Flat Sound Believers

I used to write a blog post everyday. These days it’s harder to find the time and I apologize for being out of touch for these past few weeks. My days have been filled with producing the website and pitch video for the YARRA 3DX campaign and pushing ahead on the book and Blu-ray disc (more on that in a moment) and meeting the obligations of my professorship. Now that summer has arrived and I’m no longer heading to the studio everyday, life is a little more sane. I still sit in front of my computer too many hours everyday, but most days result in progress on a number of fronts.

Today, I thought I would talk about the world of immersive, 3D audio — or at least 5.1 surround music. I’m a strong advocate for surround sound. It’s a mystery to me why the music industry hasn’t moved to multichannel delivery like the movie studios and game companies. Maybe it’s because music consumption is a regular part of our daily lives, we listen on portable devices (cars, smart phones, DAPs etc.), through the radio, and in rooms dedicated to 2-channel playback. We’ve been programmed to believe that music is a stereo experience. That listening in stereo is enough. There are even people that would prefer to listen to monophonic recordings — because that was the artist’s original intent. Show me artist that’s heard a great high-resolution and I’ll show you a surround sound convert. Records were available in mono because the technology for stereo and multichannel didn’t exist yet. Do we really want to return to the “golden age” of mono HiFi systems and black and white TV?

I wrote a lengthy article for an online audiophile site recently. I wanted to share my post LA Audio Show impressions on surround sound. There were a couple of rooms demonstrating Dolby Atmos in a room full of speakers, amplifiers, an UHD projector, a screen, and plenty of processors. The price tag was near a quarter of a million dollars. Ouch! When they played sections of several action movies and a segment of a live music concert, I have to admit I was impressed. It was loud and completely enveloping. But really — how many people have the space, the budget, and the inclination to bring a system like that into their lives? I’m guessing not very many. I’m a fan of surround and I wouldn’t do it.

When I submitted my write to the publication, they had one of their writers read through it to make sure it wasn’t just a commercial for the YARRA 3DX sound bar. It does talk about the sound bar approach to surround sound as one of the three options for getting surround sound but doesn’t dwell on the product (BTW – The three options are: a multispeaker home theater setup, “binauralized” content through headphones, and sound bars). The editor wrote a comment in the sidebar that illustrates the problem us “surround sounders” have in the audiophile world. He wrote, “I think the author needs to make a convincing case for why he feels music recorded in 2-ch isn’t good enough. When 2-ch music is played back through, say, Dolby Pro Logic II, the results are excellent and quite satisfying. That’s very likely why native 5.1-recorded music doesn’t really exist. It doesn’t need to.

When I hear this type of comment, I can only imagine that he’s never experienced a great surround sound music presentation. His mention of Dolby Pro Logic II processing, which simply synthesizes rear channel information from the left and right front stereo channels, delivering “excellent” results that are “quite satisfying” is scary. In his opinion and probably most audiophiles, 5.1 music doesn’t need to exist. Wow.

How to respond? I tried to talk about how much additional space there is to mix to in surround music, how you hear things you’ve never heard before, how enveloping the sound is, and how much more depth there is in surround mixes but I doubt that he opinion was swayed.

More thoughts to follow…


After being locked out of my Kickstarter account for the last week, I posted an update today. If you’ve pre-ordered the book and Blu-ray or backed my Kickstarter campaign, you’ll be glad to know that it’s heading to the printer shortly. The disc has been fully proofed and will sent to the replicator next week. Here’s the link to the update:

Read the Update.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

23 thoughts on “Flat Sound Believers

  • HI Mark,
    It can get tiring when folks suggest that archaic technologies are ‘automatically ‘ better. I will say that while no side by side comparison is easy, I have heard Pro-Logic sound amazing in two different implementations, one in 1997 from a 600.00 NAD receiver that simply claimed in the manual to have “implemented Pro-Logic to the best possible sonic point.” Well , they sure nailed it, that’s all I’ll say. And…the good folks at Shure made an all-discrete P.L.back decoder back then that also sounded very clean w/ more than adequate separation.
    Dolby Digital is so baseline today; it’s the Dolby True HD coming in at 24/96 that shows the real improvements that have occurred in cinema/multi-channel scenarios, and the level of sonic quality that is way beyond any implementation of Pro Logic IMHO .

