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Getting Immersed In It All

Dan Daley • February 2019The Biz • February 12, 2019

For some of Childish Gambino’s shows last fall, Britannia Row provided L-Acoustics’ L-ISA Hyperreal Sound technology.

“Immersive” is the media buzzword du jour. Museums use multiple projectors to envelope us in images of the past while IMAX is nearly curving its screens around the audience for sci-fi. The broadcast mavens have approved Dolby’s Atmos system, which can output somewhere north of 22 speaker channels for television, by adding four ceiling speakers to existing surround configurations (the shorthand for that is 5.1+4 or 7.1+4, etc.). We were already surrounded; now we are to be immersed. And that’s now poised to extend to concert touring sound.

A bit of an arms race is already in the making around live immersiveness. L-Acoustics’ L-ISA — the acronym is for Immersive Sound Art, the live-sound iteration is known as L-ISA Live — is considered the frontrunner at the moment, with the 64-channel system accompanying Lorde on her recent Melodrama tour and French singer songwriter Renaud on a 50-date swing through Europe in 2016-2017, as well as for several shows by Childish Gambino and American electronic duo Odesza, among others.

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass presented by Brevard Music Center. Conducted by Keith Lockhart. Photo by Bobby Bradley

Other speaker manufacturers, meanwhile, are hot on the trail. d&b Soundscape, from d&b audiotechnik, had its beta testing during part of a tour last year the electronic-music band Kraftwerk. Since then, the system, which is based on its Dante-enabled DS100 Signal Engine and two software modules: d&b En-Scene (for sound object positioning) and d&b En-Space (a room emulator that will add and/or modify a space’s reverberation signatures), has done performances with post-minimalist composer Max Richter in Los Angeles and at the WOMAD festival in the U.K. Martin Audio is promoting Sound Adventures, its 3D immersive audio technology developed in partnership with Dutch-based Astro Spatial Audio; it’s being deployed in installed-sound applications initially, but will have touring applications in the future. And Meyer Sound Labs is gearing up a version of its object-based mapping system, initially developed for several of its earlier electro-acoustical systems, such as D-Mitri, and that has been deployed in venues such as Broadway theaters, for touring applications.

(Special shout out here to Sennheiser, whose AMBEO immersive system, while perhaps not aimed exactly at touring, has done some cool traveling installations, such as The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains in both London and Sydney, with a 17-channel AMBEO mix of the track “Comfortably Numb” played back through 25 loudspeakers, to recreate the original live experience of the song of the Live 8 concert.)

‡‡         To Jump Or Not To Jump

Every bandwagon deserves special scrutiny — remember 3D televisions? Some pretty big consumer electronics names jumped on that one. But immersive sound is different: Consumers had already demonstrated an affinity for the idea of immersiveness a few years back when everyone was suddenly wearing headphones all the time, everywhere (remember Beats?). The idea of taking immersive audio out of specialized environments like IMAX cinemas and making it more widely available began to make more economic sense.

When it comes to markets to develop for live immersive-sound technologies, concert touring is a natural choice: the trend in that market has been towards the more spectacular, from synching audience member’s wireless LED wristbands with the music to sending drones into the rafters (behind a net, of course). Since concerts have become the economic lifeblood of the music business in the last 15 years, shows have become increasingly competitive, with each tour looking for the new wow factors that will set them apart. Immersive sound is a perfect fit.

Unlike 3D TV, immersive sound has been proving itself in more predictable environments first, such as theaters and other installed applications. That does two important things: it gives the technologies a chance to test and refine themselves in safer waters before heading out to the sea of touring, and it also provides an opportunity to build a pool of live-sound engineers and system technicians who are familiar and comfortable working in an object-based environment. By the time immersive sound begins to hit the road at some kind of scale, there will be people ready to fly that plane.

Immersive sound will also do something else — it offers a way for live-sound brands to further differentiate themselves in a live-sound market that’s gotten crazy crowded lately, with more than double the number of top-tier brands in the touring markets today than a decade ago. That kind of supply is already putting pressure on pricing for tour-sound systems, on both manufacturers and on sound-reinforcement vendors. The appellation of “rider-ready” remains live sound’s gold standard of the moment, but any business can always use the creation of ever-higher tiers to help differentiate brands within it (remember when the Amex Platinum card got superseded by the Amex Black card, or when Delta Airlines created Diamond Medallion?) Immersive live sound could become the industry’s next tier of exclusivity.

Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and Roger Waters announce the Pink Floyd “Their Mortal Remains” exposition, which featured a 17-channel AMBEO immersive soundtrack played back through 25 speakers at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

‡‡         An Idea With a Past As Well As a Future

On the other hand, concerts have been taking a shot at immersive sound for decades. Way back in 1967, Pink Floyd did the first-ever surround-sound concert, the psychedelically startling Games for May, at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, where the band debuted a custom-made quadraphonic speaker system developed with help from Abbey Road Studios. It was amazing, and then it was barely heard from again until resurrected for the aforementioned Mortal Remains retrospective (in what was, essentially, a museum setting).

Pink Floyd was pushing the envelope with four channels; the new immersive live-sound systems are looking at channel counts in the low to mid double digits. The current generation of high-end live-sound consoles can handle that. The question is, will touring be able to pull off an immersive effect that’s compelling enough to warrant the higher ticket prices that such immersive sound systems will initially require? The manufacturers will subsidize seeding the market to some extent in the early days, in order to build market share for their brands. If it indeed takes off with concertgoers, economies of scale will eventually bring costs and prices down as immersive sound becomes an integrated part of the concert experience. The next two to three years will tell the tale on that. As always, grab some popcorn, sit back and watch the story unfold. Who needs Game of Thrones?

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