As announced in my last post, Andreas Fickers (director C2DH) and I are organizing a small workshop on “histories and practices of multi-channel sound reproduction” (February 2-3, 2017). Below you can find short descriptions of the papers that will be presented during the one and a half days.

Moving from binaural to monaural listening: rethinking through concepts of stereophony by way of the theatrophone (1881-1936)

Melissa Van Drie (University of Cambridge)

The théâtrophone often occupies the space of beginnings in histories of stereophony: a spectacular gadget, a popularized event that materialized the experience of “binaural” listening across diverse cultural arenas. Yet as with many narratives, this starting point is much more complex. Indeed, historical reflection of this symbol may reveal elements that are enriching to and disruptive of current archeological bases of stereophony. This paper will explore the ways in which the théâtrophone’s transductive dispositive evolved over its nearly fifty years of existence: pointing out the types of microphones, earphones and loudspeakers that were used throughout its history; and its interactions with phonography, telephony and radiophony developing at the same time. The point of departure is to consider how and why the théâtrophone actually shifted from a binaural idea of broadcasting—through multiple microphones linked to headphones—to a monaural diffusion through loudspeakers. This shift seems qualitatively opposed to current concepts of the development of stereophony.

The théâtrophone has a close and continual relationship to the theater and musical performance scene of its time. In my histories up until present, I have suggested the necessity of reading this technology in relation not only to the socio-technological discourse of its day, but in regards to the performance culture it broadcast. This paper allows me to plung into the materiality of the media. In doing so I hope to raise other questions and means for considering the performative dimensions of this technical object in action—which I believe is central to revisiting types of binaural listening practices and reflecting on historiographical topics at the center of this workshop on sound and media archeology.

Understanding Stereophony? Early Dummy Head Research on Sound Localization

Stefan Krebs (University of Luxembourg)

It was not until the mid-1950s that the state of electro-acoustical equipment reached the necessary qualities for high-fidelity sound transmission. In particular the development of high-quality condenser microphones enabled sound recordings with a broad frequency spectrum (30Hz-15kHz) and good dynamic range. Also the other elements of the sound transmission chain (amplifiers, loudspeakers etc.) had been improved significantly since the 1930s. In 1955, an electrical engineer stated that current electro-acoustical equipment can, for the first time, (re-)produce an exact “frequency photography” of a sound event (Koester 1955). However, the reproduction of this “frequency photography” did not please listeners in all aspects. One reason for the missing “naturalness” of high-fidelity sound reproduction was seen in the absence of spatial information due to the common monophonic transmission systems. Since 1931, different stereophonic systems had been developed that used two, three or more channels to add (some) spatial perspective to the transmitted sound picture. During the 1950s, research on stereophonic sound intensified, in particular, on two-channel systems. The aim was twofold: to improve stereophonic equipment and to understand human spatial hearing, because the interplay of sound localization (in the horizontal plane) and the type of stereophonic sound reproduction was still unclear. Electrical engineers at the Technical university in Aachen compared three different stereo arrays: intensity stereophony, time-of-arrival stereophony and mixed stereophony (exploiting concomitantly interaural intensity and time differences). For the latter type a dummy head microphone was built. The paper will describe the research efforts of the Aachen engineers and discuss the (still) limited understanding of human spatial hearing and of stereophonic sound reproduction.

The Perfect Image:  Stereophiles and The Spatialization of Sound in the Quadrophonic Age

Eric Barry (William Paterson University)

While audio researchers explored the possibilities of multichannel sound in the 1930s, the first two generations of audio enthusiasts focused on other aspects of reproduction as more fundamental than the portrayal of location, including bandwidth, flat response, volume and dynamics, distortion, and the absence of background noise.  Stereo brought a sense of space to the fore.  Ironically, between the early 1960s and the late 1960s, recording techniques for classical had drastically changed, away from a naturalistic perspective rendered by a few microphones that captured the entire orchestra towards the individual capture of instruments or sections reconstituted as a depthless curtain of sound by the mixing engineer.

One response to the desire for depth and ambiance came in the form of speakers that radiated sound away from the listener as well as towards, most famously the Bose 901 loudspeaker introduced in 1968.  Four channel sound recordings followed soon after, likewise promising to envelop the listener.  For a growing group of perfectionists, both approaches travestied their idea of fidelity.  Coalescing around advertising-free “little magazines,” they articulated a scathing critique of the commercialism of the recording industry and the audio magazines that depended upon it—Stereo Review, High Fidelity, and Audio.  Against the bland technical reports of those magazines, Stereophile and The Absolute Sound offered extensive sonic descriptions using a new vocabulary of sound.  In particular, these magazines placed increasing focus on the ability of two-channel stereo components to localize and individuate a sound image and to portray a virtual “soundstage” that floated free of the loudspeaker positions.  Thus, while quad was a spectacular failure, “imaging” and “soundstaging” became the calling cards of a burgeoning “high-end audio” market.

