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Ambisonics:

The Surround Alternative


by Richard Elen

Surround-sound has returned, and this time, thanks to home theater and
DVD, it’s here to stay. But is 5.1, the system designed for movie sound, the
most appropriate for music? Perhaps there is a better way. Richard Elen
discusses Ambisonics – a surround sound system that offers features which
are difficult, if not impossible, to realize with other methods – and how it
can coexist with 5.1-based techniques.
The Quadraphonic Quandary subcarriers on vinyl disks. More com-

Q UADRAPHONY – the ancestor of


today’s “5.1” surround-sound sys-
tems and sharing many of the same
mon, and less successful, was “matrix-
ing” the four original channels into two
for normal vinyl disks or FM broadcast,
shortcomings – is simply an extension using a decoder to recover the original
of “intensity”, or “amplitude” stereo, channels on replay (a so-called “4-2-4”
where sounds are positioned between system). The big problem: it is mathe-
two speakers in front of the listener by matically impossible. There’s always a
using solely the relative level of the two loss of information, resulting in signifi-
channels to provide the localization cant localization errors.
information. Quad sought to extend this Imagine a sound panned around the
into two dimensions by panning sounds control room in a circle at constant
between four speakers – two speakers speed. In the case of almost all quad
at the front and two at the rear. systems (including all but one of the
subcarrier systems), the sound on
replay would not follow the same path.
It would jump from one speaker to
another, and come in from the edge of
We use phase to localize sounds the circle.
between 150 Hz and 1.5 kHz and level
between 300 Hz and 5 kHz. Above 2.5
kHz, other directional cues are used. LF RF
When two speakers in front of you are
separated by no more than 60°, both
ears hear both speakers and LF ampli-
tude differences are converted into
phase differences between the ears.
However, this effect works only poorly
if the speakers are behind you, and not
at all if the speakers are to the side – or LR RR
if they are separated by more than about
60°. This means that, by definition, tra-
There are certain limits to stereo ditional quad – and today’s 5.1 systems
replayed over loudspeakers. Most Fig 3. Matrix quad tried to get the four
which are their descendants – cannot original channels into two and back again,
important, if the speakers are further offer optimum localization. which is impossible. A sound panned
apart than 60°, a “hole in the middle” around the control room in a circle (black)
The fact that quad relied on record- would be replayed as a flat ellipse by SQ
tends to be experienced and sounds are ing four “discrete” channels which used (red) and a cardioid shape (blue) by QS
drawn into the speakers, leaving virtu- (the foundation for Dolby Surround).
relative levels between pairs of chan-
ally no inter-speaker imaging. In a quad nels for localization (so-called “pair- Quad as a home system failed at the
system, the speakers are at 90°. wise mixing”) meant that good inter- time, but it survived in the movie indus-
The problem is the use of level as the channel separation was important. try, where a descendant of the Sansui
sole means of localization. The human Here, quad ran into a second problem: QS matrix system became the standard
ear/brain combination relies on a num- how to transmit four channels of infor- for movie theater surround, with a sin-
ber of different localization techniques mation over then-available 2-channel gle surround channel, an LF effects
at different, overlapping frequencies. media. One approach was the use of channel, and a stereo front stage.

