Inside the L.A. studio where songs have their sounds rearranged in a sphere all around the listener’s ears—even when they’re wearing regular headphones.
I’m sitting in the middle of a Live Nation mixing studio in Hollywood, surrounded by speakers—some low against the wall, some perched higher up. When a live version of Jesse McCartney’s “Soul” comes on, I can hear the booming drums in front of me, crowd noise behind me, and electric piano off to my right. A guitar starts playing behind me and then begins circling above my head. The experience reminds me of the surround-sound immersion of a live concert.
In reality, I’m hearing a recording of McCartney’s song that has been programmed so that I hear specific sounds within the music from different places around my head—a new form of music mixing that Sony calls 360 Reality Audio (360RA). I’m a seasoned musician with four records under my belt, but this kind of music production is totally new to me. Sony hopes 360 Reality Audio will revolutionize the way we listen to music, a change as transformative as the company’s Walkman portable cassette players in the 1980s.
If Walkman used the magic of stereo, where sounds are placed along a left-right axis, Sony’s 360RA is an attempt to more closely replicate real world audio experiences where sound comes from all around your ears. A Sony software program called “Architect” uses complicated audio processing algorithms to place specific sound sources, like a voice or a saxophone, at specific locations within a sphere that surrounds the listener. Using the 360-degree approach for live music in particular makes sense because the goal is to recreate a concert experience, not so much to capture the soul of a piece of music.
Sony Architect [Image: courtesy of Sony]
Sony’s North America president and COO Mike Fasulo may think of it in those terms. “Personally, I am a huge music fan and when I first heard a song by my favorite artist, Billy Joel, via the 360 Reality Audio, I felt like I was right on stage sitting somewhere between the vocals and drums,” he said in an email to Fast Company.
While it might not be the revolution that the Walkman was, Sony’s 360RA provides a compelling alternative for listening to live recordings, some of which are now available through the streaming services Tidal, Deezer, and nugs.net.
FROM SURROUND SOUND TO HEADPHONES
Unlike my first encounter at the Live Nation mixing studio, most people will experience 360RA through headphones. To effectively recreate the 360RA effect in headphones, the audio software needs data about the user’s ears.
But before I could demo the headphone version of 360RA, I had to have my hearing analyzed. Two Sony executives very carefully placed tiny microphones inside my ears to capture what I was hearing. They instructed me to put the headphones on over my ears, and I heard some test bleeps. A software program analyzed what the tiny microphones heard, and that data was used to tell the 360RA software how to model the surround sound in the optimal way for my ears. The more data the technology has, the better it can model the 360RA effect.
[Image: courtesy of Sony]
The result wasn’t quite as defined as when I heard the music through the speakers, but the effect was hard to miss. Some sounds seemed to be originating behind or beside me, while other sounds were front and center. When they played me a live recording I could hear crowd sounds close around me, as well as the sound from the PA system mains bouncing off the back wall. It was impressive.
The Sony people placed these microphones inside my ear canals to record how I was hearing music. [Photo: Mark Sullivan]
Not everybody will be able to have their ears measured for sound by a Sony executive using sensitive microphones, so Sony created a companion app for its headphones that asks you to take a picture of the outside of your ears with a smartphone camera. The app then sends the images to the cloud and matches your ear shape to one of the thousands of people who have had their hearing analyzed for 360RA modeling. Presumably that person will hear music in a similar way that you do, so the headphones borrow that person’s data and use it to model the music for your ears. It’s an inexact science, but Sony says it’s measuring more people’s ear shapes all the time and adding them to the database.
Beyond headphones, audio equipment makers can license the 360RA technology so that people can experience 360RA music on more devices, including home speakers such as Amazon’s new Studio speaker. But it’s not just audio devices that need to be adjusted so that people can listen to music using 360RA. More than a thousand live and studio recordings have already been put through Sony’s Architect software to have their sounds picked apart and placed in different parts of 360RA’s audio sphere. I found the selection of 360RA music on Tidal, Deezer, and nugs.net to be extensive enough to find something I liked, from live tracks to studio recordings that range from Miles Davis to A$AP Ferg to Santana.
