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Dan Lowe and John Lees

A three-dimensional recording technology born and raised in Calgary has found its strongest application in the world of video gaming, but its roots were strictly rock ’n’ roll.

In 1982, Calgary music producer and rock guitarist Dan Lowe experienced what he called "an industrial accident" while placing 14 microphones in a sound studio. In playing back the recording made that day, he discovered he had inadvertently created an auditory illusion that he was surrounded by sound. The effect resembled how the human ear actually hears.

Over the next eight years, he and electro-technician John Lees worked together to fine-tune the system. In 1986, the pair formed a partnership with Larry Ryckman, a former Calgary real estate developer, and formed Archer Communications Inc.

QSound was patented in 1990, and the recording system was quickly embraced by music artists such as Sting, Madonna, INXS, Paula Abdul, Julian Lennon, Wilson Phillips and Luther Vandross.

Listeners to the QSound system felt they could hear recorded musicians and singers standing acoustically apart. The recording business was certainly enthused and at the 1992 Grammy Awards, three CDs mixed in QSound were honoured: The Soul Cages by Sting, Power of Love/Love Power by Luther Vandross and the soundtrack for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Despite QSound’s success, there were flaws preventing a full appreciation of the 3-D effect. Listeners needed to be in the middle of a room to take advantage of the surround-sound. For this reason, an early attempt to debut QSound on a Coca-Cola television advertisement broadcast during the 1990 Super Bowl failed to impress, and almost derailed the company’s progress. Stock prices took a dive in the days following the broadcast, and Archer president Ryckman said that one reason for the apparent sound glitch was that most television stations in Canada did not broadcast the ad in stereo, and few televisions could produce stereo sound.

In the early days, critics of QSound often expected bells and whistles at every juncture when listening for the trumped-up effects on recordings, particularly when an album such as The Soul Cages by Sting was recorded in QSound from the ground up.

"The only proviso is that you must be seated between the two speakers at a distance equal to that which separates them," wrote Helen Metella in The Edmonton Journal in January 1991 after listening to The Soul Cages.

"The effect does work. Sting’s album, even heard on a simple boom box you can buy for under $300, features many percussive sounds which appear to be coming from a point above and a little to the left and right of your head, the way they do when you’re listening to real instruments bounce off the walls of an auditorium.

"However, overall the Sting album is anti-climactic. Not every sound is 3-D and only once did this listener feel a sound was actually coming from behind. Moreover it seems the effect vanishes if you adjust your seating position more than six inches."

Since then, the company has rebounded and QSound technology improved, particularly when technicians moved away from analog-based sound analysis to the brave new world of digital analysis. The company has been able to match the technology to the burgeoning home entertainment industry, with applications going as far as hearing aids.

Archer Communications Inc. was renamed for its cutting-edge technology and became QSound Labs in 1988.

As for co-inventors Lowe and Lee, QSound turned them into millionaires, thanks to royalties paid by record labels to use the system. Neither Lowe nor Lee still works with the company.

3D Audio Timeline

The Heritage Community Foundation is pleased to present this feature article, courtesy of QSound Labs

Trace the history and development of QSound 3-D Recording Technology in this QSound timeline! Read

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