Ambisonics: The Surround Alternative—Surround 2001 1


channel digital carriers, more original reproduce height information, which
album releases had been created using even now is not a common part of sur-
it than all other surround-sound systems round-sound practice, despite the fact
put together. That technology is that it adds a lot to the realism of a sur-
Ambisonics. round system.
For replay, the B-Format signal is fed
The Arrival of Ambisonics to a decoder which derives a minimum
Ambisonics was the brain child of a of four loudspeaker feeds (for horizon-
group of British researchers, notably tal, or “planar” surround). Instead of
the late Michael A. Gerzon at the four independent signals, the speakers
Mathematical Institute in Oxford, and in an Ambisonic replay system are fed
Professor Peter Fellgett of the with signals, each of which contain vir-
Cybernetics department at Reading tually all the elements of the recording,
University. They and their colleagues but with different relationships. The
worked to develop a surround sound speakers work together to recreate the
system that would enable a musical per- acoustic and ambience of the original
formance to be captured for replay in a recording.
conventional living room in which, as If all that was involved was to cap-
The separation of the front speakers far as possible, the original sound and ture the wavefronts impinging upon a
resulted, inevitably, in a “hole in the acoustic environment of the original soundfield mic and recreate them dur-
middle”, so a center channel was added performance (real concert hall or multi- ing replay, the results would be disap-
to carry dialog. track mix) would be recreated. The sys- pointing: the “sweet spot” would at best
Today’s “5.1” systems build on the tem was christened Ambisonics – be the size of a football. Ambisonics, on
original model by adding a second sur- meaning, simply, “surround sound”. the other hand, uses many of the meth-
round channel. The Low Frequency The system was designed from the ods of localization employed by the
Effects (or “Enhancement”) – “LFE” – beginning to enable recordings to be ear/brain combination to localize sound
channel is the “.1”. made with a special surround micro- sources. There is wavefront reconstruc-
phone (the Soundfield Microphone, tion to a degree, but it is overlaid with
The Promise of DVD now manufactured in the UK by level, phase and other directional cues
Today, for the first time, we have dig- Soundfield Research) or with special to mimic human hearing.
ital media that can provide multi-chan- console panpots and localization con- The result is a number of noticeable
nel fully-digital sound carriers: in the trols, or both. Ambisonic production benefits. First of all, you can put the
form of DVD – the Digital Versatile equipment generates a 4-channel sig- speakers more or less where you want
Disk, in its several incarnations, and the nal, called “B-Format”, that embodies them – you tell the decoder where they
Super-Audio CD (SACD). These tech- all the information in the soundfield, are. Second, the surround effect is pro-
nologies not only offer the possibility of resolved into left-right, front-back and nounced and stable over a very wide
carrying multichannel film soundtracks up-down information plus a mono ref- listening area. You can even stand out-
to a consumer audience: they also offer erence signal. Interestingly, as early as side the speaker array and experience a
the a multichannel high-quality audio the mid-Seventies, Ambisonics includ- kind of “sonic image” emanating from
medium. ed the capability to record and within the array.
Today, it is being generally assumed And finally, Ambisonics offered the
that a system designed to make sound promise of something that was beyond
effects sound impressive in a movie the capability of any other practical
theater will be ideal for high quality consumer surround system available
music in surround. Unfortunately, if the then or now: the reproduction of height
goal of surround sound is to reproduce information. This “full-sphere” sur-
in the home the creativity and subtlety round was christened “Periphony”,
of studio work, or accurately capture from Greek roots meaning “sound
the acoustic environment of an orches- around the edge”.
tral performance, to name but two With the exception of discrete quad,
examples, 5.1 – even with perfect trans- all the extant surround systems were
mission from end to end – cannot, by compatible, to a greater or lesser extent,
definition, do it. with conventional stereo and mono. Yet
But there is another way of doing B-Format consisted of sum-and-differ-
surround sound that can achieve this ence signals, like Blumlein M-S record-
goal in an all-digital environment. The ing, which could not be listened to
technology has been around for almost directly. Ambisonics needed a
as long as quad; it has been in continu- stereo/mono-compatible matrix as well.
ous use for music recording for almost The UHJ hierarchy was developed to
30 years; and, until the advent of multi- satisfy this need.
Ambisonics: The Surround Alternative—Surround 2001 2
