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Surround Sound (Aesthetics Of Sound, 2012)

Reading Notes 5: History & Technology Of Surround Sound (Written for BECA 435, Aesthetics Of Sound, San Francisco State University, 2012)

Decades before the popularity of stereo or even “hi-fi” in home entertainment systems, multi-channel audio was already in use. The history article on 5dot1.com traces it back to the year 1938, when the first demonstrations occurred. Soon after, in 1940, Walt Disney premiered his animation/classical music feature Fantasia with special showings in venues equipped with three front and two rear speakers. Later, in 1953, 20th Century Fox released “The Robe” in surround sound, using a 4-track, 35 mm system devised by Ampex.

In the early 1970s, the music industry, having already sold the public on the superiority of stereo to mono, promoted the idea of four-channel “quadrophonic” sound. The four tracks were pressed on vinyl records which were playable in stereo, and required a decoder for the full quadrophonic experience. Many artists and audiophiles jumped on the bandwagon (including the Who—yes, Quadrophenia was available in a quadrophonic version), but “Quad” ultimately failed in the market, largely due to there being two competing formats (SQ from CBS vs. QS from Sansui) as well as others, none of which were able to dominate the field, leaving the public to lose interest and stick with their stereo systems.

It was in cinema, where groups of people gathered to sit together in a large room and experience a story, that multi-channel sound mixing won over the public. “Dolby Stereo” (or “SVA” for “stereo variable-area”), which employed the same sort of amplitude and phase encoding as quadrophonic sound and split the optical stereo signal into four channels, began to be used in feature films. The first film to use Dolby Stereo was Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, which came out in 1975 and used three channels: left, right and center. The Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake of A Star Is Born was the first film to use a four channel Dolby system in 1976. A year later, Star Wars, exploiting the same system to great effect, influenced more theaters to invest in the new technology.

The advent of 70 mm film brought with it the possibility of six separate channels of sound, and filmmakers took the opportunity to designate one of the six channels as a “Low Frequency Effect” track or what we commonly think of as a subwoofer channel. The first film to use a subwoofer channel was Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. (At the time, it was referred to as the “Baby Boom” channel.) The 70 mm format had three front channels (left-center-right), two surround channels (left-right) and a subwoofer, essentially the same setup as 5.1 surround sound in theaters today.

The home video revolution of the 1980s brought with it new needs. With the vast improvements in larger-than-life movie theater sound as well as the increased quality of home stereo systems, owners of the new home videocassette players expected something comparable when watching and rewatching movies at home. In 1982, Dolby Surround was introduced for home video, allowing for four channels to be decoded on the consumer’s home system. Dolby Pro Logic soon followed, adding the ability to decode the center channel. Dolby Pro Logic is only found on consumer home theater receivers, not theaters.

In the late 80s, digital audio for movies had grown so complex that the data no longer fit on the analog audio tracks on film. To overcome this, the soundtrack was stored on a CD-ROM and synched with the film using timecode on both. Projecting a movie using two different media simultaneously created its own set of problems until new file compression methods were devised which allowed six channels of audio information to fit on the film stock. The digital optical track actually occupies the spaces between the socket holes on the film! This leaves room for the standard analog stereo optical soundtrack that can be played in any theater.

The standard 5.1 configuration consists of left, center, right, left surround, and right surround, plus a sixth channel for low-frequency subwoofer effects that function mainly to make things sound big and powerful, but have no definition themselves. The subwoofer channel needs only one tenth the bandwidth of the others, which is why it is called the “.1” channel, and why the format is not simply called “6-channel surround” or something similar.

The big advance in home video was the introduction of the DVD, which made it possible to experience surround sound at home.

Meanwhile, in the world of audio, another format war has been going on between SACD (Super Audio CD) and DVD-Audio, both of which can deliver 5.1 surround sound for music. Neither format has generated much excitement with the general public to date, as the audience for music has been shifting from collecting physical objects to buying (or in many cases, stealing) and downloading digital files directly to their computers. Also, there is little evidence so far that music fans as a whole have the same level of interest in surround sound for their music as filmgoers have come to expect in their movies. Audiophiles will undoubtedly shell out for yet another version of Dark Side Of The Moon, but most people will pass on these discs (and the equipment required to play them) the same way their parents passed on the “quad revolution” of the 70s.

(n.d.). The history of surround sound. Retrieved from http://www.5dot1.com/articles/history_of_surround_sound.html

Hull, J. (1999). Surround sound past, present, and future: A history of multichannel audio from mag stripe to dolby digital. Retrieved from www.dolby.com/uploadedFiles/zz../2_Surround_Past.Present.pdf