Is HRTF the key to classical music's future?
Why is classical music failing to gain traction with a new audience? Is it because there are not enough women on the podium? Is it because male celebrity conductors are proto-lotharios? Is it because classical music does not attract enough Facebook likes? Or is it because of a growing disconnect between the sonic expectations of the new younger audience and a standard concert hall sound defined by 19th century conventions?
There is now a strong case for at least giving serious consideration to the role played by that sonic disconnect. In 2018 the UK video games market reached a value of £3.864 billion ($4.859 billion), making it larger than the combined video home entertainment and music markets. Sound, as well as graphics, is a key component of video games, and spatial sound enabled by digital technologies exploiting the Head-related transfer function (HRTF) is now widely used in games. HRTF is the response function imposed by the anatomical shape of the human ear which modifies how we hear sounds - see header diagram. By synthesizing the HTRF of an ear a two dimensional sound source - either from speakers or headphones - can be transformed into surround sound. Which is what happens in video games with spatial sound.
The video games market is overtaking the recorded music market. Which means virtually every potential new classical music audience member will have been conditioned by HRTF spatial sound before they hear a textbook classical stereo balance, yet alone enter a concert hall. The annual Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, which is the biggest tech show in the world, provides important pointers to how digital technologies will reshape home entertainment. One of the standouts at the 2019 CES was Sony's 360 Reality Audio concept technology which takes HRTF one step further by adding a height dimension.
The ascendancy of spatial sound has two important implications for classical music. The first is that the new target audience will have sonic expectations considerably at variance with the de facto sonic standard of proscenium arch stereo imposed on classical recordings and concerts. (Some notable exceptions exploiting spatial sound have been covered here in the past: notably Neu Records recordings of Ramón Humet's music and Aeon's of Jonathan Harvey's Quartets.) As the two channel physical media of CD falls by the wayside and streaming and downloading become the norm for music delivery, so the opportunity for spatial and multi-channel sound increases.
But the biggest opportunity for HRTF technologies is in the concert hall itself. Any concert hall, whether acoustically 'good' or 'bad', modifies the 'true' sound of an orchestra to a considerable extent. An acoustically 'perfect' traditional hall such as Vienna's Musikverein modifies the sound passively with reflective materials to conform with conventions dating from the 19th century. So using digital technologies to shape concert hall sound to meet changing sonic expectations is not heretical. Because the only 'true' sound of an orchestra is what would be heard if the musicians played in an anechoic chamber where the sound is uncompromisingly and unacceptably dead.
But the mantra of classical music is that it does not want digital technologies messing with its concert hall sound. Which is a bit rich coming from an industry with a business model predicated on low-resolution MP3 technology. Although still sneered at by purists, digital sound-shaping solutions by Meyer Audio and others have already proved their worth in the concert environment. Taking digital sound-shaping one step further using HRTF protocols offers huge potential. Remember, digital sound-shaping is a flexible technology that can be used in existing auditoriums without modifying bricks and mortar. So spatially-enhanced sound can be provided at a flick of a switch for new audiences. But more importantly, the sound of existing acoustically 'problematic' halls such as London's Barbican and Festival Halls can be beneficially enhanced at a minute fraction of the cost of the new breed of designer concert halls. Which, with London's new Simon Rattle Hall still being debated and the 'acoustically perfect' Elbphilharmonie currently experiencing an emperor's new clothes moment, is not something to be overlooked.
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