Stereo and the Emergence of Multi-Track Recording

Susan Schmidt Horning (St. John’s University, NYC)

Histories of the development of stereo recording trace its roots to the 1933 patent of the British engineer Alan Blumlein, yet nearly three decades passed before stereo LPs became available to consumers. In the interim, binaural recording systems, stereo and three-channel tape recording, and public demonstrations of live three-channel sound whetted the appetites of audiophiles and inspired forward-thinking recording engineers to experiment with simultaneously recording in mono- and stereophonic formats even before the technology of stereo disc-cutting and playback had been developed. By the time stereo LPs and FM stereo broadcasting were a reality in the early 1960s, another revolution was underway in studio recording in the form of multi-tracking. During the 1960s, the standard recording formats went from 2- and 3-track to 4-track and 8-track. There was at least one 12-track system, and by the 1970s, 16-track was becoming the standard. Multi-tracking posed both challenges and opportunities for engineers, musicians, and producers, who began to think differently about the process of recording and musical creativity. Unlike much of the work to date on stereophony and multichannel sound which focuses on the listener, this study will examine the impact of multi-channel sound on those who made records.

The Auditory Palimpsest

Aleks Kolkowski (London)

This paper examines how a physical sound recording medium may be intentionally transformed into an auditory palimpsest containing multiple traces of sounds. The process described uses concepts of erasure, sous rature, remembrance and decay as the basis for sound compositions that are recorded, partially erased then re-recorded or superimposed onto wax cylinders, disc records or magnetic tape and also onto non-audio media such as exposed radiographic film.

I will discuss my own recent work in this field, with an emphasis on the wax cylinder as a medium of choice, as well as practices in the visual arts, experimental film and photography, with examples by Robert Rauschenberg, John Latham, Bill Morrison and Alison Rossiter. References to Freud’s “Mystic Writing Pad”, Gombrich’s observations on speech and memory, Zielinski’s “Deep Time of the Media” and traces of Derrida constitute the literary substrates.

A practical session involving superimposing sounds onto a wax cylinder will follow the paper presentation.

Recording a Binaural Radio Drama about the History of Binaural Sound Recording

Andreas Fickers (Luxembourg)

Based on recent scholarship in the field of experimental media archaeology, this presentation will reflect on how objects of media technology can be used as sources for a sensorial-focused history of technology and the media. Focusing on a recent media archaeological experiment with stereophonic sound recording technologies in the radio play studio of the Bavarian broadcasting in Munich, the presentation will critically reflect on the hidden or non-verbalised, sensorial, corporal, and tacit knowledge that informs our engagement old media technologies – in this case with dummy-head recording devices developed for bin-aural stereo recording in the early 1970s. This experiment, which involved sound engineers, script writers, industrial developers, actors and media historians, will serve as a test-case for the critical reflection on the heuristic potential of re-enactments or media archaeological experiments. In producing a radio play on the history of binaural stereophonic sound recording, the researchers involved turned into script writers and actors performing in a professional studio environment, thereby experiencing the challenges – both technical, social and aesthetic – of interacting with this specific recording technology „in practice“. While the listener can only experience the immersive effects of spatial hearing that this specific recording technology enables when using his headphones, the experiment allowed us to experience the multi-sensorial complexity of a recording / production situation in situ. In searching for alternative ways of producing historical knowledge about past media practices by doing and documenting media archaeological experiments, we explore the sensual and experiental potential of technical objects in re-use and thereby aim at promoting a new approach to media history in general.

Binaural – Multichannel – Object-based: Merging technologies for the future of audio

Werner Bleisteiner (Bavarian Broadcasting, Munich)

A plethora of technologies have evolved in past decades to enhance the auditory experience. As listening conditions and environments diversify, the ‘one size/technology fits all’ approach becomes more and more obsolete: smartphone listening with headphones, mobile listening in cars, or high quality reproduction at home – they all require an adaptability of the audio signal in order to optimize quality and experience. Recent 360° video and gaming applications require in addition ‘interactive audio’ to make ‘immersion’ perfect.

All this lead to re-think the concept of audio production and delivery. With ‘object-based audio’, a set of media assets is assembled in an optimal way in playback devices. In this technology, historic formats like binaural, multi-channel and Ambisoncs converge on a higher level for the future of audio.