BBC Radio Blog

Whatever happened to surround sound for streaming Radio?

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Editor's note: surround sound has history - it was first used in 1940 by Walt Disney - and in this two-part post, Alan Ogilvie reminds us that the BBC's first try at surround sound for streaming audio was back in 2002. He also hints at some plans for the future - SB.

In the first part of this blog post, I want to take you back to when Radio experimented with surround sound on the internet - namely being able to listen to a surround sound-mixed production of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood (2002), and the later 'phases' of Hitchhiker's Guide (2005). It was great! "Why haven't we been doing more?", I hear you ask. Well - there is a simple answer, and you probably won't like it. The internet and the surround sound devices we needed back then just weren't widespread enough. Sure - I was able to listen to the streams we provided, but then I had all the kit necessary to handle it on my home computer... you'd expect that, what with me being the manager responsible for the infrastructure behind the encoding and streaming of the National Radio networks online. But it just wasn't really 'mainstream'.

In those years, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that your computer had the right equipment to decode surround sound audio (specifically 5.1 channel surround sound). Your computer was most likely, compared to what we have nowadays, just a bit 'clunky'. Look at the advances in the 'online' world in the last 8 years since Under Milk Wood was first made available online (and sorry - but it's not currently available to listen to again). Even your internet connection wasn't entirely 'up to it' either, this was before the internet needed to expand to support the masses using Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or iPlayer. Do you remember those days when you'd be lucky if you had broadband and it gave you 512kbps down, the majority of people online at home were only just getting over having a modem that was just slightly faster than a fax machine.

To make sure you could listen to our Radio streams, we had to go for bitrates much lower than we have today in order to keep people happy. In order to deliver the special surround sound streams to you meant that you'd need a bigger bandwidth than what was needed just to listen to regular Radio 4 output online - by only providing Under Milk Wood and Hitchhikers as on-demand streams this meant that your computer could buffer-ahead enough of this 'massive' stream for you to be able to listen to it without constant interruptions from re-buffering. Ah, how I remember waiting on my Windows Media Player on my home computer to buffer the needed amount to listen - and I lived in London with what was considered to be a good internet connection at that time. Suffice to say it didn't take off on the web... not then, anyway.

Nowadays we have better internet connections, and the devices we can connect are both more capable and more appropriate. When I say that they are 'more appropriate' I mean that when I listened in 2002, most home computers were shut away in rooms that were occasionally used by the family... now these devices are becoming part of the fabric of your home life. Just think about where your Games Console is - it's possibly in your front room, connected to a flat screen TV and you probably have a Home Cinema set-up for surround sound. Or maybe you like your audio - and have a nice surround sound capable HiFi system with the ability to stream Internet Radio services. Maybe your home computer, which now tend to come with a soundcard that supports surround sound and enough , is connected to decent speakers (because you use it to play Bluray or DVDs).

We are producing surround sound content to some extent - my colleague Simon will elaborate in part 2 about some of the challenges faced in producing the source material. So maybe we should try this again. Maybe we should take some of this wonderful surround sound audio that's being produced for Radio, and make it available online?

What would we, the BBC, need to do to make that happen? Well, luckily, we've already begun looking at Radio productions and our streaming infrastructure. There are a couple of key areas we need to clear to make this work. In order to stream surround sound online to your computer, for example, we need to get the 'end-to-end' delivery sorted. By this I mean that the surround sound mixed input from production must connect to our stream encoders, these encoders must use the correct codec and bitrate, then it has to be wrapped in the correct transport to stream it to a player on your computer which can not only decode the stream itself but can correctly play it back on your sound device. No mean feat. Especially when, if you take a look around the web, many of the 'common' services for Internet Radio, and even the video services, don't offer surround sound.

Oh, and on top of this, we'd like to do it 'live'... not just for on-demand.

Alan Ogilvie is Platform Manager at BBC Audio & Music Interactive

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by Alan Ogilvie

    on 26 Jan 2011 17:44

    First - thanks for the comments and, as I think you've all noticed, it isn't a simply case of plumping for one technology or another - as I tried to highlight in my post. It's about seeing a solution to the problem - from source to encode to internet to ears.

