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The 3D sound technology transforming live concerts

There are various factors and sectors pushing spatial audio technology relentlessly forward, but whether you’re a gamer, a cinephile, or a music enthusiast, you’ll probably know this technology is here to stay and is drastically changing the game of sonic perception.

The sense of realism and immersiveness offered by 3D sound has been used in concerts for decades, yet only recently, with the advent of more affordable and powerful technology, spatial audio in live settings has become a tool to enhance live performances, and bring the concert experience to a whole new level.

Where 3D sound technology comes from, how it’s been used to change the game in the live industry, and the future of this technology are the topics of this article.

About me

I’m a musician and record label owner with a passion for audio technology.

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, author and contributor at Higher Hz

I’ve recorded albums for over a decade and have seen the transition to spatial audio with my own eyes, with artists, tech companies, and listeners looking for the immersive experience stereo audio simply can’t provide.

I’m also a tech enthusiast, always eager to find out more about the current trends and venture into the foreseeable future of audio technology.

A bit of history

Despite its popularity and recent innovations, the technology that allows spatial audio is far from recent. During some screenings of Fantasia, in 1940, Disney tried to mimic a bee flying around the room with their early version of surround sound. Those lucky few who went to the cinema at the time experienced the beginning of spatial sound exploration firsthand.

It wasn’t until two decades later that surround sound would make a leap into the mainstream, thanks to the movie industry. With the advent of Dolby Stereo Surround, films like A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner revolutionized the movie industry, adding depth and realism to the cinematic experience.

What about live music? At the end of the 1950s, sound artist Henry Jacobs organized concerts at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, considered the first to utilize surround sound in a manner similar to what we recognize today.

Jacobs’ work was designed to prove the sound’s ability to envelop an audience, creating a more immersive experience.

Among the most crucial moments in the live music scene was Pink Floyd’s 1967 concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, believed to be the first rock concert to use surround sound. The band used their custom-built quadrophonic speaker system to create a groundbreaking, enveloping sound experience.

After that, spatial audio in live music went quiet for a long time. The reason for that was mostly related to the extraordinary costs involving such an immersive sonic experience for a large audience.

Furthermore, 3D sound had little purpose outside of cinemas and big live settings since most music listeners had stereo speakers and headphones.

3D spatial sound at live concert

Everything’s different now, thanks to more affordable spatial audio tech, the rise of VR, and streaming services like Tidal, Amazon Music, and Apple Music embracing 3D audio technology.

3D sound technology

Essentially, this immersive audio experience is created using recording techniques and software that replicates how humans perceive three-dimensional sound.

In a recording studio, the sound is captured using dozens of microphones and recording methods that can imitate sound waves hitting the human ear. Audio engineers use software to adjust the sound’s directionality and depth, creating an illusion of three-dimensional space.

In particular, binaural recording techniques are used to create an enveloping sound experience by capturing audio as heard by a person. Sound engineers place two microphones in the ear positions of a dummy head and use specific software to fine-tune the spatial characteristics of the audio, accurately recreating the three-dimensional soundstage.

This manipulation of sound waves replicates natural acoustics, creating an auditory illusion of space and movement that surrounds the listener.

Innovations in spatial audio algorithms and playback technologies have further advanced 3D sound technology, particularly in virtual reality (VR) applications, where audio moves fluidly with the listener’s perspective.

Listen for yourself

3D sound has brought a new level of immersion and engagement to live music performances, and as always, there are artists and enterprises that can foresee the potential of new technology and use it to push the boundaries of what can be accomplished.

4DSOUND by Max Cooper

Max Cooper’s performances are the perfect example of cutting-edge spatial audio in live music. Cooper uses spatial sound technologies developed by 4DSOUND to create a tangible, three-dimensional soundscape that envelops the audience. This approach makes sounds move around, above, and through the crowd, creating a powerful sonic experience.

Suzanne Ciani at Moogfest 2017

Electronic pioneer Suzanne Ciani performed a live quadraphonic modular synthesizer set at Moogfest 2017 using quadraphonic sound (a precursor to modern 3D audio technologies). This allowed her to direct sounds across four speakers placed around the audience, creating a captivating spatial audio experience.

Kraftwerk in Tokyo in 2019

For their 2019 concert at the Orchard Hall in Tokyo, the legendary electronic group used cutting-edge spatial audio techniques to shape and position sound precisely throughout the venue. The result was a concert where audio clarity and spatial definition dramatically enhanced the visual experience of Kraftwerk’s performance.

Brian Eno – Empty Formalism

While not a live concert in the traditional sense, Eno’s installation Empty Formalism demonstrates the application of 3D sound technology in creating immersive environments. His installations invited participants to experience sound in a physical space, where audio elements move and evolve, creating a dynamic auditory landscape.

Apple Music Sessions in Spatial Audio

A couple of years ago, Apple Music Sessions has started to feature performances recorded in spatial audio, providing a new way for artists to connect with their audience. These sessions offer listeners a live concert experience in the comfort of their own homes.

What’s in it for the musicians?

As you can see, spatial audio technology has transformed live performances, offering artists innovative ways to engage with their audience.

Musicians can now design shows where sound moves dynamically through space, enhancing the visual elements of the performance and creating a more immersive experience.

In the streaming era, where listeners have access to an overwhelming amount of music, spatial audio is something that can be used to stand out from the crowd.

By releasing music in this format, artists can offer something unique and compelling, with services like Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music promoting spatial audio tracks and giving artists who adopt this technology a competitive edge.

Spatial audio can also open up new monetization opportunities. Artists could offer premium spatial audio experiences, either through live performances or exclusive releases on streaming platforms. Plus, offering a spatial audio live-streaming experience can maximize ticket sales and reach those who can physically make it to the venue.

Finally, the immersive nature of spatial audio makes it easier to collaborate across disciplines, such as film, gaming, and virtual reality, which rely heavily on this form of audio.

Entering the world of VR or gaming has been a game changer for many musicians and can be an immensely creative (and profitable) opportunity.

The future

The integration of 3D sound technology into live concerts has the potential to blur the lines between the audience and performers. The future is hard to predict when it comes to cutting edge tech, but some innovations are already here and I think their impact will expand over the next few years.

Designers can use the placement of sounds in three-dimensional space to bring to life unique auditory environments that envelop the audience, which might be allowed to interact and influence the sound landscape in real time.

Wearable technology or smart mobile applications could allow the audience to customize their auditory experience by adjusting the mix, focus, or spatial effects based on personal preference.

Finally, 3D sound with augmented reality technologies could further expand the scope of concert design. Artists might perform in virtual environments that can be experienced from anywhere in the world, with 3D sound enhancing the realism and immersion of these virtual concerts or overlay visual elements onto the physical concert space.

Final thoughts

I hope this article helped share some light on this fascinating new era of the music industry. Do let me know in the comment section below about your experience with spatial audio, whether live or while listening to music at home.

Happy listening!