Psychoacoustics

by justindburton on September 13, 2011

Gus Gugliotta’s piece in the NY Times on psychoacoustics uses Handel’s Messiah as the primary test case, but the implications reach into popular music. The bubbling feud between lovers of quantity (mp3 files) and defenders of quality (FLAC and other large digital files) might be decided differently (at this point, the mp3 is still king) if we thought of listening in terms of larger physical space than the inside of one’s ear canal. Psychoacoustics seems to be the art of finding a middle ground between large concert halls and tiny earbuds:

There is, perhaps, no more uplifting musical experience than hearing the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” performed in a perfect space. Many critics regard Symphony Hall in Boston — 70 feet wide, 120 feet long and 65 feet high — as just that space.

Some 3,000 miles away, however, a visitor led into the pitch-blackness of Chris Kyriakakis’s audio lab at the University of Southern California to hear a recording of the performance would have no way to know how big the room was.

At first it sounded like elegant music played in the parlor on good equipment. Nothing special. But as engineers added combinations of speakers, the room seemed to expand and the music swelled in richness and depth, until finally it was as if the visitor were sitting with the audience in Boston.

Then the music stopped and the lights came on. It turned out that the Immersive Audio Lab at U.S.C.’s Viterbi School of Engineering is dark, a bit dingy, and only 30 feet wide, 45 feet long and 14 feet high.

Acousticians have been designing concert halls for more than a century, but Dr. Kyriakakis does something different. He shapes the sound of music to conform to the space in which it is played. The goal is what Dr. Kyriakakis calls the “ground truth” — to replicate the original in every respect. “We remove the room,” he said, “so the ground truth can be delivered.”

The full article is available here.

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