Massenburg on Multichannel: Do Great Work, The Audience Will Follow

After enumerating the challenges facing audio professionals working to produce multichannel popular and classical music recordings, as well as pointing out the medium’s modest successes, renowned audio engineer George Massenburg threw down the gauntlet to his Audio Engineering Society (AES) colleagues:

“We all have to do great work, develop the new techniques we need, and produce great demo-quality multichannel recordings,” he encouraged, in his Keynote Address to nearly 200 engineers, mixers and researchers attending the AES International Conference on Multichannel Audio, which began today at The Banff Centre in the Canadian Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff.

“We have to charm artists and listeners to join our dance… keep on trying until it’s too compelling to ignore.”

Mr. Massenburg is uniquely qualified to comment on both the art and science of multichannel. Over his 30-year career, he has been a leading engineer in both the recording studio and in research and manufacturing. In the studio, he has worked on more than 200 albums with front-line artists like Linda Ronstadt, Toto, The Dixie Chicks, Lyle Lovett and Aaron Neville. In the hardware field, he has pioneered technology such as parametric equalization, and heads his own company, George Massenburg Labs, that makes studio gear including mixing and automation systems, mic preamplifiers, equalizers and other audio processors.

He has received Grammy, Academy of Country Music, and TEC awards for production and recording, and a rare Grammy Award for Technical Achievement – one of only four such technical awards given in the history of the Grammys.

“As popular music producers, we’re still struggling to make multichannel as effective for pop as it is already for classical recordings,” Mr. Massenburg says. “We lack some of the important tools we need – reverbs that can create realistic small-room environments; tools for moving sounds around [panning] in surround.”

Mr. Massenburg weighed in on some of the controversial issues that crop up often in discussions of how the multichannel formats have been presented to consumers.

“I’m going to skip right over formats [DVD-Audio vs SACD]. They’re about even, so we need to just go on,” he said.

“But please, let’s make all five speakers (in a home surround system) equal, with the same full range response all around.”

Commenting on the growing reluctance of music labels to invest in state-of-the-art production technology, as well as in multichannel mixes, Mr. Massenburg asked audio professionals to never compromise their standards of audio quality.

“A great example of the difference quality and technology makes is the big Faith Hill hit album last year (Cry, Warner Bros.). Just compare the dirty, noisy stereo mix on CD, to the clean, brilliant-sounding surround mix for DVD-Audio made by Elliot

He also encouraged engineers to make multichannel elements a standard part of the deliverables from their recording projects.

Left to right: Karlheinz Brandenburger (Fraunhofer Institute); Jean-Marie Geijsen (Philips, Pentaton); David Griesinger (Lexicon); Kimio Hamasaki (NHK Japan Broadcasting); George Massenburg (GML); Gunther Theile (Institut für Rundfunktechnik)

Later in the day, George Massenburg took part in a panel discussion on Problems with the Popularization of Surround Formats for Music, with other leading researchers and practitioners of multichannel audio.

Along with Mr. Massenburg, the panelists included David Griesinger (like Massenburg, an equipment designer as well as recordist); recording engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen (Netherlands) and Kimio Hamasaki (Japan); and researchers Karlheinz Brandenburger (“the father of MP3”) and Gunther Theile.

In this forum, the panelists and audience found concensus that 5.1 surround is effective and compelling, a huge step forward from 2-channel stereo, and the right standard to carry on with in bringing multichannel to consumers.

The liveliest discussions centred on…

* the coming shift from discrete 5-channel (plus LFE) playback to a future where super-powerful DSP-enabled home entertainment systems will calibrate themselves to make use of however many speakers of whatever design and configuration are available in the home, creating an idealized output from the discrete source materials available (2-channel, 5.1-channel, or other);

* the importance (or not) of the “sweet spot” in a home playback system, and the ways multichannel audio can create a larger “sweet region” that improves the consumer’s experience of music;

* the advantages of using more than 5 surround speakers, in particular by adding 2 more speakers in the “front” (far left / left / center / right / far right), to improve the stability of the audio image; or by adding 2 additional rear surround speakers, to reduce the problems associated with sitting too close to an individual surround speaker in typical home listening rooms.

The AES 24th International Conference Multichannel Audio: The New Reality continues in Banff through Saturday (June 28, 2003).

Kevin Elliott

AES 24th International Conference: Multichannel Audio

George Massenburg Labs Web Site

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