A couple of years ago, there was a huge buzz about surround sound. But aside from home cinema, the format still seems to be firmly stuck at the starting gate, waiting for a good excuse to get going. I think part of the reason that surround sound hasn't caught on for domestic listening is because of the impracticality of correctly setting out surround speakers in the home environment. The other factor is that few people actually sit down and listen to music; they have it playing in the background while they are doing something else. In the car, however, surround has a chance to thrive, as (assuming there is a single occupant) the listener always sits in the same seat, and consumes music to pass the time. Sadly, relatively few cars come with surround systems fitted as standard, and until this situation changes, demand for surround material will be low. As a consequence, the availability of good-quality surround material will remain limited.
Personally I'd love to be able to mix in surround, knowing that the majority of people would be able to listen to it in the same format, but the sad reality is that stereo still rules. What's more, in many cases, even stereo speakers are incorrectly set up. Perhaps the lady (or gentleman) of the house wants both speakers to stand next to each other (because they look tidier and their wires can be hidden from view), or one speaker is on a coffee table at knee height and the other is behind a plant in the corner. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence; speakers in the domestic environment generally end up going wherever they will fit, not where they ought to be, so the possibility of positioning your speakers according to a well-configured surround system's precisely angled placements is pretty remote. With the odds so heavily stacked against the surround sound format, what future can it possibly have, other than in a film soundtrack context, where inappropriately positioned speakers have little detrimental impact on the enjoyment of the film in question?
After so much apparent negativity, I'm actually feeling quite positive about surround. Just notice how many people are walking about with earphones attached to MP3 players. Yes, I know that iPods and similar devices only output a stereo signal, but if someone comes up with a half-decent design for surround earbuds, the commercial potential is enormous, and altering MP3 players to become compatible with surround formats should be a trivial affair. It's because the possible rewards for perfecting such a system are so high that I believe a boom in surround sound will come sooner rather than later. Perhaps it will only end up being 4.0 surround (after all, who wants a subwoofer that has to be worn as a suppository — and nobody has a front-centre ear) but the enhancement to the listening experience could still be significant with four channels. Once such an earphone has been developed (head phones that work in surround are already available, of course), the revolution will start, with huge demand for record labels' back catalogues to be made available in the appropriate surround format.
So even if you see no commercial outlet for it at present, it's definitely worth getting some surround sound mixing experience under your belt, in order to capitalise on the 'big change', when it comes. Now, where did I put that spare pair of monitors?
Paul White Editor In Chief