It's time to rearrange your speakers—quadraphonic sound is back. Well, at least in one instance.
A new LP documenting a live performance by electronic musician Suzanne Ciani is being released as a quadraphonic mix, and it's packaged with a piece of hardware that lets you listen to it in old-school, four-channel surround sound.
Long before the days of the 5.1-channel home theater, there was quadraphonic audio. This original surround-sound format, which employed four speakers for playback, became popular among analog audiophiles in the 1970s. If you had a quadraphonic rig in your living room (or bachelor pad), you could set up a pair of speakers in front of you and a pair behind you, then bathe in every note from one of the thousands of quadraphonic LPs available at the time—stuff from people like Santana, Three Dog Night, and Pink Floyd, along with reams of classical music.
The box set comes with a 180-gram vinyl pressing of Suzanne Ciani's 30-minute performance. You also get a hardware decoder that lets you listen to the record on four speakers.
Because it required special equipment and specially-encoded LPs, and because a format war divided the marketplace, quad faded before the 1980s. It was later superseded by digital multi-channel decoders from Dolby and DTS, and by digital surround formats like SACD and DVD-Audio.
But everything old is new again. LIVE Quadraphonic, out Monday, June 4, comes as a box set. In the box, you get a 180-gram vinyl pressing of Suzanne Ciani's 30-minute live electronic music performance. You also get a hardware decoder that lets you listen to the record on four speakers. It's a simple, raw circuit board with two inputs and four outputs. You plug in the stereo outputs from your turntable, then connect the board to four powered speakers and place them around you, putting one in each corner of the listening environment. This quad decoder, custom built by the Australian high-end audio company Involve Audio, sends the appropriate signal to each of your four speakers, lending a more defined sense of space to the music.
Any turntable can play the vinyl, and though the decoder that comes in the box does the best job of representing the quad mix, you aren't required to hook it up. If you have a modern home theater receiver, there's likely a Dolby Pro Logic II decoder in it, and if you flip that on and choose the "Music Mode" setting, it does a decent job of recreating Ciani's quad mix. Provided you're the precious sort of gear-hound who owns a vintage quad system, you can play the record on that as long as it handles the Regular Matrix/QS format.
Don't have a record player at all? You can stream the album, as it will be released on just about every digital distribution platform. Hell, even if you don't have four speakers, you can just listen to it in boring old stereo.
"Surprisingly, Suzanne and I discovered there are some psychoacoustics in it," KamranV, the producer and label owner behind the release, says about the stereo playback. "You get the perception of rear speakers even though there aren't rear speakers back there."
Old Sounds, New Ways
Ciani's live concert, captured in March of 2016, is filled with wooshes of cold metallic hail and washes of warm sonic fog. The bubbling tones wrap around the room in overlapping patterns that mesmerize as often as they confuse. The whole thing was performed in quadraphonic, and listening to the record on a four-channel system is the most faithful way to re-live the event.
Ciani began performing in venues rigged for four-channel sound in the late 1960s and '70s. Her chosen instrument for live performance, then and now, is the Buchla 200 modular synthesizer. It has a quadraphonic output module which enables the performer to generate sounds and send them to any of the four corners of the venue.
"This was Buchla's vision—a performable electronic music instrument," she says. "I adopted his vision."
Ciani is a pioneer in the world of electronic music. After earning a masters' degree in music composition, she worked for Don Buchla, creator of the eponymous synthesizer, soldering circuits and building the instruments for consumers. She also became a virtuoso player on the Buchla 200 system, a bizarre-looking box that uses dozens of knobs and a spaghetti explosion of brightly colored patch cables to create loopy showers of arpeggiated notes.
Later, Ciani formed her own sound design company to create digital scores for television ads, videogames, and Hollywood films. (These exploits are detailed in the 2017 documentary A Life in Waves.) Her career then transitioned into studio albums filled with romantic piano music and cosmic, new-age joyrides. Then, just months shy of her 70th birthday, Ciani found herself standing in front of her colorful Buchla once again. The San Francisco concert captured on LIVE Quadraphonic was her first public performance on the machine in 40 years. In the two years since, Ciani has taken her synth—a modern digital-analog hybrid Buchla 200e that's very much like the '70s version but, as she puts it, "has some of the advantages and disadvantages of digital"—around the world, playing solo concerts to adoring crowds.
These concerts are always presented in quadraphonic, with Ciani choosing the spatial coordinates in real time as she plays. "It's a non-negotiable part of the performance," she says. "I perform only in quad. It's such an essential part of the sound."
Hip to Be Square
This new release doesn't presage the mainstream resurgence of the decades-old tech, but it does come at a time when spatial experimentation among electronic musicians is on the rise. Venues such as The Cube at Virginia Tech and Envelop at the Midway in San Francisco have been built to house a new breed of audio performance that utilizes three-dimensional space as a dramatic element. The increasing use of virtual reality to broadcast live performances has also encouraged artists to start poking around more diligently in 360-degree and surround-sound formats.
Ciani's partner on this project, producer KamranV, has been working with spatial audio since the turn of the century, when he created several 5.1-channel mixes for mainstream artists (Beck, Nine Inch Nails) in the now-scarce DVD-Audio format. The idea was you'd pop one of these discs into your DVD player and listen to a surround-sound mix play out across all of your home theater speakers, including the sound bar and the subwoofer.
Of the hundreds of bands to try a surround mix, most weren't able to make it work properly. "Having the center channel and the subs interfered with the artists and producers as far as creating a sense of space," KamranV says.
Quadraphonic sound, which eschews the theater-like center channel and sub, is more friendly to songsmiths. "Using the corners and creating the space—that's much more musical."
KamranV's efforts to push quadraphonic sound forward have led him to develop a set of tools any musician or producer can use to make a killer four-channel mix. He's applied for a grant with the National Endowment for the Arts to create a quadraphonic plug-in for digital audio production that would work with all the popular software suites.
"The tools currently are available are analog, or they're things that don't let you do quad in real time," he says. "They all have their own quirks. I want to build a plug-in that will make it a hell of a lot easier."
If you think about it, quad is pretty close to the perfect format for mixing music in surround. Not only can it easily recreate (with some good reverb) the feel of the room in which the performance took place, but it's also easier to distribute. There's no need for propriety equipment. Quad mixes can be pressed to vinyl, ripped to MP3, or sent out in a Spotify stream. Players equipped to decode it can play back all four channels. Everything else plays it in stereo.
"Doing this on LP is a testament to the possibilities," KamranV says. "Pressing it on vinyl highlights that you can do spatial sound on any format."
Ciani is tickled to be the subject of this quadraphonic release, but she has bigger plans too.
"I've recorded all of my modern live quad performances," she says. "I haven't figured out how to get those out yet. If this works, it would be a great way to put those out as well."
LIVE Quadraphonic comes out Monday, June 4. Only 227 copies will be printed and sold at $227 each. Every purchase includes the LP and the quad decoder. The album will also be available for streaming. Ciani performs this weekend at the New York venue Ambient Church, and she'll mark Monday's album release with an on-air interview and a quadraphonic live stream on the internet radio station Dublab.
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