Spatial audio gains potential to change music

Photo illustration by Charissa Graves | Many songs on Apple Music have spatial audio capabilities. Songs like “Stay” by The Kid Laori and Justin Bieber, “Chandelier” by Sia and many more feature this new and improved audio technology.

In recent years, technology has advanced to new heights. Facebook has begun to push a new virtual reality-based metaverse. Audiences can now see movies in immersive 4D experiences. Similarly, the music industry has begun to encourage immersive experiences of its own.

Apple, supported by Dolby Atmos, announced in May 2021 that it would begin to offer spatial audio capabilities to Apple Music subscribers for no additional cost beginning in June. Spatial audio is an immersive, surround-sound music experience that allows for musicians to place sounds at different origin points to make them sound as though they are coming from a certain location around a listener.

Dr. Lance Beaumont, associate professor of music, said that the immersive experience replicates having multiple speakers positioned around a listener.

“You can picture different speakers around the room,” Beaumont said. “If you are looking straight ahead, there will be a speaker off to your left, a speaker off to your right as well as one in the middle. Then you will have some a little bit further. Then you will have some positioned a little further back, and you will have some overhead. You have measured sound coming at you from all these different angles. What the musician can do is take different sounds and actually place it in a specific spot within this sphere all around you.”

Beaumont said that spatial audio represents the next natural step in music technology. Over time, music has shifted from stereo to surround sound to the new experience of spatial audio. This transition to spatial audio provides artists with more creative options within the sound field during the process of mixing music.

“It gives the artist the opportunity of having more colors to paint with,” Beaumont said. “As a kid, you go from the box of crayons with eight colors. Now, you have a box of crayons with 5,000 colors. You have a hundred different shades of red as opposed to having two. It just gives them more creative license, and it changes the experience of the listener as well.”

The surge toward spatial audio parallels the recent push toward virtual reality. Only five months after Apple announced that it would make spatial audio available on a wide scale, Facebook announced its rebrand as Meta, introducing a new era promoting virtual and artificial reality. Beaumont said spatial audio offers listeners with an auditory experience much like virtual reality but without the potentially unsettling visual aspects.

“I think the goal of this type of technology is to get technology to be more lifelike because we hear sound in that way,” Beaumont said. “For example, you can hear a car coming from behind you and then the sound changes as it passes you. We want that experience replicated through our technology. I think that is what is driving it: how do we make technology more human?”

Beaumont said he believes that spatial audio will likely become mainstream for the music industry, especially since major companies such as Apple are involved in furthering the technology. In fact, many films and television series already use Dolby Atmos for audio.

“The music industry I think is moving toward this because of the cost,” Beaumont said. “It is cheaper now, so now this technology can be replicated through headphones. The cost to consumers is extremely low, and the cost to produce this kind of audio is extremely low.”

However, some point out that it might take time for available products to catch up to the progression of technology into the spatial audio era.

“With companies such as Apple and Dolby pushing spatial audio, I do believe it could develop a unique and creative space within the music industry, but I don’t believe it would become prominent,” said Christina Arispe, junior commercial performance major. “The reason is that it wouldn’t be convenient for the technology we have today. For example in most headphones, phones, speakers, etc. there is only a ‘L’(left) ‘R’ (right) speaker meant to cooperate with our way of hearing.”

Noah Fickel, junior commercial performance major, said he believes spatial audio will grow in popularity, but primarily in other fields.

“I think spatial audio will become more prominent in the music world with more availability of speakers capable of reproducing it, but I think more so it will become more popular in the film and video game industry,” Fickel said.

Since spatial audio has become more affordable, Beaumont foresees more companies producing audio products geared toward the new technology. Apple’s products, including AirPods, Beats and newer versions of iPhones, tablets and laptops, are already equipped to play Dolby Atmos tracks. Additionally, many major artists such as The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Maroon 5 now have tracks out using Dolby Atmos technology.

“I think musicians will (embrace spatial audio) for sure because it gives them more opportunities to have their music replicated the way that they hear it,” Beaumont said. “If you are a composer and you are hearing music in your head a specific way, you do not want technology to hinder that experience for the listener.”

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