For most of our lives, stereo has been the primary way to reproduce the music we consume. Immersive audio systems like surround sound have been around for decades, but immersive audio content is rare outside of TV and film.
But perhaps that’s not surprising: to reproduce and above all to create immersive audio content is very clunky.
Fortunately, things are starting to change. Immersive audio is finally becoming accessible to the mainstream thanks to big name manufacturers like Apple building spatial audio directly into their headphones. Even setting up spatial audio speaker systems has become a cinch thanks to wireless speaker manufacturers like Sonos adopting the format.
The spatial audio trend shows no signs of slowing down, but widespread adoption requires a smaller learning curve (and lower prices) for creators.
French audio company L-Acoustics hopes to deliver just that with L-ISA Studio, an application and plug-in for mixing immersive audio on both speakers and headphones. L-ISA Studio is even free for creators who make music for headphones (a full license costs €29 per month or €290 per year), making it an accessible option for creators getting started with spatial audio.
I spoke to Guillaume Le Nost, Managing Director at L-Acoustics, about why making spatial audio mainstream is so important. After all, L-Acoustics wasn’t always aimed at everyday creators. The company’s background is primarily in live audio, creating the software and hardware for concert halls and other auditory experiences. But after decades of making professional speakers and working in stereo, the company realized it was time to change course.
“Now we are reaching a stage where anyone can provide good quality loudspeakers and this knowledge has spread across the industry,” says Le Nost. “It’s no longer about the quality of the speakers, it’s more about the system approach.”
Simple two-channel systems have survived in home listening rooms and small halls because the distances are not great. But when you’re talking about a huge concert stage where the left and right speaker arrays can be more than 35 meters apart, there can be a separation between what the speaker is and what you see on stage, according to Le Nost.
To overcome this problem, the company began implementing more creative spatial solutions, starting with a soundbar-like array of speakers above the stage that would allow for more accurate localization. Soon it would start adding surround and in-seat speakers. L-Acoustics’ spatial audio solutions ultimately allowed it to deploy speakers “according to the creativity of the show or artist and create a near-full 3D experience.”
But the company wanted these experiences to extend beyond live venues and mixing technicians. “The mixing engineers only do what the artists ask of them,” says Le Nost.
“We also wanted to reach the creative minds” such as music producers and composers. “Once you start telling stories about spatial audio and the way you could make your art heard differently, it resonates in a lot of brains.” Shortly after trying spatial audio solutions like L-ISA, creators would “hear completely different things in their music” and take on a new creative dimension by placing instruments in space and telling the stories they want to tell.
Sure, for centuries people have touted the benefits of surround sound and other immersive audio systems, but the difference is that now anyone with a pair of AirPods — or a host of other headphones — can now listen to spatial audio anywhere. And as VR and AR become more mainstream – Apple and Google both reportedly have headsets on the way – it’s clear that spatial audio has an enduring role.
Traditionalists may scoff at this new direction, as simple 2.0 stereo has been thriving for so long. But the science seems pretty clear: studies have consistently shown that people tend to prefer music in immersive formats over stereo.
Until now, Le Nost made the distinction between being able to localize sounds with a stereo setup and being submerged in a spatial audio setup. “Immersion is that general feeling of being the sound scene and not just before it.” Spatial audio does offer localization, but by emulating the reflections present in a multitude of environments, spatial audio has the power to transport you to a sound scene as well.
Listening to a symphony through stereo speakers, even very good ones, is a bit like trying to cram an orchestra into your living room. In the case of traditional headphones, it’s like stuffing an orchestra between your ears.
Spatial audio, on the other hand, lets you close your eyes and imagine that you are actually with the philharmonic orchestra. As Le Nost puts it, “possessions will not be in your head, but around you…. it’s not normal for the sound to be in your head – I mean, nobody can be in your head.” With L-ISA Studio, creators can even use head trackers to trap sonic objects in the space around them, rather than of rotating their heads.
Granted, nothing beats live music, but spatial audio can get you really close. In some cases, it can create a spatial presentation that is not physically possible.
The power to create such experiences in the hands of everyday creators could change music as we know it. L-ISA Studio is only one piece of the puzzle, but one thing is clear: it’s time for stereo to retire – or at least take on an emeritus title.