21 speakers, totalling 1,455 watts. No doubt about it, the driving performance of the new Porsche Panamera will wow you, but that won’t be the only thing. The sound system with 21 speakers integrated in the car’s inner lining is nothing short of amazing. And, as Belgians, we can be proud since the Auro-3D audio and format were developed in Belgium.
You won’t find as passionate a manufacturer and sound engineer as Wilfried Van Baelen any time soon. Full of fire and passion, the CEO of Auro Technologies treats your BeAutomotive journalist to “Immersive Sound” (= Sound in 3D). One push of a button and here I am on the Dam in Amsterdam. A few minutes later, I find myself in the countryside listening to the chirping of birds. A donkey brays in the distance. And a tractor passes close to me. Surprisingly lifelike, even though I am visiting the headquarters of the demo studio of Auro Technologies.
The new path taken by the Mol based company has warranted this interview. Indeed, as a Belgian player, it has succeeded in becoming an attractive option in the Porsche Panamera. From now on, a Porsche buyer will be able to opt for the Belgian Auro-3D sound which is gradually conquering the world. The automotive press is talking about ‘a new driving experience’.
3D audio is the core of Auro Technologies. How did the company come about?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “Auro Technologies was founded in 2010 as a spin-off of Galaxy Studios. With my brother and engineer Guy, we started this one-of-a-kind, interactive studio complex in 1995 at the location of our first recording studio: our father’s large henhouse. 20 years later, we still have the world’s quietest recording studios, thanks to innovative construction methods using cutting-edge insulation and the quietest air-con ever. Each of the 15 rooms is like a separate concrete bunker resting on metal springs isolating from less than 3 Herz, yet visually connected to each other through 11 cm thick glass panels weighing up to more than 1000 kg.. Major artists and producers come here to record and mix. Film post-production for image and sound optimization are also done here.
For us, this became an ideal testing and research environment for Auro Technologies. My goal was to obtain a much truer sound reproduction like the way we naturally experience sound. We are driven by innovation.
In Auro Technologies I am the CEO, sound engineer, visionary and creative brain. COO Steven Van Tongelen and CTO Bert Van Daele take care of day-to-day business. The board is composed of our shareholders, including my brother (CFO), our German partner Alfred Schefenacker (Chairman), as well as Barco and our new Chinese partner Beijing Jetsen.”
Almost everyone in the music and film business knows the Galaxy Studios. But what is it we don’t know about your innovations and technology?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “When I first heard the playback of ‘Sound in 3D’ during my research in 2005, I was in shock. Even though I had spent years specializing in sound and worked with all recording and audio formats, never in my career had I found sound so compelling. It was as though I was very close to the artist, as if I, too, was on the stage or in the middle of the action of a movie or a game.
At the same time, the new sound gave me a relaxed feeling because the waves would penetrate my brain so naturally, requiring less effort to analyse it.
People don’t know this sound. Most people think that 5.1 or 7.1 surround delivers a lifelike sound, until they experience our Auro-3D. In one of our demos, you feel like you are actually standing on the Dam in Amsterdam. You are able to tell where the bell ringing is coming from; you feel the tram riding behind you and the people walking past you… In another demo, you experience the rumbling of an airplane flying over you as if you were near the runway. Impressive.”
You introduced the term “Immersive Sound” in Tokyo in 2010. Since then, have you set the standard for genuine 3D sound?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “We have undoubtedly developed the most natural sound in the most efficient way by simply adding the third dimension (height) enabling the reproduction of a 3D space, which I called ‘Immersive Sound’ and which has become worldwide the new generic term for “Sound in 3D”. Remarkably, we created Auro-3D without additional bandwidth while using existing standard distribution formats. It can be created with ordinary and even small speakers. For example, 2 million smartphones fitted with our Auro-3D sound have already been sold over the last couple of months.
Our technology is also ideally suited for its integration into cars. Porsche is the first!”
Automotive is a new sector for you. How did you end up in it?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “Car manufacturers are always looking for new experiences to distinguish themselves from other makes. They discovered our sound and were quickly won over.
We now work in partnership with several companies. For example, Barco has an exclusive license for our digital cinema technology. More than 600 cinemas are installed, especially in the United States and Asia. More than 200 international films have been released in our format in just a couple of years.
We present our sound at trade fairs, including the most important technology show CES. At the same time, we’ve managed to attract Continental as a partner for automotive. They are a leading supplier of basic modules for in-car entertainment, or the electronics block fitted in the middle front console of the car. Burmester, the German high-end audio components specialist, develops the audio systems for automotive customers like Porsche and they integrated Auro-3D in their systems. The position and angle at which our speakers should stand (cfr our specs for cinema and home) is also ideal for the incorporation into cars. The fact that our competitors employ speakers that are fitted above in the ceiling or in the roof of a car – gives us yet another edge. Indeed, it’s impossible to build a speaker into the roof of a car, especially in the case of a convertible or glazed roof.”
