February 05, 2010

Article: Surround Sound, But Where is it Coming From?

Over the past few years we have seen technology in the visual realm evolve so rapidly that now some of the big producers are boasting they can now make 3D TV even without making you wear glasses that make you look like Brains from Thunderbirds. But with each new cinematic home entertainment system that comes out, one underlaying factor is always there which always makes the viewer feel one step closer to feeling the environment they are viewing, and that is the surround sound system!

The surround sound system is what ultimately intensifies the whole viewing experience, so much so, that you can feel the vibration from every explosion in your favorite action movie, hear every war cry and stab wound in epic battle scenes, put you infront of 64,000 screaming football fans at a stadium, or totally bewilder you in an environment you have never been to, like the heart of an Amazon rainforest, pulsating with life and with exotic creatures calling you from every angle!

So then, if a cleverly programmed surround sound environment and effects mixdown can glue the viewer to their seat, so strong they are actually too scared to leave, for fear of stepping into the crazy world they are watching; then dont you think it's time you got a piece of this magic from your favorite music producers?

Well, believe it or not, there are guys out there doing it to a great standard, and not only for home listening but in clubs also. It's still a fresh scene that is brewing and with no fixed rules or boundaries, every release or live performance is giving way to a new vision of how to guide the listener through this new spacious world. Not even the major record companies are yet united on which media format to release this music.

The most common setup is Dolby 5.1 which everyone is probably aware of by now, consisting of 2 speakers at the rear, 2 at the front and a dirty whopping sub at the front to take care of bass. The next progression is Dolby 7.1, which is a similar setup but with 2 extra speakers almost exactly to the left and right of the viewing position. But then taking things a few steps further, there are now setups like 9.1, 11.1 and 11.2 (the latter experimenting with sounds above and below). But despite all this pussyfooting around between record companies and sound system producers, some of the big boys of the Techno world have decided to plunge into the deep end and show people it can be done and at a pretty high standard to-boot!

Richie Hawtin, Speedy J, and Monolake are some of the guys who have made the evolutionary swim from their tiny crowded 2D stereo pond into the open sea of 3D! Richie Hawtin gave me the first taste of this world courtesy of his 'DE9 Transitions' DVD. The main concept of this piece was to take snipits and loops from over 100 techno tracks and turn the idea of a standard A to B DJ mix into a rich alphabet soup (with a lot more fidelity than his previous "closer to the edit concept CD's" ), but then further enhance the already lavish concept by making the final mixdown in Dolby 5.1 surround sound. The result is a wonderfully hypnotic example of how to showcase the format of surround sound. The whole concept of minimalism, in this instance, working extremely well in this format, with the ultra crisp productions from the chosen tracks in this mix and the beats at times becoming very sparse, making it very clear which direction sounds are coming from and also the extra space created by more speakers leaves room in the mix for more complex rhythems to develop; thus creating a truly spellbinding piece of music from start to finish. 

Not much was done on the visual end though, with Richie perhaps overplaying the minimal theme by giving the viewer only the titles of tracks from which he took the pieces from and fading them over a black background, which; is nice for the musical nerds among us, but after seeing how cool some visuals are at his DJ gigs, it's quite disappointing. Still, this does not detract from the sheer quality of this piece.

Speedy J aka Jochem Paap was the next heavy weight Techno DJ I came across pushing this format. He has been doing his 'Umifeld Tour' for a few years now and to enhance the musical experience has been collaborating with the graphic designer Scott Pagano to create stunning visuals in HD also.
I caught one of these performances at the Berghain club in Berlin, on a nicely tuned FunktionOne system. Speedy started with some great larger than life cinematic soundscapes that were so intense you would have thought it was a warning signal for the end of the universe and made the HD screen shots on the walls seem like the most epic gallery you had ever been to. Then throughout these monsterous soundscapes which slowly morphed their way around your head, Speedy hammered out his brand of brash non merciful beats. Real heavy breathtaking stuff, at times though a little too maximal and didnt give the listener the full multi-directional experience it could have been. Also with him having to perform in front of the spoilt for choice, face-picked crowd of Berghain, it didnt show off everything that he is truly capable of and he stuck to a tried and tested formula of driving four-to-the-floor Techno.

Joachim is very excited to show off this unfamiliar format and says that “it feels like being back in the early 90s when techno happened in Europe” and that “the subtle stuff will probably come later”

In fact he is that keen to show off his work, together with the high-tech visual masterpiece that accompanies it so well, that it is available for download on a donation basis. If you have a 5.1 system at home this is a real trippy Techno session that will give it a good workout! So make sure you check out the link below 

Umfield TV

Monolake was the last guy I saw perform his work in this format. His mechanical beats and luchious soundscapes were a mouthwatering prospect for this format and this is a project he is really evolving everytime he performs. He is the co-founder of Ableton live (the most efficient live music performance tool on the market) and has his own self built controller, the "Monodeck II'; so with the issue of playing and control out of the way, he can hone all his efforts into what sounds great and how to make the best musical experience he can.
When I saw him he had the club arranged in a new format for the occasion. With his control booth set smack bang in the middle of the dancefloor, which is the ultimate place for every performer to:
a) accurately cue up and monitor.b) be a part of the crowd and respond well.
However, this sadly takes up quite a percentage of the sweet spot, which ultimately is where its at! Never the less, from standing alongside the man himself, you could hear how he used mono beats to rock the party and complex delays to bounce the sound arround your head, to really add some cool groove (all be it on a diabolical sound system, tragically typical for Berlin!). However, this was such a well thought out set, going from sparse and sci fi to full on thrashing rave and not only was it a meticulously planned set but so to was the video art.
Monolake is working with the artist Tarik Barri during these performance and doing great sound to visual work in ground breaking ways. He has created sci fi worlds that slowly evolve but how they evolve is down to the tempo and intensity of the music and also clever manipulation by himself.
"What makes me dance in a club is rhythm, but what makes me really happy while dancing is great sound. I like the experience of being surrounded by a massive wall of sound which at the same time is highly defined and structured." Monolake.

Looking even further into the future, Monolake is also working with the German company 'IOSONO' who have created a system which takes surround sound to a whole new level. IOSONO have created a system using 'Wave Field Synthesis', which in simpler terms for you and me, means that the speakers can create a sound which actually sounds like it is being created from any position inside or even outside of the room. This means the illusion of space will be at a much higher standard than simply using reverb effects and will also give the possibility of the ENTIRE dance floor becoming a sweet spot! 

To find out more about Monolake and his latest project, check out the link below


Truly there is a new era of concerts coming, and these are exciting times to be experiencing, with this in it's infancy. It will only get better. So keep your ear to the ground and you could be a part of this new phenomenon!


  1. Please also check out the surround sound concept of 5th Dime who have taken everything further incl. creating a downloadable music file withe the frauenhofer institute who also invented the MP3: http://www.5thdime.com/index.php?id=22&L=1

  2. Hello. this a very interessant article.
    I totally agree taht multidiffusion of sound is the key of future of live music.

    But that work has been already made by Pierre Henry in the 70's, and by plenty of sound designers, more into contemporary art than techno, of course (i saw a party in Paris in 2005, with only "multidiffusion 8.1 composers. there is also a festival in France, 100 % dedicated to this concept).

    It is remarquable that Peierre Henry stopped his research because his conclusions was: this is only an "effect". It doesn't put the artistic sens to an higher level.

    the movements in sound, the straight line of frequencies, of objects in space, must find a radical new proposals, to prove that is better than the same music in stereo (especially to dance).