Tech Spotlight: SRS & The Future Of Surround

The SRS Advanced Rendering Lab

Like most Home Theater readers, I’ve known SRS Labs primarily as the company that does virtual surround sound and other audio solutions for HDTVs and soundbars—features largely dismissed by serious enthusiasts as lightweight hocus-pocus. So it was with some skepticism that, back in March, I rolled into the firm’s Santa Ana, California, headquarters for a private demo of some new surround sound technology.

After the preliminaries, I was led to the company’s Advanced Rendering Lab, a big room equipped with powered studio monitors crossing every wall and firing down from the ceiling—22 of them in all. There was a big flat panel mounted on the far wall and a computer workstation behind the listening seats where SRS engineers could trot out their latest algorithms to test them with whatever configuration of speaker channels they wished.

Here, sitting in the sweet spot up front, I watched a couple of clips from Avatar delivered with what was certainly the most different—if not the best—surround sound I’ve ever heard. The width, height, and, especially the depth of the soundstage were simply breathtaking. The ambience of these outdoor fight and combat scenes was seemingly boundless, to where I could not readily localize the presence of any speakers or even the walls of the studio space. The action moved effortlessly across the front and sides of the room, and occasionally toward the back, and reached surprisingly deep into the area between and above me and the screen.

I was struck by how individual sounds always remained etched and delineated spatially from others within the soundfield, even as they moved, and by the tremendous amount of sonic detail this revealed. Particularly intriguing was how the background music—the one part of most soundtracks that doesn’t directly communicate action on the screen—remained perfectly isolated and anchored above and well forward of the screen, as though emanating from virtual speakers suspended in the space.

You could point at it. At that moment, the metaphoric light bulb above my head popped on, and I thought, “Well, the music doesn’t convey action—of course it belongs on its own shelf.” And it dawned on me how poor the typical surround system is at keeping the music and individual audio elements of a soundtrack spatially distinct from one another. I suddenly understood how unique this was.

Now, here’s the kicker: All that sound came from just two forward-firing speakers and a subwoofer.

The New Surround
What I heard that day at SRS was a witch’s brew of breakthrough audio technologies, a combination of new psychoacoustic depth-rendering techniques applied through the filter of a game-changing approach to mixing movie soundtracks that SRS calls Multi-dimensional Audio, or MDA. Together, they form the basis of CircleCinema 3D, a feature that will begin appearing in flat-panel HDTVs and soundbars from SRS licensees in 2012, and perhaps later, in A/V receivers.

Conceptually, MDA eschews the limited notion of traditional multichannel-based sound mixing, which relies on ever-shifting differences in the volume or amplitude of each channel’s signal to push and pull audio objects across a soundfield patched together from five, seven, or more speakers. With MDA, a movie soundtrack is instead created in a virtual, three-dimensional audio space with no regard for how many speakers or what processing technologies might be used later to play it back. Metadata tied to each audio object provides detailed information from the creator about how that object moves and behaves. That metadata can then be applied, either immediately or even decades later, to however many channels or whatever sound processing technologies are available or might come along. Not only does MDA make a movie’s soundtrack mix future-proof in this regard, but it solves the costly problem studios face today of having to create entirely separate mixes for five-channel, seven-channel, or other playback configurations. With an MDA-based soundtrack, the theoretically ideal soundtrack gets mixed just once, and different, wholly discrete versions can then be generated from the metadata with something akin to pushing some buttons.

To promote the creation of new movies in MDA, SRS has founded the 3D Audio Alliance, or 3DAA, a fledgling organization that’s working first with the Hollywood sound community to expose and further develop the technology. But even without waiting for fresh MDA soundtracks, the company is reaping the benefits of its MDA research by bringing CircleCinema 3D to market as an enhancement for legacy content. The CC3D architecture includes a software module that can analyze an existing 5.1-channel or stereo soundtrack and generate the MDA metadata based on assumptions of where the content creator might have placed things within a full 3D space. It was this kind of deconstruction, applied to Avatar, that I heard in the Advanced Rendering Lab. As the clips were played, the original multichannel soundtrack was analyzed on the fly and the resulting metadata tapped to direct psychoacoustic depth-rendering of specific objects. The overall effect was the illusion that I was inhabiting the movie in a way I’ve never felt with conventional surround sound.

