Ambisonics surround sound effects Asbjoern Andersen


Ambisonics is a method of recording and reproducing audio in full 360 degree surround – and while it’s not exactly a new invention, recent developments in software encoding have made it a lot more interesting.

And with demand for surround source material skyrocketing with the advent of 3D audio for film and immersive platforms such as virtual reality, Ambisonics is an increasingly useful option.

But how does Ambisonics work in the real world, how do you get started – and how do you make the most it? Experienced Ambisonics recordist and sound designer John Leonard gives you the details in this special hands-on A Sound Effect primer:

The current state of surround sound recording

Before we dive into the world of Ambisonics, let’s look at the current state of the art in recording in surround. It’s pretty easy, but not inexpensive, to make high-quality surround recordings these days, not only with the various discrete array mounts available from a number of microphone manufacturers, but also with all-in-one 5.1 and 7.1 microphones being offered, such as the DPA5100 surround microphone, affectionately known as The Bicycle Seat, and the various offerings from Holophone Microphone Systems.

Both these systems use discrete miniature electret microphone capsules in a special enclosure, with each microphone feeding a separate channel of a multi-track recorder although the smaller Holophone systems can also generate Dolby-encoded surround from a two-channel output, making them useful for DSLR on-camera use.

Aside from its discrete arrays, Schoeps offers a different approach, with a microphone/software system that they call Double Mid/Side, (DMS) where a rear-facing cardioid is added to a standard mid-side pair and the resulting three channels are trans-coded in software to provide a 5.0 surround output. Details here.

Sennheiser has its Esfera system, which uses a two-channel microphone array and separate hardware to generate 5.1 outputs by means of some very clever processing, but at a fairly hefty price tag of around US$12,000 for the complete system. All of these have their advantages, but they all produce horizontal only recordings and, in the case of the DPA 5100 and the Holophone H2-Pro 7.1, require six and eight tracks respectively to record the microphone outputs.

Latest Ambisonic SFX libraries:

The selection of ambisonic sound effects libraries is constantly growing – here are the latest arrivals:

  • Human Ambisonic Surround Crowds Play Track 60 sounds included, 125 mins total From: $120 From: $99

    Ambisonic Surround Crowds features 60 HD 24bit/96khz Surround Sound Effects with a large selection of crowds from Conventions, Museums, Markets, Playgrounds, Parks, Carnivals, Casinos, Restaurants and more. Both Exterior and Interior.

    Mastered in 3 configurations: Ambisonic B format (FuMa 1st Order WXYZ), 5.1 Surround Sound (L-C-R-Ls-Rr-Lf ) and Stereo (L-R)

    Recorded with a Brahma Ambisonic Microphone and a Zoom F8 recorder with special attention given to avoid intelligible words. Recording locations are all from center perspective, in the middle of the crowd to give the widest image.

    Most tracks are 2 Minutes long with embedded Soundminer metadata.. All new, original recordings. Want a taste of what's included? Download the B Format Surround Demo file here and try it out on your own system!

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  • Ambisonics The Road Play Track 50+ sounds included, 192 mins total $129 $99

    Streets and stop signs, freeways and highways, and yes, even a roundabout! This is a massive library featuring traffic ambiences that range from quiet suburb avenues, to downtown rush-hour. Not just urban environments, we also “hit the road” and drove north to sleepy desert towns, and single lane canyons. There's a ton of variety here!

    Recorded with the stunning Sennheiser Ambeo microphone, each ambience is delivered in both AmbiX and FuMa formats, as well as Stereo, 5.1, and 7.1.

    What’s more- a 360 video reference is provided to offer a fully immersive image of the sound effect being captured!

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  • Ambisonics VSCRL Volume I Play Track 150+ sounds included $275

    We're proud to offer our inaugural bundle package, which includes the first four VSCRL libraries- The Park, The Road, The Snow, and The Beach. This collection comes at an incredible deal, and is the ultimate showcase of the immersive and VISCERAL quality of our ambisonics.

    Recorded with the stunning Sennheiser Ambeo microphone, each ambience is delivered in both AmbiX and FuMa formats, as well as Stereo, 5.1, and 7.1.

