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In 1999, when Sony had pursued a higher resolution format that
could go beyond the CD’s digital audio performance characteristics,
Sony suggested the creation of the SACD (Super Audio CD) using the DSD (Direct Stream Digital) format.
To further support the recording of Hi-Res audio, Sony has more recently introduced products,
such as ‘Hi-Res’ condenser microphones which have super wide range frequency characteristics.
As well, in 2019, Sony suggested a new sonic experience supporting three dimensional sound “360 Reality Audio”,
aimed to widen the creative palette of the artist and to bring their content to the listener at a whole new level.
In this final chapter, we’re going to look at the more current state of Sony’s audio technology, introduced in the 2000s.
A C-100 user and an engineer working with many current popular artists such as Kenshi Yonezu, Official HIGE DANdism, Fujii Kaze, and many others.
A 360 Reality Audio mixing engineer at Battery Studios, Piacentini has worked on 360RA mixes with The Chainsmokers, as well as many others.
An engineer at Sony Music Entertainment UK., and a spirited engineer who has worked on 360RA mixing of projects for Paul Epworth, Zara Larsson, and others.
From the early 2010s, the word “Hi-Res” had already become common. This was the abbreviation of “high resolution” and was initially meant to be used for recordings sold online at download sites offering “better quality than CD”, although that didn’t have a precise definition. In 2013, Sony started to develop “Hi-Res” standards both in content and playback devices with the help from other industry content suppliers. In the past, Sony had played a central role in the spread of the new “SACD” standard (Super Audio CD), working in collaboration with Philips, which meant that Sony had actually been working on a high resolution format long before “Hi-Res” became commonplace.
SACD is a format using a 120mm diameter/1.2mm depth/4.7GB optical disc, encapsulating 1bit/2.8 MHz DSD audio. As well as stereo, it could support a maximum of 5.1 channels for surround systems, and even though it had exactly the same physical size as a CD, it had enabled high-resolution sound playback driven by the DSD format. Unlike conventional analog/digital converted PCM (Pulse Code Modulation), DSD (Direct Stream Digital) records the sound of analog audio into a 1 bit format. This 1 bit pulse data, utilizing an extremely high clock rate, was utilized in order to capture the original sound in a way that provided a digital conversion far more true to the original sound than PCM could deliver, giving the listener a ‘closer to reality’ experience.“In the late 1990s, I heard DSD for the first time, which was a very big step in sound quality.” states the senior mastering engineer of Battery Studios in New York, Mark Wilder.
“In 1999 I think, a demonstration was done with a live band, a PCM-1630, analog half-inch/30ips and DSD. The jump in audio quality from the PCM-1630, which was the gold standard for the previous decade, to DSD was amazing. You may like what the analog adds to the sound, but the DSD was exactly like what was at the input. This moment was so impressive.”
1 : The PCM-D100, released in 2013, incorporated high resolution formats such as DSD and had internal mics that went out to about 35kHz frequency response. It was a flagship portable recorder, supporting both 1bit/2.8MHz DSD and a maximum of 24bit/192kHz PCM.
Sony had created the CD, and then pursued audio quality which went beyond the CD. It has not only concentrated on continually creating the new gear necessary for capturing audio in its highest form, but has always focused on offering professional and consumer gear for playing it back that way, as well. The PCM-D100 portable recorder released in 2013, accommodated recording in the one-bit/2.8MHz DSD format, or alternatively in a maximum 24bit/192kHz PCM format, enabling Hi-Res quality recording of live performances and field recordings in a small hand-held portable unit.
In 2018, three condenser microphones the C-100 , ECM-100U , and ECM-100N were introduced to the market as reference microphones for the new ‘Hi-Res’ era. They all have high frequency characteristics going out to 50kHz. “When I was in London for the recording session with Hikaru Utada, I used it for acoustic guitars.” states Masahito Komori, who is a user of the C-100 which employs two capsules for handling different frequency ranges. He is a recording engineer, and has worked with various artists such as Kenshi Yonezu, Official HIGE DANdism, Fujii Kaze, Yaffle, Nariaki Obukuro, iri, TENDRE, AAAMYY as well as Hikaru Utada.
