Book Review: Surround Sound: Up and Running (Second Edition)

Surround Sound: Up and Running (Second Edition)
by Tomlinson Holman. Published by Focal Press, an imprint of Elsevier (footnote 1) (Oxford, England, UK; 2008. Paperback, 248 pages, ISBN 978-0240808291. $44.95.

Like the first edition of Tomlinson Holman's guide to multichannel sound, Surround Sound: Up and Running was written for an audience of industry professionals. Large portions of it are devoted to selecting microphones, setting up recording studios and monitoring rooms, optical and magnetic film audio formats, and the encoding of delivery formats. In all of this, Holman emphasizes the production and reproduction of soundtracks that accompany film and video.

However, Holman also has deep roots in consumer audio that reach down to his ancient but respected Apt-Holman preamps and power amps of the 1970s and '80s, and rise through his continuing involvement in the THX standards for cinema and home audio reproduction and, most recently, his role in the development of the Audyssey room-equalization products. So it's no surprise that Surround Sound also encompasses music reproduction. Indeed, as Holman makes clear throughout, music and soundtrack recording and reproduction are based on the same psychoacoustic principles, which is why this book also holds great interest and relevance for the Stereophile reader.

It begins with "Introduction: A Brief History," devoted to the development of sound reproduction, primarily for film. Holman is not constrained by the commonly held belief that mono begat stereo, which begat multichannel—dyed-in-the-wool stereophiles should read this chapter to learn how surround reproduction was an assumed goal of the audio pioneers from the beginning. Indeed, one of the book's implicit themes is that surround sound is not an enhancement of two-channel stereo, but that two-channel stereo is a highly limited if wildly successful implementation of the general principles of realistic sound reproduction.

Making historical references to musical works whose composition included spatial effects indicated by the composer as part of his or her artistic expression, Holman makes a strong case for surround music reproduction that goes beyond the traditional placement of performers up front with only ambience behind. Though Holman himself makes no such claim, reading this made me wonder if the two-channel media of the second half of the 20th century might have constrained the development of modern musical expression because such spatial effects could not be conveyed by the commercial formats available.

After providing the historical background, Holman dives into the nuts and bolts of monitoring, recording, and delivering sound, though not in that order. While I recommend reading the book from front to back, certain chapters may be of greater interest to music listeners than others. Chapter 2, "Monitoring," deals with system setup for a monitoring studio, but it and, especially, Chapter 6, "Psychoacoustics," should be required reading for anyone who has or plans to set up speakers and room for listening in two or many channels—the issues of perception, acoustics, and equipment that Holman analyzes here apply to domestic listening rooms as well. In fact, I'm glad to now have Holman's discussions to back me up when I find myself in discussions of speaker placement, bass management, side-signal localization, and my bête noir, discrete center-channel speakers vs phantom center-channel signals vs (yikes!) dual center speakers. Now I can quote Holman chapter and verse.

The chapter on "Delivery Formats" also has lots of good information, and now includes discussion of such new lossless formats as Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Holman also explains such important but often misunderstood functions as DialNorm and Dynamic Range Compression (DRC), and how they affect what is heard from DVDs.

The three appendices are of enormous value. The new placement of "Music Mostly Formats," a main chapter in the first edition, acknowledges that the technically successful music media of SACD and DVD-Audio have been failures in the mass market. Nonetheless, this chapter remains a clear and useful explanation of those media and of the contexts, including that of intellectual property issues, in which their successors are being developed.

The appendices on "Sample Rate" and "Word Length" are revelatory tutorials in these fundamental parameters of digital audio, regardless of the medium or the number of channels. Not only does Holman explain the numbers in a clear and digestible way, he also explains how they relate to what the listener perceives. These two sections should be required reading for anyone who tries to understand the meaning of technical reviews, such as John Atkinson's bench tests of digital players and DACs published in the pages of Stereophile.

That Holman writes in a rather academic style shouldn't be surprising—he is a Professor of Film Sound at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Nor is it a criticism: Each chapter begins with a list of the issues to be covered, followed by an organized treatment of those issues, and concludes with a summary of the points made. As a teaching tool, this structure is optimal. While technical in its depth and scope, Surround Sound deals more with ideas than with math (there's not much of the latter), and is a pretty easy read. It can teach you a lot about how recordings are made and why they are made that way. It can also educate you in the appreciation of many of the important technological, acoustical, and psychoacoustical issues that are fundamental to good audio reproduction, regardless of the source material or the number of channels.— Kalman Rubinson

Footnote 1: I have written a physiological textbook that will be published by Elsevier, parent company of Focal Press.