Audio Loses a Genius

Michael Gerzon, 1945-1996

With the passing of Michael Gerzon on May 6, the audio industry has lost a major contributor to the future of audio recording and reproduction. Indeed, Michael deserves to be referred to as a genius. His 121 published papers cover a wide variety of subjects - most, but not all, concerned with audio - and his contribution to the art and science of recording and reproduction is major and truly innovative.

To some, the mention of Michael's name will bring to mind his work on digital audio. Others will recall his contribution to digital reverberation and signal procesing. A few may even think of his contributions to quantum theory, or know of his brilliant live recordings of jazz, classical and improvisatory rock music. For me, his name evokes him as a person; his many years of hard work on directional psychoacoustics; and, of course, Ambisonics.

I first met Michael at an IEEE meeting in London in the early Seventies. This led to a colleague and myself visiting him in his tiny Oxford flat to discuss surround sound. I recall him pointing to a volume on relativity and telling me that there lay the key to surround sound recording - he was, of course, correct.

We got to know Michael very well over the following years. While he was certainly part of an Ambisonic team, it was he who did the vast majority of the original theoretical work, and a good deal of the practical. He was awarded an AES Fellowship in 1978 for his work on psychoacoustics. He was responsible for the theory behind the Soundfield microphone and the whole Ambisonic technique. While many wished to use Ambisonics for capturing live performances and recreating them in the living room in three dimensions and just four channels, we wanted something else: to use the technology for multitrack recording and mixing. We were almost unsurprised to find that Michael had already designed the basic circuits for Ambisonic panpots and mixers: all we had to do was build them. Eventually, thanks to Dr Geoff Barton and Audio & Design Recording, I had real studio systems to work with, and using the technology that Michael had pioneered, I have recorded over four dozen albums. Ambisonics is a truly wonderful system to work with, and sounds great, whether you decode it or not.

There are many reasons why the British Technology Group allowed Ambisonics to be overtaken by better-marketed, better-funded, better-managed, technically far inferior surround systems, and I will not go into them here. However, Ambisonics has never gone away. And while Michael went on to work on other aspects of audio, the delivery of meaningful spatial information always seemed to be a part of his work, whether it was Waves' TrueVerb or Stereo Imager, his proposals for multi-channel stereo for HDTV, or his contributions to the remarkable High Quality Audio Disc proposal issued by the ARA (Acoustic Renaissance in Audio) group - the best suggestions yet on the future of high-density digital disc media for audio. Michael's work on Ambisonics won him the AES Award of Excellence in 1992. Hopefully we will be using it on tomorrow's multi-channel digital discs.

Michael had suffered from extraordinarily severe asthma for many years. Sometimes I would not hear from him for months, ultimately to receive an email out of the blue apologising for his illness. Few of us, I think, knew how bad it really was. In the end, it was this long-term problem that caused his passing.

Michael Gerzon was a giant in the field of audio. His work in Ambisonics built on the pioneering discoveries of Alan Dower Blumlein, Britain's earlier audio genius who developed many of the basic principles of stereo, and it is I think fitting to both men to mention them in the same breath. Michael's work is astonishing, yet so was he as a person. Despite his health, he was almost always lively, excited about what he was researching, listening to, or recording, and he always maintained an excellent sense of humour. He was a man of immense creativity and integrity in a world which regrettably sometimes took advantage of him and did not give him the reward he deserved.

We owe it to Michael Gerzon to ensure that he is not forgotten and that his work lives on in tomorrow's audio formats and products, and I hope we will all make the effort to assist in making his dreams a reality. Many of us loved him deeply and will, equally deeply, truly miss him.

- Richard Elen

Many thanks to Marsha Dvovin, Mel Lambert, Paul Lehrman, Gilad Keren and Meir Shashua for their contributions which made this article possible. This article may be freely reprinted as long as it is not edited without the author's permission and includes this paragraph.