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The debate over multi-channel audio

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 
The October 2001 issue of Stereophile had some great letters about two-channel vs. multi-channel audio.

[Side note -- it always annoys me that it's called "multi-channel," since two-channel also has, er, "multiple" channels ]

One letter, by Paul Alter, I especially enjoyed, so I emailed the author and got permission to repost it here. I've pasted the edited version of the letter printed in the mag, rather than the original, unedited, letter.

P.S. Ken Kessler responded in another letter to address quotes about multi-channel that Sam Tellig had attributed to him (and which Mr. Alter included in his letter below). Basically Mr. Kessler is also a big fan of multi-channel, with the caveat that it's done to increase realism rather than to add "effects."


Over the years, the argument that analog is superior to digital because it is more "involving" has popped up many times in "Stereophile"; the assumption has always been that "involving" is good. It was, therefore, surprising to read Sam Tellig ("Stereophile, August 2001, "Sam's Space") arguing that surround sound is inferior to stereo because surround sound is more involving and more true to life. His exact words were: "What bothered me [about quadraphonic sound] was that I felt . . . more immersed in the music than I really cared to be, at home, on a regular basis, listening hour after hour. . . . If I want surround, I'll go to the concert hall."

Another argument Tellig uses is that "I also don't want surround-sound taking control of our living room --or my listening room, which doubles as a library." This same argument was used against stereo and, before there was stereo -- when good electronics were tubed and large and when good speakers ranged from large to enormous, against high fidelity. (I remember a conversation: Wife One: How can you put up with all this junk in your living room? Wife Two: Well, at least I know he's here, playing music, and not out somewhere else, playing around.)

Another consideration Tellig raises is, "Who knows what's next if multi channel takes hold--sub woofers built into the floor?" Well, as a matter of fact, a number of those were installed at one time. If memory serves, they were called "bass couplers" and were installed in the basement, between the floor joists of the listening room, and vented into the listening room. I don't know how accurate a signal they delivered, but there is no denying that they made the floor shake. On the other hand, some of the cleanest bass I ever heard was delivered by woofers installed in brick and concrete exponential horns built on the outside of the house and vented into the living room through holes in the walls.

To support his stand against surround-sound, Tellig says "Ken Kessler, for one, is aghast at the prospect that recording engineers will remaster his favorite two-channel rock recordings--moving the drummer over here, the bass player over there, completely rearranging the spatial characteristics of the original recording and making a mockery of what the musicians, perhaps now dead, intended. 'Move the drummer over to the left rear, Fred. Bring the vocalist forward a few feet'"

But the procedure that Kessler deplores was probably done in creating the original stereo mix. Many popular records are created by mixing down a number of mono tracks to two pseudo-stereo tracks, placing instruments where ever the producers want them. There is also "sweetening," which involves dubbing in instruments and/or vocalists who were not present at the original recording. The same artistic judgements that will be used in creating surround-sound recordings have been used for stereo recordings for many decades.

Tellig is also concerned about "what will they do to two-channel classical recordings? Recreate ambience? Use reverb for the rear channels?" Well, possibly. But isn't that what they have done to both classical and pop recordings since the advent of tape? I remember an incident in which original tapes that were too "dry" were played back in the basement of a synagogue and recorded on another tape, with the basement acoustics added to the original recording; the resultant album (a harpsichord recording, I believe) was much admired for it's hi-fi sound.. (At one time, there was a famous stairwell at Columbia records that was reserved for use as an echo chamber for adding reverb to pop recordings.)

However, authentic ambience tracks exist for many stereo recordings made over the past thirty years. (For example, many Vox recordings of American orchestras, some EMI/Angle recordings, St. Louis Symphony records made for RCA/BMG, and probably Vanguard recordings.)

In another discussion, involving cinema surround, Tellig includes the following: "I personally believe that surround sound is mainly about sound effects." This is the same argument once used against motion picture stereo sound, when stereo was denounced as a gimmick, intended only to astound the gullible. Going even further back, motion picture sound itself was resisted by many. Until as late as the 1950s, I heard arguments that the silent film was a perfect medium that was destroyed, rather than complemented, by sound. (And, by the way, "Long Ago and Far Away," which Tellig credits to George and Ira Gershwin on Page 37, is by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin.)

I have other disagreements with Tellig but I want to move on to another article in the same issue: "Stereo vs <5.l:> is more more . . . or less?" (Page 49). In this article, it is Steve Guttenberg's turn to oppose surround sound: "spreading your budget . . . over 5.1 channels instead of two always diminishes the quality of the components." Stereo advocates should remember that this same objection was raised against two channel sound. "Why would I want two mediocre channels rather than one excellent one!"

