Looking back at the 5th ICSA 2019 in Ilmenau

"What's up with stereo? Stereo just went outside playing while surround is going wild indoors!" That was the beginning of immersive recording in the late 90s – but the big breakthrough was not to come for immersive audio until much later. Surround sound, spatial audio, binaural audio and 360-degree audio were limited, at least as far as consumers were concerned, to a sparse few phase experiments, additive effects and herds of dinosaurs thundering across movie theatres.

Welcome to the here and now!

As tradeshows like Gamescom impressively demonstrate, directional audio reproduction has finally stepped out of its niche. Particularly evident in the form of headphone-dependent binaural audio, it has arrived in mainstream consumer society along with the graphic realizations of virtual realities. The increasing use of immersive 3D audio solutions opens up completely new forms of artistic expression to audio artists and sound designers that go far beyond a mere technical implementation via binaural playback or installing speakers. In light of rapid developments, the meeting of professionals from production, science and technology at conferences like the ICSA is becoming a driving factor in the industry.

An abundance of well-equipped rooms were characteristic of the ICSA venues at the TU Ilmenau and Fraunhofer IDMT. The image shows the 3DP-Lab in a workshop given by Lasse Nipkow. Photo: Stefani Renner

The conference and its platform

Against this backdrop, audio experts, scientists and developers from a plethora of disciplines came together this year for their fifth meeting to bring each other up to date on the latest trends and concepts in the burgeoning field of spatial audio in hands-on workshops, lectures and seminars at an International Conference on Spatial Audio initiated by the German audio association VDT. Following previous venues in Detmold (2011), Erlangen (2014) and Graz (2015, 2017), the ICSA 2019 took place on the premises of the Technische Universität Ilmenau, under the direction and exemplary organization of Karlheinz Brandenburg, Monique Rodegast and Stephan Werner, with the assistance of the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) and of course the VDT.

Not all the 150 participants from 12 countries or the 50 lecturers and 12 sponsors made it onto the final photo. Some of the events were so interesting that the audience didn't make it to the photo shoot on time during the break... Photo: Jörn Nettingsmeier

The program and its focus

This year's conference program once again revolved around interdisciplinarity (https://vdt-icsa.de/program/). As the pace of developments in technology accelerates, the spotlight is increasingly on the artistic aspects and possibilities offered by three-dimensional sound design. This observation is born out by the award-winning productions in the 3D Audio Production Competition in Ambisonics, which was held for the third time.

The TU Ilmenau provided plenty of rooms. This time, there were even spaces like the TV Demo room shown here, which was reserved for an audio installation throughout the conference. Werner Bleisteiner utilized the augmented reality system of TU Ilmenau Media Labs to demonstrate an interactive 3D audio application which uses a motion tracking system for spatial audio reproduction. The picture shows Stephan Werner, co-organizer of the ICSA, using the system. Photo: Paul Niklas Krabbes (TU Ilmenau)

The nominated teams and solo contestants gave some very young and fresh answers to the question of how this 3D technology should be used, and for what, from an artistic viewpoint. In addition, the nearly 150 attendees from 12 countries enjoyed a rich program with 20 lectures and an equal number of intensive workshops, 9 poster sessions and 12 audio demos including impressive fixed installations, all flanked by two keynotes.

A hall with the VDT's binaural system made it possible to dedicate part of the program to binaural production. Photo: Jörn Nettingsmeier

Student's 3D Audio Production Competition

The Graz team lead by Franz Zotter and Matthias Frank for the third time held the 3D competition, and students from across Europe and even from the U.S. responded with a broad spectrum of productions of astounding quality in the categories contemporary/computer music, audio drama/documentary/soundscape and music recording/studio production. With a carefully arranged hemisphere consisting of 31 speakers and 4 subwoofers, and the proven finishing touches to the acoustics by the team at concept-A, the TV studio in Ilmenau shone with an outstanding reproduction. The IEM Graz provided free open source software for the complete workflow from mixing to decoding in 5th order Ambisonics and binauralization. This did away with an obstacle that was especially daunting for student budgets. The strategy's success was evident in the high number of registrations.

The winners of the third 3D Audio Production Competition in Ambisonics, hosted by the Graz university, after the award ceremony at the ICSA 2019. Photo: Jörn Nettingsmeier

Get togethers

The ICSA also featured an extensive program alongside the lectures, workshops and exhibition. It kicked off with a convivial evening before the ICSA opened, at which all attendees had the opportunity to pro-actively get to know each other in a jam session and enjoy drinks and snacks. An evening barbeque and the festive evening dinner attended by all rounded off the social activities.

Before the festive dinner, we were invited to enjoy a concert in St. Jakobus church. Three pieces by J.S. Bach (Great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, the motet "Jesu, meine Freude" and the Sonata for Flute and Harpsichord in B minor) were followed by an ambitious world premiere performed by the entire ensemble: the impressive work Golgatha by the composer Günter Berger, now 90 and likewise present. An unsettling piece, at times perhaps a little explicit, but fitting to the gravity of the topic in its intensity and seriousness, featuring occasionally brutal flutes, an extraordinarily precise choir and a haunting organ, which garnered rousing applause that continued for several minutes. After an organ solo (also by Berger) that was no less expressionist and occasionally reminiscent of Messiaen's more wild pieces, the audience was seen off with Agnus Dei from Missa Brevis by Palestrina – in a way a musical peace offering and a dramaturgically accomplished end to a special evening.

With technical assistance from HTWK Leipzig and the microphone manufacturer Microtech Gefell, a team from TU Ilmenau utilised the excellent opportunity to record this unique live performance in 3D audio. Photo: Christian Birkner

The VDT had the special honor during the ICSA of awarding Joachim Kiesler of MEG (www.me-geithain.de), now largely retired, the VDT medal of merit for his contributions to the association and the industry.

During the conference, Joachim Kiesler was awarded the medal of merit of the VDT. Photo: Stefani Renner

We would especially like to thank all sponsors who were involved, many of whom were present with stands to provide a selected overview of the latest products and services (https://vdt-icsa.de/sponsors/), enriching the conference immensely. Their support is what makes this event possible! The same can be said of the many volunteers, and last but not least, of the TU Ilmenau and their hospitality.

BTW: Save the date!

The ICSA is followed by the next ICSA, but not just that - also by the Tonmeistertagung, which takes place every two years. So be sure to mark the time from 7 to 10 October 2020 in your calendar as the date on which the TMT31 is taking place at the Congress Center Düsseldorf (CCD) next year.