    • Craig, the point is that PL II is a synthesized surround extraction methodology and doesn’t reflect the artistry of the creators of the music — musicians, engineers, producers, mixers etc.

  • Hi Mark,
    Like you, I am a huge fan of surround music. In fact, it is hard to return to stereo after being immersed in audio.
    However, your post reaches me on the same day as an article in the newspaper here, informing us that SONY is investing heavily in vinyl records, as 1.5 Billion dollars is in their sights. I give up! Don’t worry about not having posted for a while, it’s pointless. They (the labels) don’t give a shit for the art, or our listening pleasure. These creeps just see money. And yet, these same companies produce movies and their soundtracks leave the music industry in their wake. I cannot understand why the audio industry doesn’t sit “closer” to the movie industry in “class”.
    I’m over it!

    • Warren, I saw that announcement as well. Sony is not stupid…if Jack White and many others say that vinyl LPs are the next big thing, then people will believe it.

  • Totally off subject but many many months back I believe you remarked about how you had heard Ed Sheeran and were impressed with the mix and the music from his previous album. I seem to recall you were concerned that the industry might get their hooks in him and his future efforts would not sound the same. Have you heard his most recent release? Just curious about your impression of it.

    Very very anxious to get my book and Blu-ray, looking forward to that. I have bought some new equipment just so that I can properly listen to everything.

    • Larry, I can’t say that I’ve followed Ed Sheeran’s career of late. I’ll take a listen and see if the production norm has gotten him. I do know that John Gorka, one of my favorite singer/songwriters in the “new folk” genre, has had his share of sonic ups and downs. I love the sound of his early CDs, especially “The Land of the Bottom Line”, which I’ve listened to hundreds of times. That album and his other early stuff was on Red House Records. When he was signed to Windham Hill, the sound changed — I have all of his albums and I can’t listen to the Windham Hill stuff. The recordings are harsh, over compressed, brittle, and strident. John told me the same thing…he fought against the heavy handed label people but he lost. What about artist intent? It doesn’ exist.

  • In February 1974 after living abroad for a couple of years I came home and could hardly wait to experiment with quadraphonic sound. I’d heard a lot about it. It had been hyped to the skies. I’d been following it from the earliest days of the Hafler quadaptor circuit. Now I had all of the equipment I needed and an empty finished basement in my parent’s house. I quickly discovered that it didn’t work. It didn’t live up to its billing. It was a flop. The first thing I noticed was that I could hear the rear speakers. No matter what I did I heard them. I moved them away from the walls, turned them around, put blankets around them to prevent diffraction but I still knew exactly where they were because I could hear them. Eventually the audio industry concluded it was a flop also and retreated back into its shell like a turtle under attack. Quadraphonic sound was dead, not because of the multiplicity of systems but because it didn’t fulfill its promise. 5.1 surround sound is something I think of as son of quadraphonic. they’ve added a center monophonic speaker for dialogue for home theater, used a variant of Ralph Glasgal’s stereo separation control, and a subwoofer but it’s the same idea and IMO it still doesn’t work.

    Being curious, I started to think about how concert halls do it. Acousticians don’t call it immersion, their technical term is listener envelopment or LEV (sometimes LE.) Leo Beranek defined it as LEV = 1 – IACC where IACC is Interaural cross correlation. Personally I disagree with the definition, I think it should be LEV = d(IACC)/dx where x is the lateral position of the source on the performing stage. With nothing but my education and analytical powers to guide me, almost no knowledge of the formal field of acoustic science study and little data about concert halls, I came up with a mathematical model, a formula for acoustic relationships that explained it to me. The sense of envelopment comes from reflection of sound. How well they work depends on the details of their arrival relative to the first arriving sound. Understanding, being able to measure and to reconstruct reflections comparable to what you’d hear in a large space and to manipulate them has led me to an entirely different technology that achieves what you call immersion. Among its goals for me is that its apparent effect must be inescapable in the listening room and its source must be undetectable by ear. I’ve been experimenting with it for 43 years. It has no commercial possibilities and will remain a one of a kind invention. The variant I built as a prototype has a patent 4,332,979. It is only one of many variants and it is only one part of the overall technology. It is not easy to operate and required considerable time and effort to optimize it. Two main speakers, 16 auxiliary speakers, and violates just about every idea audiophiles have about sound systems. But it works.

