Because of the growing interest in home theaters And the “spatial soundSurround sound music is back on the map. But I think that’s just a trend. Music sounds terrible in surround sound, and without the massive advances in technology, stereo would still be the format of choice.
Just to be perfectly clear, I’m talking about it surround sound. The massive 7.1-channel speaker system can play music in stereo sound, and in fact, it’s going to sound great doing it.
Talking audio is usually recorded in stereo. It’s a very simple format – you have a left and right channel, and each channel corresponds to the speaker. Precise mixing of sound across these channels creates the illusion of depth or width, making the music more lively or vibrant.
But surround sound adds a few extra channels of audio to the mix. The 5.1 channel setup includes the left and right speakers, a center speaker, a subwoofer, and “surround” speakers that sit at an angle behind the listener. This provides more separation of audio frequencies, but more clearly, gives you a “3D audio theater” with sound coming from all directions.
Things get even more complicated when using a 7.1 channel system, which adds rear-firing speakers behind the listener. The next step, the 7.1.2 channel setup, is adding two woofers that bounce sound off the ceiling.
Surround sound is primarily intended for movies. Generally speaking, every speaker in a surround setup serves a purpose. A central channel speaker, for example, is supposed to provide clarity for dialogue.
But over the past two decades, music listeners have slowly grown more interested in surround sound. And the rise in Apple’s spatial audio format has added fuel to the fire.
Almost all music recorded on Earth was written, arranged, and mixed for stereo. But listening to music in stereo isn’t the same as hearing a live band in real life. Stereo photography has limitations and strengths, which often dictate the hardware, structure, rhythm, and effects an artist uses.
Surround sound has its own unique set of pros and cons – you get a wider sound range, but you’re also forced to fill more “3D” space. Some vocal frequencies have more room to “breathe” in surround sound, but the format can be a bit unpleasant for the mid-range, which is where we usually get the “energy” of a song.
In order to take advantage of the limitations and strengths of surround sound, artists need to compose music specifically for the format. But that’s not how things work, at least not today.
Most songs available in surround sound were originally created for stereo. Someone decided to remix these tracks for surround sound. The results are usually horrific. Taking advantage of the expanded sound range means moving the instruments voluntarily around the listener, leaving uneven gaps where the instruments blend together and create a subtlety.
The rear speakers are often the most annoying part of surround sound remixes. In a perfect world, rear speakers would reproduce the sound of the room, giving you a better sense of the environment in which something was recorded. But it’s hard to have this effect after something has already been recorded.
After all, the rear speakers are often a place to toss “less important” instruments, such as tambourines. If you’re lucky, the ambient sound remix will use the rear speakers to spin something around your head. But unless you listen to someone like Jimi Hendrix, who pioneered similar effects in stereo recordings, the “spin around my head” thing sounds like a cheap trick.
The artist’s intent is also a factor in this conversation. If a song was originally designed in stereo sound, remixing it in a different format may obscure the artist’s original ideas or goals. (Admittedly, that’s at the bottom of my list of “things I care about.” Artists don’t get to choose which songs I enjoy, I feel bad for them when their work is slaughtered.)
Again, I’m not telling you to get rid of the Dolby Atmos setup. Stereo music sounds great on multi-channel systems; You just need to set the receiver to “stereo” mode. Hey, maybe surround sound music will be worthwhile someday.
There is nothing worse than being a fundamentalist. Music has always evolved hand in hand with technology, and dismissing surround sound as “something that only works for movies” is a narrow-minded way of thinking.
It took decades for stereo sound to become the industry standard. And stereo started with the same “issue” as surround sound – if a track wasn’t recorded with stereo in mind, it sounded like a gimmick! (Just ask any Motown fan or hardcore Beatle who swears by the mono mix.)
Classical music was the first genre to take stereo seriously. Large orchestras benefited from the increased disconnect, and most importantly, stereo provided an experience akin to watching a concert in person. Ambient sound follows a similar path; I rarely see complaints when this technique is used at live concerts, but albums are (rightly) a controversial topic.
At some point, it may be impossible to ignore the benefits of surround sound. We are talking about a technology that provides a much wider separation than stereo. Artists can enter more information into the recording without losing clarity, or they can create songs that are incredibly open and vibrant.
It will take a lot of work and troubleshooting, but surround sound has the potential to replace stereo.
Here’s the obstacle. Large 5.1 channel audio systems are expensive and take up a lot of space. If surround sound is the next step for music, it won’t happen until single-channel or two-channel systems can simulate the sound of a larger setup. That will require some ridiculous advances in beam-forming speakers, Dolby Atmos virtual technologies, and other technologies that are still in their infancy.
Over the past few years, brands like Sony and Apple have pioneered “Virtual surround soundHeadphone and earphone systems. These systems are unique from brand to brand, and have names like ‘Spatial Audio’ and ‘360 Reality Audio.’ But they all perform the same basic task – providing a surround sound experience through regular headphones and earphones.
Now, most people assume that Spatial Audio is just a software hoax. But this is only partially true. Spatial audio takes a real surround sound recording, quenches it in algorithms, and outputs a stereo sound signal that looks “three-dimensional”.
For music listeners, Spatial Audio presents the same problems with surround sound. But it also comes with a unique and frustrating problem – listening to simulate the environment.
Platforms like Spatial Audio need to replicate room audio with a 5.1 or 7.1 channel setting. To do this, they apply sound effects to each channel of the surround sound track. And in my experience, these effects often make machines appear distant, faint, or echo.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if hybrid engineers can really solve this problem. Platforms like Spatial Audio and 360 Reality Audio are far from a match. Even if you mix a song specifically for Apple’s Spatial Audio, there’s no guarantee that it will sound good on a competitor’s platform.
As a music fan, it’s hard for me to see spatial sound technology as anything more than a novelty. But I have a feeling it’s a temporary hiatus for future developments (which I hope won’t be bad). Once again, developments in Dolby Atmos virtualization and beam-forming speakers could revolutionize music — and not anytime soon.