Audio Etc. (May. 1987)

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A QUADMIRE OF SOUND


The problems with quadraphonic sound a dozen years ago-now it is known as surround sound were at least twofold, if not fourfold.

Last month I gave you, I hope, a sense of the engineering confusion that surrounded the whole four-channel episode and doomed it from the start.

Perhaps even more harmful, however, was the hopelessly muddled esthetic applied to the use of four channels of musical information. What were we to do with them? What did we do? Every thing, anything, from the sublime to the ridiculous. We never had time to think much about that side of it. Anyhow, we seldom did think.

There were indeed good ideas.

There usually are. But on the whole we simply improvised, or tried to do the spectacular in every zany way that might sell the extra channels. The collective results of all this, from the consumer point of view, were simply scatterbrained. We were charging off in 50 directions at once.

With no clear guiding convictions on the part of the producers, our publicity people were stranded, and proceeded to fly off in even more unlikely directions. They do need primary guidance, after all. I can still conjure up one of those quadraphonic ads, featuring a mass of orchestral players hanging languorously in space above a living-room couch, with Toscanini or some body at the (floating) helm and the listener looking up, in fascination. Or was it dismay? More likely that.

We certainly did not often get to hear the quadraphonic miracles we were expecting. Most consumers, disgusted with the technical complexities and the commercial bickering alike, just gave up the whole business and returned to solid stereo. Only a mini-minority of listeners, with alert ears and inquiring minds, kept going with four channels and hung on to the death-and far beyond. That was because they had managed to discover entirely on their own some of the things that multi-channel sound could indeed do for their own type of listening. I count myself among these people; I hung on, too.

My music is largely classical, but there were others in that persistent minority with quite different interests, and different personal discoveries.

Do not forget that multi-channel sound is an extension of the stereo principle. What we call stereo is simply the minimal plurality of channels. Nature's receptors, ears and eyes, have done astonishing things with that mini mal plurality of differentiation. We in audio are not quite as clever, and our minimum difference, between just two channels and generally "frontal" loud speaker sources, can in fact be refined and made more subtle with extra channels of information to round out the whole. Stokowski's "Fantasia" in 1949 had more than two, as did his even earlier live stereo transmission of the sound of an orchestra from a hall in Philadelphia to a hall in New York.

Why did stereo work out so well on discs and tapes, beginning in the '50s, whereas its refinement into four channels, variably discrete, was a bust? The answer is actually positive. In spite of the usual loud publicity and a great deal of silly hoopla about stereo (which misled many people into thinking it was just another gimmick, for double sales), we knew what we were doing with it. We had enough to go on long before two channels became technically possible on a mass commercial basis.

The stereo principle, a plurality of sound channels and a resulting directional potential, goes back to the 1930s and was actively explored in both En gland and America-note the experimental 45/45 stereo discs cut back in 1931 for Bell Labs. I heard the original "Fantasia" in its first run, and I was also subjected to numerous (taped) stereo demonstrations in the very early '50s by those who were then actively experimenting. True, stereo didn't work very well at the press demos (I wasn't sold on it for a long time), but this, I suspect, was mostly because of grossly unmatched response between the two channels, especially in the some what colorful-sounding loudspeakers of the day, which were not made to match anything. There was also the problem of phasing throughout the double audio chain-it was reversed just about 50% of the time, in spite of endless segment-by-segment phase checks. But all that was merely incidental. Information was being piled up, gathered, assimilated; soon the "biggies" began to take notice and do their own developing. My earliest commercial stereo was a shelf of two-track RCA stereo tapes, most of them is sued, I think, in 1955. The stereo LP came in 1958.

Moreover, for the stereo disc there was a comprehensive agreement on one disc system right at the beginning, so that all stereo discs since then have been interchangeable. Other tentative systems fell quickly by the wayside in the face of this agreement and the clearly superior results of the 45/45 system, both the sonic equality be tween its channels and the economy of a single groove. Thus, stereo was extremely well prepared and understood ahead of time, even if we had not heard much about it earlier on.

In contrast, stereo's extension into quadraphonic in the '70s was a mess. I do not know where the sudden impulse originated-that is, which large outfit first thought it saw Bigness and Sales ahead-but my guess is that the whole thing caught 95% of the industry un prepared. They never did catch up.

But then again, like the refrigerator whose hum you're conscious of only after it shuts off, the four-channel principle itself began to make better sense after quadraphonic was dead. In addition to that mini-minority of continuing listeners, there was a similar tiny but brilliant group of engineers who also did not quit, as things from their point of view were beginning to look a lot better. And then came digital-but let that rest. In any case, things have gone a long way in these dozen-odd years. Oppositely from two-channel stereo, multi-channel sound has now had a dozen years of "preparation," after the quadraphonic fact a dizzy way to prepare for anything, but useful nevertheless! Now we are at last set to go, after a fashion, as we certainly were not in the quadraphonic days.