    • Oops, Beranek was not referring to LEV or LE with 1-IACC, he was referring to BQI or binaural quality index. However they are somewhat related. In a 2008 paper he reassessed the importance of reflections from above and from behind in calculating LEV giving them much more weight than he had previously. Lateral reflections are of course very critical as well. This is why fan shaped concert halls are usually considered a poor design, the shoebox design being much more favored.

  • Jonathan Angel

    Mark, I assume you deliberately did not share a link to your full article on the other site, but I hope you will reconsider, as it sounds worth reading.

    Like you, I am mystified as to why the vast majority of audiophiles ignore multichannel sound. It seems most audio reviewers do not even have multichannel systems, yet somehow consider themselves qualified. Then there is the monthly magazine that does condescend to cover multichannel equipment and recordings, but only in the ghetto of a particular contributor’s column …

    Personally I believe that 5:1 sound can provide a greater leap in realism than stereo does compared to mono. Why the professional reviewers can be insensitive to this, while at the same time sensitive to tiny “differences” in AC power cables or whatever, mystifies me.

    Either it’s just groupthink, or they’ve never heard multichannel with high-quality amplification for each channel and identical full-range speakers all around. (I’m skeptical that any soundbar can ever provide the same experience, but look forward to hearing a YARRA 3DX.)

    • They actually haven’t published it yet. Keep an eye out on Audioholics.com.

  • my mother never thought stereo was necessary…

  • Hi Mark,
    looking at preordering the ‘Guide’.
    Shipping a book (with a bluray disc) to Germany will cost 25$ – is that for real?

    • The book and disc are heavy. I know that shipping just 4 oz costs $13 dollar without packaging. I haven’t don the final calculation but it’s does take a major effort to pull all the elements together. There’s always the electronic version and files?

  • Steve Wright

    When I hear this type of comment, I can only imagine that he doesn’t listen to classical. Acoustic instruments played in a concert hall or church benefit immensely from native surround sound: All the best classical recordings today are surround.

    Commercial pop-rock is almost always recorded in a studio, with heavily processed and/or synthetic instrument timbres, plus pitch correction for vocals, so it’s inherently very artificial sounding. So it’s no wonder the editor regards Dolby Pro Logic Fake Surround as excellent and satisfying.

    When I’ve applied Dolby Fake Surround to stereo classical CDs, they sound muddy, tubby, and over-reverberant. No improvement.

    Auto-tune has always sounded very fake: Bobby Brown used it back in the early ’90s, and my non-musician brother was astonished at BB’s singing abilities. I insisted it was some sort of synthetic pitch correction, that nobody can sing so perfectly on-pitch, but he never believed me until BB’s embarrassing, tone-deaf performance at the MTV music awards.

    To this day, when I point out to non-musicians a singer’s obvious use of auto-tune, they don’t believe me; they just think he or she has amazing singing abilities. It’s my experience that non-musicians, so about 99% of humanity, are oblivious to such things and are satisfied with a very low level of sonic realism and fidelity.

    All my whinging aside, we’re living in a golden age of reliably gorgeous surround-sound classical recordings.

  • I would counter the editor’s PLII comments by saying they are missing the point. A well engineered stereo recording played in a properly configured room through 2 (stereo) speakers renders additional processing almost entirely moot. I experience 180 deg soundstage from a great many stereo recordings as-is, some go a bit beyond 180. And if you’re saying that doesn’t apply to pop music, I challenge you to listen to “Madness” by Muse, “The Girl is Mine” from “Thriller” or “The Gap” by Thompson Twins, or the entirety of “The Downward Spiral” which are just the first few that come to mind. It isn’t brain surgery to get a good, loud pop sound while still creating a wide, enveloping image.

