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Posted by on May 30, 2014 | 2 comments

Art of Surround

Acousmonium, INA-GRM, 1980. Photo by Laszlo Ruska.

Surround (Oxford Dictionary)

  • (verb) [with object] – Be all round (someone or something)
  • (noun) – A thing that forms a border or edging around an object.
  • (adjective) (Surrounding) – All around a particular place or thing.

Based merely on a technological approach, one might think that Surround sound is just the technique of reproducing audio signals in a particular array of speakers that distribute sound around space in order to give a three-dimensional illusion for the ears…

Surround is not visual really, is not something we can see. Surround is not just a technique of distributing sound, but the consequences of it. It’s a characteristic of sound itself, natural to the sonic phenomenon and responsible of the entire notion of the “auditory field” which is more than simply one dimension of space, but a multi-layered, multi-dimensional representation of sound.

In this article I aim to explore different experiments and perspectives toward the use of surround sound and the experiments between space and form, getting out from the image/film relationship in order to explore how sound “alone” can be enriched by the process of multichannel distribution, which has been deeply explored aesthetically, psychologically, musically, etc.

Sound is surround

Our cognitive processes may lead us to difference sounds and fragment the auditory field into “objects that are apparently in space” but sound phenomena is actually creating the notion of space itself. In other words, there’s really not sound IN surround, but a surrounding experience of sound, or even “silence”, since the fact of having such big amount of spatialization, also gives a big amount for “silent field”, the sonic void, even with two sources (stereo field), as Michel Chion says in the great Audio-Vision book (pg. 155) regarding his notion of superfield, which specially points to the space created by ambient sounds.

“Dolby stereo increases the possibility of emptiness in film sound at the same time that it enlarges the space that can be filled. It’s this capacity for emptiness and not just fullness that offers possibilities yet to be explored. Kurosawa has magnificently exploited this dimension in Dreams: sometimes the sonic universe is reduced to a single point—the sound of the rain, an echo that disappears, a simple voice.” – Michel Chion

What we call space is a notion given directly by the form of sounds. For example, reverberation can be understood as the sum of echoing faculties, resonance extending the sound object in order to be felt as if it is “inside” a space. But, for instance, any person who deals with reverb effects digitally or analogically (including the act of playing sounds into different acoustic environments or even techniques such as “worldizing”) can easily explore how the notion of space is created from an apparently dry object, which is not really taken to any space but transformed in order to give the illusion of it.

An example that showcases that role of space when designing and defining our actual notion of space (not just sonic, visual, or whatever, but simply space) could be a work that actually exaggerates and expands that notion of territory. That is the “Hyper-rainforest” installation by sound artist Francisco López, for which one hundred speakers were placed in two concentric concert halls in New York in order to create a hyperreal surround space. The composition used field recordings from different rainforest in order to experience the complexity of those places in a new environment.

Space, form and illusion

The same illusory situation occurs with any surround application because “placing” or “distributing” objects around the auditory field is just a way of transforming sonic materials, of shaping the space itself by a treatment of forms, thus creating a game of diffusion. Surround and multichannel audio also open the path to a way of distributing frequency into different speakers and their range, along the possibilities regarding configuration of outputs around the physical axis.

It’s like creating sonic holograms, since in the acousmatic world, echo is just sound and the object can be also understood as a mixture of them. Take the example of convolution processes, where you can use any sound recording as if it were a “space”. In those process, you can, for instance, take the sound of your voice or a cowbell and place any other sound “inside” those, getting all kind of different results and virtual spaces.

“Listeners perceive the location of sound from the first arriving direction typically, but this is modified by a variety of effects due to non-delayed or delayed sound from any particular direction. These effects include timbre changes, localization changes, and spaciousness changes.”Tomlinson Holman

There’s a direct relationship between the morphology of sounds over time and the conception of space. Surround sound, as any other sonic spatialization method, is not merely a mixing/distributing process but also a technique concerning sound design and implying huge aesthetic impact. Mixing is an art of designing just as editing is, and actually, in practice, editing has a lot of mixing and vice versa, and the act of leading sounds and frequencies in order to be reproduced in different/dedicated speakers in a multichannel system is just a way of designing, transforming and giving shape to the whole experience that is given to the audience. It’s about creating not only sound effects/objects but fabricating spaces with them, like feeding time with signals in order to build sequences of spatial fantasies.

