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Part one: General system description

Peter Fellgett* set the limit for really satisfactory

stereo-blending at ±15˚).
Ambisonics is a technology for
surround-sound which aims Beyond stereo, the technology can
specifically at not making four (or any be developed in several ways:
other number) of loudspeakers audible 1. By using more loudspeakers.
as separate sources of sound. It is 2. By using more channels of
designed using appropriate communication.
engineering methods and psycho- 3. Making better use of the
acoustic theory that has shown good available number of
predictive value to make best use of loudspeakers and channels.
available channels of communication 4. Extending directional
(two or more ), and of loudspeakers (a information from the 60˚ front-
limitation often forgotten), to give sector of stereo to a full 360˚
stable and uncoloured acoustic images surrounding the listener in the
in any position, keeping the physical horizontal plane, or to complete
means of reproducing the sound as spherical surround
unobtrusive as possible. It claims wide reproduction including height.
freedom of recording methods and of
source material, as well as protection of These ways are distinct, but of
recorded material from obsolescence. course the greatest opportunities
for enhanced capability lie in
combining them as an integrated
Ambisonics in the perspective of whole. In general terms, this is the
surround-sound technology aim of the NRDC Ambisonic
provided information about In ordinary life we are bathed in
direction and distance only sound from all directions; so much
implicitly, through ambience do we take this for granted that it
labelling. Stereo added explicit often passes unnoticed until it is
directional information over a cut off, eg in an anechoic chamber,
front-sector not exceeding 60˚ in when its loss is keenly felt. Except
width (ie ± 30˚, although some in so far as the reverberation of the
discriminating listeners prefer to listening-room can supply the
deficiency, stereo reproduction
subjects us to this deprivation. A
major aim of developments beyond
Professor of Cybernetics and Instrument
Physics, University of Reading stereo has therefore rightly been

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

the extension to surround-sound Based on existing practice relating

reproduction. to four track master tape, and on
the probability that most surround-
The first attempts at surround- sound listeners will (at least at first)
sound (apart from some early be constrained by the size of their
experiments) used an approach pockets and the shape of their
generally called ‘quadraphonic’. rooms to use four loudspeakers,
This term has not of course been these assumptions have a
precisely defined, and usage is not superficial plausibility, but further
always consistent. We shall consideration suggests them to be
therefore use, as a label for this inadequate in several important
general approach, the more ways:
accurate term quadrifontal, meaning
‘four-source’. This will be taken to 1. Four track master tape is by no
mean that there are assumed to be means the only source of signals
just four signal sources which are to be considered: there is
to be connected to exactly four multitrack and multi-
loudspeakers in a one-to-one microphone material available
manner through four respective for surround pan-potting, and
channels. of course the natural sound-
field of performed music

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

including reverberant as well as in the listening-space so as to

direct sound. reconstruct a simulacrum of the
2. There are very good reasons intended surround-field
(see Part Two) for not being fulfilling relevant
restricted for ever to some fixed psychoacoustic criteria1. This
number of loudspeakers, reconstruction is in some ways
especially not to four. analogous to an acoustic
3. The assumed objective can be hologram, and account must be
attained only if four channels taken of the size and shape
are available, and in their (unknowable at the time of
absence can only be imitated recording) of the individual
more or less unsatisfactorily. listener’s loudspeaker array.
This requirement precludes the
direct use of the many two- A competent system takes care
channel recording broadcasting of these precise interrelations
media at present used for automatically, just as a key
stereo, whereas satisfactory automatically brings the levers
surround-reproduction is of a lock into register so that the
perfectly practicable in a system bolt can slide freely. Unless the
designed from the start to use system does this, there is
two available channels. virtually no chance of achieving
4. Independent access to the clean stable images other than
signals reaching each in a restricted set of directions.
loudspeaker appears at first The result is the familiar
sight to give the producer or practical restriction of
recording engineer maximum ‘quadraphonic’ reproduction to
freedom, but in fact denies it to corner positions, front sector,
him because it presents him and perhaps rear centre, with
with a problem analogous to side or positions virtually
opening a lock without having unusable (see illustration).
the key. Except in the special case
of an image in the direction and at A particularly unfortunate form of
the distance of one loudspeaker it the quadrifontal approach, which
does not suffice simply to squirt may perhaps be called the ‘full
independent sounds from each quadrifrontal’ form, assumes in
speaker. In general each addition that the four source-
loudspeaker should radiate a signals are pair-wise blended. This
wave of amplitude and phase imposes further restrictions and
carefully calculated to combine disadvantages:

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

1. It makes less than full use of the ‘matrix quadraphonic’

information capacity of the standards of the USA RIAA4.
available channels; it is possible
to do as well or better with less The basic fault of pairwise
than four channels. blending is that each musical
2. The implied directional coding, instrument (or other source)
having discontinuities of slope, considered by itself activates only
cannot be realised by pick-up one pair of channels or
from any combination of loudspeakers. This is not beyond
ordinary directional stereo in concept or capability, but
microphones. Natural sound, merely extends stereo to less and
including its indirect less suitable speaker-angles and
reverberant content, is therefore hearing sectors as we go from
excluded. front, to back, and to the sides.
3. The format gives poor results
when replayed directly through Quadrifontal assumptions underlie
four loudspeakers (see Part the regrettable practice of using
Two). It is therefore particularly ‘four channel’ (or even ‘quad’) as if
inappropriate to take this it were a synonym for surround
unsatisfactory form of playback sound. Two channel surround
as the standard of comparison systems are then called ‘matrixed
for surround-sound. four-channel’, creating the need to
4. It places undesirable distinguish systems that do
restrictions3 on the encoding actually use four channels as
loci that can be realised ‘discrete four-channel’ (although
subsequently, particularly in the channels are in fact continuous,
two channel format; for blended and frequently
example the Japanese ‘Regular multiplexed!); we eschew such
Matrix’ definitions2 cannot be misleading terms. Any reference to
implemented by matrixing ‘the original four-track tape’ lies of
pairwise blended material. This course entirely within quadrifontal
(and other) criticisms of this assumptions; in reality the original
widely-used four track format to be reproduced is nothing else than
were at first strongly resisted the producer’s or recording engineer’s
(using blanket ‘commercial’ intentions, and any intermediate
assertions) but are now format is to be adjudged good or bad
recognised even in the so-called according as it helps or hinders the
‘pairwise’ and ‘optimum’ loci realisation of this original.
incorporated in the provisional

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

Against this background, of performed music, and

Ambisonics may be seen as a must include reverberant
basically straightforward as well as direct sound. It
technology for surround-sound does not suffice to provide
reproduction, designed from the merely a vague splash of
beginning to accept all competent reverberation having an
source material, and to make the appropriate decay time.
best use of the available resources There should be a
in channels (two or more) and structured association of
loudspeakers (any reasonable direction and delay of
number), neither seeking to indirect sound giving
reproduce a derived ‘original’ nor specific information about
attempting or pretending to the acoustic ambience of
communicate more channels-worth the performance, including
of information than there are definite impressions about
channels in the system. Its methods the size and shape of the
conform to established principles hall. Recent research has
of sound engineering, applied in shown that ambience
new ways and making use of labelling according to
newly acquired knowledge of place of origin of each
psychoacoustics. It is not of course sound is an important aid
perfect, since perfection would both to image localisation
require many thousands of and the ability to discern
channels and a million or so inner lines in a musical
loudspeakers. texture despite differences
of intensity level. Balance
Requirements for a surround- is thus made less critical
sound system and (particularly in pop)
greater musical complexity
Necessary or desirable becomes acceptable by a
requirements in a viable surround- given audience.
sound system include the
following: b) Multitrack and multi-
microphone material for
1. Ability to accept any competent pan-potting; that is to say,
source material. This includes at mono signals on which
least: synthetic directionality is
a) Natural sound-fields. This to be imposed. There is
is important for all kinds never, of course, any

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

difficulty in principle in 2. Availability of a format, for

building pan pots to studio use, robust to the
conform to any encoding inevitable small errors of
standard whatsoever in intermediate recording and
any system. The more providing good facilities for
demanding requirement is processing, including a versatile
for a means of adding gamut of ‘effects’. This format
artificial reverberation should above all preserve
having subjectively explicit directional information,
smooth and uncoloured and thus preserve options for
characteristics. (In the the future.
present state of technology
artificial ambience, as 3. Encoding standards, for public
distinct from mere issue, having at least the
reverberation, is best following properties:
obtained naturally, if this
paradoxical way of putting a) Unambiguous encoding of
it can be excused.) every possible sound-
c) Existing pairwise-blended b) Low sensitivity to errors of
material. This should be transmission and of
seen as a rescue operation decoding.
for historical material, c) Freedom for the listener to
optimising the decode into any reasonable
compromises inseparable number of loudspeakers in
from the limitations any reasonable array. In
(discussed in the opening particular, rectangular
section) inherent in this speaker arrays should be
format, which should catered for, since few
therefore not be used for rooms are square. The
new recordings where desirability of not
alternatives are available. restricting the number of
This is a nevertheless an loudspeakers to the
important requirement in conventional four has
view of the large already been indicated, and
investment of the industry is further discussed in Part
in material recorded in this Two.
form. d) Capable of being decoded
so as to give accurate and