But 360RA might be best suited to recordings of live music. Recognizing this, Sony has contracted with Live Nation to go out and record live music performances to put into the 360RA format. To create these recordings, the Live Nation engineers use inputs from the discrete channels of the mixing board. For instance, they might define the signal coming from the microphone directly in front of a horn player as one discrete sound source. Once they have this input, they can use the Architect software to locate the sound of that horn at a specific place within the sphere of the listener’s hearing.
To increase the potential for 360A, Live Nation’s engineers also set up microphones in the back of concert venues so that even the sound back there—including the sound from the PA system and the ambient noise from the room—can be captured and placed at the back of the sphere in 360RA.
[Image: courtesy of Sony]
I suspect that many people will experience 360RA music for the first time via one of the streaming services without ever using Sony’s app to personalize the sound to their ears. You can still get some of the 360 effect without the tuning, though the placement of specific sounds is far less precise. I listened to some Miles Davis using my Bose QuietComfort headphones and was able to hear the trumpet soloing somewhere behind me, but it wasn’t clear exactly where.
So while Sony’s surround-sound speaker experience was pretty convincing—it reminded me of the audio you hear in movie theaters—I’m not likely to go out and buy 13 speakers to recreate it at home. I’m more likely to listen to 360RA with headphones, but the experience doing so really varies depending on how accurately Sony can examine your ear shape. The best headphone experience by far was using the nice Sony cans right after I had my hearing analyzed. Using the Sony app to match my ears with somebody else’s profile was a significant loss in clarity when it came to sound placement. And the least convincing was when I streamed some of the 360RA tracks to my Bose cans with no tuning at all.
THE LIMITS OF 360 DEGREES
Sony’s conception of busting out of the limited left-right dimensionality of stereo sound is appealing, but I’m not convinced that 360RA—especially in its more diluted forms—offers something better than what we already have. Sony’s technology is not so much a new way of mixing sound as it is a way of separating it and placing the parts within a sphere, a technique that can effectively emulate live music but may not always be suited to other kinds of recordings.
In contrast to carefully mixed studio recordings, where every sound is shaped and fitted to create a complete and pleasing whole, the 360RA treatments of studio recordings I’ve heard sound picked apart and deconstructed—not in a pleasing way. Parts sound divorced from the mix for no apparent creative reason. Without the aural experience of a cohesive mix, it feels a bit like a novelty—certainly not something that’s going to revolutionize music production. Spherical effects could eventually be used as a mixing tool that isolates a specific sound at a strategic point in the song. But this kind of effect risks becoming a distraction.
However, 360RA’s focus on isolating and locating sounds may work with some genres of music, particularly jazz. The 360 approach could be used to deconstruct and reconstruct classic jazz music recordings, especially since many recordings from masters such as Coltrane, Monk, and Parker sound like live recordings anyway. In addition, jazz doesn’t always depend on the cumulative effect of musicians playing together in the way that other genres do. Jazz players are virtuosic: You can enjoy the sections of the music that are played in unison, but it’s also easy to focus on the individual artistry of the players—which 360 sound helps emphasize.
But in other kinds of music, individual instruments often aren’t the focus. The thrill of the music comes from the cumulative effect of instruments playing together—the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s the force of the woodwinds, brass, and strings that gives emotional thrust to the epic crescendo that connects the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Fifth. It’s the collective blast of all four Ramones on the End of the Century LP—all their instruments and Joey’s voice melding and swelling into the “Wall of Sound” for which the producer of the record, Phil Spector, was famous.
360RA may not provide the transformative way of engaging with music that Sony is hoping for. But for live music lovers and jazz fans, it could add a whole new dimension to the listening experience.