    What’s more- a 360 video reference is provided to offer a fully immersive image of the sound effect being captured!

  • Ambisonics The Beach Play Track 35+ sounds included $79 $59

    It took a lot of sunscreen to record this collection of ocean waves, gentle currents, and life on the Boardwalk. From Venice Beach, to Santa Monica and Malibu, Southern California boasts some of the world's greatest resources for coastal recording. This is a terrific library that features a variety of beachside sounds, including huge wave crashes on rocks, calm estuaries, and even amusement parks on the Pier. Recorded with the stunning Sennheiser Ambeo microphone, each ambience is delivered in both AmbiX and FuMa formats, as well as Stereo, 5.1, and 7.1.
    What’s more- a 360 video reference is provided to offer a fully immersive image of the sound effect being captured!

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The Ambisonics difference

Without getting bogged down in too much detail, Ambisonics, developed in the early 1970s by Peter Fellget and Michael Gerzon is a way of recording and reproducing surround sound in both horizontal and vertical surround from a single point source. Yes, that’s right: eat your hearts out, DTS:X™, Dolby Atmos™ and Auro 3D™, Ambisonics has been capable of full surround including height and depth for around forty years, and it’s non-proprietary. You can find the relevant Wikipedia entry here for an explanation of the basic science behind the technique.

At its simplest, what’s known as a first-order B-Format surround signal can be generated either by software manipulation of mono sources or by a special type of microphone, using a tetrahedral array of four near-coincident capsules.

The Soundfield Microphone Tetrahedral Array

The Soundfield Microphone Tetrahedral Array

Those from TSL/Soundfield output a B-Format signal, which supplies a matrixed four-channel signal, where the four channels are designated W, X, Y and Z, where W represents on omni-directional reference, X represents front and back, Y represents left and right and Z equals up and down. (This is a gross simplification, but it’ll suffice for this article.) These microphones will have hardware control units that give the user options in terms of gain and directional orientation and filtering and are at the top-end of the market.

The Soundfield SPS200 and the Core Sound TetraMic both output simple capsule feeds and need software (SurroundZone2 for the Soundfield and VVTetraVST for the Core Sound) to correctly matrix the capsule feeds into a B-Format signal.

The resulting four-channel signal can then be trans-coded for output in many ways, from a single source in mono to multi-speaker surround arrays, with the major advantage being that once you have a the initial capture, you can use post processing to vary pan, tilt, zoom and rotate: something that’s not exactly simple to achieve with other systems.

 

Lots of opportunities with Ambisonics:

Ambisonics allows you to transcode your B-format source material into a myriad of formats, by using the free SoundField SurroundZone 2 plugin – including stereo, 5.0, 5.1, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0 or 7.1 surround.

The early days of Ambisonics

The development of Ambisonics was sponsored by a UK government organization called the National Research and Development Corporation, the aim of which was to exploit commercially technology created in the public sector. With Ambisonics, it failed dismally and the technique became the preserve of a few dedicated enthusiasts, but Soundfield Microphone sales continued to those who saw the various uses to which the system could be but, not the least as a pretty impressive stereo microphone for use in recording studios.

The main problem with using Ambisonics in large listening areas such as movie-theaters has always been the size of the sweet-spot, which was pretty small. The effect was still obvious and fairly impressive outside the sweet spot, but didn’t have the wow-factor of artificially pan-potted effects that became the staple of 5.1 and 7.1 movie theater systems. It did, however, give a far more realistic sense of being in the scene than its rather more sensational rival.

Ambisonics evolved

Initially, the decoding hardware was complex and expensive and the lack of truly portable multi-track recording equipment meant that you were pretty much tied to a mains supply and a rack full of gear, but the arrival of sophisticated portable computer interfaces – in my case, the Metric Halo 2882 which could be powered via the FireWire port of a Macintosh PowerBook – meant that it’s been possible to record using Soundfield microphones free from mains power for around fifteen years. Much of the material in my effects libraries has been recorded using this system, although for more portability, I also use Sound Devices 744 and 788 recorders, which have basic B-Format monitoring built-in.

ambisonics recording

Early location surround recording set-up: Mac PowerBook, Metric Halo 2882 interface and Soundfield ST250 control unit & microphone, Rycote windshield.

