KamranV (aka CyKiK) is an engineer/producer/entrepreneur with a twist – he loves to create immersive recordings, and has embraced quad mixing with a passion. He is part of the team that is working on QUARK – the Quadraphonic Universally Accessible Resource Kit – which provides audio tools for encoding, decoding and working with four-channel spatial recordings that can be distributed through two-channel formats.
In this interview, I chat with Kamran to learn more about his interest in surround mixing, how the tools work, and how to use them in your various audio toolchains.
Kamran, let’s start by having you explain the QUARK tools. These are plug-ins, right?
Kamran: QUARK is a plug-in used to encode four channels of discrete audio into two channels (standard stereo) audio then decoded back to four channels again. Mac AU, AAX, VST3 versions are currently available. AU is what works in Ableton Live.
I developed it with my friend Brett Buddin who I met while I was producing Moogfest in North Carolina. In collaboration with the non-profit dublab, we secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and were not only able to make the plug-in but have also been able to build creative and educational opportunities around quadraphonic music.
In Ableton Live, QUARK sits on an Audio Track, taking in four channels of audio from any other tracks in the session via the Audio Routes panner. The plug-in passes the mixed four channels of audio into two other Audio Tracks acting as a front and rear bus for monitoring and bus processing. The QUARK plug-in itself passively passes the four channels of audio to the bus tracks or actively processes the four channels down to two channels (Encode mode) or down to two and back again to four (Encode->Decode mode). This allows the musician/producer/engineer to preview and make decisions on their work as they go.
If folks are planning on doing mastering, I typically encourage the final encoding to happen as a part of that process but for those self-mastering, you can use QUARK to render a final 2 channel, QUARK-encoded master for distribution of four-channel spatial recordings via widely accessible two-channel formats such as vinyl, radio, streaming video such as YouTube and music services such as iTunes and Spotify.
One of the things that has haunted a lot of surround mixing in the past was the difficulty in distributing the result: streaming services, standard CD’s and over-the-air transmission are all two-channel (at best). How does QUARK handle the distribution side, and how well does it support both two-channel and four-channel playback?
Yes, in my opinion this very issue is what seems to always kill spatial music becoming mainstream.
Dolby Atmos, DTS-X, MPEG-H, ADM, Ambisonics and all the rest are very powerful new formats attempting again to bring spatial music to reality, however the cost and complexity of utilizing these tools is still very high. However for quad, you only need a couple extra speakers and two extra outputs from your audio interface. Most people already have that.
The math that we use for QUARK faded away in the 70s and went into the public domain. What most people don’t know is that it reappeared, slightly modified around 2001 as Dolby Pro Logic II (DLPII). It’s similar enough that when you listen to QUARK/QS encoded music through a receiver or even a TV with a DLPII chip in it into something like sonos, it sounds pretty accurate.
As a producer, it’s quite discouraging when you make something that no one can listen to… or to finish a track then have to remix it all for some obscure format. With the way QUARK works, there is no need to make a separate stereo mix and quad/spatial mix. They are one and the same. Maybe think of it the same way you’d want to test a mix in mono, on headphones or via computer speakers; same mix with people just listening in different ways.
When you were first introduced to me, it was hot on the heels of Suzanne Ciani’s LIVE Quadraphonic album which was really well received. This seems like a natural place to use quad mixing since Suzanne is really dedicated to surround mixing in her live performances. How did you work together in bringing this experience to the recording?
I started down what became the QUARK path around 2016 when I met Suzanne Ciani. When I was working on Moogfest we had some satellite events in different cities in celebration of the forthcoming festival. One of those was a concert in San Francisco at Gray Area. We invited Suzanne to perform her first solo synth performance in over 40 years.
Fortunately we recorded the show and since I had experience producing DVD-Audio and SACD releases when I worked at Interscope records, I became curious: How is it that Suzanne Ciani who was performing in quad since the late 60’s on her Buchla 200 synth could have never released a quad release? My wheels were turning and I did research.
I met with the legendary mastering engineer Bernie Grundman to get his perspective. He mastered the quad of the 1970s. I spoke with a software engineer in France who made software for audiophile collectors to digitize and convert their old quad music. Through the web forum Quadraphonic Quad, I eventually spoke with some quadraphonic collectors named “Quad” Bob Herndon, Odaka Shuichi based in Japan who connected me with a company in Australia called Involve Audio who was actually making new quadraphonic hardware with their modern take on the encode/decode math that the Japanese company Sansui made in the 70s called QS or Regular Matrix.
Once I had the research and tools in place, I worked closely with Suzanne and all of these people to make the album possible. It was an incredible experience and what I learned is that doing this was more difficult than it should be.
This is why we made QUARK.
Suzanne is one of the most innovative artists that I have ever worked with. If there was ever a person to bring quad (and spatial music in general) to the masses, it is Suzanne. I’m really just a fortunate partner here to connect the dots of the vision she, Don Buchla, and others laid out so long ago.
What other production work have you done using the QUARK tools?
I’m finishing a quadraphonic record with Patrick Gleeson. I met him via Suzanne, and he’s an underappreciated inspiration. He taught Herbie Hancock about synths in the 70s! I’m so excited about this record.
I have another project coming out called decades (in space). It’s ten songs by twenty artists, because in celebration of my studio Bedrock.LA’s 10th anniversary and the non-profit artists institution dublab’s 20th. All of the proceeds are to benefit dublab with the artists, myself and others contributing our work. Dntel and Mia Doi Todd did one. Drum & Lace and Jeff Parker (of Tortoise) did one. Daedalus and Molly Lewis (World Champion Whistler)... all completely original compositions… in QUAD!
Quad (and surround) production has a crazy history. What was the first thing that you heard in surround? And how did that influence you and your production process?
When I was a kid, you’d have your A&B speakers on your receiver, and I remember borrowing my brother’s or my parents’ speakers to have 2 speakers on each channel. Later on, I got a boombox and would route that to the other channels to create a pseudo-surround experience. It wasn’t really any sort of real surround sound, but these early experiments allowed me to perceive sound in a new way and get my brain exploring the possibilities.
My first proper surround experience was through my neighbor Ron Smith who had a real surround sound receiver, playing a scene from his Top Gun VHS… and being from Oklahoma, I also was inspired by the Flaming Lips parking lot experiments leading to Zaireeka. All of just simply blew my mind.
Years later, I was able to produce some surround sound records with Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Sting, and others while working at Interscope and started to research quadraphonic releases of the 1970s. Before then, I’d always known that quad records and eight tracks existed but never really tangibly thought of it. I’m sure that’s what many people think of quad today; some old format from the 1970s.
It was during my time doing Moogfest though where I had an epiphany while on a trip to Athens, Georgia. I was traveling with a friend who I was working with at Moogfest, and one of his close friends had just passed. I had a really crazy, emotional experience listening to the sounds while watching my friend mourn, and all of a sudden something Suzanne told me clicked. She said, “Quad is musical.” My life experience combined with this inspiration showed me the way forward and how this old format could build a bridge for anyone to make music in space. In summary: it needed to be simple.
For people that want use the QUARK toolkit, how would they get started?
Go to http://QUARK.CyKiK.com to download the plugin and this video that I made specifically gives a step by step on how to use QUARK in Ableton Live.
You can learn more about KamranV's background and his Quad mixing work from his Art + Music + Technology podcast, found here.