Sound studio

25 years after his death, a 3D sound pioneer finally gets the microphone

He was a musical and mathematical genius whose breakthroughs are used every day in computing and audio production. But hardly anyone knows his name. That’s about to be solved when friends and colleagues come together online to celebrate the life of Michael Gerzon, the British polymath who tragically died aged 50 in 1996.

“Michael was the Einstein of immersive sound,” said Charlie Morrow, host of IMMERSE!, an hour-long celebration of the quirky British pioneer of audio and immersive audio technology. The event will begin streaming at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday, March 20.

Morrow, a composer and media producer who splits his time between Finland and Vermont, met Gerzon in 1981 at Company Week, an annual gathering of improv musicians in London where Gerzon recorded some of the performances. Years later, after learning of Gerzon’s untimely death, Morrow decided to investigate his work. Towards the end of his own career, Morrow became a 3D sound innovator. As a result, Gerzon’s work became more meaningful to him.

“What moves me about him is his utter perfectionism and total dedication to the power of sound,” Morrow said. “He spent a lot of time figuring out how to record and get sound to the ears and his passion for it was extraordinary.”

First recordings

Gerzon recorded hundreds of concerts and live performances at Oxford, where he was pursuing a doctorate. in mathematics. Nearly 3,000 of his recordings can be found in the British Library Sound Archive, including one made from an 18th century harpsichord at Oxford. A close colleague noted that Gerzon had remarkably keen hearing.

Michael Gerzon (Photo: Robert Alexander)

“He was just totally obsessed with music and how to record it better,” said Pat Thomas, an improv pianist and friend of Gerzon. “He was recording everything.” Thomas said that Gerzon didn’t like the overdub. It was all about capturing the live performance. “He wanted to capture what was really going on, that was all his thing…He used to think that people who used electronic mixers were cheating and didn’t really get the music.”

Origins of 3D sound: microphones and mathematics

Gerzon was a member of the Oxford University Tape Recording Society (OUTRS) from 1967 to 1972. Oxford students made a series of experimental recordings in the chapels and music halls of the university. These include a historic 1971 recording at Merton College, Oxford which was the first to be made with Ambisonic, an early version of surround sound technology created by Gerzon, and another OUTRS student named Peter Craven. Gerzon and Craven share credit as inventors of the sound field microphone, which can record and reproduce a three-dimensional sound field from a single point. He did this by deploying four mic capsules arranged in a kind of pyramid.

Morrow noted that Gerzon’s approach to making a recording that captured three dimensions with a single microphone was reminiscent of the large symphonic recordings made in Europe in the 1920s, in which a spot was located to better hear and record an entire orchestra.

In a eulogy Craven wrote of Gerzon’s passing in 1996, he noted that while Ambisonics had marginal use, its ability to capture a 360-degree sound field made it the natural choice for use with the virtual reality. Today, Ambisonics is widely used in VR content and video games.

360 Degree Waves Ambisonic Tools

Waves plug-ins: Ambisonic 360-degree tools

Gerzon collaborated with Craven and another British audio pioneer, Bob Stuart, on the development of lossless compression, which is used in many applications today, including audio CDs and ZIP files. They did this through a company called Meridian Audio.

Stuart said that initially it was difficult to persuade the music industry that lossless compression was worth implementing. In the mid-1990s, along with Gerzon, he was involved in a group called Acoustic Renaissance for Audio (ARA), which lobbied for higher audio standards in new formats, particularly DVD audio. Among other things, the Meridian Lossless Packaging format allowed for high-resolution 24-bit/96 kHz multi-channel surround sound on DVDs.

Stuart remembers Gerzon as easily distracted.

Dolby Atmos and lossless compression

“He was working on something, then he was discovering something else and he was going down another alley, then he was doing another diversion,” Stuart recalled. “Sometimes it was very difficult to bring it back to the problem we were trying to solve. It was, like, there are so many beautiful issues there.

