Spatial Audio: The Next Revolution in Audio?
In the pop song “Left and Right” by Charlie Puth (feat. Jung Kook of BTS), he begins singing the lyrics: “Memories follow me left and right/I can feel you over here, I can feel you over here/You take up every corner of my mind…” This might seem like a typical pop-lyric formula for a broken heart, but what these lyrics represent on a technological front is something that I believe could be the next revolution in sound: spatial audio.
Most listeners hear in stereo: the right ear at 3 p.m. and the left ear at 9 p.m. to use a clock face as a reference. Designers developed systems along the way that let you hear sound in quad, for instance, or simply through multiple speakers. What spatial audio, also called reality audio, does differently is an innovation to separate the sounds — voice, instruments, a bird chirping, a train passing, an airline passing above the clouds, etc. As a listener, you hear sound as it is in real life: above your head, below your feet and in every other direction.
Early pioneers of their music remixed using this technology include Keith Richards, The Beatles and Elton John. Numerous streaming services like TIDAL, Amazon, Nugs and others have started offering reality audio one song at a time mixed in with normal, traditional playlists. Major players in the space include Sony with its 360 Reality Audio and Apple Music with its offering of spatial audio with Dolby Atmos. As part of the team behind an online radio platform offering this new format, Peertracks, I’ve seen how this new sound experience for listeners could be the next revolution in audio.
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A question listeners who prefer their music old school might consider is why music stars would be interested in having their music altered via this new development — especially to the ears and in the minds of fans who felt it was perfect in the first place. I believe we remember how something makes us feel more than what we hear, and, when done right, spatial audio might evoke an even greater emotional experience. In spatial audio, the individual audio tracks can be enhanced in a way never available to creators previously. A listener might “feel” Keith Richards’ guitar parts moving from a far distance until it feels like he is standing next to you playing.
For content companies like record labels, publishers and podcasters, it’s also a new way to remonetize their existing catalogs. When CDs came into play and “replaced” vinyl, the companies made big money by remixing their libraries with the new digital format. This not only helped the companies but also helped re-vitalize and expose new generations of fans to music they may not have discovered on YouTube, TikTok or traditional radio.
In my mind, the main drawback I’m seeing right now is labeling confusion. Is the overall technology spatial sound, spatial audio or reality audio?
Putting that aside, spatial audio is a new experience. Technology continues to evolve, and we are blessed to remember fondly the songs, podcasts, speeches, and conversations that made us sing, laugh, cry, and feel with ever-increasing fidelity.