Mon, 05 Sep 2022 16:21:00 GMT
Whether it’s the new generation of soundbar technology, built-in TV speakers that scan and bounce the sound off of your living room walls, 3D spatial audio in VR technology or simply new, immersive ways of mixing for heightened headphone listening, it’s getting hard to ignore just how advanced immersive sound is becoming.
Some of the biggest tech companies and entertainment platforms are beginning to realise and lean into the exciting, new opportunities that immersive audio presents – and it’s not just changing our blockbuster experiences at the cinema. With this technology becoming more high-fidelity, more affordable and more prevalent in our entertainment appliances at home, we decided to speak with some sound design experts from around the globe and get their thoughts on the tech and what it means for the advertising industry.
In article two of this three-part exploration of immersive sound, experts from Heckler Sound, Definition 6, Syn, Wave Studios NY, ENVY Advertising, 750mph, Circonflex Toronto, Sonic Union, Machine London, Squeak E. Clean Studios and Two AM discuss what brands are currently doing with immersive sound technology and what opportunities exist for those that aren’t.
More and more, we are seeing brands looking to utilise immersive audio in their campaigns. At Syn, we believe this will only increase with the wider availability of technology such as Apple’s ‘Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos’, which will allow consumers to experience it. This is great news for us as creatives and is also a fantastic opportunity for brands to communicate brands’ identities in a more immersive and unique way. Immersive audio allows us to move out of the regular stereo (two-channel) sound and opens up a much wider spatial field where we are able to create sounds and embed music in a multidimensional space.
Since creating the first Dolby Atmos commercial, aired in China for Mercedes-Benz in 2018, immersive audio is a regular consideration in briefs we receive from our clients. Other recent examples of Syn’s immersive audio offerings include sonic identities that were created for two major television broadcasters in the US and UK respectively. We look forward to continuing to explore the limits and possibilities of this pioneering technology.
ENVY has been heavily involved in producing Dolby Atmos content to show off the immersive sound capabilities of Sky’s new TV, ‘Sky Glass’. With its built-in Dolby Atmos sound system, Sky Glass provides a great way of allowing you to create much more immersive mixes over normal stereo. The ability to take a Dolby Atmos mix from the studio and deliver it in a format people can enjoy at home feels like a really positive step in the right direction for immersive sound.
Creating content for Sky Glass also gives me the added bonus of being able to audition the sound on our Sky Glass in the studio at ENVY and be confident the consumer will hear the mix as it was intended at home. As well as allowing me to tailor my mixes to make the most of its capabilities.
Moreover, I’ve now found myself producing projects in Dolby Atmos even if the delivery is only stereo. I feel this brings a more immersive feel to a stereo mix. Particularly with headphones. During early consultations with the Sky Glass designers, I was given one piece of good advice, ‘your sound mix should always feel bigger than the TV itself.’ Something I always remember when mixing immersive sound.
[Immersive audio] is already evolving within the industry. Some brands are better suited to adopting this, and many already have – we collaborated with Beats by Dre to remix a Kendrick Lamar song for an in-store 3D spatial audio experience with headphones. Overall, it might be unfair to say brands are ‘overlooking’ this area – it's an emerging technology, and it's up to forward-thinking sound designers to show the possibilities, and to distil things like ‘ATSCA/342-1:2022-03’ into a more understandable breakdown of the world of immersive audio.
Big tech Firms have been providing the platform for immersive audio experiences for a while now; Apple and Amazon Music (Spatial Audio), Netflix (Dolby Atmos) and Meta’s Oculus Quest VR (immersive 3D positional audio), to name a few. An audience of millions is already there. In the metaverse, users are already immersively enjoying content, gigs and festivals - and taking it for granted. Brands that are in that space are already creating and engaging in a way that is the future - traditional platforms, brands and broadcasters could tap into that and be an extension of what is happening in that universe.
The PS5 uses the listener’s TV speakers to send out a series of test frequencies which are used to capture the room’s reflection data through the controller’s microphone, essentially allowing the device to make an acoustic map of the room. This data allows the system to alter certain audio properties of the content, basically tricking the human brain into thinking that certain sounds are coming from different locations around the room. While this technology is super impressive, there are so many variables involved that the tech may not always function perfectly.
Brands can however counter this to a certain degree by educating and informing their viewers that their content is spatially enhanced. By using statements like ‘immersive audio experience coming up’ or ‘please listen with your headphones’, brands can encourage listeners to get the full experience and somewhat curb this issue. In many ways, brands can even use the misunderstood area of immersive sound to their advantage by leveraging the human intrigue built into all of us.
On the other hand, if your listener base is largely listening to your content on headphones, things are on a whole different scale. Headphones isolate the listening environment to a certain degree by eliminating reflections, reducing outside noise, and controlling the listener’s position relative to the output device. With this amount of control, audio content can be manipulated to create near-life-like listening experiences, giving brands insane amounts of control over how their content is experienced.
