Moulton Laboratories
the art and science of sound
Design considerations for an idealized domestic surround sound listening space
David Moulton
Moulton Laboratories, Groton, MA
June 2006

The author describes an ideal surround sound system.

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The author has actively involved himself in the production of music for surround sound systems since the late 1960s, including composition, production, recording (classical, multichannel pop and experimental), loudspeaker design and acoustical design. Based on his experiences, he will present some design principles (and constraints) for domestic (and public) surround sound playback spaces, possible loudspeaker configurations and topologies. He will also suggest a possible ideal domestic music playback space.

Surround Listening Space As Musical Instrument

The evolution of loudspeaker music playback and performance over the past half century has been essentially an ad hoc collective attempt to bring the performance of music into a variety of private and personal spaces for individual or small-group enjoyment. At the same time, a genre of “loudspeaker music” has evolved, essentially without notice.

In addition to the production of recordings that attempt to mimic a live performance, music is now also being composed and produced directly for loudspeakers, to be played back by those loudspeakers in private domestic spaces as the primary performance. With the emergence of surround sound as a viable production medium, composers have begun to create music specifically for 5.1 (or related) arrays. This musical genre has specific and distinct characteristics.

In an earlier paper [1], I noted the following distinctions between “live” traditional performance and “loudspeaker” performance:
  • Live music is public and usually occurs in large, crowded venues, while loudspeaker music is generally performed in private and for only a few people.
  • Live music is highly social and ritualized, while loudspeaker music is casual, ubiquitous and often extremely intimate.
  • Live music has a strong emotional interaction between listeners and performers, while loudspeaker music has no such interaction.
  • Live music is mostly limited by human capabilities for performance, while loudspeaker music is not constrained by human performance limitations.
  • Live music is a one-time event not under the listener’s control, while loudspeaker music is under the direct control of the listener, who can vary its spectrum and level at will. It can be played on demand, stopped, restarted and repeated exactly, ad infinitum.
It is now also appropriate to consider what reasonable expectations can be had by both composers and listeners for a an idealized domestic surround listening system and room as a viable musical instrument in its own right. There is a growing, diverse body of music being directly created for this medium (as you can hear later in this convention). It is reasonable to specify criteria for such a space and system. Interestingly, the issue here is no longer the “accurate” reproduction of a recording made in a concert hall, but rather the creation of beautiful, moving and powerful music for individuals who listen to their music on loudspeakers.
1. Tomlinson Holman, The Number of Audio Channels, Part 2, Surround Professional magazine, Volume 2 #8, Dec. 1999, pp. 50-56
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