To learn more about MDA and CircleCinema 3D, I spoke with Alan Kraemer, SRS’s chief technology officer and driving force behind these technologies and the 3DAA.

RS: Where did this whole idea of MDA, of attaching metadata to audio objects, come from initially?

AK: Twice a year, we get together for internal off-site technical meetings, and it was at one of those meetings about two years ago that we came up with this concept and decided to explore it further. We realized that, in order to really create a true representation of a soundfield, we needed more information than what [amplitude-driven] channel-based audio currently provides. So the core concept was to move away from the multichannel surround paradigm, which has been in existence for about 70 years since Walt Disney first came up with the idea for Fantasia. Basically, all we’ve done since is changed the plumbing and put speakers in different positions. But there’s this continuous arms race with two-channel, then 5.1, then 7.1, then 11.2, then 22.3, or whatever. None of those things are very satisfying, and they also involve arbitrary decisions about where the speakers are located and how you mix for those configurations. And every time those configurations change, that movie has to be remixed.

Colin Robertson's picture

Awesome article guys. I genuinely hope this is the future of how surround sound is created and decoded. Let US decided how many speakers we want or need dominating our rooms!

This could solve the problem of all the different surround speaker placement recommendations we have now. Use as many or as few speakers as you would like, or for audiophiles, as you need according to your environment. This may piss off people who like to adhere to a universal standard and home theater buffs who've already invested so much in accommodating to those standards. Yet, this system should work in those situations, right?

Let's face it, you can have wonderful sounding "surround" from two speakers now, but it has to work in a real world scenario where people don't have a sweet spot and perfectly symmetrical room to work with. I would only hope this type of system will eventually accommodate for these differences.

It's not discussed in the article, but I imaging the natural extension of this is to program your room into the program so it can account for speaker placement and acoustical differences that occur in peoples homes. I would imagine building a simple 3D model of my room so it can work around different room shapes and any potentially acoustically affecting surfaces such as a coffee table or prominent column. You could even program which surfaces are reflective, absorptive, diffuse and so on...

Or even better, a sensor like the Microsoft Kinect could scan your room visually to automatically build a 3D model of your room and then use a microphone to auto-tune for acoustics much in the way a receiver does now with an Audyssey mic. It could even sense how many people will be viewing and where they are sitting before the movie starts to automatically widen or narrow the sweet spot!

Rob Sabin's picture
Some astute comments, Colin! You're right that it didn't get mentioned in the article, but in my interview with Alan Kraemer we did discuss how an MDA-based system in a receiver, for example, could make use of the information gathered by an Audyssey-like set-up and room correction algorithm to more fully optimize the surround experience. Keep in mind how much information the most developed of these systems can acquire these days. That includes not only determining how many speakers you have and where they are, but all kinds of information about the room boundaries and the behavior of sound coming from the speakers at multiple locations. Even today, Audyssy's top of the line MultEQ Pro system can take measurements from up to 32 listening positions and determine each from the next. There's a lot of potential information to feed an MDA based system to help fine-tune depth rendering and spatial enhancement.
kdttaz's picture

I also thought this was fascinating and would seem to hold great potential. It also reminded me of one of the technologies from Daniel Suarez's "The Daemon" - HyperSonic Sound - in terms of 3D placement, but without the directionality.

Daffy's picture

Heya Colin,

We have a tech that attempts to remove the need for a sweet spot and isn't room dependant, aimed at stereo, surround and virtual surround field technology. Give it a read if you like.