Student Success

Sakamoto Award winners researching the 9.1 surround sound environment

Shae Brossard and Andrew Spencer, fourth-year bachelor of music students with majors in digital audio arts, have been awarded the 2014 Joyce and Ron Sakamoto Prize.

Andrew Spencer and Shae Brossard are exploring the potential of three-dimensional sound reproduction with respect to perception of sound.

“The Sakamotos generously created this prize to acknowledge and foster research excellence in digital audio arts here at the University,” says Dr. Deanna Oye, music department chairperson. “This is the largest music award in fine arts, with the recipients receiving $5,000 for research-related expenses.”

The students intend to explore the possibilities of the 9.1 surround sound environment. They credit their mentor and digital audio arts professor, Thilo Schaller, with helping them get organized.

“He's helped us narrow our focus, refine our ideas and develop a doable project,” says Spencer. “We are very pleased to have our project selected for this honour.”

With almost four months of research under their belt, Brossard and Spencer are about halfway through their ambitious undertaking.

“We are exploring perception and production aesthetics using a 9.1 speaker configuration with height channels,” says Brossard. “The 9.1 system is a fairly new format.”

He adds that sound systems by Auro3D, the company that proposes the 9.1 format, are used in only a couple of theatres in Canada, although three-dimensional audio is starting to become more prominent in the movie industry.

“We are exploring the potential of three-dimensional sound reproduction with respect to perception of sound," adds Spencer. "Our aim is to develop a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the 9.1 playback format with the addition of height information.”

The students want to creatively exploit the possibilities of the system to improve the listener’s experience, making it more immersive and engaging.

“We already know one strength of the 9.1 system is that the sound comes from multiple directions,” says Spencer.  “This means the listener is enveloped in a more natural sound experience because it has the potential to recreate sound reflections from all directions."

Since conducting listening tests involves people, the students had to design their tests and then obtain approval from the University’s Human Subjects Committee.

“The whole process has been a learning experience for us,” says Brossard. “It’s been going quite well so far.”

The elaborate project has several facets.

“We are exploring perception, localization, aesthetic preferences and spatial mixes,” says Spencer. “Our ultimate goal is to create music using this environment to its best advantage.”

“We also want to determine whether there is a difference in perception between different types of listeners,” says Brossard. “We are separating the average consumer of music from avid listeners and expert or technical listeners.”

The researchers are using music faculty as expert listeners, while other digital audio arts majors provide intermediate listeners - people with some experience with careful listening. Non-music majors are being used as beginner or non-technical listeners.

Using a clip from a song the pair composed and recorded last spring, they tested 26 subjects using the University's Studio 1 as their lab. The students expect to spend most of the next semester analyzing the information they collected and developing their conclusions. In addition to doing a public presentation of their results in the spring, they plan to record three of their original songs using fellow student musicians and taking advantage of the information they gained from their research.

“It is exciting to think that we are adding to the general body of knowledge,” says Spencer. “Who knows, this could help us develop our career niche.”