Audio Etc. (Apr. 1987)

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SURROUNDED ON ALL SIDES


It begins to look as though we are going to be surrounded again.

That's what some hot new developments, including Dolby Surround, say to me. This Dolby is for surround sound in the home, with or maybe even with out the boob tube. I'll have to take another look at Dolby, but first....

A dog's age ago, an indignant reader wrote to us to say that I had "failed"--the classic term of political rhetoric-because I had fallen for an audio dead duck called quadraphonic.

Yes, that duck was dead, all right, and I had indeed been enthusing. But I did not fail! I merely put the whole thing aside for better times.

Matter of fact, at about the time quadraphonic sank to the bottom, I proceeded to upgrade my home sys tem from merely four to six channels, thanks to some handy new developments in digital delay that I could add to what I already had. I used that six-channel system, with minor modifications, until a few months ago.

The whole ill-fated quadraphonic movement, too soon and too confused seemed destined from its start to bog down in a welter of petty warfare and overzealous claims by competing commercial interests, until the differences between incompatible Systems A, B, C, and more were exaggerated beyond any compromise. The producers of consumer audio are not pleased when things go wrong in this dismal way. The easiest thing is to pretend the whole business didn't ever happen.

And so four-channel audio suddenly de-happened. Within months you would not have known that it had ever existed.

I could give you a list pages long of other formidable non-happenings in the audio and video fields which "never existed" to the tune of millions of bucks. I've been close to a few of them which now seem almost like dreams. I suspect that historians looking into these dreams will find the going rather difficult, especially if they consult the companies involved. No comment? Probably. In most cases, that is just as well; in their original form, none of these great projects is likely to return.

And yet we have to keep in mind that almost always there is a residue, a latency, a potential, which those who are reasonably objective can't quite forget. In all due time, might we not be able to try again, with better guidance, newer technology, and of course new names? The old names are tainted.

It's like the Maxwell. Of course, you don't remember the Maxwell. It was a car of the very early '20s, and it had problems so serious that there was a crisis (we would say a recall) which involved major rebuilding of the production vehicle before it was salable.

So Maxwell sold out-to a man named Chrysler. Mr. C. had ideas and he saw potential. He "beefed up the frames" of the Maxwells, and proceeded to rid himself of this annoying backlog of cars at a sometime profit and with no serious complaints. And then there was the Chrysler, with innovations like four-wheel brakes, built, so to speak, on the remains of the Maxwell.

New ideas, left behind! In every case they must wait, first for the negative impact to go away and second for technology to develop--under a new name--and for market interest to rekindle. Walter P. Chrysler moved fast; his competition was mainly the ancient Model T, and he wasn't responsible for the Maxwell, after all. But the bigger the fiasco, in most cases, the longer the wait. Quadraphonic was a mess and left a very bad taste in a lot of mouths. Its special residue had to lie low for years, until it could carefully sneak back, sidewise-not to the scene of the disaster, consumer audio, but in the movies, of all things. And thence to video. And thence? Where else but home again! As Dolby Surround makes practical.

At the time quadraphonic began never to have happened, I was at last beginning to understand how much surround sound could do for my own home listening. This took a long time because of all those years of high flying industry hyperbole, both from public relations gone rampant and, alas, also from the technicians, the engineers, who became so emotionally involved in their various points of view that normal scientific objectivity simply faded into passionate jargon. Or so it seemed to those who were merely hopeful listeners-and buyers. Re member that this furor was aimed at what had to be in the end an artistic and musical impact. Most of us thought we had some idea of what music listening should be. Did these engineers? The hotter the fight became, the heavier the math, as we on the outside tried to untangle the arguments. We were deluged with king-size geometry all the way 'round the listening room:

Sines, cosines, tangents, circular degrees in minuscule increments (do you bother about angular degrees at a live concert?), not to mention LF, RR, carriers, quadrature, and more. It was be wildering, and notably to the press, which had to absorb and supposedly pass judgment-as if we could! What bothered me most was a fundamental axiom in engineering, that math isn't supposed to contradict it self. It is truth, it is the ultimate in reasoning, yet here was the algebraic battle of the century. We could take the advertising with some benevolence, but all that heated math was really something else.

Don't think this is an anti-math crusade-far from it. Like the typewriter, the word processor and the ruler, math in engineering terms is a universal tool, and no artist or literateur, including this one, has any business running it down.

It was the way that this tool was entangled in personalities, in corporate pressures, in unseemly public de bates, that was distressing. And rather confusing.

I once sat next to Ben Bauer (inventor of SQ) at an AES meeting at the height of the big fights between him and, I think, Michael Gerzon from England (inventor of the Ambisonic sound system and of a subset of Ambisonics called UHJ). They got into a verbal and blackboard battle that might have been Iwo Jima or Trafalgar or the Battle of Marathon, except every bit of it was in mathematical symbols.

