Sound with Benefits: A Look at Sounds that Hurt and Help our Health

I feel ya, pixabay lady.

As members of the audio industry, sound is our livelihood. Whether we’re cutting dialog, recording, editing, composing, or engaging in any other part of our field, we expose ourselves to sound everyday. And while sound is informative and emotionally moving, it is nevertheless a fatiguing experience for our body. Most of us have heard at one point or another the concept of listening fatigue and the need for audio professionals to take continued breaks when listening to sound. We understand the fact that constant sound causes our ears to experience tiredness, diminishing sensitivity and clarity, and that overtime, this can lead to lasting damage to our hearing. But how are these sounds affecting higher-level processes in our bodies such as our stress levels and our ability to focus?

 

Did you know that for most of us, the sounds that we hear everyday can cause physical stress and even have lasting health affects? There is evidence to show that our blood pressure, heart rate, and sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for “fight or flight”) are all negatively affected by the constant stream of sounds we hear daily.[1] Think about it this way, when you’re in the subway and you start hearing that usual grinding, high pitched screaming that accompanies speeding through tunnels, you aren’t likely to think to yourself, “Oh, how pleasant!” Instead, you’re probably grinding your teeth, beginning to feel annoyed at the asshole whose backpack is digging into your side, and trying desperately to read your book or blast music to drown the whole experience out.

 

A few weeks ago, the Yosemite Conservancy debuted a short video on soundscapes of the Yosemite National Park.[2] In the video, bio-acoustician Dr. Bernie Krause, talks about how noise affects our everyday lives: “Every study that’s been done indicates that even when we’re unconscious of it, even when we deny it, that the stress levels, heart rate, blood pressure, all of those indicators are elevated when we’re in the presence of noise.” And before you start thinking that “noise” constitutes roaring stadium crowds or the screaming shrill of commuter trains, think again. The kind of sustained “noise” that Dr. Krause speaks of can be as simple as sounds sustained over 65 db.

 

The baseline level of “noise” that we experience daily is far beyond what our ancestors a few centuries ago had to deal with. But as a human race, we’re still not used to it. Our ears have learned to cope, but aren’t able to shut it out. Everyday, a sizable amount of our brain processing is dedicated to filtering out extraneous sounds that we are exposed to, helping us to focus on the sounds that we are trying to pay attention to.

 

So, how does this information affect us as audio industry professionals? Certainly we are as susceptible to the physical affects of noise, just like everyone else, but does it go one step further for us, beyond what the average person experiences? Anki, the company I work for, has a product called “Overdrive.” It’s a racing game with physical, artificially intelligent robot cars (think Hot Wheels, but with a brain) that connect to your smart phone and race around a track. One of the design tasks that I have been working on recently is creating new engine sounds for these vehicles. I purchased some car libraries and have spent the last few days working to find the right mix and edits to create good source material for design. But because of that, I’ve probably listened to upwards of 6 hours of vehicle engines per day! Now, I’ve been conscious of how loud I’m monitoring these sounds and have given my ears breaks as necessary, but still, that’s a lot of noise I’m asking my brain to process.

 

My situation is not an anomaly for audio professionals. Everything from mixing, recording, to cutting sounds causes an elevated amount of noise to be presented to our ears. And we know from research that this noise causes our blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels to suffer. But what choice do we have? These are the skills of our trade and what we love to do.

 

What happens when you’ve reached a “listening break” in your work? What do you do? Do you turn on quiet classical music? Or perhaps you take a walk? Have you ever considered listening to nature sounds, or even better, walking to a park where you have reduced human noise pollution and a more natural soundscape? In fact, research has shown that while hearing sustained noise has negative effects on our bodies, listening to the sounds of nature has positive effects.

 

There was a famous study done in 1984, where researchers found that patients who were in the hospital recovering did better if their hospital room had a window looking out to nature. The conclusion was that the presence of nature is more than just pleasant; it has a restorative affect on our body.[3] Another study completed in 2011, monitored how nature sounds affected stressed out university students. They found that the students that were listening to nature recovered from their symptoms of stress faster than those who didn’t.[4]

 

One of the things that I often hear folks talk about in audio design is the idea of using sound to direct the audience’s ear. When I was sitting at the dinning room table this Christmas, for example, listening to my mother-in-law cackle away, I was actively tuning out other conversations going on around me. However, if this same scenario were to be represented as part of a film, the re-recording mixer would be responsible for directing the audience’s attention by carving out other dialog taking place. But what if this re-recording mixer has been working for several days or weeks on this project?

