Dive into the history of Immersive Audio

The origins of immersive audio are as fascinating as the field itself. To learn more about the evolution of immersive audio technology, follow this journey to the dawn of audio production. 

Immersion has always been at the center of revolutionary movements in audio. This short collaborative paper explores the history of immersive audio and presents areas of further investigation for creatives with an interest in this field. 

What is immersive audio?

Before diving into its history, let’s first understand the meaning of the term ‘immersive audio’. This term refers to a collection of audio technologies that are designed to increase the immersive factor of a listening experience. 

Immersive systems deliver sound with the impression of coming from all around, advancing on the standard stereo format. Immersive audio technology is now a pillar of many aspects of our daily life, including gaming, music, and video streaming. Immersive audio is key to a realistic perception of many other media formats - even contemporary ones like VR. 

Rather than coming from a single source, immersive audio comes from a theoretically infinite number of points around you. It’s a creative tool for making the listening experience feel more realistic. The way it is delivered has evolved - it’s now easier to use than ever before.

Musical ensembles could be some of the earliest forms of immersive audio experiences. Any event where more than one musician is playing can, by the above definition, be classified as immersive audio. The listener is surrounded by audio sources. From this, you could say ancient human ensembles were the earliest form of surround sound - and immersive audio. At least from the context of human-made technology. 

From Mono to Stereo

1877 - The Birth of Recording; the Phonograph.

In more technological terms, you could say immersive audio begins with the invention of recording, speakers, and stereo formats. The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. It was a rudimental device, but it was the first machine capable of recording and playing back sound. Though the machine recorded scratchy distorted sound in mono, it laid the foundation for more advanced machines.

Discovered in the 19th century, Stereo audio was a significant step toward immersive audio. It brings a massive amount of realism compared to mono sounds. However, mono sound systems were still in use long after the invention of the stereo. 

It was not until 1960 that most music was released in stereo. 

1881 - The Théâtrophone

Made in 1881, Clément Ader’s Théâtrophone was the first two-channel audio system. Ader connected a series of telephone transmitters from the Paris Opera stage to rooms in the Paris Electrical Exhibition. Listeners in these rooms could hear performances using a telephone receiver for each ear. This gave a level of stereo perception and localization that had not yet been achieved. 

The Théâtrophone was commercialized as a coin-operated receiver in France and England from 1890 to 1930. In a way, it could be compared to the earliest iPod - a private stereo listening experience.  

1931 - Blumlein’s Stereo

Stereo speakers were the start of consumer immersive audio technology. Alan Blumlein, an English engineer at EMI, spearheaded contemporary stereo technology in the 1930s. 

After attending a cinema with a single set of speakers, he noticed how it affects the viewer’s perception of actions on the screen and came up with ways to enhance the recording and reproduction of sound to make the sound move along with the actors on the screen.

He aimed to reproduce the multi-directional aspects of the sound field. In 1931, he presented a patent containing seventy inventions, some of which are still in use today.

20th Century Progression in Immersive Audio Technology

Development of surround sound technology

Surround sound was pioneered by the cinema industry. It was invented to further immerse the audience into the film. Walt Disney is considered an important figure in the creation of surround sound, using an early form for the animated movie Fantasia in 1941.

Fantasound - 1940.

Multiple segments of the movie employed creative applications of surround audio such as "Flight of the Bumblebee", where the sound of a bumblebee could be heard flying around the room. Walt Disney subsequently developed Fantasound technology, which employed five different channels. The Fantasound system was impossible to roll out on a widespread basis due to its high cost since it required additional equipment to set up. As a result, only two Fantasound systems were set up in theatres; Los Angeles’ The Carthay Circle Theatre and Broadway Theatre in New York. 

Ambisonic Audio

Ambisonics is a 3d-audio system with additional channels for height and depth conceived in the late 1960s to create accurate immersive sound from the original recording. 

This system was, however, not successfully adopted by manufacturers in the early years. Quadrophonic Sound, also known as 4.0 surround, was introduced in the early 1970s in the music industry. It allowed music producers to experiment more with depth and space in their music. 

Binaural Audio

Binaural audio is an important immersive format that is becoming more and more central to the way audio is captured and consumed in the modern age. Whilst the terms “Stereo” and “Binaural” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Typical stereo recordings do not account for the Head Shadow or ´Ear Space´ created.

Binaural includes the crosstalk between each side which creates a more immersive and realistic perception of the sound. Sounds that are recorded with binaural microphones have a much richer stereo image.

Dolby Surround and Dolby Atmos

Dolby Laboratories brought back surround sound with the introduction of the Dolby Stereo in 1976. The Atmos format (2012) is one of the largest immersive audio setups running today. These create larger-than-life, 3D soundstages using an array of over 60 speakers.  

Infinite possibility in the digital age

Up to this point, most immersive audio techniques were based on analog workflows. They used more microphones and speakers. Computers changed the playing field and opened up a new world of possibilities. 

The powers of immersive audio are amplified by digital technology. Programmers can create new, revolutionary tools for engineers. Like many things relating to computers, there is a limitless field of potential for immersive audio, and it’s rapidly becoming one of the most exciting movements in the industry. 

Computers and digital technology have opened the way for fascinating new advancements in the field of immersive audio. This technology is also much more accessible and efficient, making it available to more people than ever before. 

The Future

Whilst technology seems advanced now, we are only at the start of the journey - surround and immersive audio has historically been associated with cinema and the big screen, in recent years the trends are shifting to new, more accessible formats. 

Immersive audio is a central component of any compelling virtual or augmented reality experience. VR Headsets let users enter a kind of parallel universe, but to ensure a realistic perception, this new plane of existence needs organic immersive audio. It’s all well being able to see into a new dimension, but if the sound doesn’t match up then it breaks the whole experience. 

To achieve the sense of 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF), the soundscape of a VR experience needs to be as realistic and interactive as possible. Systems like object-based audio are essential for engineers and creators to build these modern experiences. Designers now have the freedom to place sounds anywhere in the spatial field, for example with tools like dearVR MUSIC you have precise control over the 3d spatialization of audio.

Because this technology is so new, there are only a few tools out there for designers. This is one source of inspiration for our line of immersive audio tools. Stay ahead of the curve and prepare yourself for the future of audio production by getting familiar with these tools and technologies. 

Final Thoughts

We’ve only really touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the possibilities and applications of immersive audio. As the tools to create and consume this medium become more accessible, new unheard and unseen art forms will emerge. 

Dear Reality is a key innovator in the spatial audio industry and strives to deliver immersive audio tools and systems to creative customers. Our sophisticated algorithms produce sound with an accurate perception of range, direction, reverb, externalization, and reflection - helping you to create something more realistic than ever before.  

Dear Reality plugins are intuitive and enable users to manipulate sound in bold new ways. These tools make the complex process of spatialization and multi-channel mixing simple and smooth.

As you can see, the history of immersive audio is filled with revolutionary stages in technology. The future of this medium will become even more realistic as time goes on, until one day we lose the distinction between reality and simulation. 

If you want to keep up to date with our developments, join our mailing list and social media groups. To get a taste of what you can achieve with our tools - try our software demos now!

Janis Käune
Janis is specialized in recording classical orchestras, crossover ensembles, and 3D audio projects. Finishing his sound engineering degree at the Robert Schumann Hochschule, he is responsible for running and maintaining the spatial audio studio for classical music. At Dear Reality, Janis works in the Quality Assurance and Support team.

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