“I do own one and since I've been using it, I've fallen in love with it. It gives very good response and I’m able to capture audio evenly from the low to very high ranges. The C-100 has two diaphragms for the main and high range, and even though the main one is just a little smaller than conventional large diaphragms, the two are in really good balance. Even if the music has full sound, it captures details that ordinary large diaphragm microphones cannot provide, which I assume it derives from the double diaphragms. I used this microphone on classical guitar the other day and could not only record a very a clear and articulate sound, but also a fatter capture than small diaphragm microphones can usually get. Such a good balance is probably the reason why this microphone is usable on so many instruments. Rather than having a strong character, this microphone has a very natural sound, but has a little emphasis around 10 kHz, and so sounds modern, too. It’s also cool enough to add its own “taste”.
As a further feature, “it doesn't sound blurry, even if it's been placed a bit far from the sound source” he continues.
“When I record certain instruments, I sometimes place the microphone at a distance, but depending on the microphone, they sometimes ‘blur’. With the C-100, though, it doesn’t get blurry with that much distance, so I sometimes record acoustic guitars more than 50cm (~20 inches) away from the instrument. I’ve talked quite a lot about recording acoustic guitars, but similar to another one of Sony's microphone masterpieces, the C-800G, it works well with male rappers and can capture their lyrics very clearly. The other day at a recording with TENDRE, I used it on saxophone and this microphone really covers a lot of instruments. I would like Sony to keep on making microphones and personally would love a new super flagship model like the C-800G at some point in the future.”
1 : The C-100, a Hi-Res capable studio condenser microphone with a unique design. Released in 2018, it supports two diaphragms, designed respectively for main and high range, having frequency characteristics from 20Hz to 50kHz. It has multiple patterns, and is switchable between cardioid, omni, and bidirectional settings.
2 : The ECM-100U unidirectional microphone, one of two “ECM” condenser microphones, is designed for recording instruments, and also has a frequency response from 20Hz to 50kHz. A stereo-pair ECM-100UMP was released in 2020 (available in certain regions).
3 : The ECM-100N nondirectional (omni) microphone,. As well as the C-100 and ECM-100U, it supports a frequency response of 20Hz to 50kHz, enabling the precise capture of a space’s sound. A stereo-pair ECM-100NMP is now also available in certain regions.
When asked about the C100, which sells at a very affordable price, especially when compared to the high end C-800G, Todd Whitelock, who used to work as a senior engineer at Sony Music Studio in NYC, and now as a freelancer, states “I had read about it coming to market and was most excited, not only about its frequency response, but also its price point.”
“Though it was affordably priced, it didn’t seem that anything was sacrificed for lowering the cost, and it was well made just like other Sony products. I find the C100 achieves the fullest frequency spectrum of any mic I’ve ever used and the quickest transient response, whether it be the detail of a human mouth enunciating a lyric or the finger attack of a bass or guitar. I love it on acoustic bass and have made a few great recordings with Christian McBride with it... just last week, as a matter of fact, we were recording at the newly refurbished Power Station/Berklee/ NYC and I used it inverted and near the bottom of his bass, about two feet away, and selected the omni pattern to get all the fabulous low end of his instrument. I have also recorded the incomparable jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant with it, and absolutely love the forward presence it gave the voice… I didn’t need to compress or EQ it to get it out in front of a dense instrumentation for a film score in the final mix. An important side note here, she loved the way it sounded in her headphones as well, which is half the battle for any vocalist who needs to record a great vocal. If they like their voice in the cans, they sing with greater confidence which ultimately is what you’re trying to get across to the listener. That’s a win-win-win, for performer, engineer, and listener!”
Whitelock also owns and uses a pair of each of the two small “ECM100” models, as well as the C100. “With the unidirectional ECM-100U and the omnidirectional ECM-100N, I’ve used them on a lot of recordings, but the very first one I tried them out on was for jazz drummer Herlin Riley for Mack Ave Records, on his “Perpetual Optimism” album”, he recollects.
“I had used a pair of ECM100U’s on piano and another pair on drum overheads. I also used the ECM100N’s as drum room mics, and, as well, used the C100 on acoustic bass. I used a vintage Sony C37A on saxophone and a C48 on trumpet… literally the whole record is Sony mics...”
1 : Stereo mic’d C-100’s on a grand piano. Whether for capturing instruments or vocals, it can be used on any type of source. This versatility is one of the reasons for its recent popularity.
2 : Cécile McLorin Salvant, the pride of the modern jazz scene, is a Grammy Awards winner for Best Jazz Vocal album. The C-100 was used in her recordings and according to engineer Todd Whitelock, “She liked the sound so much, that it really contributed to her wonderful performances.”
3 : Here, the C-100 is being used in a church music recording session. Since it has high resolution specs, it can fully capture the resonances of the large reverberant space. In this picture, you can see, that as well as the three C-100’s being placed up high, we can identify two more being placed closer to the floor.
