Last-modified: 21 January 1998
Copyright: © 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998 by Martin J Leese
Distribution is unlimited
Michael A Gerzon was the "Brains" behind Ambisonic Surround Sound. This obituary, written by Barry Fox, appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom on 13 May 1996. It is reproduced with permission.
Mathematician and audio expert Michael Gerzon died earlier this week, at the age of fifty, after years of struggling against two different illnesses that would each have wrecked a lesser man. After a spell at the Mathematical Institute in Oxford, he had been working for twenty years as a consultant on a wide range of digital audio, video and computer projects.
Gerzon's partner on many projects, Peter Craven, sums up the tributes that have been circulating on the Internet and explains why few people outside the electronics industry will have heard of him: "What Michael does now the world will want in thirty years time".
I first came across Michael Gerzon in the early seventies, when the absurd quadraphonics standards battle was raging. At least four electronics and record companies had developed surround sound systems which claimed to squeeze four channels of hi-fi into the groove of a stereo LP, for reproduction through four loudspeakers, one at each corner of the living room.
Record company CBS (later bought by Sony) had hired a large conference room in a Park Lane hotel to demonstrate its SQ system. We heard a demonstration of sound effects rattling round the room and got the chance to pretend we were sitting in the middle of an orchestra. The CBS people then launched into a highly technical explanation of why SQ was better than the systems which their Japanese rivals had developed. They talked a lot of mathematics about "vectors" and it sailed right over our heads.
From the back of the room, a lanky young man stood up, holding a flimsy square cage made out of wire. He turned it inside out to explain vectors in gloriously simple language. Gerzon's point was that although SQ might sound good with some musical material, like that used for the demonstration, mathematical theory proved that there would always be more music that would sound wrong.
In later years I never ceased to marvel at the way Gerzon could make even the most complicated concept easy to understand. He pitched his explanation at exactly the level of whoever he was talking to, without ever sounding even slightly patronising.
During the seventies, relations between CBS and Michael Gerzon got progressively worse. Every time CBS would give a lecture at a recording industry seminar, Michael would pop up and ask questions which demolished the theory. He wasn't doing it for fun, or to look clever, or to harm CBS. He was doing it because he firmly believed, and had the maths to prove it, that none of the quadraphonics systems would be right for hi-fi in the home.
Behind the scenes, complaints were lodged with the Oxford authorities and Gerzon was carpetted. He continued to speak his mind and this may well have cost him an academic career.
Gerzon's arguments carried special weight because he was not just a maths theorist. He loved music, of all types, and made many live recordings as a hobby. He also had very acute hearing. He could hear much higher frequencies (up to 23 kHz) than most people. He attributed this to his very serious asthma.
It was inevitable that Gerzon would develop his own surround sound system. It was called Ambisonics and he worked on it with several other academics and recording engineers. Gerzon rethought the theory of something we take for granted; just a few loudspeakers can, with a carefully made recording, create the illusion of a wide natural spread of sound. Ambisonics widened the spread to surround the listener.
The system was backed by the United Kingdom's National Research Development Corporation (which later became the British Technology Group) but never took off. The NRDC never seemed to understand the consumer electronic market, and missed the opportunity to team up with Dolby Laboratories and market home equipment that offered the choice of Ambisonics for playing music CDs with subtle fidelity and Dolby surround for the blockbuster home cinema effects that are now all the rage.
In the eighties Gerzon moved onto digital audio and video, laying the foundation for many of the systems which the industry now takes for granted. With Peter Craven he wrote the theory for noise shaping, which lets recording studios squeeze higher fidelity onto CDs. His last work was for a voluntary industry group, the Acoustic Renaissance for Audio.
The ARA's aim is to persuade the Japanese electronics industry to look ahead into the next century and set standards for future variants of CD that will deliver super-hifi. The key to this promise is a digital technique called lossless coding and Gerzon and Craven were at the final stages of research when he was rushed to hospital and died.
The work will go on, and few people outside the audio industry will notice Gerzon's passing. But sometime in the future, around 2026, engineers will be trying to patent inventions that they think are new and repeatedly finding that Michael Gerzon had got there first.