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Science And Nature

Why Surround Sound Doesn’t SEEM SENSIBLE for Music

A home theater with surround sound speakers.
Ali Ender Birer /

Because of growing fascination with home theaters and Spatial Audio, surround sound music is back on the map. But I really believe that this is a trend. Music sounds awful in surround sound, and without massive advancements in technology, stereo will stay the format of preference.

Merely to be superior, Im discussingsurround sound audio. Your massive 7.1-channel speakers can play music in stereo, and actually, it’ll sound great when doing this.

WHAT’S Surround Sound?

Modern audio is normally recorded in stereo. Its a simple formatyou have a left and right channel, and each channel corresponds to a speaker. Carefully mixing audio across these channels creates the illusion of depth or width, making music feel more vigorous or lifelike.

But surround sound adds a few extra audio channels to the mix. A 5.1-channel setup carries a left and right speaker, a center speaker, a subwoofer, and two surround speakers that sit at an angle behind the listener. This gives more separation for audio frequencies, but more notably, it offers you a 3D soundstage with audio that originates from all directions.

A 7.1-channel surround sound system.
A 7.1-channel surround audio system. Zern Liew /

Things get even wackier by using a 7.1-channel system, which adds rear-firing speakers behind the listener. And the next phase, a 7.1.2-channel setup, adds two upward-firing speakers that bounce audio off the ceiling.

Surround sound is primarily designed for movies. And in most cases, each speaker in a surround setup serves an objective. The center-channel speaker, for example, is supposed to supply clarity for dialog.

But during the last 2 decades, music listeners have slowly grown interested in surround sound. And the rise in Apples Spatial Audio format has only added fuel to the fire.

Surround Sound Doesnt SEEM SENSIBLE for Music

Almost all of the recorded music on the planet was written, arranged, and mixed for stereo. But hearing music in stereo isnt a similar thing as hearing a live band in true to life. Stereo imaging has limitations and strengths, which frequently dictate the instrumentation, structure, rhythm, and effects utilized by an artist.

Surround sound includes a unique group of pros and consyou get yourself a wider soundstage, but youre also forced to fill more 3D space. Certain audio frequencies have significantly more room to breathe surround sound, however the format could be unkind to the midrange, that is where we traditionally get yourself a songs energy.

To be able to benefit from surround sounds limitations and strengths, artists have to make music designed for the format. But thats not how things work, at the very least not today.

Most songs obtainable in surround sound were originally designed for stereo. Someone just made a decision to remix these tracks for surround sound. And the outcomes are often awful. Benefiting from the expanded soundstage means panning instruments willy-nilly round the listener, leaving uneven gaps where instruments used to meld together and create lushness.

A center channel speaker.
BobrinSKY /

Rear speakers tend to be probably the most annoying section of these surround sound remixes. In an ideal world, rear-firing speakers would reproduce the sound of an area, giving you an improved feel for the surroundings where something was recorded. But its hard to create this effect after somethings recently been recorded.

Ultimately, rear speakers areoften the dumping ground for less important instruments, such as for example tambourines. If youre lucky, a surround sound remix use the trunk speakers to swirl something around your mind. But unless youre hearing someone like Jimi Hendrix, who pioneered similar effects in stereo recordings, the spinning around my head thing feels as though an inexpensive trick.

Artist intent can be one factor in this conversation. In case a song was originally conceived in stereo, then remixing it for another format may obscure the artists original ideas or goals. (Admittedly, that is in the bottom of my things I value list. Artists dont reach choose which songs I love, I simply feel harmful to them when their work is butchered.)

Again, Im not letting you know to dispose of your Dolby Atmos setup. Stereo music sounds great on multi-channel systems; you merely have to set your receiver to stereo mode. And hey, maybe surround sound music will undoubtedly be worthwhile some day.

But Surround Sound May be the Future of Music

An abstract illustration of surround sound.
ioat /

Theres nothing worse than being truly a purist. Music has always developed alongside technology, and dismissing surround sound as a thing that only works for movies is an extremely narrow-minded thought process.

It took decades for stereo audio to become the standard. And stereo began with exactly the same problem as surround soundif a track wasnt recorded with stereo at heart, it sounded just like a gimmick! (Just ask some of those hardcore Motown or Beatles fans who swear by the mono mixes.)

Classical music was the initial genre to essentially take stereo seriously. Large orchestras benefitted from increased separation, and much more importantly, stereo provided an event more comparable to seeing a concert personally. Surround sound follows an identical trajectory; I rarely see complaints when this technology is utilized for live concerts, but albums are (rightfully) a controversial topic.

At some time, the advantages of surround sound could be impossible to ignore. Were discussing a technology that provides much wider separation than stereo. Artists could fit more info right into a recording without losing clarity, or they might create songs which are incredibly open and lifelike.

It will require a huge amount of work and problem-solving, but surround sound gets the potential to displace stereo.

Heres the hurdle; large 5.1-channel audio systems are costly and use up a huge amount of space. If surround sound may be the next thing for music, it wont come around until single-channel or dual-channel systems can emulate the sound of a more substantial setup. That could require some ridiculous advancements in beamforming speakers, virtualized Dolby Atmos, along with other technologies which are still within their infancy.

THINK ABOUT Spatial Audio?

An illustration of Apple's Spatial Audio system.

During the last couple of years, brands like Sony and Apple have pioneered virtual surround sound systems for headphones and earbuds. These systems are unique from brand to brand, with names like Spatial Audio and 360 Reality Audio. However they all perform exactly the same basic taskthey deliver a surround music through regular headphones and earbuds.

Now, a lot of people assume that Spatial Audio is a software trick. But thats only partially true. Spatial Audio requires a real surround sound recording, smothers it in algorithms, and outputs a stereo audio signal that seems 3D.

For music listeners, Spatial Audio presents exactly the same problems as surround sound. But it addittionally has a unique and frustrating problemlistening environment emulation.

Platforms like Spatial Audio have to replicate the sound of an area with a 5.1-channel or 7.1-channel setup. To get this done, they apply audio effects to each channel of a surround sound track. And if you ask me, these effects often make instruments sound distant, dull, or echoed.

Unfortunately, Im uncertain that mixing engineers really can get around this issue. Platforms like Spatial Audio and 360 Reality Audio are definately not identical. Even though you mix a song designed for Apples Spatial Audio, theres no guarantee that itll sound good on a competitors platform.

As a fan of music, its hard for me personally to see Spatial Audio technology as any other thing more when compared to a novelty. But I’ve a sense that its a stopgap for future developments (which hopefully dont suck). Again, developments in Dolby Atmos virtualization and beamforming speakers could revolutionize musicit just wont happen anytime soon.

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