Seeing Sounds

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Priyanka Shekar is really smart. Not just music theory or engineering smart, but combined both fields and became a Stanford graduate smart.

Her research lab sits right at the intersection of music, computer science and electrical engineering.

“I first became interested in music technology when I was trained as an electrical engineer, but enjoyed pursuing music on the side. I had always been singing, and I play piano, but I wanted a way to combine the creative industries and engineering.”

We met to take Shekar for a spin in the 2016 Lincoln MKX—with its new Revel® Audio system. Then she spoke with us about how sound gets translated from 2-D to 3-D with audio imaging, and how immersive sound has the ability to improve the mood and overall experience of a place and time. Turns out, we’ve been underestimating our ears.

IT BEGINS WITH LOCALIZATION

“So the way the ears work is actually quite similar to how our eyes work,” Shekar began. “Think about looking at a photo of something versus looking at it in real life. There’s that depth of field that you see, and this is actually similar to what our ears perceive. So they can also perceive 3-D sound in a sound field around us.”

The way the ears work is actually quite similar to how our eyes work.

If we’re sitting in a car, we can see our hands on the steering wheel, we can see the rearview mirror above, and we can see the door handle to the left. We have two hearing organs like we have two seeing organs, so listening works just like seeing does.

“That’s called sound localization,” Shekar says. “Basically I can tell where something is in this 3-D sound field around me.”

THE CHALLENGE OF SURROUND SOUND

The most common type of 3-D sound is surround sound. It’s the pride of home theater buffs and audiophiles alike, but it’s also the foundation of the Revel® Audio system within the 2016 Lincoln MKX.

“There are several speakers placed around you. So, as I listen, I might hear a piano coming from (one) direction, and a singer coming from the back. So you can imagine the sense of presence I would feel as a listener.”

Immersive surround sound is tricky enough to set up in a living room—imagine engineering it in a moving vehicle.

The challenge of creating quality audio in a car is all the environmental noise coming into the vehicle.

“The challenge of creating quality audio in a car is all the environmental noise coming into the vehicle. So in one aspect, you want to be blocking everything outside the vehicle, but there’s also the concern of needing to hear what’s going on outside: ambulances, cars honking… It’s a real balancing act.”

BEYOND SURROUND SOUND: PLACEMENT

The Revel® Audio system in the Lincoln MKX provides a few different modes on which to listen to your music. There’s surround sound, but there’s also audience mode, which gives you the feeling of being in the best seats in the house at a concert hall. Shekar spoke a bit on the engineering that goes into those experiences.

“The best seats in the house have been designed to be placed in the auditory sweet spot—that’s the place where all the mixing and sound sources comes come together perfectly.”

To top it off, there’s an on-stage mode, which actually “places” the listener on stage, between the singers and the band. This is a slight sonic departure from “Best Seat” in how it allows the listener to feel as though they are on stage their favorite artists.

“When I’m a singer on stage, I can hear myself as well as all of the other performers in really close proximity to me. Basically, (in this mode) you are a part of the performance.”

UPMIXING: DIGITAL SOUND QUALITY

The Revel® systems also have the ability to make music that wasn’t originally recorded for surround-sound play back into music that was.

“It’s called upmixing,” Shekar says. “You determine the different sound sources (in a song), separate those out, then re-make the mix for all the speakers in the sound feel.”

It’s essentially transforming 2-D music into 3-D music as soon as the play button is pressed. This helps to bring back a bit more of that genuine artistic intent in music that we have been missing in satellite radio and MP3s. It helps us connect with the sound a bit more.

And here’s where that richly connected, immersive sound gets really interesting.

“What inspires me most about how we as humans perceive and interpret sound and music is that parts of it are so innate; the sound of a baby crying, for example. Sound can impact the mood or outlook of a listener. It could bring back a really fond memory. It can transport us back in time. It affects the chemistry of our brains.”

Sound can impact the mood or outlook of a listener.

In that sense, listening to a meaningful song is no different than opening up a dusty photo album. But hearing that song in a more immersive arrangement can connect us in a deeper way. After all, to listen to a favorite album is one thing, but to hear that album performed from the best seats in the house, or from the artist’s very stage, is something wholly different. Richer emotions are tapped into.

“Through my research, I’ve come to understand that we all hold our complete sonic history of sounds from all of our experiences. It’s still in our minds and that really effects how we perceive and understand sound. Each of us has our own really distinct sound profile; how we appreciate it, and how it affects us, is uniquely our own.”

Loud and clear.

Learn more about the Revel® Audio system and other features of the all-new Lincoln MKX here.

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