Immersion Networks isn’t the first software or hardware company to compose a high-minded mission statement talking about its desire to make recorded music sound better. Unlike the overwhelming majority of these companies, though, Immersion Networks has gone ahead and done it. And unlike any other company, Immersion Networks doesn’t want to sell you a license or a decoder to enjoy the benefits of its hard work – it merely wants to sell you a service.
Despite the fact that it’s been around since 2014, there’s no special reason why any music lover should have heard of Immersion Networks. Despite the fact that its founders are hugely influential figures in the world of audio technology, there’s no special reason why you should have heard of them either.
But while both Paul Hubert and James ‘J.J.’ Johnston seem happy to remain in the background, it seems likely that ‘mix³ from Immersion Networks’, the fruit of their most recent labors and the product with which Immersion Networks is poised to announce itself to the world at large, will bring them a degree of attention whether they like it or not. The same goes for Jim Rondinelli, who joined Immersion Networks a little later.
The credentials of all three are deeply impressive. Paul worked alongside Steve Jobs at Apple, installing the first Macs at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios and creating audio formats that liberated the potential of satellite radio. J.J. has long been preoccupied with the relationship between audio coding and human perception and, as one of the principal drivers of the MP3 codec, should be thanked fulsomely by pretty much anyone who’s ever listened to a digital audio file. Jim, meanwhile, has the audio engineering and production credentials to account for his significant collection of gold and platinum records.
How can we make music sound better?
Immersion Networks, and mix³ in particular, began because Paul and J.J. asked themselves one of those questions that looks fairly straightforward when written down: “How do we make music sound better in as simple a way as possible?”
The “better” part of the question actually is straightforward. What Paul and J.J. mean by “better” is actually “as the artist hoped”. By including all the nuance, all the presence, all the intimacy, all the straight-ahead musicality that has, until now, pretty much evaporated the moment the music leaves the recording studio. “Simple”, though, is quite obviously a relative term…
In order to give creators the chance to convey the sound exactly as they intended, and to give them the chance to deliver truly spatial audio without the need for any new hardware of any kind, Immersion Networks took a perilously deep dive into every aspect of human hearing and perception of sound. For years, the paradigm of sound reproduction relied on getting a linear response from a pair of loudspeakers – because, after all, we have two ears.
But Paul and J.J. understood that this is not how sound perception works in the real world. In the real world, there are many distinct localization cues – and the sound changes as we move around in any specific environment. How, then, to best recreate the original sound experience? What elements of the sound field are most important to human perception?
The Ear of Sauron
They set up a laboratory full of complex equipment of their own design and construction, in order to test numerous head-tracking approaches and ‘listen’ to the ear canals of literally hundreds of individuals.
In order to assess the way sound travels to different parts of the listener’s ear, and the microseconds of difference this involves, they even built a device informally known as the ‘Ear of Sauron’.
They learned that, when attempting to evoke a sense of space (and placement within that space), the crucial parameter is timing. So they worked out how to capture a frankly staggering amount of information about sound timing, and then how to distill it down to the essential information a listener needs to experience truly spatial audio.
And then, by way of an encore, they worked out how to deliver this information without the need for new hardware, special speakers, or headphones. In effect, they discovered the latent superpower lying dormant in your existing audio equipment.
Democratizing spatial audio
The results are exciting for two very distinct reasons. Firstly, they’ve yielded an end-to-end cloud-based platform that can make extraordinarily advanced audio processing functionality available to anyone. mix³ from Immersion Networks is an entire system for the capture, creation, mixing, and delivery of spatial audio, with a resultant sound that’s almost startling in its immediacy. mix³ intends to put the listener where the listener was always intended to be.
“Surround sound systems often rely on the room they’re in to do the heavy lifting – or you have to do a room simulation in your computation”, Paul explains. “Both approaches make it hard to get close to the listener. We make you feel the sound is coming from right next to you – and that’s where the magic is.” Immersion Networks’ transcoding process turns ‘ordinary’ stereo masters into fully immersive audio that is just as capable of whispering in your ear, or tip-toeing behind you, as it is delivering shock and awe from a cavernous soundstage.
And secondly, Immersion Networks sees mix³ as a service, not a hardware set-up or a licensing opportunity. “Established big brands like Dolby want to sell you a license or a decoder,” says Paul. “Our model changes that. We can take any content and transcode it, without any additional changes required from the creator.”
Audio creators simply upload their files to the Immersive Networks platform, and in moments have a transcoded, fully immersive mix ready for distribution. The associated cost will simply be for usage of the platform, and Immersive Networks is adamant its service will be affordable even to bedroom musicians and DIY creators. “We’re giving people a tool that would require a $50K Mac Pro to run in a studio,” reckons Paul. “Cloud processors give everyone access.”
So “how do we make music sound better in as simple a way as possible?” has resulted in the democratization of an audio technology of rare potency, and the ability of any musician or creator to enhance and deepen the emotional impact of their work. “We never forget the emotional side of delivering something in spatial audio,” emphasizes Paul. “You feel part of the experience. You feel present.”
mix³ from Immersion Networks is available from mid-May of 2021 at https://mixcubed.com/. And in the meantime, these demos will give you some idea of just what your existing music player and headphones are capable of when they’re used in conjunction with mix³.