Interview: Daniel and Andreas Sennheiser discuss AMBEO 3D audio

Daniel and Andreas Sennheiser talk to Charlotte Ashley about what connects the worlds of art and sound, and why the time was right now to unveil AMBEO 3D audio.

Art Basel, one of Europe’s most famous modern and contemporary art shows, recently provided the setting for Sennheiser to showcase its AMBEO 3D technology following its debut at CES 2016 earlier this year. The link between the company and the art world may not seem immediately obvious, yet on speaking to Sennheiser brothers, their passion to contribute to it is evident. “Sennheiser has been in the pursuit of perfect sound for 71 years, so that means you need to constantly question the status quo, put yourself in question and question the reason, and that’s what art does as well,” says Daniel Sennheiser, co-CEO at the company with his brother Andreas for the past three years.

Daniel and Andreas Sennheiser speak at Sennheiser press event in Art Basel in SwitzerlandThe company’s collaboration with the art world has come to fruition with the Future Audio Artist Program supporting promising audio artists and promoting their work at the Hong Kong, Switzerland and Miami editions of the show. They have also worked with DJ Robin Schulz, who premiered his new song recorded and mixed in AMBEO 3D audio on the eve of Art Basel’s opening.

The company wanted to foster relationships with the sound art community after successfully developing products with musicians. “We’ve been working with a lot of music producers and artists over the years, and now we’re just bringing that to the next level and working with audio artists for us to learn more and to be challenged, but also to help audio art. You don’t see a lot of audio art right now, and for us it makes a lot of sense to bring that into the limelight.”

Perhaps some would argue that sound art cannot have the same emotional impact as a visual artwork, but Daniel and Andreas hope to change this way of thinking. “I think it’s different, it has to come together. Our visual sense is driven by our conscious, where as our audio perception affects our feelings a lot more. You can have an emotional experience through sound much more than the visual,” says Daniel Sennheiser. He adds: “You can try that yourself by just switching off the sound watching a horror movie, it looks a bit ridiculous, but if you close your eyes and listen to the sound you still have goose bumps.”

AMBEO: a decade in the making

3D positional audio is not a new concept; the technology has been growing in popularity for the past five years amongst cinemas and retail locations looking to offer something different around the globe. After quietly working on developing the technology for several years, Andreas Sennheiser says the time was right now to unveil the 3D audio capture and reproduction technology.

"With the advent of AR and VR content also being produced, we see that there’s a huge growing need for perfect artificial representation of 3D.”

“We decided to focus on it right now as we’d been approached by several artists and had already been researching in 3D audio for 8 to 10 years. That came together, and we figured out the artists are not happy with anything that exists. We had a technology on hand which so far we found was interesting, but didn’t really find the angle of how to bring it to the market and suddenly it came together perfectly. With the advent of AR and VR content also being produced, we see that there’s a huge growing need for perfect artificial representation of 3D.”

He continues: “3D audio has to be seen from end to end, which starts with producing with the right microphone in the setup and then it goes through mixing which is where the art is -  in how do you want to play with that freedom of height and space - and then over processing, right down to playback.”

“We see a need for higher quality audio everywhere, which starts with high resolution and will ultimately also go to AMBEO 3D sound and immersive audio,” adds Daniel Sennheiser.

Why is their take on 3D audio different to what’s already on the market?  “Our aim is to change the world of music really – especially live recording and live music, so we’re really focused on making the music as emotional as possible. That’s why we believe and have feedback that our solution for music is the best you can get to listen to right now, because we have that very clear focus on the best reproduction of music,” says Andreas Sennheiser.

The missing piece for VR and AR

Sennheiser Virtual Reality MicrophoneWhen it comes to virtual reality and augmented reality, Sennheiser wants to fill the gap in the market for bringing 3D sound into the mix and providing an experience for all the senses. “We’ve been approached by AR companies that said: ‘We have fixed more or less the visual part, but the whole illusion falls apart if the audio isn’t right,’ and that’s where we come in.”

Sennheiser will release its VR microphone in September, a product “absolutely essential for the experience” according to Andreas Sennheiser. They have already sold twenty units of the microphone to producers already who are experimenting with it and giving feedback on how they create content.

Although the company boast extensive expertise manufacturing microphones, creating a microphone for VR required a completely different approach.  “There’s a lot different about the VR microphone. On the one hand, it does the spatial capturing – that’s the nature of it. But on the other, it requires a different way of mixing because you have sound vectors that go in four different directions. You don’t have just channels, so you have to learn how to work with something that goes from the centre to the left as a sound beam and the mixers need to learn that.”

He continues: “We also see that we need new authoring tools coming in there, because currently people are used to using authoring tools which are more putting a sound in a plane, but not necessarily in the heights.”

Experiencing AMBEO

Experiencing the technology first-hand in Sennheiser’s 4-person sound cube with a 9.1 speaker set-up, Sennheiser’s ambition to stir an “emotional reaction” to music with 3D audio is realised. You feel like you could be sitting amongst the strings, brass and wind segment of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie orchestra. You could close your eyes and imagine you’re in the audience listening to the detail in the synths and quiet pitter-patter of the percussion in the background to Imogen Heap’s song ‘Tiny Human’ - especially produced for Sennheiser using Mi.Mu gesture-control “musical gloves.” They also demonstrate how their upmix algorithm allows almost any stereo file to be mixed in 3D sound. It’s clear to see why the brothers feel this is the next stage of sound.

Is 3D the future?

“It will become the new standard – from mono we went to stereo, and now we go from stereo to analogue,” says Daniel Sennheiser, reflecting on the potential of 3D audio.

“Ultimately, it gives you many different applications - for example in the area of sports, you can choose different perspectives, such as on a soccer field or in a Formula 1 car. In the future you may also be able to choose the soundscape that you want, this could be on the playing field hearing the players talk, in your fan section, or in your opponents’ fan section.”

Although cinemas and sports arenas are predicted to be the main “first adopters” of 3D audio, Daniel Sennheiser says, “I see no area where it doesn’t play a role.” Looking to the future, the company will continue to work on expanding its AMBEO offerings. “AMBEO as whole journey is more a 5 to 10-year journey, but we will release every 6 to 12 months new products and new solutions which will fit under that umbrella,” says Andreas Sennheiser.

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