If sound design would be just the creation of single sound effects it would be a bit boring because the interesting fact on this discipline (at least from what I think) is actually to be able to compose, combine and structure those sounds, like a musician imagining rhythms and melodies with instruments, but in this case telling stories with different materials and its distribution, which can be also in relationship with conceptual, emotional, narrative or visual elements. That’s why the greatest sound creators are not just those who build the most complex and intricate sounds, but those who know where and when to put each sound and how the dialogue between all the sonic elements is established. Sometimes, a better choice is actually to not place a sound, but leaving an apparently empty space.

The soundtrack is like breathing: it’s a dynamic process which not only depends on the “filled spaces” but also the “empty ones”, a constant dialogue of sound and silence which results in a particularly organized/decorated space. In fact, when Walter Murch conceived the term “sound design” he was primarily thinking about space, very inspired from the concepts behind architecture and interiors design. And sound design is probably an art of that, of surrounding, territory, distance and movement. It’s the alchemy of field, using time in order to feed our illusion of place.

“The origin of the term “sound designer” goes back to Apocalypse Now when I was trying to come up with what I had actually done on the film. Because Francis [Coppola] had wanted to do the film in this quadraphonic format, which had never been done before, that seemed to require from me an analysis of the design of the film in a three-dimensional space of the sound. I thought, ‘Well, if an interior designer can go into an architectural space and decorate it interestingly, that’s sort of what I am doing in the theater. I’m taking the three-dimensional space of the theater and decorating it with sound.'” Walter Murch

The importance of the listener

To inhabit sonic places is to be introduced into multi-dimensional spheres of consciousness and multichannel audio gives possibilities not only for creating “more realistic” or immersive experiences, but also deep connections with our listening process itself and our way of relating to spaces. What it tell us not just about a film, but our reality itself, both the outer and “inner” theater. Sound is naturally a multilayered, multichannel, multidirectional, multidisciplinary, multidimensional element.

Surround sound is not only possible because of technology but because of the listener. All this 360-degree audio process is dependent on its center: our listening spot, created from a dialogue between two ears, which are not always at the center of a theater (or environment) for example, but configure the main axis of the sonic experience. In fact, there’s much difference to sit in a corner than to sit in the center of a place. We change the spatial features of sound as we flow in time. We can experience surround sound everywhere, and sometimes it can be felt in pretty amazing ways. In fact, is not just because of external space, but inner faculties, like if sound objects were placed inside the mind, not just acoustic space.

A great example of those “surrounding explorations” could be the installation-based “Works for Wave Field Synthesis” by Robert Henke, where he explores sound distribution in space from an array of 192 virtually controlled speakers.

“Most spectacular is the effect of locating a sound source inside the head of a listener, an experience that cannot be achieved with other techniques. The large number of speakers is the equivalent to a large number of pixels in the visual world, enabling subtle and precise placements in space and an impossible depth of field.” Robert Henke

One effect that is experienced in a deep experience of place by listening is the extension of the consciousness of one’s body, where the fact of being always surrounded by sound can make us experience our connection to the territory in different ways, creating not only a spatial illusion but an emotional and psychic one, for example in terms of atmosphere, form or time.

Sound design could be defined as an art of embracing the listener into his/her own infinite realm. Surround sound and almost any multichannel sound approach deeply affect sound shape and its narrative; and in there, mixing is storytelling because implies to take the role of an illusionist not just of those ghostly phenomena called sounds, but emotions, concepts, realities, life.

Take for instance the work of artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, in which she invites the listeners to explore the notion of non-visual space, from an installation that is based on different arrays of speakers and acoustic properties.

Without the listener, multichannel would not be “multi”. The most important things when developing multichannel audio mixes, designs and compositions are actually dependent on the connection the person in charge of those process has with listening, and from that, the relationship he or she is able to develop towards the own experience of sound that is already surrounding in nature.

