The first audio recording systems of gramophones and phonographs that existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s were all monophonic, consisting of only a single channel. Music was first transmitted in stereo as a demonstration in the 1881 Paris exhibition, using multiple telephone microphones and receivers to transmit Opera from a nearby concert hall to the exhibition. In 1939 Walt Disney commissioned the first commercial surround sound system in order to reproduce the musical soundtrack of the animated movie Fantasia. The soundtrack consisted of three discreet channels of audio which were routed to the three front and two rear speakers independently. (Rumsey 2001)
In the 1950s, Karlheinz Stockhausen was fascinated with spatiality in his compositions and his pieces like Gnuppen(1956), Gesang der Jünglinge(1956) and Kontakt(1958) were early demonstrations of this fascination. In Kontakte he recorded four tracks separately by placing four microphones around a single rotating speaker playing his composition. When played back through four speakers placed in corners of the room it created the effect of the sound swirling around audience. (Holmes 2008)
At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, the Philips Pavilion housed an impressive use of surround sound technology. Le Corbusier was commissioned to design the pavilion for Philips and incorporated over 400 speakers into the radical design. Edgard Varese was commissioned to compose a piece of music entitled Poeme Electronique to accompany a film of black and white photographs projected by Le Corbusier. The composition was recorded to tape and channeled to the overwhelming number of speakers via a series of telephone relays and dials. The speakers were placed at strategic locations all the way up the ceiling of the pavilion and enabled the music to effectively climb up and down the walls and around the space. Iannis Xenakis assisted Le Corbusier on this project and went on to create his own surround sound installation in 1978 called Diatope, which used seven speakers to invoke kinetic movement within individual compositional elements. (Cope 2001; Varga 1988)
Surround sound hit popular music in 1967 when Pink Floyd started using quadraphonic sound in live concerts to give patrons the more immersive and eerie feeling of being surround by the music. They developed a simple joystick controller to pan pre-taped sounds to all four corners of room and facilitate the marching of sounds from one end of the hall to the other and organ swoops which encircled the audience. (Calore 2009)
Vinyl audio technology dictated that only two channels of audio were feasible for home reproduction because record grooves physically only have two sides (Holman 2000). Despite a few unpopular attempts at bringing surround sound music into the home like the quadraphonic systems of the 70’s, dual channel stereo music still remains as the dominant format for contemporary music. With the recent home cinema explosion pushing 5.1 surround sound technology into the average home, it seems that content is the only thing holding back the format. The recently added Grammy award for ‘Best Surround Sound Album’ seems to indicate that spatially arranged popular music compositions will slowly but surely start to emerge as artists seek to add new dimensions to their work.
Calore, M. 2009, 'Pink Floyd Astounds With ‘Sound in the Round’', WIRED.
Cope, D. 2001, New directions in music, 7th edn, Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, Ill.
Holman, T. 2000, 5.1 surround sound : up and running, Focal, Boston.
Holmes, T. 2008, Electronic and experimental music : technology, music, and culture, 3rd edn, Routledge, New York.
Rumsey, F. 2001, Spatial Audio, Focal Press.
Varga, B.A. 1988, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, faber and faber.