Further development in software processing has also meant that expensive hardware is no longer needed for transcoding and, thanks to research carried out at various academic institutions, much of the software to accomplish this is free. The small sweet-spot problem remained, though, and much of the effects material recorded in B-Format by me and others like me, was simply decoded, initially, to stereo and lately, to 5.1 surround, with the height aspect being discarded.

It’s now entirely possible using software, to enlarge the sweet spot, decode for binaural and even to deal with irregular speaker arrays in large venues.

Recently, however, there have been major developments in the use of Ambisonics, particularly with the arrival of immersive virtual reality systems such as the Oculus Rift and it’s now entirely possible using software, to enlarge the sweet spot, decode for binaural and even to deal with irregular speaker arrays in large venues.

One of the developers in the forefront of this technology is a company called Blue Ripple Sound and the good news is that the core software to experiment with this is free, with the caveat that it only works with certain DAWs at the moment, although one of these is the ridiculously cheap, but amazingly versatile Reaper.
 

Introducing a brand-new Ambisonics SFX category:

 
A whole new sound effects category is opening up here on A Sound Effect, dedicated to Ambisonics SFX libraries – and a bunch of libraries have just been added. Check out a small selection below:
 

  • Human Ambisonic Audiences Play Track 133+ sounds included $50

    Applause and Laughter recorded in various spaces in full B-Format Ambisonic surround. Over 90 tracks of audience laughter an another 40 of so of applause and audience reactions and chatter. 96 kHz / 24 bit recordings with full Soundminer-embedded metadata.

    Transcode with the free SoundField SurroundZone 2 plug-in in your DAW of choice, or use Svein Berge’s brilliant Harpex-B for stunning results.

  • City Life Ambisonic City Play Track 30 sounds included, 231 mins total From: $69 From: $59

    Ambisonic City features 30 24bit / 96 kHz surround sound effects with a large selection of city center traffic and ambience. Mastered in 3 configurations: Ambisonic B format (FuMa 1st Order WXYZ), 5.1 Surround Sound (L-C-R-Ls-Rr-Lf ) and Stereo (L-R).

    Recorded with a Brahma Ambisonic Microphone and a Zoom F8 recorder in various locations around Los Angeles. Recording locations are all from center perspective, and recorded between traffic lanes on medians, bridges, walkways and tunnels to capture the movement of a city. Most tracks are 2-3 minutes with embedded metadata. Want a taste of what's included? Download the B Format Surround Demo file here and try it out on your own system!

    Available in three versions:

    • 5.1 (LCRLsRsLf) + Stereo. 60 tracks, 8.9 GB
    • B Format Only (wxyz). 30 tracks, 4.39 GB
    • Full Package: B format (wxyz) + 5.1 (LCRLsRsLf) + Stereo. 90 tracks, 13.31 GB

    – pick your preferred version below:

  • Ambisonics Ambisonic Forest – Spring Play Track 14 sounds included, 166 mins total $80

    The library is a collection of atmosphere recordings of different sized/aged spruce and birch forests during spring time in Eastern Finland.

    In these recordings you can hear a variety of common birds during different times of the day and also change of the weather such as multiple states of the wind or even sudden snowing.

    The library contains 28 files (14 B-format and 14 Stereo files) captured at 24bit/96kHz. Total length of about 2.5 hours.

    B-format files are in FuMa format.
    With the free SoundField SurroundZone 2 plugin you can convert the B-format files into your preferred format (stereo, 5.0, 5.1, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0 or 7.1 surround). There's also other plugin options such as Harpex-B.

    The library also contains ready-made stereo mixdowns for your convenience.

    These recordings are very raw. Very little or none denoising, EQ or any other processing method was used.
    Note: The preview is in binaural stereo, so please listen with headphones!

