Music has a way of making everything else disappear. In those moments, nothing else matters— not the job you wish you didn’t have to go back to, not the relationship that only brings you heartache, not the bills piling up at home. Music, especially live music—is a freeing experience. Now imagine if you could amplify that experience—wouldn’t you?
That’s exactly what the founders at San Francisco’s Envelop set out to do. “It’s a dream that I’ve had for a long time,” Christopher Willits, one of the nonprofit’s four founders and current director explains. “To make the best listening space in the world that [will] become a microscope for people’s focus and attention, which allows the power of music to be amplified.” Willits and his partners have successfully executed this dream by taking what is commonly perceived as high-quality listening experiences and enhancing them with spatial audio.
Spatial audio is, in essence, three-dimensional sound. “When we reproduce music, that music is reproduced on a flat plane—from a left and right stereo field,” Willits illustrates. “However, it’s an abstraction of how we actually hear. It’s like taking a three-dimensional architectural space and then flattening it. That’s what we’re essentially doing with music … when we’re putting it into a two-dimensional stereo field.”
To un-flatten the listening experience, Willits and his partners built eight massive columns that hold three speakers each, added four more speakers on the ceiling and four subwoofers on the corners of the octagon—surrounding the listener from every angle, and allowing the sound to fill the space. The eight columns are also embedded with LED lights, which create an atmospheric presence all its own when they synchronize with the auditory experience. These systems all live in their location at The Midway in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood.
Ambisonic technology elevates the Envelop experience above surround sound and other commercially available multidirectional audio arrays. Commercial surround sound is organized with primary sound sources in front of the listener, as well as layered rear channels. With ambisonic technology, on the other hand, every direction is treated equally. Willits and his cohort digitally map the sound pumping through their system and position it around the listener from numerous points of direction.
“Commercial surround sound is organized with primary sound sources in front of the listener, as well as layered rear channels. With ambisonics, on the other hand, every direction is treated equally.”
Envelop’s ambitions extend beyond the live arena as well. The nonprofit distributes the audio production tools that power their experience through the Ableton Live 10 Suite. Called Envelop for Live, the software allows producers to create spatial audio that’s scalable to different listening experiences, from a custom speaker setup to headphones. That Envelop for Live is currently free online means musicians have easy access to tools beyond multi-channel audio, whereas previously, this technology was expensive and hard to come by. Now anyone can explore the world of spatial sound.
These tools don’t just apply to music production—ambisonic spatial audio is already being used in virtual reality platforms. Envelop has put their own spin on the immersive experience, however, with spatial sound meditation and restorative yoga classes, ambient music performances, listening parties and Envelop Satellite—the complete eight tower system utilized at events and festivals. “As far as I know, we are the first company—the first organization, definitely the first nonprofit—that has taken this stuff out of academia and made public listening spaces,” Willits asserts. “Music is so powerful. Our mission is to amplify that connective power of music in the three-dimensional experience.”
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Our ability to perceive sound is extremely complex, but how does human hearing stand up to other creatures’ sonic abilities?
Human: We can hear a pretty modest ten meters away for whispers and up to one hundred meters distance if someone’s yelling. The peak range of a human’s sound frequency capacity is twenty hertz to twenty kilohertz.
Dog: Even though your dog might act like they don’t hear you sometimes, they can hear up to four times better than the average human after they’re about 21 days old. Dogs are born deaf but surpass human sonic ability quickly.
Cat: For all you dog people out there, this is one rivalry you can’t win. Cats have thirty different rotational muscles in their ears, so they hear every last word you say—and still choose to ignore you.
Elephant: Our perceptions of hearing are often based on what we hear with our ears, but elephants can hear with their feet, too. They can also utilize seismic waves to sense danger or send a warnings to others.
Greater Wax Moth: Our abilities are based on evolutionary need. For this little critter, predation is a problem, but with the capacity to sense frequencies of around three hundred kilohertz, this insect’s chances of survival increase.