Guttenberg argues that setting up multi-channel systems in the optimal configuration is "impossible in the overwhelming majority of real-world rooms." The same holds true for stereo systems. Anyone can verify that: set the pre amp on mono, run a frequency sweep, and see if the signals stay centered between the speakers. It just ain't gonna happen; the tones meander back and force across the room as frequency changes. But, we don't reject stereo because a perfect setup is impossible; we position and tweak and use sound treatment to get the best possible stereo, and then we live with the results. We will do the same with multi-channel sound. It will be a sad day when we achive perfect sound and have no more improvements to make.

Guttenberg's statement that "Stereo can provide all the information we need about the ambience of the recording venue" is misleading. Ambience CAN be captured on a stereo recording, but it is captured as distortion. Dirt is matter out of place -- hair in the ice cream, ice cream in the hair. When ambient information such as acoustical sound is bent back into the front channels, it is matter out of place -- dirt -- which is, in sound reproduction, distortion. Multi- channel sound allows us to move ambient information form the front channels, where it is dirt, to the side and rear, where it belongs.

Guttenberg's lack of experience with multi-channel sound shows in his statement that "since the geniuses who design the hardware haven't yet figured out a way to give us something as mundane and obvious as a front/rear balance knob, the rear speakers are always too loud or too soft." To the contrary, not only have the geniuses provided balance knobs, some of them have even built in signal generators so that users can, with the aid of a sound meter, balance all five speakers.

Such examples as these demonstrate why I believe that the positions expressed by Sam Tellig and Steve Guttenberg in these articles can most charitably be described as "ill advised." They reflect no credit on either man. Their willingness to put themselves in such an unfortunate posison is explained by the following statement by Tellig (Page 31): "we 'stereophiles' (small s) are going to need all the strength we can muster to ward off the surround-sound threat."

Why would they need to do this? I could respect Tellig and Guttenberg if they had said, in effect, "I don't like surround-sound and here is why." However, what they DID say was, in effect, "Surround-sound is heresy, it must be destroyed, and we will use any weapons we have against it."

In 1971, I converted my system to surround sound via a simple Haffler hook up. In the following 30 years, I went from Haffler to SQ decoder to Audionics Space and Image Composer to the Lexicon that is in use at this time. I use this system (which includes five Martin-Logan speakers -- two main, one center, two side -- and a Velodyne woofer) for all my listening, no matter whether the source is mono, stereo, multi-channel, CD, FM, VHS, or DVD-Video. It is, of course, not perfect. But despite the several flaws my system has, the surround-sound it provides is TO ME preferable to stereo or mono.

Both Tellig and Guttenberg touch refer to the failure of quad. Quad sound did not fail. It was deliberately destroyed by stereophiles, dealers, and hi-fi journals, who would not even permit it to coexist with stereo, which it could have done quite easily. Instead, they worked hard to exterminate it. Now it is showing signs of life once again, but in improved form, and the opposition is forming up. Why?

High fidelity started as an avocation. Over the years it has metamorphosed into a religion, complete with sects, schisms, holy writ (What! All those reviews of expensive equipment! Too many reviews of cheap equipment! Automobile ads in our scriptures! Adds for dirty magazines! We have been defiled! Cancel! Cance! Cancel!), and heresies. Surround-sound is one such heresy, which true believers must destroy.

Let it go, fellahs. If you hate surround-sound, that's OK. If you hate surround sound and set out to destroy it, even if you have to ignore fact, history, reality, and truth to do so, that's wrong. Coexisting with surround sound won't destroy you; unreasoning fear will.
post #2 of 3
Talk about a non-issue. From now until the end of time SACD and DVD-A media will contain both 2-channel and multichannel tracks. If the Luddites at Stereophile insist on 2-channel sound, they'll have it.

That magazine is such a pile of sh*t it isn't even funny, it's tragic. Our wonderful little hobby has been endangered by dolts like that and their silly attitudes toward advances in technology. At last, we have two new mediums (SACD and DVD-A) and a "killer app"-- surround sound-- that has the *potential* to get new people interested in high-fidelity sound again. Why on Earth aren't they embracing it?

They'll have to change the name of their stupid rag, though. Die Stereophile, die!

post #3 of 3
I hope we learn to use the rear channels for natural ambience if we're going to record acoustic or semi acoustic music in the future. Also, we wouldn't need as big or expensive speakers & amps in the rears anyway.

However, if you're going to record straight-ahead quartets or symphonies with instruments panned behind me or on my lap, then that would suck.

Trippy (electronic) music could benefit from direct sounds from the rears, that's about it. God knows what they'll do to pop music, it will be pretty funny I think.
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