  • Ambisonics Ambisonic Steam Trains Play Track 55+ sounds included, 218 mins total From: $39

    Ambisonic Steam Trains features recordings of 3 different narrow-gauge railways in Saxony/Germany where they meander through narrow valleys and bends.
    The library includes more than 3.5 hours of recordings that are taken directly at the train drivers position in the cabin as well as from wagon platforms and passenger seats.
    Also recordings of train pass-bys, shunting and service operations in the depot are included.
    With the Ambisonic format it is guaranteed that the acoustically rich and diversified surroundings of steam trains in action are captured spherical in each and every detail.

    Ambisonic Steam Trains is available in two versions:
    Ambisonic and Stereo

    The Ambisonic version delivers 4 channel A-Format files recorded with the Ambeo VR microphone in upright position.
    These files need conversion to B Format prior to further processing.

    The Stereo version contains the same number of files with equal playing length, but, as the name suggestions, only in stereo versions. All takes are already decoded to 180° stereo that can be manipulated with any stereo width plugin.

    About Ambisonics:

    This is an Ambisonics sound effects library – and by using the free SoundField SurroundZone 2 plugin you can convert the included A-format files into your preferred format (stereo, 5.0, 5.1, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0 or 7.1 surround). Note: The library also contains ready-made stereo mixdowns for your convenience.

  • Human Ambisonic Surround Crowds Play Track 60 sounds included, 125 mins total From: $120 From: $99

    Ambisonic Surround Crowds features 60 HD 24bit/96khz Surround Sound Effects with a large selection of crowds from Conventions, Museums, Markets, Playgrounds, Parks, Carnivals, Casinos, Restaurants and more. Both Exterior and Interior.

    Mastered in 3 configurations: Ambisonic B format (FuMa 1st Order WXYZ), 5.1 Surround Sound (L-C-R-Ls-Rr-Lf ) and Stereo (L-R)

    Recorded with a Brahma Ambisonic Microphone and a Zoom F8 recorder with special attention given to avoid intelligible words. Recording locations are all from center perspective, in the middle of the crowd to give the widest image.

    Most tracks are 2 Minutes long with embedded Soundminer metadata.. All new, original recordings. Want a taste of what's included? Download the B Format Surround Demo file here and try it out on your own system!

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  • Ambisonics Applause Play Track 19+ sounds included, 8 mins total $75

    Mostly recorded at “the Olympia”, a great concert hall in Paris, this collection is all about the applause and crowd reactions. From large groups to single persons, we aim to cover any kind of emotion felt during a show. If you are looking for realism and authenticity, you should find it here.

    About Ambisonics:
    This is an Ambisonics sound effects library - and by using the free SoundField SurroundZone 2 plugin you can convert the B-format files into your preferred format (stereo, 5.0, 5.1, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0 or 7.1 surround). Note: The library also contains ready-made stereo mixdowns for your convenience.
  • Environments AURA – Stereo, 5.0 & AMBISONICS Play Track 80 sounds included, 120 mins total From: $62

    The AURA sound effects library gets you high-quality ambiences from an extensive array of locations around the UK.

    It contains ambiences such as shopping centres, supermarkets, cafes, car parks, cemeteries, forests, gyms, highway traffic, bars, pubs, libraries, city backstreets, parks, London underground trains, over ground trains (interior and exterior), hallways, neighbourhoods, iconic British train stations, busy junctions, high streets, swimming pools, hustling offices and several windy environments.

    AURA comes in three formats – Stereo, 5.0 and AMBISONICS, to increase versatility even further (5.0 version also includes stereo version).

    KEY FEATURES for AURA | Stereo

    Number of Files: 80 High Quality WAVS
    Size Unpacked: 1.91 GB
    Sample Rate: 48k/24-bit – stereo
    Average file length: 1.5 minutes
    Other Info: Meta-Tagged

    KEY FEATURES for AURA | 5.0 + Stereo

    Number of Files: 80 High Quality WAVS + 80 stereo files
    Size Unpacked: 6.71 GB
    Sample Rate: 48k/24-bit
    Average file length: 1.5 minutes
    Gear Used: Sound Devices 744T, Soundfield SPS200.
    Other Info: Meta-Tagged


    KEY FEATURES for AURA | AMBISONICS

    Number of Files: 80 High Quality WAVS (A-Format)
    Size Unpacked: 3.89 GB
    Sample Rate: 48k/24-bit
    Average file length: 1.5 minutes
    Gear Used: Sound Devices 744T, Soundfield SPS200.
    Other Info: Meta-Tagged
    To fully utilise the powerful AURA | AMBISONICS collection, please download the free SoundField SurroundZone 2 plugin to convert the A-Format ambisonics into a format of your choice.

