After submitting last month’s column, my esteemed editor at Mix wrote, “I think it’s good that we have an immersive doubter in our pages. It helps to counter my optimism.”
Well, I’m definitely a doubter about placing so much emphasis on remixing music that, at least in my opinion, often doesn’t benefit from remixing—but when it comes to creating music with immersive mixes, I’m all in. Although the difference is arguably not as significant as the mono-to-stereo shift, immersive audio brings an immediacy to sound that goes beyond stereo. The first time I moved the guitarist closer to the listener when playing a solo, and further back when playing rhythm, was intoxicating.
Speaking of lead vocals, having the vocal “in your face” for intimate parts and integrated more with the band for other parts is huge. Immersive audio isn’t just about raising or lowering levels. With a stereo mix, creating the kind of locational effects that Dolby Atmos does in seconds took a lot of editing with automation, filtering, delay and level.
So, I’m a fan of immersive when mixing new music. The sound is sweet, even when rendered in binaural for headphones. Although remixing is time-consuming, it’s fun and rewarding.
But…now what? That’s when the doubts kick in.
Lately, when visiting people, I’ve thought about whether they could install a surround system where they listen to music. Aside from a family that ripped apart an upstairs room to create a home theater, it’s not looking good. Many people don’t even have a traditional home music system. There might be soundbars for their smart TVs, but a lot of them listen to music on computer speakers, a car’s audio system or Bluetooth earbuds from a smartphone.
The downgrading of the musical experience across all levels has taken its toll. When an iPod, earbuds and thousands of MP3 files at 128 kbps defined listening to music, quality sound turned a corner and never recovered. No wonder executives refer to “consuming” music, not “listening” to it. Welcome to a world where music is in the same category as fast food.
The industry’s dream is that immersive sound will reverse the downward slide that Napster and the iPod started. Once consumers are exposed to this transcendently glorious new sound, they won’t be able to resist buying a fabulous new system for listening to all that immersive music they can’t wait to stream.
Let’s assume that’s not an unrealistic pipe dream. Then, the problem becomes how to transition from stereo to immersive. We went through something similar when vinyl records transitioned from mono to stereo. The first stereo records appeared in the late ’50s, but weren’t widely available until the 1960s, and mono wasn’t phased out until the early 1970s. Both formats coexisted for years before stereo became the undisputed norm.
However, there’s a difference with immersive. Going from a mono or stereo system was relatively simple, because turntables, amplifiers and speakers were universal. Immersive doesn’t behave the same way. A stereo system isn’t sufficient; you need to add to it, or settle for experiencing surround on headphones. Sure, binaural rendering for headphones is good, but how many people have truly high-quality headphones—and how does that impact social listening when you’re all isolated from each other? Transitioning to a surround system is a commitment. Essentially, where you listen to music needs to become a home theater environment. It’s not a trivial makeover. (Just be careful that the first time you fire up a subwoofer, the person living next door in your townhouse doesn’t have aggression issues. Just sayin.’) Creating immersive content isn’t enough; we have to figure out how to handle the transition.
Apple’s answer is to offer two versions: lossless compressed stereo, and spatial multichannel (which isn’t always an improvement). Although Apple is putting its thumb on the spatial side of the scale, it’s following the mono-to-stereo transition model.
What about the independents who post music online, or music videos on YouTube? Do they stick with stereo? Perhaps take the Apple approach, and mix both stereo and binaural-rendered versions—then caution that the immersive version is headphones-only? Mix only immersive (assuming they have the tools to create immersive mixes), and assume any playback system can downmix properly to stereo? YouTube “sort of” supports multichannel surround, but it’s limited, and your visual content has to be in a 360 visual or VR format. Besides, who has the capability to play it back? And if your website can host a surround file, which format do you choose—and how many people even care about a downloadable 5.1 or 7.2 multichannel file? Zooming out, I see immersive audio as yet another facet of the ongoing, and accelerating, stratification of society into haves and have-nots—but that’s another issue for another time. For now, my strategy is to mix my music in stereo, then do an immersive remix and render it binaurally for my own listening enjoyment. I’ll post both versions, see which gets the most clicks, and act accordingly.
At least that’s my plan for now. If anyone has a better idea, I’m all ears—5.1 ears, to be precise.