You’ve just been to a gig. It was amazing.
You were enveloped by sound. It was mainly coming from in front of you (apart from when you were crowd-surfing), but it was also reflecting off the ceiling; the floor; the walls; other people in the hall. The sound came directly from the instruments on the stage, and also from the PA system flanking it from floor to rafters.
You moved around, jostling for the best view of the stage – and others moved around you. They made noise too, and sometimes it was just as loud as the band. You went to the bar at the back, and you finished the gig right up against the barrier at the front. You could hear the singer’s physical voice when he sang the chorus at you, kneeling at the lip of the stage.
Then you bought the CD of that gig’s live performance. You put it on, expecting those memories to come back… but it’s all a little flat.
Something about the atmosphere – that hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling – is missing. Two speakers. One direction for the sound to travel. Sure, it’ll reflect off your living-room floor, and the walls, and be absorbed by the sofa and the cat, but it just doesn’t surround you like it did when you were there, even when you crank it.
A new way to listen
Sennheiser knows this, which is why, for the past ten years, it's been working on AMBEO 3D audio technology that aims to get you as close as possible to that visceral, being-there feeling.
Ask for the technical definition and you're told AMBEO is a technology programme spanning the recording, mixing, processing and reproduction of sound. Ask someone who's listened to it and you're met with puffed-out cheeks, raised eyebrows and words like 'immersive, '3D', 'involving', 'natural', 'real'.
"The objective is to use 3D recording to translate the emotional impact of sound into reality; just as if listeners were to experience those feelings directly," says Andreas Sennheiser who, along with his brother Daniel, steers the company ship.
"It's the perfect representation of reality in the audio spectrum," he says. "It's a journey for us with artists and with our engineers to break down that perceptive barrier between what's reality and what's just reproduction."
More than regular surround-sound
AMBEO is a method of reproducing surround sound that takes the concept to literal new heights. It’s a 5.1 system on the bottom, and Sennheiser has added four speakers on top.
In regular 5.1, there’s usually have a ‘hole’ between front and back – an audio blackspot where our ears can’t produce a virtual source. And, crucially, it’s in a flat plane.
In 9.1-channel 3D audio you get signals from all the speakers (including the four which are higher on the walls), and these signals are partially correlated to each other. If they’re correlated, our brain packs them all together and makes a room out of it. It recreates the natural space that we experience in live sound – hence the term ‘immersive audio’.
Importantly, there’s no sweet spot – which gives the technology a huge advantage over stereo. You don’t need to be sitting in one corner of the traditional hi-fi triangle.
“Right now you need a 9.1 speaker set-up – which you can already buy,” says Daniel Sennheiser. “And we’re working on really bringing it to your living room either in a simple speaker set-up or by headphones. Those are the two delivery systems, but at the same time we’re working on creation; you need to have content that makes sense as well.”
We all know what happens when artists and producers are given a new box of toys...
“We’re working with a lot of sound engineers because they’re producing the work, and they need to understand it first. We’re working with very well-known artists,” says Andreas.
“From our point of view, what needs our ingenuity isn’t just to make [sonic] space, but to give you the perfect 3D listening experience. And that’s more on the algorithmic side, where we’ve researched for the past eight to 10 years already.”
But AMBEO isn’t just limited to music, says Daniel. Sennheiser is also looking at gaming, virtual reality, sport, and more. “Sports. Imagine that you could choose whether you want to sit in your camp, or the adversary camp; whether you want to be in the game or whether you want to be outside just behind the coach.”
And when it comes to VR, the company is looking at head-tracking and associated tech – so you can truly be immersed in games and virtual worlds.
“For gaming,” Andreas says, “the interesting part is that mixing in a 3D audio format already has some kind of tradition, because almost every sound is generated either artificially or put on a track. You can put it anywhere you want.
“Our ambition is to define a standard of how to best mix such 3D environments. It changes the game a bit because you go from mixing, rendering the file and then saving the mix on a device and playing it back. But now, with all these possibilities, you can mix it, prepare it and then render it on the fly as it’s being listened to.”
The night before this interview took place during the Art Basel show in Switzerland – where Sennheiser was showcasing AMBEO 3D audio tech in its demo room and at a special live show performed by DJ Robin Schulz – we met into the Sennheiser co-CEOs at the soundcheck. And we ended up in an impromptu ideas whirlwind about the possibilities AMBEO could bring to live performances.
We floated the notion of a guitarist, say, being able to send their sound all around an auditorium using a foot-pedal, or by moving the instrument itself, or by reacting to the crowd in some other physical way.
“That’s the beauty of just kicking around ideas with people,” says Andreas the next day. “That suddenly, like yesterday, we’re standing together and then this idea surfaces… maybe someone will develop a device that does exactly that.
“It shows you a glimpse of the power we have with AMBEO 3D audio because you create so many new ideas and applications. So many creative people in the industry can pick them up and use them – and we just need to make sure that, in the end, it all comes together and we’re here to serve those creative ideas.”
The future is immersive
“We deliberately wanted to offer solutions to everyone who has a huge collection of CDs, which is in plain stereo,” Andreas says. “There we have an upmix algorithm that lets you take stereo content and mix it up to a 9.1 system. Our knowledge of how we perceive spatial sound is the basis of that algorithm.
“It’s not the same as if you do a genuine 3D recording and listen to it in 9.1, but it’s already a different experience than if you just listen to plain stereo.”
We later went into the demo room to experience just that – an upmixed stereo recording, and Imogen Heap’s London performance, recorded in a 9.1 format. You can read about our experience with AMBEO in the third of our three features. To find out more from the people who create the music itself, click over to feature number two.
What’s plain is that AMBEO isn’t a gimmick. Artists, engineers and other professional audio-makers are all over it – there will even be a special VR microphone to help them along their way – and you’re going to hear some entirely unique content over the coming year or two. That’s something to be excited about.