The DMX-R100 (picture on the right) is the 48 channel digital console released by Sony in 2001, and I have been using it in my private studio, even today. In building my studio I looked for a compact console, and the reason I chose this was that I needed a hybrid console, some analog inputs, some digital inputs, and maybe some mic preamps in case I needed to do overdubs. The DMX-R100 has been referred to as the “Baby Oxford”, but it could be used for all 96kHz projects and that’s what the majority of the multi-track audio I’m recording and mixing today still is.
Also, the EQ’s are fantastic, with high and low pass filters and 4 bands available for each channel – everything’s covered. They, along with the dynamic section of limiting and compression, sound better than most plug-ins.
The majority of my work on it has been mixing but I once had a remote recording assignment to capture all of the audio for a ‘PBS Great Performances’ filming of Carly Simon, with a band and small orchestra, aboard the Cunard QEII cruise ship for the transatlantic voyage from NYC to Bridgehampton UK to premier her “Moonlight Serenade” album. The DMX-R100 became my audio Swiss Army Knife in terms of its flexibility for recording, routing, cueing, etc. After that long assignment (and roundtrip voyage on rough seas) I knew how well built and versatile a console it was, especially in places you couldn’t take a big console.
360 Reality Audio (360RA) is one of Sony’s most recent introductions. This is a new music listening experience using a three dimensional audio technology that creates a sound field with an extreme sense of reality that makes listeners feel as if they’ve stepped into the live venue where the artists are playing. While mixing the content, it’s possible to place the various sound sources, such as vocals, vocal harmonies, instruments, etc. with specific positioning information (distance and angle) in any direction. When the content is being played, listeners can enjoy the musical experience of having sounds come from any direction within a 360 degree field, based on the artists’ intentions. It provides a totally different sense of immersiveness that conventional stereo sound system don’t seem to have, and it can be experienced with smartphones (iOS/Android™) and generic headphones/earbuds. When Sony's recommended headphones and smartphone app “Sony｜Headphones Connect” are used, and with the photo image of the listener’s ear taken by the camera, the sonic field optimized for an individual’s hearing characteristics can be achieved. Also, when playing with SRS-RA5000/SRS-RA3000 speakers, it will enable listeners to enjoy 360RA content without headphones.
360RA content began distribution in Europe beginning in the autumn of 2019, and was later distributed through five streaming services including Amazon Music HD, Deezer, nugs.net, TIDAL, and Sony Select (*).
(*: Availability of streaming services depends on the regions and services respectively. Also, playback devices vary depending on which services are used.)
“360 Reality Audio is such a big step from stereo or surround.” states Mark Wilder, who currently operates a 360RA production environment.
“The idea that I can hear a sound behind, below or above me using a pair of headphones is beyond my dreams. 360 Reality Audio does not need a large investment in new equipment to create or enjoy it. I do almost all of my 360 Reality Audio mixing on headphones so I understand what the mix will sound like. Unlike other formats, 360 Reality Audio can place sound below the horizon (below ear level), so low frequency sounds can be placed with confidence, in that they will not interfere with vocals, melodies or other key instruments in the song. Streaming music videos and sound design/music for gaming are two other applications that immediately come to mind for 360RA.”
For the 360RA content, we can use the same recorded material as used for traditional stereo recordings, but use the DAW plugin tool that’s been designed especially for the 360RA environment during mixing.
(In April 2021, “360 Reality Audio Creative Suite” is to be released from AUDIO FUTURES, a subsidiary of VIRTUAL SONICS).
The placement of the sound is done with its own concept of an “object”, which enables the mix engineer to decide where within a globe shaped ‘sound stage’ that each sound source is to be placed.
About the process of mixing for 360RA, Michael Piacentini, an engineer at Battery Studios made the following comments.
“I’ve worked with the 360RA format with artists such as Kane Brown, Paul Oakenfold, The Chainsmokers, and CNCO. I think a lot of artists are curious to see how their mixes will translate into a 3D space. I try to approach the mixing from the standpoint that the integrity of the stereo mix should be maintained, while trying to offer listeners a new take from a spatial standpoint. We’re working on a custom 13.2 setup, using 5 inch powered monitors and subs. As for plugins, the advantage of these suites is the ability to utilize object based mixing into your current workflow. In a channel based format such as stereo, you pan individual mix elements either L/R or somewhere in between, but in object based mixing, the individual mix elements are broken out as objects that can be placed at any coordinate within the 360 degree sphere. Of course, these formats allow for vertical panning.”
