Immersive Audio Experiences: Now Going Mainstream

25.10.2021, by Giacomo Luperini

In 1940, Walt Disney used the movie Fantasia to test the very first surround audio system for cinematic audiences. Today’s new technologies are making it easier and easier to immerse yourself fully in a musical universe from the comfort of your own home.

In 1940, Walt Disney conceived a revolutionary and extremely ambitious idea: Fantasound. It was a complex, expensive system, comprising nine audio tracks recorded separately inside a wood-panelled theater and played alongside a film through speakers strategically scattered around a venue. It was a complete disaster. The beginning of World War Two and the visionary foresight of Walt Disney brought the company to the brink of collapse.

Yet that was the first step towards a utopia which now seems to have become a reality, a new standard to make musical listening experiences more alive and vibrant. Times have now changed, and our hyper-technological society is quickly moving away from the realm of visuals, made of social media posts and videos, and towards the world of sound, made of podcasts, audiobooks and new musical experiences.
In order to meet the needs of our new era, for the past few years the musical market has devised increasingly innovative solutions, such as the Dolby Atmos system, first released in 2012 and used in big venues, alongside home equivalents such as Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus. We are talking about surround music technologies based on “sound objects” (up to 128) each with its own physical position, which is then reproduced by 64 speakers scattered around a theater, in the case of Dolby Atmos, or by a home sound system which codifies and compresses the message, in the case of True HD and Digital Plus.

2020 brought along a surge of enthusiasm for the so-called “8D Music”, surround tracks manipulated to confuse and disorient the listener, giving him the illusion of being at the heart of a musical performance that revolves around him. While we are not entirely sure this kind of effect will prove a truly long-lasting phenomenon in today’s musical industry, it is without a doubt useful and already widely applied to the video game and enhanced reality industry, which from its inception has been leaning on formats like Ambisonic to create the illusion of real sound.

It is thanks to this push from VR technology that, for the past few years, the investments on audio surround formats, and binaural formats in particular, have been growing exponentially. A binaural format is a recording system in which two microphones are stuck to each side of a dummy reproducing the functions of an earcup, in order to recreate a sound production recorded “as though it was a first-person memory”. Formats such as Live Audio and Spatial Audio are based on this system, the latter made available to a wider audience by Apple Music in 2021, together with the extremely high quality of Lossless Audio.

As you may have gathered from the above paragraphs, finding one’s way in the maze of the new technologies needed to record and especially reproduce these formats correctly is not easy. It is almost enough to make one long for the times when a simple portable CD player and headphones were enough to reach the apex of recorded musical experience, even though the quality of today’s products more than repay us for the effort made to reach that quality.Everything that seemed impossible just a few short years ago has finally become part of an audience’s everyday life, and artists and recording companies alike have no choice but to learn how to swim in this new ocean of audio formats.

 

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