How surround sound is revolutionising live music

By Natasha Radmehr

If you tend to keep a close eye on Glasgow’s music scene, you’ve probably noticed a new type of music event popping up: surround sound gigs. And you’ve probably thought, ‘Oh aye, surround sound… big telly, speakers, surround sound… cinema, surround sound’ then not given it much more thought because you’re satisfied that it kind of makes sense. Or maybe that’s just me?

My interest in how a surround sound gig differs from a ‘normal’ gig was piqued back in November last year, when I was invited to a 5.1 surround sound screening (put on by record label and gig promoters From A Stolen Sea) of Sigur Rós’ feature film INNI at Òran Mór.

I’m not a huge fan of the Icelandic motherfuckers (sorry; I’ve just always wanted to see a description of a band in a music article that isn’t maestros, crooners, heavyweights, something-peddlers, rock titans – I will never forgive The Skinny for editing a piece I wrote to make me describe the Manic Street Preachers as “rock titans” – wait, have these parentheses gone on for too long?), but I thought it was smashing. When I closed my eyes, it sounded like they were actually in the room. I even wanted them to be in the room. I started to fancy them. It was a moving experience.

This isn’t uncommon, according to Mark Burgoyne, co-founder of From A Stolen Sea, the folk who have been bringing surround sound gigs to the fore. The first gig they put on in quadrophonic surround sound in September 2010 had Moon Unit, Cheer and Semiconductor on the bill at the Glasgow Art Club.

“Several older men and their wives turned up expecting there to be a jazz night on because The Herald had got their dates mixed up,” Mark recalls. “However, one couple decided to give it a go and came in. The gig was loud and I noticed that this older gentleman had worked his way from the back of the room to the very centre, his eyes closed, his head back, breathing slowly. He was either really loving it or falling asleep.

“When the show had finished he walked to the back of the room to find his wife, passing me on the way. I asked him what he thought of the music, and he said that it was ‘orgasmic’ with a fair amount of gusto. He later commented that it was the best sound he had ever heard and one of the best musical experiences of his life.”

So what was it that awoke this old guy’s dingdong from a peaceful slumber? Well, depending on the set-up, surround sound offers a much larger field in which to pan instruments and this in turn can help to create space or a sense of intimacy (ahhhh, I see).

“It also means you can have as clear, loud or dynamic a sound at the back of the venue as at the front,” explains Mark. At the Sigur Rós screening I attended, From A Stolen Sea experimented with the panning of instruments and sounds so that the noise of the audience clapping and whooping only came through the back speakers, with the intention of making everyone in the Òran Mór feel as though they were part of the crowd. It certainly worked.

Each event is unique, though, and Mark is careful to tailor the sound system to suit the gig or event he is putting on. “I have a pet hate for the crazy panning of sounds; just because you can do it, it doesn’t mean you should. But I think if done well, surround sound can enhance any live event. You just have to create the most suitable sound field.”

Given the textural, dynamic nature of ambient, drone, noise, post-rock and orchestral music, these tend to be the genres that lend themselves particularly well to being performed in surround sound. But, as Mark points out, when you attend any gig you want to feel as though the band is performing directly to you; something that stereo sound can’t deliver with such impact.

“With surround sound, you hear everything with such clarity that you could be standing on stage with the band. And the fact that the instruments are being performed live in the room means that you can create layers of sound with a depth that is simply impossible to create in any other environment, other than if you use an ambisonic system.

“If you think back to that gentleman at the Moon Unit gig, imagine sitting in the middle of that room. You’ve got sound coming at you from several directions. You have the volume of the front of house speakers, loud and with some effects on; the indirect sound from the back speakers; and the dry sound coming off stage.”

You can’t help but wonder if this would simply result in the audio being too loud if the band already had a big sound (like The Twilight Sad, for instance) but Mark assures me that this isn’t the case. “I am a strong advocate of using the sound coming off the stage and not overwhelming it with an over-loud PA. It’s far more affecting to hear the sound as it comes out of the instruments on stage, so getting this mix right is very important to us.”

Mark’s enthusiasm is infectious; as a recording engineer working alongside live engineer Jessica Side (who he describes as “obsessed with surround sound”), he’s buzzing with ideas and has the knowledge and drive to get them off the ground. After receiving rave reviews for surround shows featuring artists including Hauschka, Nackt Insecten and Tim Hecker (which according to music know-it-all Paul Cumming was “Excellent; with lush waves of organ and distortion bouncing off the church’s dimly lit walls. Audience looked like a hipster Occupy protest though.”), From A Stolen Sea are set to impress with more events in Glasgow this summer.

First up is Charalambides, Heather Leigh and Cheer at Mono on May 31, and then there’s the biggie… their first ever full-day event for the West End Festival at Oran Mor on June 24. If you buy tickets for one gig over the next month, make sure that’s the one.

The line-up is brilliant: We Were Promised Jetpacks, Remember Remember, Miaoux Miaoux and Monoganon will grace the stage of the Auditorium; Aidan Moffat & Bill Wells, RM Hubbert, Withered Hand, John Knox Sex Club, Olympic Swimmers and Gav Prentice of Over The Wall will all play downstairs and there’ll even be performances at the bar from Wounded Knee and theapplesofenergy. Even better, tickets are only £16.32.

“It certainly has the potential to be one of the outstanding gigs of the year,” says Mark. “I’m really excited about it.” And so am I.

2 Responses to “How surround sound is revolutionising live music”

  1. nick Says:

    May 25th, 2012 at 13:17

    Dont confuse Art with the service industry.

  2. Boab Says:

    May 25th, 2012 at 20:28

    Interesting wee fact: Mogwai’s ‘Does This Always Happen?’ (Earth Division EP) was named so after Stuart Braithwaite’s pal turned to him during Moon Unit’s set at The Art Club and asked that very question.

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