1 : The screenshot of the pan control of the 360 Reality Audio Creative Suite, a plugin designed for 360RA content production, developed with VIRTUAL SONICS. 360 Reality Audio enables one to enjoy a sense of immersiveness in the music, as if the listener is at the center of a globe being surrounded by sounds coming from all directions.
2 : Mark Wilder, a mastering engineer at Battery Studios in NYC, where a 360RA mixing environment is set up. Starting his career in the 1990’s, he has contributed through his work on so many tremendous projects.
Chris Le Monde, an engineer for Sony Music Entertainment UK states “For me, 360 Reality Audio gives the most convincing ‘out of head’ experience when listening on headphones. The ability to create a headphone personalization to maximize this effect is the technology’s greatest strength.” As well as Michael Piacentini, he also uses his MDR-Z7 or WH-1000XM3 headphones along with a 13.2 channel speaker system for 360RA mixing.
“In my experience, when artists request a 360 Reality Audio mix for their music, it has always been out of a desire to give another perspective to their artistic vision. For example, artists such as Paul Epworth and Zara Larsson had the same idea. I think listeners have an unconscious expectation of where things should sit in a mix - drums and vocals in the center, and perhaps effects and guitars to the sides, for example. Mixing in 360 Reality Audio is a balancing act of making the listener feel at ease with what’s familiar, but creating excitement and intrigue by deviating from these conventions where appropriate. In some mixes I may rotate the drums around the space at points in the track - to enhance a transition from verse to chorus for example, the vocalist may stand in front of you for a verse, whisper from behind you for one line, then dance from left to right with the backing vocalists during the chorus.”
Le Monde also talked about how to emphasize a track’s presence by not moving it around, which is quite the opposite of “moving around in the globe”.
“For example, a guitar solo that may be spread across two channels in a stereo mix might work better as a ‘mono’ object, in that it now only emanates from a single point source in the 360 sphere rather than two, helping it stand out from the other elements around you in the sphere, and thereby giving the listener a greater feeling of ‘that instrument is coming from over there’. After a few attempts at spinning elements around the sphere it becomes quickly evident that such movements can become gimmicky and tiresome if needlessly repeated - there has to be meaning to movements, if it isn’t there to enhance the music, then it is not serving a purpose.”
As well, as it had once been done in Hi-Res, Sony is now again trying to renovate recorded works traditionally defined in a stereo field into the new spherical pallet of 360RA. As we’ve previously discussed, with the advancement of this technology, Sony is continuing to support music and its production, starting at the microphone’s capture and ending at the listener’s ears.
The MDR-CD900ST monitoring headphone has been in Sony’s headphone line-up for quite a long time, but since the adoption and use of high resolution techniques and technologies for music production, more and more listeners are now being supplied with Hi-Res recordings. In response to this new trend, Sony Music Studio Tokyo and Sony have collaborated to create a new headphone. As a result, we have come up with the MDR-M1ST.
Since this is a modern headphone, one of the things that we strongly pursued in its development was to “reduce distortion”. Other features were enabling it to present the dynamics and to recreate the response of the sound precisely. We also focused on its wearability, that would give no fatigue, even after long hours of use. We also found that when distortion is reduced, far away sounds are more accurately heard. In other words, since this depth information is presented more precisely, things could be heard as sounding ‘farther away’ than in traditional headphones. In the product testing phase, there were many musicians that had this impression and said that “some sound sources seemed really far away”. So, as well as lowering the distortion, we took a lot of time to make sure that we supported this ‘sense of distance’, which is important in a high end monitoring headphone.
In terms of frequency characteristics, this headphone surprisingly allows up to an 80kHz frequency response. It doesn't add anything that’s not already there, but achieves a natural feel, and you may be able to experience how high the ceiling of a Hi-Res sound source actually is. Of course, there is no additional information in the low range either, and its reproduction is aimed mostly to be able to play the music with ‘power’, ‘low frequency definition’, and ‘transient density’, to help make the listener happy. At Sony Music Studio Tokyo, the MDR-M1ST has been used as a standard monitoring tool for mastering.
1 : The MDR-M1ST, a monitoring headphone released in Japan in 2019. Matches well with the modern music production environment.
2 : Though not created in collaboration with Sony Music Studio Tokyo, the IER-M9, an in-ear monitoring headphone has been released, and is designed for on stage performance use. Having frequency characteristics from 5Hz to 40kHz, it can also be used for Hi-Res source monitoring.