I grew up in the era of the Hi-Fi. The massive stack of wood clad electronics that took up the corner of the room and usually a comfy chair placed nearby with headphones that were bigger than my child sized head. For me this was the most immersive audio experience, it canceled the noise due to the cushions engulfing most of your head and closing your eyes in a 70’s armchair, equally engulfing (comfier than the image shown)!

I’ve been pursuing this experience ever since and in part, it has placed me in the world of audio production. Experiencing many surround sound events I was excited to hear about Ambisonics a few years ago and how it’s close to being accessible by the masses!

Igloo Vision

A reassuring development that’s coming to a consumer lifestyle near you, is VR. Still in its infancy and not being taken up by the mainstream, poss due to cost and comfort, the technology is improving and the possibilities have expanded. Moving away from the classic headset concept we head into projection wrapping around a group of you and each of you wearing wireless buds or cans (in-ears or over-ears) to all experience the “sweet spot”. The visual tech might not be quite ready to be affordable and mass-produced but the audio is.

Headphones are still a common way to listen to music in 2023 whilst on the move or working out and these environments are conducive to immersive audio with noise cancellation technology.

More new music will start to be mixed in Ambisonics and headphones come with head tracking as standard. Just released are the Oneplus Buds Pro 2 that have head tracking and compatibility with Google phones that have their own spatial encoder built in which converts stereo tracks into a spatial experience. I need to check how the experience stacks with listening to an encoded Stereo track using an encoder such as this (there’s also Dolby atmos) and a tailor made spatial mix. I imagine a lot more detail and bespoke placement of instruments.

I think we’re ready for the next wave in audio experiences!

Ambisonics is an audio format that started life in the 1970s with research by the British National Research Development Corporation and developed at universities across the world with the technology still evolving.

Essentially it enables audio to be captured with dedicated 360 degrees microphones and broadcast isotropic sounds (full scale everywhere) in a 3D field, differing from surround sound that reserves the rear speakers for the minimal odd effect in picture, with 95% coming from the center, sides and subwoofer.

There’s encoding tools to convert mono, stereo and surround formats into the ambisonics B-Format so anything ever recorded can be placed into a 3D environment.

Speaker arrays (image above) are a way to experience ambisonics without headphones but not space and purse friendly for your average user. So the most accessible way to experience this is with headphones.

Computer games have helped push the technology forward and outside of writing and producing immersive audio in a DAW, there’s audio engines such as wWise and FMOD that are applied in Unreal and Unity game engines enabling 3D models to influence the nature of the audio reflections and ambience and for the listener to move around and the environment and experience changes with them.

If you want to read more about Ambisonics and immersive formats then this is a great resource: https://www.balticimmersive.net/blog/sound-space-and-immersive-audio-explained

I’m still learning more about it each session and will share any findings as I go.

Here’s one of our Ambisonic test pieces using Waves NX Head Tracker and experimenting with movement and reflection. Headphones a must!

Thom Thomas-Watkins

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