  • Nature & Countryside Bugs Play Track 30+ sounds included, 57 mins total $75

    This Bugs SFX library is all about insects, mostly crickets and cicadas. There are legions of them and they are all different. We bring you some clean and sharp ones, captured in french countryside at both daytime and at night.

    About Ambisonics:
    This is an Ambisonics sound effects library - and by using the free SoundField SurroundZone 2 plugin you can convert the B-format files into your preferred format (stereo, 5.0, 5.1, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0 or 7.1 surround). Note: The library also contains ready-made stereo mixdowns for your convenience.
View all Ambisonics libraries here

Getting started with Ambisonics

If you do want to test the waters and you have Reaper, ProTools, Cubase, Nuendo or Logic, there are a couple of ways you can achieve this at no cost, other than some time to read and understand how to set your system up. There are a number of software plug-ins that will decode audio material recorded as B-Format surround, but probably the first stop should be the plug-in specifically designed to deal with the output of Soundfield Microphones: the company is now part of TSL Products and their SurroundZone2 plug-in is available for VST, AU and AAX systems, with VST & AAX available for both MacOS and Windows computers. You can download it for free here.

If you want a more advanced version, the truly excellent Harpex-B plug-in is available here. It isn’t free, in fact it’s quite expensive, but there’s a thirty day free trial available, which is worth experimenting with.

Harpex-B Ambisonic Decoding

Two instances of Harpex-B Ambisonic Decoding software in use in a complex surround mix, along with two mid/side decoders.

If you’re a Windows user and prepared to dig a little deeper into the system set-up, then you can try Dave McGriffy’s VVMicVST plug-in, which as the name suggests is a VST-only plug-in, although Dave has recently expanded his suite of tools and these can be found on his VVAudio site.

 

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  • UI SOUNDS: Futuristic, the next step of our user interface (UI) SFX series, is a collection of 400 well organized selections ranging from subtle to glitchy and vivid elements which are ready to use in any futuristic user interface environment, smart TV app, wearable device app, UI demonstration or infographic video, as well as in your games.

    All sounds are spread across these 9 categories: selections, buttons, open – close – pause interfaces, holograms, alarm loops, notifications, calculations, screen errors, browse menu and delivered to you in the 3 most commonly used file formats to save you the trouble of having to create them yourself; WAV, MP3, OGG

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    Need sound for a mobile game? With Mobile Game you get 578 files of musical stabs, modern & retro pickups, crafting essentials, tonal and organic game trinkets and upgrades, power ups, a variety of coins, bubbles, UI and so much more mobile game fun. ​It's a pack that will bring instant familiarity to the users of your game or video productions.

    Inspired by app market hits like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush, we present to you Mobile Game, our most fun and gameplay-inspired sound library yet!

    Mobile Game features sounds such as:

    Bubbles • Building • Coins • Crafting • Mechanisms and Contraptions • Musical Stabs • Objective Completes • Pick Ups • Potions • Tonal Designed Organic fx • UI/Menu • Upgrades

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Be sure to check out Soundlister - you'll find 100s of audio professionals there already.
Need specific sound effects? Try a search below:
 

Want to dig deeper still? Daniel Courville has a whole suite of software, including a Double M/S version and one for making your Zoom H2 surround recordings sound pretty good.

How to record surround in B-Format

Want to buy a mic of your own? Aside from the Soundfield and TetraMic products mentioned earlier, a new, Kickstarter-funded company in India produces the Brahma microphones, which are also causing interest, especially as they’ve managed to build one into a Zoom H2N body, making it the smallest complete surround recording package available anywhere. Check it out here and read about one user’s experiences here

In closing, let’s sum up the key takeways from this primer:

• Ambisonics is a method of recording and reproducing audio in full 360 degree surround.

• Post-processing can transcode the recordings into various conventional surround formats.