 

We know that increased levels of noise negatively affects our stress response. However, science has also shown that overtime, this affects our ability to focus as well. And in an industry where your job is to sift through 1,000’s of sounds to tell clear and focused stories, having a lack of focus yourself could be detrimental. If our own attention is fragmented, how can we hope to focus an audiences’ attention? In the late 80’s, Kaplan and Kaplan proposed a theory called Attention Restoration Theory. It states that a person can concentrate better after having spent time in nature. “Directed attention [or the ability to focus] plays an important role in human information processing; its fatigue, in turn, has far-reaching consequences. Attention Restoration Theory provides an analysis of the kinds of experiences that lead to recovery from such fatigue. Natural environments turn out to be particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences.”[5]

 

As humans, we have a deep connection to nature. It’s only within the past century that we’ve surrounded ourselves with infrastructure and technology. But that’s not what has been “natural” for us. The research that we’ve seen over the past few decades is showing us just how hard our current lifestyle is on our bodies. And sound plays a big role in this. “My guess is that folks gravitate more to natural soundscapes as an acoustic environment because, when they’re recorded and reproduced properly, they resonate with a part of us which is quite atavistic,”[6] says Dr. Krause. “Biophonies[7], in particular, are so much a part of our historical, cultural, and biological past, that they are likely programmed to some degree in our DNA.”

 

There are many sounds that we hear in our daily lives that cause stress, and there are many ways to recover from it. Listening to nature is not meant to be a hard and fast rule and by no means the only way to “relax.” Instead, my hope is that we can start a conversation about how we are more conscious of what we’re presenting to our ears, whether harmful or helpful. When we’re working, how we “take breaks” is just as important as important as remembering to take them. And most of all, being conscious of our health is the best way to ensure our best possible chance of a long career and better quality of life.

 

Image curtesy of pixabay
Image curtesy of pixabay

 

A special thank you to Dr. Bernie Krause for his help in thoughts and research for this article. You can find out more about him at http://ift.tt/17GGD4L.


References & Notes:

[1] Ising H, Kruppa B. Health effects caused by noise: evidence in the literature from the past 25 years. Noise Health. 2004;6:5–13.

[2] Soundscapes – Yosemite Nature Notes – Episode 29, produced by Steven M. Bumgardner, Featuring Bernie Krause & Karyn O’Hearn; http://ift.tt/2iNgvkI

[3] Ulrich RS. View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science. 1984;224:420–421.[PubMed]

[4] Jesper J Alvarsson, Stefan Wiens, and Mats E Nilsson. Stress Recovery during Exposure to Nature Sound and Environmental Noise. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010 Mar; 7(3): 1036–1046.

[5] Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature—toward an integrative framework. J. Environ. Psychol. 1995;15:169–182.

[6] Definition: characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral.

[7] Definition: refers to the collective sound that vocalizing animals create in each given environment.

 


 

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Win a library from A Sound Effect

A Sound Effect

2016 is almost done and, with it, so is our December give-away. If you haven’t won anything yet, here’s another prize that you should definitely try and get. Indeed, A Sound Effect generously offered to give you one copy of any of the libraries on sale on their website!

To enter and maybe win the library of your choice, head over to DSX as usual and start debating, answering, asking, reading, laughing, up/downvoting… Go wild and passionate, and you might get it!

More details about our give-away can be found here. Thanks a million times to A Sound Effect for providing us with such an amazing gift, and Happy New Year to everyone!

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Recording Life and Nature: an interview with Gordon Hempton

soundtracker-rainier-national-park

With more than 30 years of professional activity, Gordon Hempton has dedicated most of his life to listen and record the sounds of nature, an endangered soundscape that he has sworn to protect as a recordist and an activist. Part of his life work has been made available for the rest of the sound community since 2012 trough the now very popular Quiet Planet sound libraries. Gordon has also released a book recently, Earth is a solar powered jukebox, in which we can find a profound reflexion on his recording methods and philosophy. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in field recording and one of the many subjects addressed by this interview with the ‘sound tracker’.