    Indeed, Simon, discusses some of the source challenges in the second part of this blog series here:

    We'll be planning more blogs at a later stage once we've got further towards being able to do it all, properly. In the mean time - read Simon's article, and feel free to tell us if there are any specific services you'd like to hear in Surround... specific dramas, music sessions, maybe even the Proms.

    I also hear the comments about BBC TV services - and I will try to get an update on this too. Perhaps in a future post here, or on a more appropriate 'TV' area.

    Oh, and Roger, thanks for the heads up about your 'Under Milk Wood' production - it sounds like it will be quite an experience for the audience.

  • Comment number 8. Posted by Trev

    on 17 Jan 2011 22:53

    Only 7 responses to this blog is very poor I would have thought. Looking through the HIFi magazines it seems that the HiFi enthusiasts have deserted to BBC. An FM tuner use to be a vital part of any Hi Fi system but this is no longer true. To most enthusiasts the output from the BBC is no longer considered HiFi. The introduction of optimod and low quality DAB have all contributed to the mass desertion. This of course reflects in the low interest in surround sound radio. In order to regain the position the BBC once had they need to find a way of delivering far higher quality sound. Of course the internet is one way of doing this but the restrictions of the proprietry iplayer system does not help.

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by magz hall

    on 17 Jan 2011 12:10

    Hi Alan,
    just read your blog post with interest and the other comments, as I am currently researching and this area from an artist/producer and technical perspective. I have been suprised over the past five years that surround sound has not really moved forward at BBC radio, so this is great news.

    Magz Hall
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by JohnDDurham

    on 16 Jan 2011 00:13

    This is great news! Without the distraction of an image, I think surround sound has the potential for a much greater impact in radio plays than in its established use in films. I also can't wait to hear 'Between the Ears' in surround. BBC radio has the talent to make full imaginative use of this.

    I also couldn't agree more with Richard E's comments: ambisonics is definitely the way to go. To make it simple, perhaps you could even have a Java ambisonics player that downloaded and ran automatically (providing it could interrogate the client system's speaker config.)

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by hartley

    on 10 Jan 2011 22:28

    Three cheers for Trevor Harris. There is too much spin from the BBC, maybe they they have been getting too close to the politicians(who help fund their next year's salary). Really there is no reason why it all couldn't happen now!

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Roger Worrod

    on 10 Jan 2011 20:35

    Dear Alan, This probably is/is not the right forum to contact you, but the subject matter certainly IS pertinent. I am preparing a theatre production of 'Under Milk Wood' in 3D Surround Sound, where the audience is seated inside the village of Llareggyb. We are using over 50 speakers on 4 vertical levels... it's very difficult to explain without demonstrating, but perhaps the information we are sending out theatres and would-be promoters gives an indication:

    "You are sitting in the middle of the Welsh fishing village of Llareggub, eavesdropping on the lives of the inhabitants.
    One night and the following day in spring, 1953 – after the death of Stalin, but before the conquest of Everest and Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, a time when McCarthyism and rock ‘n roll are vaguely disturbing ‘noises’ on the other side of the Atlantic…

    Within our 1950s 3D surround sound village, you hear what is happening in the cottage opposite, upstairs in a bedroom behind you, in the square by the village pump, in the school playground, or perhaps right beside you in the vicarage or the village shop… as the schoolchildren scamper down the lane… while overhead, turbo-prop airliners sometimes drown out the persistent birdsong…
    The smells of the sea are ever-present, mingled at different times with a sizzling breakfast fry-up, freshly baked bread or washing hanging out to dry… you might sense a gently refreshing sea spray on your face (but the seagulls overhead will, exceptionally, behave themselves)… and, later in the evening, you may have the irrepressible urge to join in the singsong in the village pub…

    ‘Under Milk Wood’ is now a revolutionary THEATRE Play for Voices, in Multi-level 3D Surround Sound, where you create the setting in your mind's eye.