You cannot, if you are young, imagine what it was like. There you were, an experienced and busy record producer or recordist. You had worked in the stereo medium for years and had mastered its esthetics from solo guitar to super-orchestra, for remarkably acceptable results when the home listener got around to your product in his living room or his car. And then suddenly, one day, a Big Boss phones down a message. Hey, start recording in double stereo. No, not next year, 10 minutes from now.

A slight exaggeration, but that was really how it was, if a bit slower by a few hairs. Recently I was on an AES panel chaired by Thomas Frost, long time and notable producer of classical recordings (mainly), who was in precisely this position in real life. Our pan el touched briefly on quadraphonics, and Mr. Frost, with a bit of tongue in his cheek, gave us a stunningly appropriate illustration of what was going on in the esthetics of the time. He had been assigned the job of supervising the re cording of a string quartet in four-channel sound, evidently at a somewhat early stage in the quadraphonic era.

Yes, there was a multi-track recorder.

There were lots of mikes (I am elaborating on Mr. Frost's quick account, at my own risk) and a place to record.

Also the members of the string quartet.

But what to do, and how? Well, in case of doubt, do what is simple and trust to logic. It so happened, Mr. Frost said, that the tape recorder was a four-track machine.

There were four players, and this was a quadraphonic recording. What could be more obvious? Put each of the four instruments on its own track, presumably with enough common ambience for a blend and an ensemble feeling.

So that is what he did. And that, of course, was the end of his job. Clever idea--you could "mix down" those four instruments by technical means in any configuration you wanted. But the obvious mix was to put one in each channel, as already recorded. In the home, that would mean an instrument more or less in each of the four speaker systems, perhaps one in each corner of the room. Wonderfully logical-four on four on four, all the way. I could almost see the Frost tongue inside the Frost cheek.

I imagine (and here I go on from Mr. Frost to my own speculations) that this recording pleased those in his company who were avid for a good, solid, well-separated (perhaps even discrete?) four-channel demo, and also a recording that would be dramatically different in home listening. This one would be, all right! The number four would extend right through into four amp channels and on into four speaker systems, with the most consummate logic. Could anything be simpler? So there you'd be, the listener, sitting in the center of your own listening area with four widely spaced stringed instruments surrounding you, probably one in each corner of the room, and the entire music turned precisely inside out! The Inverse Concert Hall, with The Obverse String Quartet playing in ward, toward the center, instead of out ward, toward the audience.

How zany can you get, I ask you, if you are considering the music itself, and the performance of the music for sound reproduction? It was a quadraphonic stunt; as far as the music-minded listener is concerned, the players could have been standing on their heads or maybe performing upside down on the ceiling. These tricks would be worthy of Paganini himself (who did worse), but do they really belong in serious music?

If you think I'm taking a special case, remember the much bigger quadraphonic recording under Boulez of Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra," done quite literally "in the round" at the actual recording session, with Boulez in the center, nearly breaking his neck trying to conduct all the musicians who surrounded him in the flesh. It was done that way precisely so that (it was hoped) you would be able to hear the music exactly the same way, inside out, in your own Inverse Concert Hall.

There must have been plenty more examples, others equally odd in different ways and, perhaps, equally unsuited to the actual sound we were to hear.

Everybody improvised and in a dreadful hurry, all too often without a sensible thought as to the most appropriate use of the new medium. We never got beyond the sensational, the demo disc, into a more mature and reason able-and hence a widely satisfying application of multi-channel sound.

This was true not only for classical music but also for pop and jazz, which could have had more tricks than most quadraphonic releases brought forth.

They were curiously conservative, as I recollect it.

I am not, I hope, being stuffy. It isn't easy to apply optimum good taste to a brand-new medium, especially where, as in classical works, hundreds of years of live-performance tradition must be somehow accommodated. Of course we must adapt in any type of recording, including plain stereo. A re corded reproduction is never the same as a live performance, even if miked "live." But we do this, necessarily, with in a historical context and within the traditions, whenever these apply. Sonic experiments can be heady and exciting but they are ephemeral if merely stunts.

So quadraphonic flopped for good reasons: Too many competing systems, unpleasant fights over them, failure to deliver the advertised engineering, both in terms of sonic fidelity and the supposed directionality. Worst of all, there was a hopelessly confused and jumbled esthetic, for every sort of music. But the idea of an extended surround stereo, or a differentiation of all-around point sources, will not die, because it is, very simply, a good idea.

Potentially. We shall see.

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

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