How you decided to make part of your life’s work available to other sound professionals trough the Quiet Planet’s collection?

My goal has never been to commercially profit from these recordings. But, in 2012, I found myself falling in love and moving to the small town of Indianola, which is in the outskirts of Seattle. It’s a charming community on the beach, it has all kinds of natural beauties, but, on the background, you can still hear the kettledrum roll of the city. At Indianola, I had to create a new economy for me and I decided “Well, maybe now it’s the time for me to take my nature sound portraits and turn them into a library of nature sounds.”

You’re launching a book right now, Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox. What’s the relation between the book and your work with the Quiet Planet’s libraries?

After I’ve launched Essentials, the very first collection, I received a very good response from the public. Everybody had enjoyed the sounds very much. Although I was very happy with this, I realized that most of the people that wrote those really nice things to me spent most of their time indoors, in the studio, in the city. They didn’t have the knowledge I had about how these sounds actually existed in nature and how to use them in a more accurate way. So that’s why I decided to write a series of articles that would go along with the Quiet Planet’s sound libraries. The book is basically the reunion of all these articles with a an introduction and an epilogue written specially for it.

All the chapters in the book are divided in two parts How to record and Sound designing with. Could you tell me what’s the purpose of each one?

I believe that field recording and sound design, even if they happen at different places and at different times, are actually different aspects of the same job. In the book, the How to record section is more about practical advice on how to record: what you should carry with you, how to set up your gear etc. I don’t write a lot about the natural environment at this section because I assume that the field recordist, once he is there, at the location, will be able to feel the environment by himself. In the Sound Designing with section, this is where I feel the bigger picture needs to be woven together because most of the sound designers that will eventually use my sounds will never go to those places and therefore need all the in formation I can provide about them. A lot of people that I work with tend to think that nature sounds are just in the background, that they provide the setting. Sure, they do, but what a lot of people ignore is that these sounds are also a form of data stream, informing us of the current events that happen all around us at any given moment and that this is our first form of contact with the environment, preceding vision itself and all the other senses. Today we somehow find ourselves in these work environments where the vision of the product drives the product instead of the natural situation where the sound of the place basically determines all outcomes. So, it’s a little upside and backwards the modern design process. My work is to try to change that kind of reasoning with the Quiet Planet sound libraries and this new book.

Could you tell what differentiates your work from regular sound design?

My approach compared to traditional sound design would be similar to the relation between a photographer and a painter. Many sound designers have taken colours from photographs, sampled the colours from these photographs and painted a picture that they might feel is realistic, but that actually isn’t. If that’s your goal, that’s fine with me. But ultimately it’s the real world that supports us. I sincerely believe there are more beautiful leaves that grow from plants than any artist could ever paint.  When we begin to give too much importance to our creations and put more energy into that than actually saving the place that supports us, our lives  become shallow. My work has never been more important than the places it comes from.  And that’s why that 10% of sale of Quiet Planet goes back to those places and help save them. It’s not just a business; it’s a cause.

The analogy you’ve just made between your work and photography, how does that translate into your recording methods?

I record in the same style as classic landscape photography, in which there is a certain point of view where it all comes together, in balance. And when I say balance I don’t mean equal amplitude on left and right channels, but balance in the composition. Every sound has a feeling and when you take all sounds in with equal value those feelings summarize into a greater emotion. I use a “human-head” binaural system microphone almost exclusively which gives a very precise perspective of what it’s like to be in an exact position in a natural soundscape. So, my work in the field is to find that exact position.  For doing that, I’ve established a background, middle ground and foreground approach. The background is actually the most important. These are the faint sounds. All of our evolutionary process is about faint sounds. If you’re an individual surviving in the forest what you have to do is to stay alert for these very first indications that happen on the background. You should locate a geographic area that has the right background perspective and, for me, this means without noise pollution. After that, I try to listen to the middle ground and bring it to a balance. Finally, I listen to the foreground. The foreground is the detail that attracts our attention and very often nothing is occurring there at the very moment of the site selection. At the end, it’s all about what you’re feeling instead of thinking; somehow, the place you’re recording becomes special to your ears. At the very least, you want to roll for 5 minutes, 3 and a half to 5 minutes for the shortest sounds. At the very longest, I’ve recorded many times up to twelve hours. From these sound portraits, I do also select later, in a secondary process, to pull sound effects out of it. There are certain events that fit very nicely for that, but this is never my original intent. The portrait of a place is really what I’m trying to achieve all the time, hoping that the image of that place will be evoked trough sound to its future listeners.

