David Pickett’s Advocacy of Surround Sound

The following letter to the editor was published in October 2001 in Vol.24, No.10, of Stereophile magazine. It responds to an article by Sam Tellig that had appeared in the August issue, and demonstrates the serious regard in which I hold music recordings and the development of technology that has made real surround sound possible.

Editor: It seems that there are some who believe that Stereophile's name is a barrier to its promotion of multichannel surround sound. I would remind them that stereo does not mean "two channels only," but is derived from a Greek word meaning "solid." I interpret this as multidimensional.

It is ludicrous to maintain that surround sound will become a reality only if the big companies push it. This may have been true 30 years ago, when quadraphonic sound was being pushed by the recording companies (EMI, CBS, RCA, etc.), which controlled not only the recorded repertoire and the artists allowed to become famous, but also the pressing facilities and the recording technology. But today all that has changed, and many classical musicians who had been made famous by these same companies are now without recording contracts. At the same time, thanks to digital technology and the Internet, control of the production and distribution of quality recordings is no longer in the hands of the few.

In his June "As We See It," Kalman Rubinson wrote that when he plays multichannel recordings at home he is "inhibited from doing anything but paying attention to the music." I fail to see the problem here. Is music made for listening to, or for ignoring? Composers, performers, engineers, and producers spend a lot of time taking care over details in recordings and controlling quality so that something enshrined in a piece of plastic can give the impression of live music and communicate with us; and this gentleman now complains that they have done their jobs too well!

What has become of the slogan "the closest approach to the original sound"? If Peter Walker and others had not had that ever in mind, it is doubtful whether we would have progressed beyond mono LPs. In this context, stereo as we know it is but a staging post on the trail; yet I have in front of me a letter, published in April 1950 in the British magazine Wireless World, in which the chief engineer of the BBC assured readers that the BBC had no plans to "radiate binaural transmissions"—ie, stereo. His argument was quite succinct, and was along the lines of there being no public demand for it. Like stereo radio, sooner or later multichannel surround sound will become the norm—and I hope that Stereophile will be up there with the real leaders.

David Pickett

Letter from Wireless World
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