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

stable localisation, and system. The available means

freedom from coloration, of effecting this compromise
according to the best are fortunately sufficient to
available psychoacoustic reduce the technological
criteria. incompatibility to the level
of the inevitable artistic
4. Mono and stereo compromises between mono
compatibility. In one sense, and stereo; they need not
this is a special case of the affect the surround
listener’s freedom (as in 3 reproduction characteristics,
(c)) to use any number of essentially because the
loudspeakers, ie one for choice of surround decoder
mono and two for stereo. is still open at the design
The special difficulty is that stage.
mono and stereo represent
methods of decoding 5. Capability of growth to give
(representable indeed by protection against
matrices) prescribed by obsolescence. Primary
useage, which are interest should be (and
nonetheless definite for probably is) in two channel
being trivial in the sense of systems, because of the
requiring no explicit extensive ready-made
decoder but only suitably commercial outlets available
connected pieces of wire. in two channel media of
Unfortunately the implied recording and broadcasting
decoding matrices (‘obvious’ originally developed for
though they seem) can be stereo use. It is important
shown to be incompatible in however for the two channel
any context of two channel technology to be compatible
surround sound encoding. with extensions into more
This is not the ‘fault’ of any channels as they come into
surround sound system (not wider use (as without doubt
even quadrifontal) but is the they will, sooner or later) eg
result of any unhappy three channel fm
historical accident. Some broadcasting making full
compromise therefore has to use of the triple audio
be made between mono and bandwidth of the Zenith-GE
stereo compatibility in any system, multiplexed vinyl
two channel surround discs, multitrack magnetic

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

tape, and the use of video beyond presently foreseeable

disc technology. As soon as needs. All systems share a uniform
at least three channels technological design, which
become available, the includes the following essential
possibility of including steps and signal formats:
height information has to be
considered, even if only as a 1. Transduction or synthesis of
contingency for when the signals representing both the
public may be ready for it. It desired sound waveform and its
is particularly important to directionality. A signal format
hold master-tapes in a directly related to cardinal
format that will not be directions has been
prejudiced by such standardised as A- format.
developments in the
foreseeable future. 2. Conversion, where a separate
step is required, into studio and
Ambisonic systems and recording B-format.
3. Encoding for public
The basic NRDC Ambisonic dissemination; this coded form
realisation is a two-channel is defined as
pantophonic system, ie giving 360o C-format.
horizontal surround and needing
only stereo recording or 4. Decoding into signals suitable
broadcasting media for for driving loudspeakers. This
dissemination. It is extendable to D-format cannot be precisely
three channel pantophony, and to standardised since it necessarily
three or four channel periphony (ie depends on the number and
with height). Particular attention layout of the listener’s
has been given to the use of a third loudspeakers; suitable options
channel of reduced bandwidth (as and adjustments are provided
in the Nippon Columbia TMX in Ambisonic decoders.
system). Five channel pantophony
and nine channel periphony have It is hoped shortly to release a set
also been studied theoretically; of Reports* giving details and
although these are not of current
commercial interest, it is reassuring *
Enquiries can be made Attn. P. Thompson
to know that compatible Esq, National Research Development
Corporation, PO Box 236, Kingsgate House,
developments are possible well 66/74 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6SL

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

specifications, which the present set out, and is almost certainly

article is of course too small to unique in fulfilling all of them.
contain. To the best of our
knowledge the NRDC Ambisonic The basic features of an Ambisonic
system alone fulfils some of the surround-reproduction chain are
individual requirements previously displayed in fig. 2, together with

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

some of the facilities that can be in the AKG C24 microphone,

provided. The following aspects post-session freedom of
may be particularly noted: adjustment is believed to be
new. In addition the virtual
1. Sound-field microphone. This is microphones are truly coincident
an omnidirectional microphone (see Part Two), a requirement of
in the true sense, which is the conventional stereo hitherto
opposite of non-directional; it unfulfilled. (It is worth noting
characterises in a symmetrical that the sound-field microphone
manner the waveform and depends on placing capsules in
directionality of sound arriving accordance with Sampling
from any direction (including Theory on a sphere, and the
vertical components). In its associated circuits are an
present first-order integral part of it; the superficial
implementation it does so in resemblance of the lowest-order
terms of four signals form to the well-known
corresponding to the spherical tetrahedral array of separate
harmonic of directionality of microphones is mainly
order zero, and the three of misleading).
order unity. Recordings of these 2. The choice of a C-format
signals (or their equivalent), encoding standard is central to
especially in B-format, are the whole design. It must be
called tetraphonic (there is of mathematically compatible at
course no correspondence with the two interfaces respectively
the four signals assumed in to the source-material and to
quadrifontics). An important the listener’s equipment so as to
by-product of recording in be capable of correct decoding.
tetraphonic mode is that the A basic tool for design and
complete capture of first-order characterisation of two-channel
directional information enables encoding is the Poincaré-Stokes
any combination of non-directional sphere, first used in this
figure-of-eight, cardioid or connection by Scheiber5 and
hypercardioid microphones to be much developed by Gerzon3.
simulated and their directions Like a circuit diagram, it gives a
steered (including vertically) geometrical picture from which
after the recording session. system properties may be
Although remote real-time inferred (including the
adjustment of directionality has weaknesses of systems claimed
long been available, for example to be ‘quadraphonic’).

