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Four On The Floor

Date: 1st March 2015

Four On The Floor

When Peter Scheiber presented a paper to the Audio Engineering Society in 1969, on how to make two-channel recordings matrix to four-channel, surround sound became a reality. The hi-fi world was abuzz, as CBS Records snapped up the rights and launched SQ (Surround Quadraphonic) in 1972. Not wanting to pay royalties on this, arch rival RCA came up with a more complex non-matrixed system called CD-4 (Compatible-Discrete 4-channel). Sansui followed with its own matrix system called QS, which the Japanese audio industry bodies renamed RM (Regular Matrix).

In the space of a year, three brand new four-channel surround systems came out. The music industry, sensing the chance to make a dime or two, duly took a punt and released hundreds of vinyl albums in this format. You could buy everything from Hot Butter, Barry Manilow, Cat Stevens, The Temptations and Frank Zappa on CD4, to Billy Joel, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Santana, Paul Simon, Sly and the Family Stone and Steely Dan on SQ. Even 45RPM singles got quad releases, the very first 7″ SQ release being Art Garfunkel’s Mary Was an Only Child on CBS.

Needless to say, the whole project fell flat on its face. Despite the vast engineering resources expended, all those acres of column inches in the magazines spent explaining the intricacies of the competing systems, and the publicity push from the music business, this ‘next new thing’ fast became yesterday’s news. Hi-fi buyers were perfectly happy with stereo, thank you very much. Lessons were learned, as audio industry leaders were forced to think about the confusion created. In hindsight this first journey into surround sound was a textbook example of how not to introduce a new consumer technology to the general public.

Sadly the industry couldn’t see the wood from the trees. After all was said and done, the conclusion was that Quadraphonic was too complex and confusing – if only a simpler surround sound system could be developed! At no time though did anyone question the idea of having to fill your music room up with loudspeakers; the hi-fi and music industries seemed to walk away from the scene of the crash thinking the idea was right, but had been done badly…

Twenty five years later, digital surround sound arrived. Riding on the back of DVD video, which carried a 5.1-channel soundtrack for home entertainment systems, the music industry saw this as fresh chance to bring multichannel music to the masses. This time though, it was all going to be different, oh yes! Digital surround sound music would be mixed to 5.1 channels and available through the new DVD-Audio (DVD-A) and Super Audio Compact Discs (SACD). As far as the end user was concerned, they just had to insert the disc in the machine and press ‘play’, then sit back and enjoy the aural delights issuing from their six speakers. There would be no competing formats, and no need to read books on the subject before you used it. Surely, this time it couldn’t fail?

Again, the music industry rallied behind it. As part of their remastering programmes, many record companies paid for lavish 5.1 surround sound mixes of the classic albums they were preparing for re-release. For example, EMI invested a large amount of money in its thirtieth anniversary version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in 2003. It came out in a blaze of publicity on SACD with 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround mixes. Others followed, from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on SACD to Queen’s A Night at the Opera on DVD-A, all lovingly remixed in glorious multichannel surround. In the brave new hi-fi world of the third millennium, how could music buyers resist?

As it transpired, this shiny digital surround format was greeted in much the same way as Quadraphonic LP records had been a quarter of a century before. It was warmly received by the music press – which was never going to knock something that could bolster sales – but largely ignored by the public. A few enthusiasts enjoyed this new adventure in hi-fi, but most music lovers had already made up their minds. In their view, it was perfectly possible to get a highly convincing listening experience from two-channel stereo. Hi-fi enthusiasts seemed certain of this. Anyone who owned a dCS Elgar DAC at the time knew that it was perfectly possible to recreate the recorded acoustic of a concert hall extremely realistically, from just two loudspeakers, for example. So why then take the trouble of cluttering your listening room with four extra boxes? For many people, the idea of surround was good, but the reality of living with it was not.

Now though, just when you thought the world had given up on the idea, multichannel music is back. This time, the talk is of streaming it – which of course addresses the previous problem of DVD-A discs and SACDs not being readily available to buy in record shops, ten or so years ago. To this end, BBC Radio 3 is streaming an experimental 4.0 surround recording of a performance by Francisco Lopez, mixed and diffused in Quadraphonic sound.