BluBubble bursts onto multichannel audio landscape (pt1)
Posted on: Friday 8th of March 2019
If you follow a forensic enquiry into sound reproduction far enough, you will arrive – with apologies to Aldous Huxley – at the doors of perception, writes Phil Ward. Where, in terms of capture, is the ‘centre’ of a grand piano? Ultimately, it’s a conundrum that reveals the artifice of recorded sound: in any recording, at some point the infinite detail of reality has been smoothed over, air-brushed or flat-packed into a palatable and convincing decoy, designed to suit the playback system as much as anything else.
This has been the trick from the start. When Thomas Edison first held public demonstrations of his Phonograph, his examples were A-B’d with a real life operatic contralto called Christine Miller, with one or two other musicians, performing in sync with the recording. All was hidden behind a curtain. On specific cues, the humans dropped out and the machine continued. In 1915, this was convincing enough for the technology to pass the ‘Tone Test’, bamboozling the audience, even if by today’s standards the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph would not win any awards.
One key to the success of these demos was that the musicians had been rehearsed to apply nuances that made them sound like the Phonograph, rather than the other way round. They also stopped and started, while the mechanical interloper remained a psycho-acoustically convincing constant. In other words, this whole business of audio reproduction has always been based not on making the system sound real, but on making reality sound like the system.
These thoughts crowd in as you stand mesmerised by L-Acoustics’ new L-ISA ‘Immersive Hyperreal’ sound system. Chances are your first encounter will be at L-Acoustics’ generous demonstration facility in Highgate, North London – not, you will notice, in Paris – where company founder Christian Heil established a new generation of live sound reinforcement loudspeakers beginning some 35 years ago. Having transformed that market, Heil is now on a crusade to raise the reproduction bar much higher, settling in London for family reasons. He’s brought with him some stellar talent from the European industry, including Egyptian-born stadium sound guru Sherif el Barbari [pictured] and fellow countrymen Guillaume Le Nost, director of R&D and gifted musician, and Sylvain Biguet, a recording and mastering expert.
The ground floor of a former Post Office sorting depot has been equipped with 23 L-ISA-enabled speakers and several subs around all four walls. At one end is a superannuated sofa with a small remote control attached: a prototype for accessing the bespoke playback software that heralds BluBubbles, an entirely new audio platform and ecosystem that could, if things go to plan, pick up where Super Audio CD left off and carry luxury hi-fi from a mere 5.1 channels to 23.1. Impressively – and this is the whole point – if you get up and move around the room there are subtle changes in the coverage, its balance and its frequency behaviour, but no degradation in the programme’s integrity: the entire space is filled coherently as if the sweet spot of traditional stereo monitoring had somehow been spread through 360° like an expanding bubble.
They call this remote control the Bubble Deck; the sofa – sofa? More like the bridge of The Enterprise – is called the ‘Island’; the open space that you can perambulate, lined by a bespoke arrangement of L-Acoustics monitors, is called the ‘Ocean’; and the audio originates from the L-ISA Player, a storage and playback unit that contains BluBubbles files – named, appropriately, ‘Bubbles’. You can also get the L-ISA Playback Suite, a more adaptable bundle including the Player, the Bubble Deck and the Player App – a GUI for iOS 11.0 devices or later including the iPad. For this, add the speakers of your choice – provided they conform to strict BluBubbles specifications.
So, you can enjoy Bubbles sitting down, standing up or strolling about, in an environment to a greater or lesser degree moulded by L-Acoustics hardware and software. The interfaces between L-ISA world and the real world are therefore wide open for interpretation, from very exclusive private use at home to an art gallery somewhere between The Moon and New York City. If only the sky were big enough, it would be the limit.
Each Bubble sound file is a blend of up to 96 ‘sound objects’ mixed independently into a soundscape described by 24 speaker channels. The mix of these channels can create the illusion of moving through the same acoustic space as the recording, so that if you move closer to one speaker than another there are slight changes in the relationship of the sound objects – just as there would be between the sources if you were in the same room as the orchestra or band as the recording took place. Thomas Edison would have dropped his cigar.
“The signature of residential L-ISA is to bring the genuine experience of live sound into the home,” explains Christian Heil, “as if the listener is the conductor of a symphony orchestra and has the same emotions as if standing on the podium – every instrument localised and adapted to the unique room acoustics. Or, if it’s rock music, it’s as if the listener is very close to the stage with a hyper-realistic impression of the band – perhaps a little like the feeling of a FOH engineer.” To achieve these mixes, recording engineers are required to think differently. But they are also invited to make an appointment in Highgate to start the process.
“We’re getting more and more studio engineers here to learn the BluBubble approach and to get comfortable with it,” says Sherif el Barbari. “We begin by playing material on the Island and the Ocean, opening their ears to how this object-based environment can provide them with a canvas not limited to two busses – the space to be creative with nuances and dynamics without the need to squash everything in the way we all know from stereo.”
The Island has 18 channels plus subs, with the option of adding five overheads. In addition to this is a mixing room that replicates the fixed format of the Island configuration. “It’s exclusively for this platform,” Barbari explains, “because it’s the only way you can monitor an Island mix. We have the luxury of not worrying about the rules of mass-production, if you like, for kitchen radios and car stereos. BluBubbles can handle all kinds of SPL without distortion or colouration.”
The Highgate BluBubbles Sound Art Gallery is open to visitors on Friday afternoons from 2pm-5pm.