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12th September 2016

Imagine you’re a musician writing a song.

You’re thinking about melody, and form, and maybe a hook. Depending on your genre of choice you’re thinking about where the woodwind will come in, where the guitar solo is, where the string-section has a rousing crescendo. Where that killer hook lands.

When it comes to mixing the recording, you think left and right in an arc set a few feet in front of you. Do you want to go modern, with the drums draped over the stereo field: the cymbals panned left and right from the overhead mics; the hi-hats halfway between left and centre; the snare just slightly to the left? Or do you want to kick it old-skool like The Doors and shove everything hittable over to one side to make way for the rest? Should that horn section sit proud and stark in the centre for those stabs, or should it prod you on the shoulder from the sides and let that one vocal line have the spotlight?

It’s all about aiming for an effect – something to make the listener listen; to create emotions. And you’re working on a 180-degree canvas.

Some amazing recordings have been made with 5.1-channel equipment, but it’s still two-dimensional, with every instrument and voice lashed to the same horizontal plane.

Next imagine that canvas being doubled to a full circle. Things just got more complicated, but also more creative. You could place the listener in the middle of the room as the band performs around them. You could sit them on the drum stool with the rest of the band facing them. Or you could put them on the conductor’s rostrum in front of the orchestra.

That’s surround-sound – 5.1-channel. Some amazing recordings have been made like this. But it’s still two-dimensional, with every instrument and voice lashed down to the same horizontal plane.

Now take it to its logical conclusion and add four more speakers, raised up above the listener, in the front and the back. That addition of height information means you can shift each track on the mixing console pretty much anywhere you want in 3D space.

It means you can ‘rebuild’ the listening environment in its entirety. Rather than swishing sounds over heads and around the room (although you could do that if you were an experimental type), engineers can recreate the natural listening experience – which is totally immersive: your walls, and even the air around you, seem to vanish.

That’s what Sennheiser AMBEO does. It gives artists and recording- and mix-engineers a 3D sonic canvas on which to paint their waveforms. It’s like 3D or VR for your ears.

Think big? Thing biggest…

During the Art Basel show in Switzerland this June, Sennheiser showed off its AMBEO 3D audio tech to musicians, journalists and music-lovers in its demo room – and also at a special show performed by superstar DJ Robin Schulz.

Schulz wrote and performed a brand-new track designed to show off AMBEO’s capabilities; we caught up with the team behind the performance to find out how he approached it. It turns out it wasn’t as simple as moving a few faders… who knew?

It’s really a piece of art, and now you have even more channels. It’s easier to create depth, but it also gives you more possibilities to play with sounds; to play with the music itself

“It increases the possibilities you have… you have to rethink the whole thing,” says Dominik Piorr, Robin’s audio engineer. “Usually, it’s fixed to stereo left and right – so he usually needs to figure out how to get these deepeners, and how to get these wideners, into just two different sources.

“It’s really a piece of art, and now you have more channels – even more channels. It’s easier, then, to create that depth, but it also gives you more possibilities to play with sounds; to play with the music itself. All the faders [on the mixing desk] need to shift to different speakers, and also you need to deal with delay times, with phasings, with all this kind of stuff…”

AMBEO isn’t something you can just switch on and make music for in the studio, then.

But it could be a game-changer, Dominik says: “I’m definitely sure that once a band or a producer starts thinking about using this kind of technology [it] will change their sound.”

Live and kicking

That’s a whole new level of intricacy when it comes to mixing. Placing sounds in 3D space, making it tasteful (or not), making it relevant, making sure there’s a point to it. It could cause some acts to drastically rethink their approach, both in the studio and at the gig venue.

And it’s at the gig venue that the second half of the work starts. Sure, you’ve recorded in 9.1, but how do you reproduce it in a live setting? Oliver Voges, the audio-engineering genius behind the Art Basel party, points out the speakers that will pump the 200-person venue full of immersive sound.

It might not look totally neat, then, but the sound is bang-on.

“There’s so much theory behind all this,” he says. “Basically we have a 5.1 system downstairs. Upstairs, a 4.0 system. We take half of the stereo width from here to there.” He points to the width and height of the whole speaker array at the front of the room. “That measurement should be the [same as the] height starting from the bottom speaker down here to the one up there at the top of the room.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Oliver goes on to explain how they took measurements and worked out every speaker placement to ensure that the effect worked in what was, until only a few weeks before, a completely unfamiliar room. It’s complicated, but shows just how carefully thought out everything about AMBEO is.

The speakers are hooked up to custom-made rigs attached to the balcony encircling the room – a cool, slightly edgy room in a converted warehouse on the bank of the Rhine in Basel.

Oliver points out how you’d think all the speakers would be pointing the same way in their upstairs/downstairs pairs to create the AMBEO soundfield – much like you’d place speakers in your living room, according to carefully defined measurements and angles. But some of them are set slightly asquint. “We came here in April to make sure all the rigging works, and to develop something that would keep the bottom and top cabinets absolutely phase-aligned,” he says. It might not look totally neat, then, but the sound is bang-on.

Robin Schulz is upstairs in his dressing room, ready to go. The guests are starting to arrive. The canapes are served; prosecco is poured. The co-CEOs Andreas and Daniel share their vision to shape the future of audio with the guests. And then the lights go down and the volume goes up…

To find out what AMBEO 3D audio sounds like, click over to the third of our features. If you’d like to know more about how the system works, click back to the first