Essay On Listening to Symphonies in Surround Sound

by | Jun 1, 2005 | Special Features | 0 comments

Symphonies in Surround Sound –

A Listening Must?

This comes from the note
booklet to one of the multichannel SACDs we review this month. While it
refers specifically to the symphonies of Ries it discusses surround
sound for concert music recordings in general. We thought it was highly
appropriate since that is a major focus of AUDIOPHILE AUDITION. 
A number of questions always arise during the planning phase of every
recording production: Why are we making this or that recording? What do
we want to accomplish with this recording? What hall offers the proper
recording space?  Today, however, advances in recording technique
require that we ask an additional question: What does the option of a
surround recording have to offer us?

Let us consider for a moment the familiar listening situation of stereo
recording technique. We are sitting in our living rooms, ideally in a
middle position between two speakers, and listening to the recording of
Ferdinand Ries’s symphonies.

First, the composer and his music occupy the foreground. We can easily
follow his compositional technique, and we hear the power in his music,
the alternation between winds and strings, the great importance of the
timpani, the interlocking of motif and rhythm, and the great
compositional dynamic. Moreover, we are able to form a quite good
impression of the performance by the orchestra and of the acoustical
character of the large church space in which the recording was made.
One could rest content with all of the above – as one has had to until

If we listen closely >>into<< the music, however, we
realize that there is always a distance between the speakers and the
listening position. The sound picture opens up before the listener, but
in the case of a stereo recording it cannot embrace her or him. And it
is here that the home listening situation differs from the musical
experience in the concert hall. Side and back reflections are of
decisive importance in the formation of the overall sound impression of
a musical event. The temporal and dynamic relation between sound heard
directly and sound reflected from the walls and ceiling conveys to us a
very good impression about the room in which the music is performed. It
is here that we find our first answer about the sense of a surround
recording. It is only within certain narrow limits that a stereo
recording is able to transport into our living rooms the immensely
important information contained in the reflection.

In the case of the Ries symphonies we have employed the surround
recording for the transmission of the parameters described. The careful
selection of microphone types and the positioning of the surround
microphones in the recording space have enabled us to simulate the
sound in the manner that it is heard in an ideal and central position
behind the conductor in the church. The listener with a surround system
set up perfectly in her or his living room now can form a very precise
picture of the performance space – yes, even experience the performance
as if he or she were sitting in the church.

The sound is no longer in the distance. We must no longer listen
>>into<< the music. The decisively important side
reflections now present include the listener in the sound event with
the highest degree of realism.

This inclusion becomes apparent, for example, in the case of the
trumpets and trombones. The blaring playing of these instruments
produces a wealth of reflections on the back wall and thus lends the
sound picture an enormous depth. The cantilenas of the cellos, which
now radiate a greater warmth and openness, are also impressive to hear.
The motivic interplay between the instrumental groups also takes on a
new dimension. And many more examples could be cited along these lines.

The result is a greatly enhanced, intensive sound experience conveying
Ries’s music to us in an entirely different manner. The enhanced
richness of sound also improves the clarity and listening quality of
the recording – which not least supports the composition and with it
the authenticity of the score.

— Stephan Reh, Translated by Susan Marie Praeder

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