• Specialist hardware and software is required for recording and processing the audio.

• Much of the processing software is free and works with many DAWs.

• Microphone prices start at under $1,000.00

 

A big thanks to John Leonard for this overview of what Ambisonic recording is all about! Check out his sound effect libraries here, and explore the new Ambisonics SFX category here.

 
 

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About John Leonard:

John Leonard is an experienced sound designer and recordist from the UK, where he’s done pioneering work in theatre sound since the 1970s. His work includes exhibition projects in the UK, North America and China, and shows in London’s West-End, The National Theatre Of Great Britain, The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Court, The Almeida, The Lincoln Center Festival and more. He’s also the creator of the popular Immersive FX sound effect series. Learn more about his work here.


 
 
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A Sound Effect gives you easy access to an absolutely huge sound effects catalog from a myriad of independent sound creators, all covered by one license agreement - a few highlights:
 
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    All sounds are spread across these 9 categories: selections, buttons, open – close – pause interfaces, holograms, alarm loops, notifications, calculations, screen errors, browse menu and delivered to you in the 3 most commonly used file formats to save you the trouble of having to create them yourself; WAV, MP3, OGG

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    Perfect to use and tweak if you need a spaceship flying (or another flying transportation) over your head!

  • Game Audio Packs & Bundles Mobile Game Play Track 578 sounds included, 30 mins total

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    Inspired by app market hits like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush, we present to you Mobile Game, our most fun and gameplay-inspired sound library yet!

    Mobile Game features sounds such as:

    Bubbles • Building • Coins • Crafting • Mechanisms and Contraptions • Musical Stabs • Objective Completes • Pick Ups • Potions • Tonal Designed Organic fx • UI/Menu • Upgrades

Explore the full, unique collection here
 
 
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5 thoughts on “Welcome to the wonderful world of Ambisonics – a primer by John Leonard

  1. Great article, but I don’t quite understand this ‘getting started’ paragraph:

    ‘If you do want to test the waters…there are a couple of ways you can achieve this at no cost, …software plug-ins that will decode audio material recorded as B-Format…probably the first stop should be the plug-in specifically designed to deal with the output of Soundfield Microphones.’

    If you need to buy a Soundfield microphone, how is this at ‘no cost’. If you can use your own microphones, how do we ENCODE our recorded sound into B-Format?

    • Hi Christopher, thanks for the comment! Now, I’m not John :) – but I think what he means by that paragraph is in terms of working with existing B-format recordings, ie working with B-format content in your DAW.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for this great article. I’m just starting to learn the process of capturing and mixing 360 sound. I’m confused though, is the “only” benefit of buying an ambisonic mic just have to do with the ease of workflow? Sort of how it’s best to use a matched stereo pair for stereo recordings if you want the best result with the least hassle? Or is it literally impossible to set up regular mics in a tetrahedron array and eventually get an ambisonic file from that capture, even if it happens in post through a plugin like ambipan or something similar? That seems like it would make sense intuitively since you should be able to use prerecorded mono SFX samples and create an ambisonic environment using a plugin like that…right? Sorry for the novice question. Hope it made sense.

  3. Hello Christopher & Jared,

    Christopher, I did indeed mean that you can experiment with existing B-Format material: there’s plenty of free stuff around – try http://www.ambisonia.com for non-commercial material that you can play around with. Then buy libraries from Asbjoern and keep us poor recordists from starving!

    Jared, Soundfield-type microphones that use a tetrahedral array are designed to keep the capsules as close together as possible, effectively to create a point-source, which will give the best results. My ST450 and my TetraMic are both compact, portable set-ups that can be fitted into shockmounts and windshields and used in the same way as a conventional microphone for effects gathering. It’s possible and quite easy to build an array from conventional microphones for horizontal surround only, and there are various illustrations of rigs that achieve this, using an omni and two figure-of-eight microphones. Do a search for ‘Native B-Format Array’ or go straight here – http://www.radio.uqam.ca/ambisonic/native_b.html for a pretty comprehensive example. You’ll notice that it’s not exactly a compact set-up, though.

    Please feel free to ask anything else and I’ll see if I can help.

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