A friend from the OUTRS era described Gerzon as pale, thin and, later, disheveled with long, shaggy hair. Gerzon suffered from ulcerative colitis and asthma, which often sidelined him.

He died before the lossless compression patent was sold to Dolby in 1996. Dolby incorporated lossless compression into its Atmos surround sound technology. Unfortunately, Gerzon was never able to take advantage of the multi-million dollar salary from the sale, which went to his brother Peter. Stuart and others recall that Gerzon’s financial situation always seemed precarious. Yet he always seemed to have enough money to buy books, records, blank tapes, microphones and reel tape recorders, which he strapped to a luggage cart and wheeled around Oxford.

“He never really had a job because he never really left college,” Stuart observed.

Michael GerzonOxford

Michael Gerzon (Photo: University of Oxford)

Gerzon never finished writing his doctoral thesis. Somehow the powers that be allowed him to continue working in an office at the Oxford Institute of Mathematics. It’s not that the man was lazy. Gerzon was a prolific writer of poetry and technical articles for scientific periodicals such as the Audio Engineering Society Journal. His writings intended for a lay readership have been published in Hi-Fi and Studio Sound News.

Gerzon was due to present three papers at the Audio Engineering Society’s 100th convention in Copenhagen in May 1996, but died days before the gathering. The society awarded Gerzon a gold medal in 1991, its highest honor, given in recognition of outstanding achievement, sustained over a period of years.

Semiwave Plug-ins

It was around the same time that Gerzon met Gilad Keren, the co-founder of Waves Audio Ltd. Now the leading developer of audio plugins and signal processing software used in digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as Avid Pro Tools and Apple Logic Pro, the company now has over 400 audio tools. Gerzon did some of the key work on early Waves plug-ins.

“The extent of his understanding of the physics behind sound was most impressive to me,” Keren told PCMag. “But Michael was one of the weirdest people in the industry. He was eccentric, to say the least. He couldn’t do a normal job in a company, even if he could deliver incredible things for a company.

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Gerzon certainly delivered for Waves. In October 1993, its first product, an audio equalizer known as Q10, was released. Gerzon has created all of its predefined libraries of parametric filters. He also worked on the L1 plug-in, a limiter considered revolutionary because of its ability to “look ahead” in a digital audio file. Keren said that Gerzon played a huge role in creating the C1 compressor plug-in (“There’s still no compressor like this,” he boasted) and that Trueverb, the plug-in -in reverb from Waves, is full of Gerzon’s “ideas and math”. “Gerzon has also been involved with plug-ins that rotate a stereo image and convert mono sound to stereo.

Waves C1

The ubiquitous Waves C1 compressor plug-in

“It’s pretty amazing to think about how useful some of those early plug-ins were. They’ve had different improvements over the years, but they’re still the right tool for many jobs nearly 30 years after they were created,” said said Jeff Towne, engineer at the public radio show. echoes and tool editor at crossesa public media website.

Keren and his Waves co-founder Meir Shaashua offered to make Gerzon a partner in the company, but the offer was declined.

“He was so not into the business side of things,” Keren said.

A great legacy

The Audio Engineering Society, which participates in the celebration of Gerzon’s life on Sunday, is preparing a set of his scientific papers for members to download for free. Gerzon published a total of 121 articles during his lifetime.

In a podcast episode focused on Gerzon’s life, pianist Pat Thomas recalled how Gerzon talked about apps nearly 20 years before the advent of smartphones.

“He was telling us things about what was going to happen in the future and it was over our heads at the time,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t until the late 90s, when the software started to change and become more available, that I understood what he was talking about. We all knew he was a genius, but we didn’t didn’t know what a genius he was until he died.

In the sound field, an eight-minute documentary produced by Oxford University’s Faculty of Music and embedded below, chronicles Gerzon’s role in the creation of Ambisonics. About six minutes into the film, there is a quote from Peter Craven: “What Michael did, the world will want in 30 years.”

Manhattan-based radio journalist Jon Kalish has reported and recorded for NPR since 1980.

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