Is spatialisation superficial?

A gentleman by the name of York Holler who apparently had a hand in shutting down the West-deutscher Rundfunk (an important studio in the production of electronic music), said that he thought that tape music was obsolete and that spatialisation is superficial… circa 2001.

A veritable who’s who of electro-acoustic music composition wrote letters to the Computer Music Journal (2001) in protest of Holler’s statements… namely, Ludger Brümmer, Guenther Rabl, Konrad Boehmer, Jean-Claude Risset, Jonty Harrison, François Bayle, Johannes Goebel, Francis Dhomont and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Here is the reference:

Makes for a very interesting read. I agree with this quote, by Johannes Goebel:

In my opinion the spatial placement of sounds, whether instrumentally or electronically, has about the same potential for aesthetic differentiation as loudness. Compared to pitch and timbre, localization yields far less potential for aesthetic differentiation, but on the other hand no one would deny that in quite a few pieces loudness is an important, highly sophisticated, composed part of music. And the same could be said for the distribution of sound in space.

Is Tape Music Obsolete? Is Spatialization Superficial?
Ludger Brümmer, Guenther Rabl, Konrad Boehmer, Jean-Claude Risset, Jonty Harrison, François Bayle, Johannes Goebel, Francis Dhomont and Karlheinz Stockhausen
Computer Music Journal
Vol. 25, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 5-11
(article consists of 7 pages)

I’m not sure about his choice of words ‘aesthetic differentiation’ … I’m not sure what he means by that. But what is interesting about this notion, that spatial location should be on par with loudness is that I am arguing (in my thesis) that loudness is, most often, an expression of distance. In other words, I am saying that loudness is a spatial index … just in the same way that localisation is a spatial index. To that list, I would add such things as reverberation, echos, panning, stereo width  etc. These are all indeces of space … where as pitch and timbre are not.

But I dont think that localisation is the principle index of space. I think reverberation holds that crown. And reverberation translates perfectly well to stereo, or even mono music.

In other words, the principle index of space does not require multiple speakers for communication. So, to my thinking, the suggestion that the use of multiple speakers is superficial has *some* resonance. But the suggestion that spatial audio is superficial cannot be right.

That said, I also feel some sympathy for Holler’s statement:

the central content of music counts, and this content is not lost by stereophonic, quadraphonic, or Dolby-Surround performance.

My research suggests that the only spatial cue that cannot be communicated in stereo is location (and rear location at that). But that does not mean that ‘reality-equivalent’ systems such as ambisonics and wave field synthesis are pointless…  no no. But what they offer is better described by the term greater suspension of disbelief, than it is by ‘spatial audio’.

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3 Responses to Is spatialisation superficial?

  1. mark says:

    Isn’t reverb just the impulse response of a space? In which case, yes, it perfectly *describes* the space. How good is clever reverb and stereo arrangement at giving the impression of location in a space? Can it, for instance, simulate the effect of standing next to a reflective wall rather than in the middle of a concert hall? (I’m not asking this rhetorically.)

    • Hi Mark,

      I’d say that stereo can simulate the effect of early reflections … simply because I have mixed down ambisonic simulations of first reflections, to stereo, reasonably successfully. Perhaps the limitation is that the position of the wall is limited to what can work in the limited stereo sphere. And there’s always the discrepancy in virtual reality … or …. suspension of disbelief.

  2. mark says:

    Nice post, by the way.

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