Iosono spatial workstation
An Iosono spatial workstation.

Andy Stead

Ever sat in a theatre marvelling at the realism of a 3D movie, while somewhat disappointed with the sound? This can happen if you're not in the “sweet spot”, the position in the cinema where surround sound works at its best.

This is set to change with the introduction of a new 3D sound system pioneered in Germany. Karlheinz Brandenburg, one of the inventors of the MP3 format and the director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, has served up new super-realistic audio technology called Iosono, which is set to revolutionise sound in theatres, theme parks and homes.

With conventional surround sound systems, individually recorded sounds are mixed down onto separate tracks that are then played back through a number of loudspeakers set up around the audience. Each sound is played through the appropriate speaker channel according to where it is supposed to be positioned in the scene.

While conventional surround-sound technology can create a fairly realistic sense of acoustic space, it has one major drawback: the effect only works for a limited number of people in the audience. The mix-down of audio tracks created in the studio requires the listener to be sitting in a specific spot in the room, the so-called sweet spot. Outside this spot, different sounds appear to come from only a general direction, not from a particular location in the scene.

Iosono eliminates this problem and opens up entirely new creative possibilities for sound reproduction. With appropriately encoded material played back through an Iosono sound system, the acoustic events – such as in the rain forest scene described below – can be recreated with stunning spatial realism, for every single member of the audience.

Imagine you are standing in a tropical rain forest, your eyes closed and your ears tuned to the abundance of sounds around you. Thick rain drops are hitting the ground, you hear a toucan 100 feet ahead of you, and a monkey crying somewhere to the left. Then, a large creature – perhaps a tiger – slowly approaches out of the depths of the forest to the right, coming closer and closer until you can hear it breathing right in front of you. After what feels like an eternity, the beast walks on by. Luckily, it seems to be more interested in that monkey than in you!

Sounds like those of the toucan can be placed far behind the speakers, and thus behind the walls of the listening space. Or, as with the sound of a tiger, they can be placed right next to any member of the audience and even in between members of the audience. What’s more, they can be made to move along any given path in the listening space.

This remarkable sound technology has been brought to South Africa by Roland Fritz and his partner Max Wilgen of Audio Geometry, who have the sole rights for distribution of the system. They have entered into an agreement with Sunninghill-based Camhouse Media who will take the product to the marketplace. Already a demonstration studio has been built in the Camhouse premises.

Camhouse's Craig Marais is hugely bullish about this revolutionary sound system. “It will work with a configuration from 35 to 500 loudspeakers,” he says. “The possibility of focused source creates a completely new listening experience. The sound passes all around the room, unlike 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound where you need to be in the right spot to fully benefit. With Iosono you get the full benefit no matter where you are.”

Germany and America were quick to pick up on Iosono system, which is already in use in both countries. There are systems in Disney World Orlando, the Mann Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, the launching platform of Hollywood movies, and Todd-AO Burbank Studios in Hollywood, which became the first sound facility in the US to acquire the ability to mix feature films in the Iosono 3D immersive format. (California-based CSS Studios, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, is the parent company of Todd-AO Burbank, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the world's number one non-fiction media company reaching more than 1.5 billion cumulative subscribers in over 170 countries.) In Germany the system is used in several locations, including film theatres and auditoriums.

“Our intention in South Africa,” says Marais, “is to market the product to the cinema industry, the conferencing industry, the entertainment industry like casinos and special 3D or 4D shows – and the homeowner who wants the ultimate private cinema.”

In order to benefit from the Iosono sound experience the movie must be encoded with the Iosono system - in much the same manner as with surround sound. Camhouse has the spatial audio workstation and software to author the tracks. This means that an existing movie's soundtrack can be authored in Iosono sound, provided that the separate tracks are available.

“The demo studio currently has 35 speakers as well as subs,” says Marais, “and we will be creating a demo disc of our own. The demo will be made in-house. The setup of the speakers etcetera is critical and, to this end, Iosono technicians came to South Africa to ensure that the set up and everything is correct and according to their specifications.”

A short demo in the Camhouse studio proved the quality and spatial benefits of the system. The sound is truly amazing, opening up a completely new audio experience for different uses. To hear it is to be convinced of this remarkable invention.

Once again South Africa is at the forefront of film technology, a technology based right here in Gauteng.