From Quadraphonic To Good Enough Sound

by Thomas Brett

Why did quadraphonic sound never catch on? Was it because no one wanted to have to set up four speakers instead of two?  Was it just too expensive and cumbersome?  Was it because its various formats were incompatible with one another?  Or did folks somehow collectively decide that stereo was good enough?

Quadraphonic or “Quad” sound was first developed for consumer use in 1970 and is the earliest version of what would be known today as 4.0 surround sound.  Quadraphonic sound systems use four speakers positioned at the four corners of the listening space, reproducing four discrete audio channels.  If you trace its history back further, you’ll find early experiments with surround sound associated with Walt Disney’s 1940 animated movie Fantasia (they ditched it after encountering too many technical problems) as well as experiments by Karlheinz Stockhausen (his electronic piece Kontakte featured quadraphonic sound) and Edgard Varese (whose piece Poeme Electronique used 425 loudspeakers set up in the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair).  While quadraphonic sound never caught on, by the 1990s it had re-emerged, albeit somewhat mutated, in the form of surround sound home theater speaker systems.

While I stopped keeping track a few years ago, last I heard surround sound was up to 7.1–that’s two audio channels up front (left and right), two on either side of one’s ears (left and right),  two in the back (ditto), and also a sub-bass channel (usually in the middle of the room) for the low frequencies.  You can hear the immersive glory of surround sound whenever you go to the movies.  Dolby Digital is behind current surround sounds developments.   Here is what 7.1 looks like:

But while surround sound formats–from quadraphonic all the way to 7.1–have undeniable sonic charm, it is pretty clear by now that most listeners accept the artifice that is stereo sound reproduction.  Even though we are physically equipped to hear quadraphonically and beyond– after all, we can precisely locate sounds not only anywhere around us in a 360 degree sonic field, but also above and below–stereo sound seems to provide us with a good enough approximation of how we go about hearing.  (An aside: Can dogs hear with accurate directionality?  I wonder about this because I often find our own dog, Sadie, looking the wrong way when she rightly hears a sound off in the distance.  I really do need to finish reading What A Dog Knows and report back on this…)

How can we be satisfied with such compromised dimensions for our sound reproduction?  One theory I have is that  stereo sound is good enough for us because our imaginations can “fill in” or otherwise make up for the missing dimensions of our listening-scape.  If you think about it, this is precisely what happens when we read a novel: we work along with the author’s descriptions of people and places, cross-referencing them with places and people from our own experiences.  It’s a collaborative process and we’re co-creators: novelist providing the grist for us to imaginatively process through our mill of experiences.  Perhaps listening to recorded sound demands the same kind of cognitive work out of us?  Then again, maybe stereo is good enough only because we have developed other priorities when it comes to listening to music?

What are these priorities, you ask?  To start, who would have guessed that the development of recorded media technology–from turntables and LPs to cassettes and tape recorders, samplers and computers–would lead us headlong deep into what Kevin Kelly calls our “recombinant” or remixed era.  From this perspective, what is important is not so much sonic fidelity–is the sound in mono? stereo? surround?–but a matter of intertextuality or how we relate one sound to others in our increasingly dense soundscapes.  I mean to say: figuring out the connections between various sounds and pieces of music and styles of music and micro variants on those styles is one of the challenges faced by anyone who wants to listen closely and make sense of the tangle of competing, connecting sound worlds that constitutes our time.  Certainly the rise and popularity of MP3s, despite their relative low fidelity, points to the possibility that we have lots of other priorities when it comes to music: copying music, circulating music, storing music, remixing music, mutating music.

Whether or not we are in a recombinant era, technology marches on towards ever better fidelity, better resolution, better sampling rates, better bass, higher definition (HD), Blue Ray, and so so.  Lately, 3D video is being touted as the next revolution in seeing with dimensionality–kind of like surround seeing, right?  3D video works by presenting slightly misaligned images to our eyes, which forces our minds to reconcile the differences and create the optical illusion of depth.  But will 3D help us watch the news or the sitcoms or sports?  Will our desires be shaped down the road simply by what will become possible or will we decide that 2D video, like stereo sound, is good enough (for now)?

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