  • Mr Mark Waldrep, I believe in that you said, you make me remember my last 5.1 multi channel music system, I tried to configure as a norm say, 5 speakers, the same brand, model and timber, 1 subwoofer without any bass management, Since the crossover cut low pass filter comes from the studio, all the speakers positioned at the same distance from my seat, using a SACD 5.1 or DVD Audio, and with 3 NAD C370 integrated amplifiers, I was flying with minimalistic recordings of classical and Jazz and acoustic music, and the very produces pop o electronic or synthetic music, not all the music was good produces, but the majority is on the clasica, jazz and acoustic minimalistic music recordings, is totally wonderful! I sealed my Amplifiers to invest in my new home, And I was left just with the stereo system!

  • I remember,I used 3 integrated amp as a discreet way to amplify, no like a AV Receiver with all the channels depending of ! power source, I use just 1 remote control to increase the volume control, since the 3 amp was the same, I used the Denon universal player 2910, setting off all the effects and process and off all the video and display circuits, and because I install the speakers with a full range capability and at the same distance, and use a comfortable chair that doesn’t block up my ears, the subwoofer was placed in front, just a few space behind the center channel! Regards

  • Mark,

    It had been a while that I have given any kind of comment.

    I understand your frustration about the stand still of multi-channel music in today’s world. I used to enjoy multi channel a lot back in Vegas with a 30m2 living room and an open kitchen right behind the listening area. The 5.1 sound was warm and precise and at times hair raising fantastic. Now that we moved to Italy for retirement our TV-room/home theater (!) is 10m2 (about 110ft2). I installed my 5.1 system and fired up the Parasound amp just to jump back when hearing the horrible sound that came out of the speakers. The rears were too close to the hearing positions and even with moving them back and forth and right and left there was no improvement to be had. After 5 miserable days I gave up. Now I am listening to stereo – at least I can use the remaining channels on my amp for bi-amplification now – and remember the good old days.
    What I wanted to say with all this is that I believe many, many people live in similar situation, were 5.1, 7.1 or even more channels simply don’t work. We own this 167 year old house and certainly don’t want to move to another p[lace for the chance to get a better home theater. I am glad I had those around 15 years of great multi channel music experiences and have to settle now for stereo for the rest of my time.

    • I can only relate what I use in my own surround room at home, which is quite small (15×12). I have 5 B&W FCM-8 speakers in an ITU configuration and it works quite well for music and movies. And then there’s devices like the Smyth Realizer or YARRA 3DX speaker array, which can deliver surround sound without a large space.

  • Sorry Mark – you know what….
    …when you are not posting here since weeks and months, you are slowly disapearing on the horizon of your faithfull readers.
    I wonder what is the reason for your ‘absence’?

    • Admin

      I’ve been focused on completing my book and the associated Blu-ray disc. I’ll be back soon.

  • Nathan Daniels

    Mark, to me, it’s simple math. Every additional channel added at the engineering phase is an increase in dimensionality and choice for the mixing engineer. I am a proponent of Atmos and DTS:X, but my recent visit to the theater to watch Star Wars VIII in Atmos was the first time I’ve heard it outside my own home.

    I took a friend, who is not a theater buff, but he is a huge film score fan. After the film, he talked about the fact that there were places where he consciously noticed the score during action-packed scenes where it would be normally drowned out by explosions. By adding verticality to the mix, the engineers were able to pull certain sound elements to different locations in 3D space, thereby adding room for other elements to naturally occur.

    To a lesser extent, the same thing can be said about surround sound vs. stereo, and also stereo vs. monaural. When you increase the channels available to a mixing engineer, you are increasing depth(not perceived, but actual) and resolution. Instead of merely volume, 1 dimensional panning(left to right), and texture of objects, the engineer has a 2-dimensional plane to create his mix. But why am I telling this to you? You already know all this; I should be typing this for that audiophile publication you didn’t link to.

    • I love surround and loved the new Star Wars in Atmos too. I actually choose the theater by whether they have Atmos or not.


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