I'm finally going to do it. For years I've turned to Scott Wilkinson's “Tech Page” column to glimpse out-there technologies that are likely to one day rock our little musicians' world. No matter what cool stuff I get wind of, Scott always turns out to have a year-old column about it.
I just got off the phone with Scott and managed (through a sly ruse he won't even be aware of until he reads this) to confirm that I have the scoop on him, and he doesn't even know it.
Here's the deal: at an industry schmooze event in San Francisco, I conversed with Finnish recording engineer Norman Haardiheering. Haardiheering's a crack-up because he looks and talks like a Malibu surfer who should have taken an office job before it was too late, but he actually is a world-renowned expert on spatial recording, his early name for what is now called surround miking. Haardiheering has consulted for most of the world's best orchestras, as well as for theme parks (he developed spatial recording out of his theory of multidimensional acoustics), broadcast networks (primarily for sports coverage), and even, later in his career, the Grateful Dead.
Haardiheering's take on multidimensional acoustics was that the acoustics of any space could be modeled from the position of the original sound source as the sum of the contributions of multiple sound sources that are the boundaries of the space. The way he explained it to me sounded like a kind of inverse ray tracing.
Anyway, Haardiheering, being a classical singer since an early age, became interested in trying to make recordings employing his theory, and thus began a 32-year odyssey of experimentation with multiple-microphone ambient recordings. After a few experiments, he started getting work from classical-music labels, at first for chamber ensembles and then for full orchestras. Oddly, his breakthrough work was designing the 428-channel sound system for the Armstrong Linoleum exhibit at the 1988 Memphis World's Fair. Armstrong wanted fairgoers to have a “virtual” (a new word then) surround-sound experience of the acoustics in a bathroom.
Shortly after the fair, Haardiheering was approached at an Audio Engineering Society chapter meeting by a strange little man with a helium voice. The man was microphone guru Alexis T. Flondopowicz. Flondopowicz was a full professor of French history at Oxford but had long had a passion for making microphones. Eventually, he had been around long enough to be generally acknowledged as an expert.
Flondopowicz, fascinated by Haardiheering's recordings and theories, proposed a collaboration. Haardiheering, intrigued, got Flondopowicz's phone number and visited him days later.
In the ensuing five years, the two of them put their heads together, and sparks flew. When I ran into Haardiheering, he had just returned from England, having put the “finishing touches,” as he put it, on their invention.
I was waiting for Haardiheering to get to the point when he did. “We have created,” he intoned with obvious pride, “the world's first omnidirectional shotgun microphone!”
I thoughtfully replied, “Say what?”
Here's the weird part: once he explained it to me, it actually made sense. The microphone is essentially an array of capsules feeding a high-powered DSP matrix processor. With a bit of intensive, high-order phase manipulation, you can effectively control the polar pattern of each capsule individually, from omni to a rather tight shotgun.
“The omnidirectional shotgun allows you to zero in on fine detail, excluding surrounding noise, in a 360-degree circle,” Haardiheering enthused. “If there is a bullfrog amongst the crickets, you can get just the bullfrog and hardly hear the crickets. If a dog barks in the trees on the other side of you, you can snag Rover but leave the leafy thicket behind. It really works; you have to hear it!”
I got Haardiheering's e-mail address and almost immediately dashed off a message asking when I could check out the mic, but I couldn't wait for a reply if I was going to beat Scott Wilkinson to the punch. I'll let you know how it sounds.