UHJ is an example of what is with the launch of a series of rack-
referred to as a “hierarchical” surround mounted outboard processors by
encoding scheme, offering an increas- Audio+Design Recording in the UK,
ing gamut of capabilities depending on designed by Dr Geoff Barton and
the number of transmission channels including a professional studio decoder,
available and on the decoder. 4-channel capable of decoding B-Format and 2- or
UHJ carries the same information as a 3-channel UHJ. The other units utilized
4-channel B-Format signal, including a number of different approaches to
height information. If three channels localizing signals in an Ambisonic
are available, the fourth channel can be soundfield, and were all designed to
dropped, leaving a high-resolution hori- integrate with a conventional console as
zontal surround signal. If necessary, the much as possible.
third T channel can be bandwidth limit- The “Pan-Rotate” unit offered eight
ed: this is referred to as a “2.5 channel”. mono inputs that could be localized
If only two channels are available, they anywhere in two-dimensional space
can be used with a decoder to provide a (including, for the first time, the ability
very effective horizontal surround to bring sounds in from the edge of the
capability, although the accuracy of speaker array); the “B-Format of the kind only the British can manage.
localization is not quite as high as in a Converter” was fed from four console Despite the handling of the mass of
2.5- or three-channel version. groups and an aux send, and allowed patents by a government department
If no decoder is available, a 2-chan- console panpots to be used as designed to promote British inventions,
nel UHJ recording can be treated as a Ambisonic panners; and the Ambisonics, like many of Britain’s
stereo signal. In this case, the listener “Transcoder” turned B-Format into 2- inhabitants, suffered dearly under the
experiences a “super stereo” effect that channel UHJ for release, and also hand of Margaret Thatcher. A discus-
goes way beyond the speakers. 2-chan- allowed a quick Ambisonic mix to be sion of the sad story appears in the pre-
nel UHJ is a powerful “3D stereo” tool, created by feeding a front and a rear sent writer’s previous article on this
at least as effective as more recent 2- stereo stage (of variable width) into the topic, Whatever Happened to
channel surround techniques used unit from a conventional console, to Ambisonics? (AudioMedia UK, Nov-
today for computer and multimedia produce a 2-channel UHJ mix directly. ember 1991), which also covers
applications – with the added benefit Members of the Ambisonic fraternity Ambisonic principles in techniques in
that with a decoder, true surround is approached artists, engineers and pro- more detail.
available. To borrow a term from mod- ducers and encouraged them to use the Despite the disappearance of quad,
ern Web site design, Ambisonics system, primarily by demonstrating its and the emergence of Dolby surround
“degrades” almost perfectly. superiority. Although there were few and home theater, Ambisonics has
people engaged in this kind of promo- never gone away: it has simply taken a
tion, they had quite a good deal of suc- back seat. Recordings are still being
cess, and within a few years made and issued, including recordings
Ambisonics had been used by a varied on DVD-Audio and SACD.
range of artists, including Alan Parsons A group of internationally-renowned
(Stereotomy), Tina Turner (Break Every digital audio experts called Acoustic
Rule), Steve Hackett (Till We Have Renaissance in Audio (ARA) proposed
Faces), Adrian Legg (Lost For Words), a flag to indicate that an Ambisonically-
and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool based hierarchical surround encoding
Oratorio along with Ambisonically- scheme has been employed. The capa-
mixed CDs on the Collins Classics bility came into being in principle with
label, to name but a few. In each case, the acceptance of Meridian Lossless
the albums received rave reviews for Packing (MLP) as the mandated loss-
their sound quality and the extent of the less compression scheme for DVD-
sound-stage, and in each case, the use Audio. As a result, it is theoretically
of Ambisonics was the engineer or pro- possible for a DVD-Audio disk to
ducer’s decision, just as the use of any include Ambisonic material encoded
other kind of outboard equipment using a scheme presented by Michael
Ambisonics quickly attracted the might be. Gerzon and Dr. Geoffrey Barton at the
attention of audiophile label Nimbus 1992 AES in Vienna. This technology
Records, and apart from a few initial Barriers to Acceptance also includes decoding systems that can
stereo and QS releases, every album It is entirely reasonable at this point deal with irregular loudspeaker arrays
ever released by Nimbus was recorded to ask the question, “If Ambisonics is so such as “standard” 5.1 configurations.
Ambisonically. amazing, why aren’t we all using it?” In fact, the first public demonstration of
Ambisonic mixing from multitrack The simple answer is money; the longer MLP was from a Compact Disc encod-
