5.1 Surround: For Real on Radio?
The entire media world is moving to digital, a trend that started in the eighties with CDs and continues with today's MP3s, satellite radio, DVD disks and more. Our industry has finally agreed on a transition to digital using the HD Radio system invented by Ibiquity. It is a step forward with its much lower noise and immunity to "multi-path swishing" and the like - but we think that it could offer something much more compelling to listeners.
Surround sound setups - called "5.1 systems" since they have 5 full-range speakers and one sub-woofer - are among the hottest selling items at the audio/video big box outlets and computer superstores. DVD videos are exceptionally popular now, and are almost always produced with 5.1 surround audio. Two audio-only surround formats are being offered to consumers: DVD Audio and SACD multi-channel. And audio systems to play them are coming to cars. Mercedes-Benz, Acura, and Cadillac have already announced that select models will include surround systems as factory standard. As with ABS brakes and other developments that were first introduced at the high end, you can bet it won't be long before surround will be an option on all cars. 5.1 surround versions of many current records, such as those from Nora Jones and Seal, are available in shops, as are classics like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
Interest in surround is quickly growing, and it will soon be big time. It is going to be everywhere except radio - unless we act.
History often repeats with regard to consumer adoption of new technologies. FM stereo transmission was approved by the FCC in 1961. Yet it was not until the late 60's, after years of experiencing stereo on LPs, that the public demanded it from radio. Only then did FM stations begin to convert to stereo. The same looks to be happening with surround. The public is again ahead of us. They're buying surround gear and we broadcasters are mostly unaware that we need to get into the game.
And we can play. The technology to transmit 5.1 surround over HD Radio has just recently been perfected and is now being introduced. Just a few years ago, it seemed we didn't have enough bandwidth for quality stereo for digital FM, let alone surround. But multichannel audio coding technology has advanced quite amazingly, and surround is a real here-and-now possibility for radio broadcasting. Fraunhofer Institute, the people who invented MP3 and MPEG AAC, has been busy pushing the frontiers of audio perceptual research. The latest result, achieved in partnership with Agere Systems, is a spatial audio coding system that takes advantage of state-of-the-art knowledge in aural perception.
Telos Systems/Omnia Audio and Fraunhofer demonstrated this system to a number of engineers at the April NAB in private meetings and in a hotel room with a high-quality surround set-up. The near universal reaction was, "Wow!" Many from the radio industry who witnessed the demonstration went on to comment that surround, powered by this technology, was the "killer app" for HD Radio.
Some of you are old enough to remember the quadraphonic systems from the 70's that had a brief and unsuccessful run on vinyl and at a few radio stations. Don't confuse this modern multi-channel approach with those - or any of the many descendents that are around vying for radio's attention. While these latter have new names, they are reheated variations of the failed 70's vinyl quad schemes. Because they mix all the channels into two, they have the critical drawback of sounding quite bad on stereo radios. The weird, soft and indistinct quality in stereo was one reason that the 70's era surround "matrix" systems didn't get very far.Another reason was that the surround channel separation was not very good. In contrast, the new Fraunhofer system delivers real surround with full separation and passes the original stereo mix to stereo listeners unaltered.
Stereo digital broadcasting was introduced to Europe a few years ago. Listener response has remained lukewarm. The lesson to be learned is that mere "improved digital sound" is not enough to cause listeners to buy new and more expensive radios. It's the same with the FM mono vs. stereo story: not a lot of FM radios were sold in the USA before stereo broadcasts, even though FM offered much improved fidelity compared to AM. Listeners will enthusiastically upgrade, but only if we offer them a significant and clear reason to do so. 5.1 surround is today's reason for listeners to make the change to digital radio.And we surely do want our listeners to upgrade to hear us in digital and surround because they will be listening to music in this format elsewhere and we will need to be competitive.
Going to surround is a proactive move against the impact of other services on terrestrial radio's TSL. But it is more than that. Imagine what surround offers to radio presentation and audience attraction. Imagine the production value and sizzle-factor enhancement. Imagine your guy in the production studio turned loose with the power of surround for promos, imaging, and bumpers. Jingles and shouts in 5.1? Now, wouldn't this sound great in a car! How about multi-mic-ed morning shows in 5.1 for a new dimension? Surround could prove to be a major TSL enhancer. Think not? Then think: Would people be listening to as much radio as they do today if it were mono, or watching as much TV if it were still black and white? Maybe it will soon be time to flip your station's switch to "color?
By the way, do you assume that there will be safe harbor with your Walkman listeners? Think again. Sennheiser, Zalman, Plantronics and others are already marketing 5.1 surround headphones. Imagine that CD/DVD/MP3 Surround/FM combo walkman (don't kid yourself, it won't be long) playing in full surround. Don't you want to compete effectively for TSL on that box?
Radio is at a crossroads. We can either let the other digital media overtake us, or we can ride the tech wave and remain relevant. A well-produced DVD or SACD surround disk offers a remarkable listening experience. And more and more people are going to have this experience. Imagine what would have happened if all radio was stuck at AM fidelity when compact disks came along. Something like that is going to happen if we make the wrong choices now. The possibility to offer listeners high-quality stereocompatible surround is soon going to be here. For FM stations to not to jump on this and deliver a digital immersive surround signal into every 5.1 reproduction system would be a colossal mistake.
Denny Sanders is former Program Director and air talent for WMMS and WMJI/Cleveland. He is now General Manager for Telos Systems / Omnia Audio.