Mixdown's Guide to: Immersive Audio

When it comes to audio theory and its relationship to the art of music-making, it would appear that there no such thing as ‘too much information’.

It’s with this in mind that we are stoked to bring you ‘Mixdown’s Guide to………’, a regular monthly column where we attempt to cut through the technical jargon, breaking down the key concepts, to help give you a better understanding of the headier, techier side of audio. First up is the bonkers world of Immersive, how it works, why it’s important and what it means to the average stereo loving music fan.

Immersive Audio

Our world by its very nature is, immersive. We’re constantly stimulated by the sounds around us whether it’s simply strolling down the street or walking through the bush. It’s habitual for us to hear everything in front, behind, side to side or from above us, it’s epic, it’s enthralling, it’s human. This “norm” is rapidly making its way into how we experience film, television, gaming and music through immersive audio technology and it’s pretty wild to say the least. The future is now humans! 

 

Surrounds Immersive

As most of us know, surround sound isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Anybody who enjoyed a movie at a mate’s place with their “mind blowing surround system” in the 1990s or 2000s can attest to that. So why would we be getting excited about immersive, is it really that different? Well, yes, it is rather different. Fifty shades of different.

 

Whilst the typical surround format consists of a centre speaker, front left and right, rear left and right and a sub, aka 5.1, an immersive system takes this type of model and adds in ceiling speakers, creating a system that starts at a 7.1.4 (ie seven surround speakers, one sub and four ceiling speakers), but thanks to its unique adaptive capabilities, can basically expand out to as big a system as you can afford. For reference, the Collarts JBL 7 series equipped, world class Dolby Atmos Studio is a 20.1.6. system or twenty surround speakers, one sub and six ceiling speakers!

 

It’s these ceiling speakers (and the flexible number of surround options), that really facilitate this kind of quantum leap forward experienced in Atmos, allowing for information to not only come from the horizontal plain - like that of a surround system, but also from above and behind, making for very much three dimensional listening experience.

 

As a concept, it's already taken the cinema and post-production industries by storm and is very quickly doing the same in both the gaming and musical domains as well, being capable of some truly jaw-dropping effects that simply can’t be replicated on traditional systems.

 

 

Sounds from Above 

With the addition of ceiling speakers, in Immersive Sound, audio can be placed in a mix and manipulated in a way we have never before been capable. One of the key concepts here lies in the idea of audio as a series of “objects”, rather than the linear track or channel based workflows we have been using since the beginning of stereo. 

 

This concept of ‘Audio Objects’ basically means that we approach our audio with the mindset of it existing as a free-floating, fully mobile auditory event, with the capacity to be taken and flown around the speakers in a pre-determined ‘flight path’. Front to back, side to side, across the ceiling, you name it! Imagine a bird sounding like its flying directly overhead, or a helicopter whooshing from behind to in front, thunder from directly above or even a sandwich skimming past your ear as your stare into the cold, emotionless face of your high school bully. Talk about realer than real! 

 

Advanced plugins like Dolby Atmos Production Suite (used in conjunction with AVID’s Pro Tools) make this possible in productions and those working in film, television, post production, gaming, VR, AR and music are having a field day, making final productions more impressive than ever before! What’s more, the genius encoding and decoding technology build into Dolby Atmos makes down mixing and up mixing as easy as it has ever been, allowing content creators to design luscious auditory landscapes with absolute confidence that they will translate seamlessly across playback systems big and small.

 

Game of Tones

One area where Immersive Audio has immediately enhanced the experience is in the gaming, VR and AR worlds, where Immersive’s ability to provide realistic first person auditory experiences has seen it emerge as a natural fit for this rapidly evolving industry, one that places a premium on realism and being on the cutting edge. Primarily experienced using headphones or specially designed gaming headsets (usually with a broad soundstage to maximise the binaural perception), the use of Immersive audio in VR and AR means that designers are able to accurately mimic the changing auditory environment with absolute accuracy and realism.

 

New innovative rendering technologies, augmented binaural techniques and sphere like, interactive auditory placement allows for example, the fluctuations of a user’s head movement to be replicated and accurately represented in the audio field, making the users experience more authentic and increasingly harder to distinguish from reality. 

 

In this application, ‘Immersive’ more than lives up to its name, adding an element of interactivity to the jaw dropping first person, spacial characteristics to three dimensional sound design. More and more headset manufacturers and game designers are jumping onboard with this fast-evolving technology, making their headsets and releases compatible with the various immersive audio formats available. 

 

 

What about Music?

While already something of an industry standard in the film and post-production industries, it’s only recently that Immersive has really started to gain some proper traction in the musical realm, with R.E.M’s reissue of Automatic For The People being the first Atmos album commercially released back in 2017. 

 

In the time since, we have seen some diverse integration of Immersive in the musical domain, from pop-up Atmos club installations (with the ability to literally bend music around a revellers head, resulting in some of the most truly mindmelting club experiences out there) to big time streaming platforms like Amazon music and Tidal getting on board the new cutting edge technology.

 

It would appear the Academy are also expecting big things from Immersive in the musical department, having recently renamed their Grammy for ‘Best Surround Sound Album’ to ‘Best Immersive Audio Album’. So far, the nominations read like a who’s who of engineering royalty, with Norwegian classical production genius Morten Lindberg having already been nominated three times in the two year history of the new category. 

 

Lindberg’s work with traditional Scandanavian hymns and orchestral pieces typifies the kind of lush, all consuming reverb and incredibly broad soundstage made possible by the Atmos format, completely enveloping the listener and making converts out of even the staunchest non-believers.

 

Watch this space, as on a purely technical level, Immersive sound has the capacity to create sonic environments and experiences to which we simply haven’t ever encountered before (at least on this planet) and as we see more and more creative engineers working in the immersive format, it’s only a matter of time before someone emerges with a project that will truly push Immersive audio into the musical mainstream.

 

 

Here to Stay

Whilst there might be some speculation as to if immersive audio is simply in vogue, given the massive demand production houses now have from major streaming services and alike requiring the delivery of immersive mixes for their releases, it’s safe to say immersive is very much here to stay and is quite possibly just warming up.

 

At the creative end, the kind of possibilities afforded by this new technology in the post-production, gaming/VR and now musical space are only going to lend themselves more and more to progressive mixing, with engineers having the ability to manipulate audio in a way which would have been thought impossible less than a decade ago. 

 

It isn’t just the mix engineers either who are getting in on the possibilities of Immersive in the musical space, with immersive microphones, immersive effect plugins and a resurgence in complex binaural recording techniques all an indicator of Immersive Sound’s position as the defacto face of audio's cutting edge.

 

At the playback end, immersive audio systems are becoming more readily available for the average consumer, from sophisticated home cinema systems, through to more affordable sound bars, giving the illusion of immersive (with speakers firing up at the ceiling to reflect back to the listener) without the hefty price-tag. On a grander scale, immersive systems can be found in most major cinemas, and their popularity is ever growing in the home and live domains and this is just the tip of the iceberg, which is in itself pretty insane to think about. 

 

Whenever it is that we’re able to get back to seeing films in a cinema like the good old days (cheers 2020), be sure to check out one with an Atmos soundtrack and stop and consider where it is that you’d place the hi-hat? With Immersive, the hi-hat can be all around us.

 

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