What do you hope your product will do for automotive players?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “After test driving the new Porsche Panamera, automotive journalists wrote: “This is a new driving experience”. And then they were not talking about the engine and road handling, but about the high-end surround sound environment that Burmester created with Auro-3D technology.
We spent several years on R&D with Porsche and Burmester. The Porsche Panamera was launched in September 2016 with a new 3D Immersive Sound experience. Now we are also working on other cars that will be released between 2020 and 2025.
I am amazed at the number of makes willing to cooperate with us. This is because the audio sounds so true. The advantage is that an expensive system is not necessary for our sound. It also works with cheaper or smaller speakers. Positioning is particularly crucial to create the unique “Auro-3D vertical stereophonic sound field” around the driver and passengers. It can be done in all kinds of vehicles, whether German high-end or middle-class cars.”
Where do you get your drive to keep improving sound quality?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “Everyone knows mono and stereo. Then came 5.1 surround, later 7.1 surround. Every ten years on average, only one new channel seemed to be added, making the sound fuller, more natural and more lifelike. Yet, something was still missing. Surround is actually still 2D sound. I wanted to find a format to capture and reproduce the third dimension in sound.
I developed Auro-3D myself in 2005. I was inspired by my experiences with 2.2.2, a format that was developed to record classical music. It was a quadraphonic format with 2 additional height speakers in front. I was impressed with the quality of the sound recorded by only 2 additional mics above the orchestra and reproduced in these front height speakers. When no one could tell me why we hear more harmonics and depth because using a specific vertical stereophonic sound field, I began my research. After much thinking, I created a 4-speaker quadrafonic height layer on top of the known 5.1 surround setup (= Auro 9.1) and that’s how I got Auro-3D’s basic speaker layout suitable for all types of music and sound in films, games, sports, etc.” It is a scalable format up to Auro 26.1 which makes only sense in very large rooms like cinema theaters.
Is the whole Auro Technologies R&D located in Belgium?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “Yes, it’s true, we are a 100% Belgian success story. Once I had developed the Auro-3D format concept in 2005, we spent four years here in Mol working in the background on all the technology necessary to incorporate the format into all audio markets. The Auro-Matic, the technology used to convert any sound source into Immersive Sound, played a major role in this. We presented Auro-3D to the world when it was ready in 2010 and all the patents were registered.
As a result, we can use any source to produce our natural Immersive Sound. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you are listening to a CD or the radio. We are even able to convert mono sound into Auro-3D sound. This is ground-breaking… and interesting when built into cars, because our findings showed that our radio channel would shift from stereo to mono whenever the radio signal received was not strong enough.”
Over 10 years, Auro Technologies has expanded from 6 to 75 people. How much do you expect to grow in the coming years?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “Last year, there were still 50 of us. We’ve hired 20 people in the past 3 to 4 months, mainly engineers. And we are expecting further growth all over the globe. After many years spent investing, the time has finally come to monetize.
Our current team of 75 people will play a crucial role in this development and in the business we are setting up today. Most of our engineers are working on the integration of our sound in the equipment and technology of manufacturers. There are so many different chips, platforms and types of software that modifications to our source codes are necessary at a very technical level for each system.
We are also moving ahead internationally. We opened a first office in Los Angeles. We also have a foothold in China through our Chinese shareholder.
Our offering is unique in the automotive industry. That’s why more and more car makes want to integrate it in their models. And people always want better sound quality, because they are listening to music more and more in their cars. They no longer have the time to do that at home anymore.
Our building, our operations, our staff numbers, and our turnover keep growing. Based on current orders, Auro Technologies will see its annual revenue increase from 3 million to 30 million euros. For the first time, after three years in the red, we will also make a profit. I am convinced that Immersive Sound will become the new standard within a few years, also for the more affordable audio systems… and cars.”
You already had a German shareholder. Since November you also have a Chinese partner. Does this offer you an international advantage?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “Certainly. We only conclude partnerships to create a win-win. This also applies to new shareholders. In November 2016, the Chinese Beijing Jetsen Technologies joined us. They invested 28 million dollars into a 20% shareholding, because we were a good fit for them. In the bargain, we got fresh capital and access to a new market.”
What are your biggest challenges?
Wilfried Van Baelen: “Marketing our product is now crucial. In terms of innovation, we are now translating Auro-3D into a streaming format that will be presented at NAB (Las Vegas) at the end of this month. This will definitely be the future. We must cooperate with a major streaming player to achieve that. But I cannot reveal more details at this stage.”