provide additional services to clients and to extend their portfolio.”

Is there any special training needed to handle immersive  audio  projects?  “You  need  training for any kind of new technology,” says Zuleeg.  “The  skillset  you need here is to  be  able  to redefine what you want to achieve in your head. You can learn the technical bit, the hardest bit to get your head around is a new way of putting a production together, in terms of positioning.  You don’t have to mix the voice right up front anymore, it can be where it should be.”

The  introduction  of  more  immersive/3D/object-based audio systems is merely a response to  wider  changes  in  the  market  says  Le  Nost. “The  whole  industry  of  sound  reinforcement is moving from producing wooden boxes with transducers  inside,  to  become  a  solutions provider  where  you  can  meet  your  customer’s needs.  Live  sound  stages  and  video  displays have grown enormously over the past 20 years, so loudspeakers have been pushed wider apart.  It  means  the  sound  quality  is  getting  worse, because you are losing the connection between the sound and the face (on stage).  The whole point of this kind of new design is to put the sound back as the focus of the show.”