Spatial effects12:53, 6th January 2020
Rafael Todes introduces a new range of immersive listening experiences from innovative audio engineering firm L-Acoustics
‘Ocean’ is a new sound space comprising 18 loudspeakers and 18 subwoofers embedded in the walls of a large room. Each channel contains different information, offering great nuance and detail. Altogether, it’s an illuminating experience that transcends the domain of traditional stereo.
The company behind this product, L-Acoustics, was founded in 1984 by Dr Christian Heil, a PhD in particle physics. L-Acoustics has its roots as a pro-audio company that built complex and sophisticated sound systems for live events, starting with Supertramp (their first major client) and going on to work with Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and Sting, to name but a few. The trademark L-Acoustics banana-shaped line array speakers you see at venues replaced the previous wall of sound technology and became the industry standard.
Then the idea occurred to Heil, why couldn’t such pro-audio systems be made available to domestic users? The resulting sound spaces provide a much greater connection to the listener, akin to the immersive experience of hearing a live performance.
During a visit to the L-Acoustics Creations studio in Highgate, north London, I was treated to a demo of the large 23.1 Channel version, as well as a smaller media room concept called ‘Island’ – a bed or sofa surrounded by 18 speakers and two subwoofers.
The afternoon began with a recent recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Standing in the centre of Ocean’s rectangular room, almost big enough to fit a chamber orchestra, there was a sense of the sound coming from all around. I was struck by the massive dynamic range of the system. The soundscape vista is that of the conductor, rather than a member of the audience, so you feel like you’re standing on the podium. This is achieved by spot miking individual instruments, with a processor for mapping the sounds into a 3D space. In a way, it’s like Dolby Atmos raised to a higher level. We are all familiar with the sensory hyper-reality of experiencing a Hollywood film in modern cinemas, but this is even more intense.
Having been blown away initially by the power and sheer detail of the system, I tried to pinpoint the physical location of each instrument in the orchestra. This led to a few surprises, including the realisation that by spot miking individual players, the front-to-back depth present on good stereo reproduction isn’t reproduced as accurately as one might expect. Hopefully, this can be sorted out in future.
Moving to the smaller bedroom-based system, Island, I heard Chopin’s Nocturne in B-flat minor Op 9/1 and ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ from Debussy’s first book of Préludes, lovingly played by the British pianist Jeremy Brown. Both pieces had been specially recorded using multichannel techniques developed by L-Acoustics. Unlike most recordings in which the piano is captured normally, square on, an array of seven microphones had been used, running the full length of the keyboard above the hammers. This has the effect of letting us experience what the pianist, as opposed to the audience, usually hears. The Debussy was particularly impressive, providing a sense of the keyboard’s huge physical space. Individual notes were heard from different speakers, making the piano sound like a huge orchestra.
The texture of the different registers in this piece took on a dimension I’ve not previously heard. Debussy’s clear narrative intent and graphic representation of church bells struck me much more intensely than usual. It’s the sort of privileged presentation available to few, giving the piece a greater sense of depth and sonority than traditional stereo recordings.
The L-Acoustics Creations catalogue is currently small: six ‘Bubbles’ (glass pebble-like objects) house an RFID that triggers play. Three collaborations with François Xavier-Roth conducting Les Siècles in Stravinsky’s Firebird and The Rite of Spring plus Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé are particularly impressive, each packing a substantial punch.
It is early days for this budding technology, but there are many pathways that such a system will open up. Both Ocean and its smaller sibling Island provide a remarkable glimpse into the future of spatialised recordings and their significant benefits for music lovers.