Spatial audio has been taking the world by storm over the past few years. Big brands and companies like Apple are investing heavily into spatial audio and see the new technology as being the future of music.
But as with any industry buzzword, there are many questions around what exactly spatial audio is and how it can affect not only the music industry professionals, but the average consumer as well.
We wanted to challenge the skepticism, dive into the details, and find out the real reasons if and why we should care about spatial audio. To do so, we sat down with two people; one is a professional recording artist and the other works on the technology side, for an innovative manufacturer
Throughout the following interview, Dennis White (aka Latroit) will be offering an artistic perspective on the merits of spatial audio. Latroit is a Grammy-winning producer with 100 million streams and over 20 top Billboard club tracks. Long story short, he knows his audio and will be able to shine some light on what other artists might be missing when it comes to this format.
From the tech side of things, we sat down with Guillaume Le Nost who is the Executive Director of Creative Technologies at L-Acoustics. Guillaume is an expert on creative technologies and live sound who has built his entire career pushing the boundaries of what is possible with live acoustics. Oh, and he's also a keen flute and bass player.
Let's dive into what these two experts have to say about spatial audio.
What do industry outsiders not understand about this seemingly revolutionary technology?
Guillaume Le Nost
Spatial Audio is still relatively complex to explain to industry outsiders.
It is not easy to share on social media, unlike pictures or videos. But the recent moves by major consumer electronics players such as Apple with Spatial Audio on all their devices, as well as head-tracking on their headphones, is changing this.
Headphones are a great way to democratize the concept, and the quality of spatial audio rendering over headphones will continue to improve over the next two to four years. A big shift will be the mainstream availability of spatial audio in cars, and most manufacturers are working on this now. It will surely be an amazing experience.
Meanwhile, artists are starting to realize that spatial audio provides new creative possibilities — I am expecting that more of them will embrace the format from the stems production stage rather than just at the mixing stage.
I think it’s because it is a somewhat discrete technology that many of us experience already, without necessarily tuning in to the fact that is happening.
For instance, you go see a movie, and spatial audio is happening to one degree or another. The majority of the audience is necessarily aware that it’s happening — it’s just the way it is. In Apple Music, you’ll automatically hear available spatial mixes if you have your preferences set to ‘Dolby Atmos always on’.
These are the two environments that spatial audio is most likely to be heard, and they require almost nothing from the listener to experience it.
How do you think spatial audio will affect the electronic music industry in the next 5 years?
Guillaume Le Nost
The electronic music industry seems very attached to the concepts of avatars, virtual performances, VR and AR. Spatial audio is a key component for all of these examples. For instance, spatial audio is native in all VR headsets.
There is certainly a lot of potential there, but ultimately it's going to require marquee artists and festivals to take the initiative to install, apply and execute spatial audio shows and events… like what Hervé Déjardin does with Molecule… a proper live spatial audio experience requires a lot of forethought at all levels.
What is the best way for the average consumer to take full advantage of all that spatial audio has to offer?
Guillaume Le Nost
At the moment, the average consumer can experience spatial audio over headphones, and I would recommend a system with head-tracking (Apple airpods + iPhone + Apple Music). Any decent TV soundbar or AV receiver can also decode spatial audio music.
The main music services offering spatial audio are Apple Music, Amazon, Tidal and Deezer. I would move away from smart “pod” speakers claiming to provide spatial audio, since the experience can be underwhelming. Also, the average consumer can experience spatial audio in movie theatres and in more and more live shows.
For instance, look for “L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound”.
For music, listening to spatial audio mixes on Apple Music on a great set of headphones is a quick and easy way to do that. Having said that, not all spatial mixes are created equally. I find some to be a conspicuous improvement to the original stereo mix (for instance, Elton John ‘Rocket Man’, Bill Withers ‘Just The Two Of Us’, and anything from Pink Floyd…), while many others feel like they were just sort of phoned in to tick the ‘spatial’ box on a corporate administrative level.
As I learned from my L-ISA sessions at L-Acoustics, spatial mixing is a real art form and with so many additional mixing choices available, its easy to get it wrong.
For film, it’s easy: just find a proper Dolby Atmos certified movie theater in your area.
Who is spatial audio designed for?
Guillaume Le Nost
Spatial audio is used in the movie industry mostly for the ambiances and the special FX (like your favorite helicopter flyover). Consumers like it because of the “wow-effect” and immersion it can provide. Music producers can use spatial audio to express their music in entirely new ways.
For example, we have worked with Brian Eno for a project at the Serpentine Gallery, and listening to his compositions in spatial audio made him add specific stems, as “there was space” !
I heard the same story for the recent ABBA Voyage (with L-ISA sound) show where Benny from the band had a similar reaction. For the consumer, it is simply a more natural, compelling experience — which can be at the same time more intimate and more immersive.
Spatial audio is for everyone, really.
In addition to the obvious sonic enhancements it offers greater width and depth to a listening experience. Also, there is a lot that can be done in spatial audio to enhance the story telling and narrative aspects of a recording.
This is the primary value that spatial audio has to offer the world’s leading movie sound designers, and its exciting to hear some artists and producers imparting this benefit of the technology to music production.
Where should people listen to experience the full potential of spatial audio?
Guillaume Le Nost
In general, spatial audio is more convincing on a 3D speaker system, so look for the L-ISA sign on the venue when selecting your next concert.
Honestly, in the natural world.
Go anywhere (safe) and take a moment to close your eyes and listen to everything around you. Where is the sound? How far away is it? What about the sound is indicating your proximity to its source? It can be a pretty compelling meditative process.
When we come to appreciate the nature of sound around us in the natural world, we can appreciate it more when it is simulated by technology