    Played 'in the round', either in complete darkness, or, cabaret-style, with ambient or theatrical lighting – we offer you three very different experiences."

    Please feel free to contact me: a meeting of ideas might stretch our experience even further...
    Roger Worrod.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Richard E

    on 10 Jan 2011 14:47

    Glad to hear that the BBC is looking at streaming surround sound. I also know that the BBC is re-evaluating the use of Ambisonics for surround audio production, and obviously these things can go hand in hand. There are emerging open-source standards for encoding and streaming Ambisonic recordings, and the concept of encoding a soundfield with the required number of channels and then rendering the result according to the ability of the replay system (in the manner of a Postscript file printing on any Postscript printer to the best of its ability) means that the bandwidth required for transmitting surround audio information is dramatically reduced: the conventional "one channel, one speaker" system is incredibly wasteful in this respect.

    The important thing here is that the BBC does not get led down the "obvious" but dead-end path of one channel per speaker, which leads simply to a never-ending escalation of channel requirements to no purpose whatsoever. Following the encoding-rendering model instead means that a single file can be distributed or streamed, using as few as four channels, and deliver anything from mono to full with-height multi-speaker 3D surround according solely to the capabilities of the replay equipment. If you want to have 40 speakers or 2 you can – but the audio you send it the same. BBC engineers are fully aware of the possibilities of this British-designed technology, now almost entirely in the public domain, and the extensive online and research resources available for the development of transmission and replay systems.

    In the past, the problem with introducing a new surround audio system was that everyone had to endorse it or nobody would make the equipment or make the recordings - a classic chicken-and-egg problem, and as a result only systems with vast marketing resources could make headway however inefficient they were. Today that has all changed. If you want to make, say an Ambisonic replay plugin for common network audio players, or develop Ambisonic elements for streaming surround audio, produce them open-source and put them out in the wild, people will be able to download them and use them.

    Today the field for streaming digital surround audio using Ambisonic-based rendering technology is wide open, lacking only the resources of people willing to work together on realising it. BBC input into this ongoing effort would make a serious, significant and long-lasting impact on the future of surround-sound for recording and broadcast, using British technology and offering a free, open-source framework with virtually open-ended possibilities.

    I urge the BBC to grasp this opportunity with all hands. Here's a good place to start:

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Trev

    on 8 Jan 2011 11:41

    You say:

    "To make sure you could listen to our Radio streams, we had to go for bitrates much lower than we have today in order to keep people happy."

    Not entirly true the internet streams were deliberatly kept at a quality in order not to compete with the awfull DAB sound quality. In your blog you do not mention the biggest advance in internet radio and that was the AAC codec. This provided higher quality and support for surround sound. The BBC continued to use inferior codecs for years. Unfortunatly the BBC is still playing games with Licence Tax payers by hiding them in Flash streams which is not supported by most internet radios. It is interesting to note that DAB cannot support surround sound and so is already an obsolete system.

    The BBC is still showing little support for surround sound. Very few of the BBC TV HD programs are broadcast in surround sound. Freeview HD transmits surround sound in AAC but the Freeview reciever spec failed to ensure compatability with most surround sound amplifiers.

    Another major problem is the use of Optimod signal processing on most of the BBC radio output.

    So I would first like to see 320kb/s AAC stereo streams free of Flash and Optimod. My guess is that 5.1 surround will require atleast. 640kb/s.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by chris watson

    on 8 Jan 2011 11:39

    Very good news to my ears that radio is considering surround sound. I suggest starting with natural history radio which would be the ideal subject and content to deliver into homes and offices worldwide. Series such as 'Soundscape' which work well in stereo would, literally, take on another dimension in surround and I would I suggest be very popular with audiences increasingly starved of wildlife sounds from the real world. For the past few years I have been experimenting with Ambisonic recording which is a form of surround sound which has very good and flexible software decoders.

    Technical jargon aside the results are stunning!

    Chris Watson

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