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

It is now known that for stereo playback; ie it is

surround-reproduction the essentially a mapping
horizontal pan-locus on the operation. Once this is realised
Poincaré-Stokes sphere should the basic choice is seen to be
be nearly a great-circle. The largely prescribed by the need
Nippon Columbia BMX system to avoid contradictions6 and this
uses a great-circle locus, and a choice is followed in
different one is defined by the Ambisonics. It appears not
Japanese RM specifications. The satisfactory to map the
Ambisonic two-channel comparatively small stereo
encoding also uses a great circle front-sector on to itself, letting
but takes account of the the devil take the hindmost and
freedom to tilt and otherwise sometimes encode it as front-
modify it slightly to improve sector.
stereo and mono compatibility,
and to implement other 4. Effects. Although the unique
refinements; details will be ability correctly to treat natural
published in due course. This sound is an important feature of
work is very consonant with Ambisonics, it also provides
conclusions reached by the facilities for all the usual
BBC7. artificial ‘effects’, and some not
available (or which cannot even
3. Compatibility between be defined) in some other
surround and stereo playback systems (see Part Two).
has often been discussed
without explicit realisation that Preserving options in the
original sound (including recording studio
reverberation) may come form
any direction, will necessarily Much of the present uncertainty
be encoded in some manner, concerning methods and standards
and therefore must be located for surround reproduction may be
(more or less well) in some ascribed to systems having been
direction in stereo playback. promulgated at a stage which now
Stereo compatibility therefore appears to have been premature in
involves making these relation to the formulation of
directions as acceptable as adequate aims, and to the
possible while recognising that development of adequate
for example originally rear theoretical tools for implementing
positions cannot be correct in these aims. The consequence is not

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

only lack of agreed standards a form that is likely to remain

between systems, but also a useable no matter which viable
tendency to patch up deficiencies standards are eventually adopted
so that there is variation of by the industry. Part Two
encoding standards even within consequently lays stress on
what is nominally one system. So- preserving options in this way.
called ‘logic’, ie signal-controlled
gain, may be seen as a response to References
such deficiencies, and it is not 1. Gerzon, M.A. ‘Surround–sound
difficult to show that this stratagem psycho-acoustics’, Wireless
is at most of only limited value. World, December 1974, p 483.
2. ‘Regular Matrixed Disk
Technological reality is however Records’, Japan Phonograph
now coming to the fore, and it is Record Association,
not surprising that systems Engineering Committee
proposed with the benefit of later Standard, dated Tokyo, March
knowledge seem to have been 25, 1972.
preferred by independent critics, 3. Gerzon, M.A. ‘A Geometric
notably the Nippon Columbia BMX model of 2-channel 4-speaker
system among current two-channel matrix stereo systems’ (in
commercial proposals 7,8,9; perhaps press).
it will not be thought too 4. ‘Standards for Quadraphonic
disingenuous to mention that the disc records’. United States
NRDC Ambisonic system (with RIAA, Bulletin No E7, 12
which BMX is essentially September 1973.
compatible) has come still later. 5. Scheiber, P. AES Journal Vol 19,
Research by various groups around p 835 (1971).
the world has in fact converged on 6. Fellgett, P.B. ‘Directional
surprisingly concordant Information in Reproduced
conclusions about how surround Sound’ Wireless World Vol 78,
reproduction should be p 413 (1972).
implemented, and there is now less 7. Ratliff, P.A. ‘Properties of
doubt that the present confusion hearing related to
will be resolved along these lines Quadraphonic Reproduction’
than about exactly when it may BBC Research Department
happen. Report 1974/38.

So long as uncertainty remains, it is Crompton, T. W. J. (based on

prudent for any studio to record in work by) ‘Subjective

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Ambisonics. Part one: General system description

performance of various
quadraphonic matrix systems.
BBC Research Department
Report 1974/29.
8. Shorter, G. ‘Matrix Decoding’.
Hi-Fi News & Record Review
Vol 20, No. 3, March 1975.
9. Holmes, P. ‘Elektor Vol 1’ Dec
1974 p 33.

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