Platon Buravicky & Dirty Deal Audio ambisonics studio

Erica Synths' Eliza Aboltina spoke with Kristaps Puķītis - the founder of Dirty Deal Audio, Gustavs Lociks and Platon Buravicky to learn more about the past, present & future of spatial sound.

Ambisonics is a method for recording, mixing and playing back three-dimensional 360-degree audio that was invented in the 1970s by the pioneering British engineer Michael Gerzon. Although hardware Ambisonic systems were soon developed, they were never a commercial success until recently when the development of the VR industry required 360° audio solutions. The basic approach of Ambisonics is to treat an audio scene as a full 360-degree sphere of sound coming from different directions around a center point. The center point is where the microphone is placed while recording, or where the listener’s ‘sweet spot’ is located while playing back.

- How was the idea of creating an ambisonics studio in Liepāja born?

KP: It all started 5 years ago, but at the time I didn't know that our work would focus on the spherical sound. Dirty Deal Audio (an electronic music label & collective, established in 2006 in Riga - ed.) had just started to build a studio in Liepāja. I was thinking about spatial sound but at the time I didn't know what it was.

We got the idea from our partners in Italy - Fullscream - and I started to look into the field. Coincidentally, our colleague Niklāvs was writing a bachelor thesis about binaural recording. So we decided to start the journey into the unknown. We then visited Mantautas Krukauskas in Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and we agreed on the first ambisonics workshop here in Liepāja together with MPLab. Step by step, we have had 2 workshops, a concert, consecutively Platons Buravickis and Gustavs Lociks joined our initiative and then already on our own we built the sound sphere in Liepāja. In general it has been a long learning process and only recently we found out the ways in which we can use the concept of ambisonics both in art & business settings.

For now we have set up a 19 speaker and 1 subwoofer ambisonic studio and residency space and we are very keen to experiment. The purpose of the studio is to create content in a diverse range of musical genres, while also working to make it more accessible for the audience - listeners. This is our playground to spread the message about the ambisonics format and new ways of listening to music as well as producing music.

- Spatial sound concept is neither new nor very common, why so?

KP: The concept of ambisonics has existed since the 70s but only recently the term of the patent has ended. It's not very widely applied yet. In the Baltics there are currently only 2 studios - Vilnius Music Innovation Study center (part of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre - ed.) is one that has been active for several years (led by Mantautas) and now also our studio in Liepāja. With a few other studios around. Lately the activity is comparatively wider spread and people are starting to talk about it, some to work with it. One of the things that helps to promote the concept and its possible applications is that it is widely used in virtual reality environments. That helps to acknowledge the range of possibilities spatial sound offers. Nevertheless, ambisonics are still far away from being considered a mainstream technology.

GL: I think the problem is that since the term of the patent just ended and the research was mainly done by the government in the United Kingdom, a new wave of independent research has restarted only now. There's a lot of companies, Apple being one of them, mainly tech companies that do not even specialize in sound, who are trying to adopt the technology. But this has just started and is still in the very beginning of the second cycle (if we consider the origination of ambisonics the first one).

Ambisonics is the sound of the future.

PB: At the time being we have no adequate technology for spatial sound. There is Dolby Surround (one layer is 5 or 7 speakers, second layer is a subwoofer) system for sound in one layer and the Dolby Atmos for two layers of sound (one layer is 5 or 7 speakers, second layer is 2 speakers) - nevertheless these sound systems are still very limited. But ambisonics works with each channel of sound individually, you can transcript and adjust music composed for quadraphonic systems for Dolby Atmos, but with ambisonics e.g. 8 speaker and Cube setup you can create the music in two layers, 4 speakers each without any manipulation. It could hypothetically work on 1000 speakers too (laughing - ed).

- How do you see the future?

PB: Ambisonics is a logical next step in the evolution of sound and music. In the 19th century we had ordinary orchestras, ordinary keyboards, the 20th century came with jazz and pop music. With each step in the development of music it becomes more and more complicated. For example, now we listen to music only in stereo… People must follow the time. This is also very important for children and music education, musical therapy also. These are new technological possibilities and we must adapt and benefit from them.

KP: It largely influences how we listen to music. And how we produce music. Producing for ambisonic environments creates space to not only think about the composition of music, but also the placement of each sound in the space or sound-field.

It's a whole new dimension that comes into the process of music production.

- How specific are the tools required to create sound for spatial sound systems?

PB: In the academic world we have the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in France as well as some people working within the field in USA, Italy, Germany, Netherlands and Estonia.

KP: As well as some places in Norway and Finland. But for now we are using the ambiX (a plugin created by Matthias Kronlacher - ed.) that can be used in Reaper - and for now that is basically the only DAW that one can use. Some things can be done in Ableton but it is still rather limited.

GL: The problem with using Ableton is that it has limited output channels... A lot of confusion when getting to know ambisonics comes from the principle differences between ambisonics and regular multichannel systems. The difference is similar to an image display and a 360 video. As multi-channel setups usually use speakers as sound sources themselves, ambisonics speaker setup basically uses all available speakers to simulate infinite sound sources in an virtual audio sphere, by calculating how the audio has to sound for each speaker.