became a reality in the early Eighties answer involves bureaucratic bungling ed from Ambisonic B-Format.
Ambisonics: The Surround Alternative—Surround 2001 3
Ambisonics in the Age of DVD sumer decoders, so that the resulting G-
Such a scheme would, however, still Format is “reversible” – Ambisonic B-
require an Ambisonic decoder at the Format can be recovered from G-
receiving end to recover the informa- Format with a suitable device. If the
tion and decode it for a 5.1 speaker con- home listener wants more than a con-
figuration: a so-called “Vienna” ventional 5.1 array, they can recover the
decoder. B-Format and decode it with an
Unfortunately, today’s DVD players Ambisonic decoder – which can drive a
are equipped only to output 5.1: the wealth of different loudspeaker arrays
only decoders they include as standard and configurations.
are for basic MLP (DVD-A players Even height information can be
only), AC-3, DTS and (in Europe) encoded into the original mix. The LFE
MPEG-2. Even if an Ambisonic flag channel is not required in modern
was included in an MLP data stream, an music systems: it was designed for low
Ambisonic decoder to decode the data frequency effects such as crashing
would add to the cost of the player, asteroids and dinosaur footfalls. These
which would rule it out for many manu- do not normally occur in music – and
facturers – and in any event existing even if they did, modern digital distrib-
players would not be able to provide the ution systems offer six channels of full carrying Ambisonic material on DVD
signal even to an optional external bandwidth. The LFE is thus redundant, and SACD. The multichannel part of
decoder. and may be used to carry height infor- the disk would contain the G-Format
There is, however, a way of transmit- mation. 5.1 material, while the stereo part (and
ting an Ambisonic signal so that no In fact for some engineers the Center the Red Book compatible layer on a
decoder is required at home. Instead, Front channel is also unnecessary for hybrid multichannel SACD) would
the “Vienna” decoder is installed in the music, and one record label, Chesky contain the 2-channel UHJ mix, gener-
studio, and simply decodes original Records, has released G-Format ated automatically alongside the 5.1.
Ambisonic B-Format material to a stan- albums which provide height informa- Anyone could use Ambisonic
dard ITU 5.1 speaker layout. tion for two elevated side speakers, dri- recording and/or mixing techniques to
The resulting 5.1 speaker feeds – ven from the LFE and CF channels (for create a G+2 disk; any DVD or SACD
now generally referred to as “G- example, the DVD-A release of Swing player, present or future, could play it;
Format” – can be encoded with Dolby Live by Bucky Pizzarelli). and any listener would gain an audio
AC-3, DTS, or MPEG-2, and mastered Every DVD disk has to include a experience beyond the capabilities of
on to a standard multi-channel SACD, stereo mix so that the listener with only other systems.
DVD-Video disc, or with MLP on a basic system will hear something There is now a need for a new ver-
DVD-A: no special flags are required. when they play it. Many SACD discs sion of the old Ambisonic Mastering
The Ambisonic decoding parameters have a stereo high-density area and System. Although many hit records still
are slightly different from those in con- sometimes a Red Book CD-compatible use analog mixers, and the original
layer. During the decoding of an Audio+Design equipment is complete-
Ambisonic recording to 5.1 for inclu- ly compatible with such systems,
sion on the multichannel part of the today’s Ambisonic outboard processors
disk, a 2-channel UHJ mix could be could benefit from additional facilities
generated to be stored in the disk’s to take advantage of the possibilities of
stereo space. This would give the listen- DVD. Digital processing would be an
er with a basic system excellent “super obvious choice, and in fact a new sys-
stereo” as well as full mono compatibil- tem could operate entirely in the digital
ity, and even reasonable horizontal sur- domain. They could equally take the
round with an external Ambisonic form of software applications or plug-
decoder, while the listener able to han- ins to operate in existing computer-
dle the multichannel 5.1 would get based DAW environments. Some soft-
excellent surround without a decoder. ware tools and prototype hardware
The sophisticated listener with a special already exist, and it is to be hoped that a
home Ambisonic decoder could enjoy digital Ambisonic G+2 production sys-
additional benefits of the system such tem will be available in the near future.
as freedom of speaker placement. Richard Elen has worked in publish-
I would like to propose that this sys- ing, PR and advertising, and as a pro-
tem, which I am calling “G+2” (G- ducer/engineer. He is currently VP of
Format – ie an Ambisonic signal decod- Marketing at Apogee Electronics. 20
ed for ITU 5.1 loudspeaker positions – years of his Ambisonic writing is avail-
plus simultaneous 2-channel UHJ) be able at www.ambisonic.net.
adopted as the standard format for
Ambisonics: The Surround Alternative—Surround 2001 4