Gerzon, if it was he, was up front and sputtering. Bauer, sitting next to me in the audience, was seething. He kept rising up to "respond" to Gerzon, and Gerzon departed from his prepared exposition to "respond" to him. Normally a genial and friendly soul, this time Bauer kept up a hoarse muttering next to me, "He's wrong! That's not true!!" The large audience between these two was decidedly unhappy, more shocked by the passion than edified by the arguments. We could ad mire the fluency with which both spoke the language of math like a mother tongue, but it was a regrettable occasion even so, and, I think, the beginning of the end. Things could go no further with quadraphonic.

We cannot blame either of these brilliant men, looking back, for that intensity, nor were their mathematics so dismally far apart, as I think we might admit today. Just two different concepts as to what musical effects were desirable in our living rooms. And the argument was but the visible portion of that ugly fight between corporations big and small-inevitably reflected at the individual level-which had led to rigidity, ruthlessness, the impossibility of any rational compromise. How could it be otherwise, if you had the brains and the responsibility-and you cared? Many another confrontation took place, of course, but most were safely in front offices, behind closed doors.

We only knew of the catastrophic results. I remember, earlier on, the quiet enthusiasm of the quadraphonic team at Electro-Voice out in Michigan, who gave me a whole day's thoughtful ex position of their "matrix" system down to the last technical detail. That left me bemused; I could appreciate the sound but would never dare judge the musical results purely by looking at the formulas! Yet I felt strongly that there was commitment here and reason, too.

It was a good development, if moderately different from other similar good developments.

As you can guess, I later discovered that this day in my life had never happened. There was no E-V matrix. The team did not exist. No point casting blame in any direction. These are the things that went on in those unpleasant times.

Oh yes (just to show you I am aiming to be objective)-there was, maybe, Acoustic Research. Or was there? Memory tells me that the very first press demo I ever heard of any type of four-channel sound was put on by AR.

Whoever did it, I remember that demo as one of the finest ever, simply in terms of showing us what surround sound could do to enhance the experience of listening to recorded music.

That event was produced long before the quadraphonic discs; they used specially made tapes. Well, it now seems that this memorable experience of mine also never happened. It sticks in the memory, even so.

I do think that today, with our vast wealth of new technology (both audio and video) in digital techniques, optical circuitry and computer analysis with abundant chips (a fatal lack in the old quadraphonic-they came too late), and with a very much wider variety of audio/video/film entertainment, we are a lot nearer to a consensus on how we can use surround sound for each type of entertainment. Which is what really matters. We didn't know what we wanted from quadraphonic! We were way off base in the listening itself, in just about every area. Did we really want a musical "theater in the round," with things coming at us from every point on the compass? (Not, surely, in a Mozart or Beethoven symphony!) Or did we want primarily surround ambience, the music in front of our ears, the feeling of the "hall" realistically behind us? And where did pop and jazz and rock come in? We did not remotely agree.

I know for a certainty that this time around we can do all that deciding with much less fuss and a lot more listener interest. The listener knows more, too. For once, we can bless the movies and video for bringing surround to millions on an impressive scale-bigger than anything in audio by itself. And we can hope that the trickle-down, from giant movies to littler movies, to videocassettes and even to ordinary day-to-day TV (where surround sound is virtually useless-who needs it?) will in the end benefit our own smallish corner of the entertainment world, audio for the consumer's personal use, minus pictures.

At that point, you see, we are back to the beginning where quadraphonic started. Do you think that Dolby Surround for the home is much different from the fought-over "matrix" systems of a decade and more back? Scarcely different at all, except in its provenance, its immediate origin, which is, providentially, big-time movie sound.

Dolby Surround depends on the same basic patents as the former SQ and all its relatives, licensed then as now from the work of Peter Scheiber, who is still in the thick of it all. Please note well that Scheiber, the technological grand daddy (at a young age) of so much in surround sound, was and is a trained musician. We are still dealing very largely with the reproduction of music.

And note also that Ray Dolby is almost awesomely respected for having an in credible finger on the audio pulse and a sense of timing that has made him an engineering winner time and again, as anybody knows. So--keep watching for developments.

Whoa--do I hear somebody out there preparing to do battle with the Dolby camp? Has the war already be gun? Of course. But it isn't very big yet.

Plenty of time for everybody to bargain a bit, for us to be reasonable and elastic, including Dolby, until things sort themselves out. There's room. There's space for bargaining. Ask Peter Scheiber.

(by: EDWARD TATNALL CANBY ; adapted from Audio magazine, Apr. 1987)

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