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What Spatial Audio Can and Can’t Do for Classical Music

Recent Developments in Spatial Audio – Mixing old and new albums For immersive formats – has made news in the world of pop.

Given the right production process (in the studio) and technical setup (at home), the headphone sound no longer needs to be pressed so steadily to each ear; Instead, they may appear to circle around your head or point down the back of your neck.

Or just take a fresh breath. Whether you’re focusing on a stray slide-guitar accent in Taylor Swift’s Dolby Atmos mix “Mine (Taylor’s Version)” or appreciating the serrated details of brass-arrangement filigree in Frank Zappa’s vintage “Big Swifty,” The idea is to bring the souped-up, three-dimensional experience of large-speaker arrays to your ears.

But classical music was there decades ago. Both Deutsche Grammophon and the Philips label experimented with “quadraphonic” – or four-channel releases – in the 1970s, more recently, binaural recording and mixing, designed to simulate the 3-D experience that has been enjoyable. Now, however, these and other spatial-production practices are enjoying deep corporate investment, including head-tracking technology as a feature of Apple’s latest Beats headphones. (When you move your head while wearing these — with the tracking option enabled — the soundpoints stay fixed in your 360-degree field of view, even as you move around.)

Head-tracking seemed largely pointless to me – even distracting – until I tried it out with the new archival recording “Evenings at the Village Gate” featuring John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.

Hearing Dolphy’s bass clarinet in front of my face – standing still in a way, even as I shook my head in wonder at his playing – I had the fleeting feeling that I was sharing space with the legend. A neat move, but no more important than Dolphy or Coltrane playing on their own terms.

At the time the recording was made, classical composers were bringing spatial concepts into their compositional practice. Even before the relatively simple technology of two-channel stereo sound became standard in every home, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others were using more complex mixes for works involving electronics or taped elements.

Stockhausen is one of the reasons cultural characters on the cover Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: the composer’s 1956 works, such as “Gesang der Jungling”, used a five-speaker mix (including one on the roof, It made a lasting impression on Paul McCartney, who once described “Gesang” as his favourite. “Plic-Plop” piece by Stockhausen,

Now, even more traditional corners of the classical music world are getting into spatial audio.

Leading conductors in the orchestral world – including Riccardo Muti and Esa-Pekka Salonen – have personally approved spatial audio mixes of their recent recordings, which have been released on Apple Music and its stand-alone classical streaming app Are. And, as with other genres, Apple has put together a playlist of spatial remixes.

The regular players in the classical music ensemble meanwhile ply their trade: members of SWR ExperimentalStudio were at the Time Span Festival in New York this month, Surround-sound work by Italian modernist Luigi Nono, and American musician-saxophonist Anthony Braxton came up with a new surround-sound concept, “Thunder Music,” For Darmstadt Summer Course in Germany.

Those live performances were great. On recording it’s a different story: After listening to a variety of Dolby Atmos mixes recently, I realized that classical music’s more mainstream slate of spatial offerings is in the works.

was somewhere in the middle sound field, a spatial audio concept realized by Stockhausen at New York’s Shed this summer. Its 124-speaker setup accommodated approximately 200 listeners at a time. In early July, I listened to a new mix of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” that was plagued with muddy bass frequencies. It also, unfortunately, stripped the work of its sculpted, minimalist grace; Instead of following the bass clarinet’s lines, you just guessed they were there. The sense of drama was gone.

Similarly, some of the selections you can find in Apple Music’s “Classical in Spatial Audio” playlists seem poorly selected for the format. Recording an intense solo work like Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” isn’t really demanding spatial treatment. But when it gets one – as in this otherwise pleasant recording by Fazil Sai – it feels like its buzzing levels have shot up to the skies. It’s more distracting than running. Such outlandish mixes are also a poor advertisement for what Dolby Atmos can provide when applied to the right repertoire.

For a contrast, look at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recent album “Contemporary American Composers,” an early work by Jesse Montgomery, “Hymn for Everyone.” That track is pretty catchy in its regular stereo mix; Even as its singable opening motif is passed between sections, taking on new timbral hues, it never loses its open-hearted sense of invitation. In the Dolby Atmos mix on Apple Music, that enveloping effect deepens. The space between the bowed strings, brass and percussion is wider. A centrally mixed pizza line plays an even more dramatic, bridging role.

The orchestra’s audio engineer, Charlie Post, said in an interview that “contemporary music seems particularly well suited to this.” And he explained how, since joining the Chicago Symphony in 2014, he has been “future-proofing” sessions by recording with more microphones than necessary for radio broadcasts or archival purposes. Now, when a format like Dolby Atmos comes into play, the group is prepared for each performance with a robust audio-capture program—think of it as a highly detailed orchestral data set.

After working with producer David Frost and spatial-mixing specialist Silas Brown, Post needed to get a sign-off from Ricardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony. Post recalled that when the conductor, wearing Sennheiser headphones, heard a binaural rendition of the 2018 album “Italian Masterworks”, he considered himself impressed – and gave the group’s spatial-audio team his blessing to do more in this area. .

Post said, “He thought it was more comprehensive and enjoyable for him.” “So that was a great thumbs up to get it.”

At the San Francisco Symphony, Salonen has been equally enthusiastic and even more insightful with the engineers when planning upcoming performances and releases.

“We have a very, very good team, so she doesn’t have to be a mother any more,” he said in a video interview. “But I’m fascinated by the process itself, because it’s a new type of mix. When you place the sound objects in 360 space, it becomes like a superfun computer game – so much fun. And there are some musical artistic advantages that are not ostentatious. It doesn’t have to be technology for technology’s sake; It may have some expressive purpose.”

This is very evident in Salonen’s recent San Francisco recordings of Gyorgy Ligeti’s music, many of which now exist as Dolby Atmos-enabled singles. (An article on Ligeti’s “Lux Eterna”, famously used by Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, is also available on YouTube in a binaural, headphone-optimized version.)

In Ligeti’s “Remifications”—a piece that required separate orchestral groups to play in microtonally different tunings—the Dolby Atmos mix makes a peculiar difference. Terrible, branching chords are easier to detect and appreciate, which are spread over a wide soundstage; There is refreshing strength in the chattering climax.

Salonen, who as both a conductor and composer has been interested in blending the technology with traditional orchestras, wondered which Dolby Atmos recordings he would like to see. Thinking of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jungling”, he exclaimed, “I’ll buy it!”

In an email, Stockhausen’s longtime partner and collaborator, Kathinka Pasweer, said that there were no plans to remix the Stockhausen Verlag catalogue. The market is very small at the moment, he said.

Apple’s market share could change that. But now, there are other distributors of state-of-the-art spatial audio creations.

Musician Natasha Barrett Recent album “Leap Seconds” – perhaps the most vivid spatial-audio work I’ve seen in the past decade – comes with a headphone-only binaural mix upon purchase from the sargasso label, and British label all that dust Releasing binaural mixes of the albums on his Bandcamp page.

The best spatial audio purchase I made this year was all that dust download Stockhausen’s “contacts” for piano, percussion and electronic sounds. It may not be as newsworthy as the latest buzzy technology, but it’s not quite as expensive either.

The week I visited The Shed, tickets to the Reach show started at $46 for a concert that was a one-hour playback session. But my “contact” recording was somewhat of a fix: only £5 ($6.37). With that binaural release and releases like it, you don’t have to deal with Apple’s promoted tools. Anyone with solid over-ear headphones — such as the Sennheiser line used by Muti in Chicago — can experience this magic.

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