A challenge of immersion

The surrounding faculties of sound could be summed in the notion of immersion, where the listener’s capabilities, the artist’s decisions and the available technical faculties converge. That’s probably why a film in surround is actually very different to one in stereo. The same is for a videogame, a sonic installation, a concert or even a composition.

The surround capabilities of sound are one of its most special aspects, especially in terms of interaction and how we can relate to sound. For example, when the movement of experimental/concrete music started in France in the 80’s, there was a lot of importance given to multichannel audio and its distribution in different kinds of speakers placed in different spots, not just because the immersion and distribution in the auditory field, but also because of its faculties regarding the sound objects and the space-form dialogue.

One clear example is the Acousmonium and the different multichannel explorations done by the GRM, where space is valued as a “fifth element”, as GRM’s director Daniel Teruggi tells in his fantastic lecture at Sonic Acts 2010.

Another music/sound art related example is the immersound project by one of my favorite artists, France Jobin. In this project, she purposes a philosophy based in surround and immersion faculties of sound, by creating concerts focused on the listeners’ comfort and the surrounding of sound in their space.

Also, a most recent system, in this case applied to cinema would be that of Dolby Atmos, where the realism of surround goes beyond in order to bring a new experience of atmosphere.

Also present in the Auro3D technology (thanks to the reader who pointed to this in the comments):

In general, we can see that this kind of explorations is present in several fields: film sound, electroacoustic/experimental music, sound art, psychoacoustic research or even in the binaural and virtual surround methods such as those developed in headphones. But at the end, we are all challenging our natural mixing and exploring sonic storytelling using sound, we’re all expanding not just how sound is felt, but how is it created, shaped and distributed in reality.

Into the mix of nature

“In the external or internal space, it resounds, that is, it re-emits itself while still actually “sounding,” which is already “re-sounding” since that’s nothing else but referring back to itself. To sound is to vibrate in itself or by itself: it is not only, for the sonorous body, to emit a sound, but it is also to stretch out, to carry itself and be resolved into vibrations that both return it to itself and place it outside itself.” Jean-Luc Nancy

The best way of learning about surround sound is actually giving attention to our natural condition of perceiving different sound objects in space, how they “re-sound” on us. There could be a lot of talking about the immersive faculties of surround sound, but better than that is to be immersed and surrounded by sound.

In practical listening to everyday environments and places is easy to find that this is not just about “3D space”, but also about being space. To listening to sounds in the field and even to record them in a multichannel system, allow us to relate to sound in profound ways and actually there’s not sound as complex as the one that is already there. Air and space are probably the ultimate sound designer duo.

Even with recorded sound, it’s possible to notice that. Field recordings allow us to travel between sonic realities using our mind, altering our notion of space in all possible ways. For example, with sound libraries being done in Surround, the experience is impressive and very immersive, for example the Mountain Air or Quiet Forest libraries by Tonsturm.

Anyway, this topic could lead to pretty long discussions and explorations, but I hope this at least gave you an introduction of the possibilities. And, as always when it comes to sound, better than reading is to listen; so, with or without a recorder or speakers, do the exercise: Place yourself on any spot, any time. Listen to space as sound, to sound in space or to yourself as the space. Identify the networks created in the complex relationships established between all sounds and their natural “multichannel” dynamics.

Search for the emotional space, the physical space or the narrative territories; examine how you affect the notion of space; feel the poetics of places by listening to them; navigate into the sonic universe; be inhabited by the multidimensional spirit of listening; evaluate how time affects that sonic space and let yourself float in the surround. Create with your ears by submerging in the frequency ocean, go beyond the 360-degree paradigm and let the sound inundate you. Be immersed, be surrounded, be invaded. Or just be sound.


  1. You should also check out Auro3D, an even more immersive experience then Atmos, in my experience. Almost like binaural sound in cinema.

  2. Great article, really enjoyed the read. I also agree that people should check out Auro-3D, their approach is much more immersive and lifelike than competitors Dolby. I recently interviewed the CEO of Auro Technologies Wilfried Van Baelen in which we discussed many aspects of the company and its technologies. If you would like to read it you can do so here:

    I recently discovered Designing Sound and have been visiting frequently since, keep up the great work!


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