Ambisonics is definitely easier to set up on Mac computers, as a lot of sound professionals probably know, default sound drivers on Mac computers are a lot more open and allows easier multi channel routing, which is practically absent in Windows audio drivers. Depending on the audio interface, ambisonics can be quite challenging to work with in a Windows environment. The absence of analogue ambisonics devices is another problem, currently it is not really possible to set up ambisonics without a computer, which a lot of music professionals would probably prefer. The complexity continues to grow along with the number of speakers in the specific system. Because of any differences in the distance between each speaker and the ambisonics sphere sweet-spot, to achieve the perfect sound, it's also necessary to adjust any volume and delay issues for each speaker. Most of this can also be dealt with by building a custom speaker “sphere”, but it can be more costly and time consuming. A lot of these problems will most probably be dealt with and addressed, as the technology matures. None of this is impossible to deal with; it just requires a lot more tinkering in setting up than more traditional sound systems.

PB: Perhaps in the future we will have more tools, however for now we have to stick to Reaper. Nevertheless, it is completely logical considering that the accessibility of the ambisonic sound systems are still rare enough. Right now Kristaps is the only person who has the system (in Latvia - ed.) and on top of that the only one in near proximity without being affiliated with an institution.

- From the perspective of producers, composers and musicians… How accessible is the information that is necessary in order to acquire knowledge?

PB: It's rather important to have an instructor or teacher that can help with guidance and knowledge. If you have no basic understanding it can be quite hard. For example, I have the knowledge from a time I had residency in Lithuania with Mantautas hence less preparation was needed before my residency.

KP: One of the reasons for launching the residency, as well as one of the general aims of the studio and our activities are to educate and spread the knowledge on how to produce for ambisonic setups. We intend to create an environment for playback of such productions as well as space for the audience to listen and experience. We are not the only ones working in this direction, it's too early to predict how the future will look, but the main goal is to make ambisonic sound systems more accessible. We envision there will be more musicians that work within the concept, concerts that showcase the works created, as well as sound tech companies gaining more knowledge of how ambisonic systems are built and set up. I believe we will catch up quickly.

PB: In my opinion, educating listeners should be the priority, only then the professionals. We need the listeners to create demand for the whole concept.

Without the listeners it's just a closed circle.

What are the future plans for the Liepājas ambisonic studio?

KP: It's too early to get into the specifics, but there are several ideas we are working on. We are now in partnership with the sound and light set up providers 3S , putting our heads together to make it more accessible for larger audiences. In terms of residency, it's a very fresh concept for us so we will continue inviting guests - music producers and professionals from the academic world, people who already are familiar with the ambisonics format so we ourselves can learn through experimentation.

- Platons has been the first guest of the residency, how did it go?

PB: I had two main topics to work on. First, the aesthetics of material created for the ambisonic setups - how and where to listen to this material, to make a difference for the listener. Second, the work with a modular system. Erica Synths built a new module - the Black Joystick2. That allowed for an idea to stem on how to master the ambisonic setup, how to work with an input and an analogue signal. I worked on understanding how to connect the set up, creating patch notes and documentation. For example, to apply guitar signal to a modular synthesizer that has two of the Black Joystick2 modules and make a recording for the ambisonics. The goal was to push the sound from 2D to 3D but instead of using a MIDI controller, achieving that with an analogue signal. And it was done.

The custom made Erica Synths system is a rather suitable instrument for live ambisonic mastering. A particular benefit of this modular system is that mastering is performed by values of an analog signal.

There were many possibilities of patching with the joysticks. I would like to emphasize the two most optimal:

  • First – one joystick controls the whole sphere, while the second joystick manipulates FX.
  • Second – one joystick controls the lower layer of the ambisonic sphere, while the second one controls upper layers, which in turn are patched through the Black Stereo Delay module. In conclusion, this system broadens the possibilities of performing live in ambisonic setups. It allows connecting different hardware instruments, interesting modular or standalone systems. It is good for jamming in a group or for creating new compositions.

The sonic material now has not only the rhythm and sounds with definite pitch (melodies), but also the spatial dimension to it.

KP: We had the first few experiments and it was indeed a success!

PB: This time we focused on the research and figuring out the specifics of how this set up works. We used both DAW and analogue synthesizers… The technical question of connection and set up was big enough to focus on. Before any specific material is created we must understand how to present it. Currently the playback can only take place in the DDA studio in Liepāja.

- Maybe you can explain what is the biggest difference between experiencing sound in stereo and ambisonic setups for the listener?

PB: Musically it is very simple, if you listen to music in ambisonic environments, you become more developed, educated and more prepared for life in the modern times. But technically it's much closer to the experience one has while being in nature. All the sounds we experience are based in 3D environments. One could say that listening in stereo we only hear one dimension. That's not perfect. Generation after generation we reduce the capabilities of our brain. We need to go back to nature and what I mean by that is creating contemporary sound environments in 3D using the technology we have.

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