As sound mixers, we all know that what we produce needs to sound good across all platforms, from the most complex down to your phone. However, deadlines, budgets, and revisions don’t always allow for traditional ads, promos, and social media content to be mixed and delivered in multiple formats. It’s time for brands to start embracing or requiring immersive audio deliverables. One way to achieve this, at a lower cost, is through the use of sophisticated ‘up-mixing’ software and plug-ins, such as ‘Perfect Surround Penteo 16 Pro’, or Nugen Audio’s ‘Halo Upmix’. These tools allow the mixer to retain their daily workflow and monitoring setup, and then up-mix intelligently to higher formats including 7.1, all Dolby Atmos formats, and first through third order Ambisonics, AmbiX/FuMa. This can also help in assuring broadcast compliance, and most importantly, how the content will sound when ‘down-mixed’ to each particular viewer and format.
The ability to create immersive audio for a wider audience is something I find very exciting and, in my opinion, a long time coming. Creatively, it allows the sound design and the mix to express itself in a richer, more memorable experience. For a brand, this is something that can be very powerful! Creating a sonic landscape of enchanted wonderment is just as powerful as watching a visual feast. Imagine the Coca-Cola ‘Happiness Factory’ commercial mixed in immersive audio, or a brand mnemonic fully engulfing the audience’s viewing experience. As the technology becomes more readily available, it’s something brands and agencies can explore more and more. After all, it’s normally that sonic earworm that viewers remember for years to come!
While brands may have felt forced to adopt 5.1 and other HD audio specs for broadcast compliance, immersive audio allows them to think creatively about audio – knowing that most listeners will get to experience this immersion via their day-to-day headphones. Eventually, spots that aren’t mixed for this kind of experience will sound flat, even when compared to the most basic immersive mix.
I feel that brands are currently overlooking the potential of immersive audio not only for audio-only media; radio, podcasts, ASMR experiences, but also as an extension of video, gaming, and accessibility culture. I think the baseline of immersive audio will be in making our listening experience more natural and pleasant, leading to less listener frustration and annoyance – especially when it comes to ads! At the same time, with the right ideas, we’re going to start hearing a lot more ‘whoa! how did they make it sound like that!?’ moments as we explore this new and incredibly rich sonic experience.
More awareness of emerging consumerised technology is needed within advertising, and brands can start by looking at the immersive content already out there in the film, TV and music sectors. Spatial audio can highlight key product features and services more realistically and effectively – and immersive content will help engage previously untapped demographics. Immersive sound should not be reserved for the upper echelons of branded content, as it is now, but instead needs to become industry standard. Normalisation on that scale will come from understanding what is possible, utilising it to its maximum benefit, and integrating it into traditional production workflows. Standardisation may also be forced upon advertising through other industries, such as VOD or music streaming services, which are already adopting immersive capabilities more readily.
At the moment, the issue is supply. TV commercials are authored in stereo or 5.1 sound. Whilst there are technologies such as binaural audio that can create a fuller feeling of immersion in a stereo mix (best listened to using headphones), the 5.1 standard already being used is far superior – as 5.1 mixes use six tracks of audio for a mix.
For true immersive mixing, we require Dolby Atmos or DTX-S, which require many more tracks. To deal with the extra tracks, these mixing platforms encode the audio and mix information into a matrix. The metadata encoded along with the mix will playback on any compatible system, from cinemas to sound bars. However, different streaming services require different formats to be supplied. TV stations currently only broadcast commercials in stereo or 5.1 and social media has various audio formats - but all need to be able to be reproduced on the most basic of computers, phones or tablets.
So currently, branded content is the obvious avenue for the opportunity to mix in these formats. This is because branded content is part of the entertainment content itself, which can then be mixed in Dolby Atmos, and supplied to, say, Netflix in their preferred format. Gaming is the other branded content opportunity where the audio platform of the game creates a more immersive mix experience.
The future of spatial sound is an exciting one. The immersion you can achieve with spatial mixing methods such as Dolby Atmos, binaural audio and ambisonics really creates a new level of entertainment. You can more convincingly draw the listener into any world you want, as with these new mixing methods, you have the ability to create a fully 3D space with sounds. I’m seeing more and more ads utilising these tools, particularly with the use of binaural audio. Binaural, using some clever acoustics and a set of headphones, makes it sound like the things happening in the mix are happening around you in the real world, which is very effective at grabbing someone’s attention.
Similar things can be done using Dolby Atmos, which I feel is currently being overlooked in the world of advertising. With it, movement and the location of sounds is so much more accurate and high-fidelity. To make the most of this kind of audio, thinking about how the sound will play a role from the very early stages - or even considering crafting the ad around the immersive audio - will give it its best chance.
With a strong idea, immersive audio can push your work to a new and unique level.