I’ve noticed that the space around the sounds is as important as the sources themselves on your recordings. I remember one amazing sound of coyotes over a canyon on the Quiet Planet Essentials library

I have learned over the years that my work is more about the space than about the sound. Thoreau describes how an event produces really two sounds. One is the original sound, the sound from a bell, and then the other is the sound of a bell as it travels the distance. Rarely, we listen to these two sounds as separate, but this can happen. The recording you’ve mentioned is not only the sound of the coyotes, but also the sound of silence made audible by the coyotes, because the echoes are ever expanding.

What led you, in the beginning of your career, to specialize in nature sounds? Why these were more compelling to you than other types of sound?

Nature sounds have a way of address me deeply. While my work as the sound tracker is to record vanishing soundscapes around the world, it is also my personal and spiritual pilgrimage. But, in the beginning, I was just interested in becoming a better listener. The first time as an adult that I had an authentic listening experience was on my way back to graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin, when a thunderstorm rolled over me. I was totally unprepared to grasp what was about to happen, all the information that would be conveyed to me trough the way the thunder rolled and defined the valley, the topography… I was able to visualize in my mind the dimensions of the place surrounding me from miles, even though I didn’t have to turn my head around at all. How was this possible? I was 27 years old and never had truly listened before. I realized that my life up to that point had been a paint by numbers kind of experience. So I dropped out of graduate school and I devoted myself to become a better listener. I decided to use a microphone to bypass my brain and its selective listening. With the microphone I felt that I had become for the first time a true listener since I could record all sounds with equal importance. I began then to explore my immediate environment sonically. I had returned to Seattle, but I was just not happy with my life at that point, at that place. So I decided to simply hop freight trains, and so I did. During the long wait in between trains, there was really nothing to do besides just being there. And, during that wait, I was listening to this western meadowlark and, as it sang, I wondered: “Isn’t that interesting? That a bird could be music to my ears. “And I decided this was in some way another step on my pilgrimage and I felt this really strong bond. So, from that moment on, I decided that I would just go to a natural place and record those sounds. At first, I was very naive. My first choice was a really large park in the Seattle area, which still had a lot of noise pollution. I kept pushing out: I went to eastern Washington; I went to western Washington; I’ve pushed to the furthest reaches I could go and I found that it was extremely difficult, even at that time, in 1983, to find a place in Washington State that was free from noise pollution. But it was possible, at least for 15 minutes at a time, which is the definition of our notion of a quiet place, that you could listen to nature for at least this period before some kind of interruption. In Washington, in 1983, there were 21 places like this; today, there are only 3, none of them protected. As I got to record places that were pristine I found that my auditory horizon was no longer one or two city blocks long, but it was miles distant.    

Not everyone is familiar with your work against noise pollution pictured on The Soundtracker, the documentary about yourself and your career. Could you tell me a little bit about that? How did it all start?

In my work, recording in every continent except Antarctica, was clear to me that nature’s soundscapes were quickly vanishing, even more quickly than species themselves. I thought however that it was really someone else’s job, namely the National Park service here in the United States, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and other public agencies that do have preserving natural quiet in their management policies, even though, in practice, very little attention has been given to that. There is not one place in the United States or in the whole world for that matter that is entirely off limits to noise pollution. And there is a very big difference between reducing noise pollution and preserving natural quiet. How I decided to try to change that, has to do with my first hearing loss. In 2003, at the height of my recording career, I was laying in bed one night when I began to hear this tum-tum, tum-tum… This was as matter of fact the sound of something happening within my ear and in about two weeks I was practically deaf. But, worst than being deaf, there was a storm of sound inside my head and the little I could hear sounded like it was coming from a long tube. It was very much like a distorted radio. Of course, it drove me nuts. I went to see a lot of doctors and nobody knew what it was and the risk of damaging my hearing forever in case of a surgical intervention made me just wait. After 18 months, suddenly my hearing came back in an instant when I was sitting back in my grandfathers’ rocking chair, next to the wood stove and the stove began to crackle crystal clear, and it was just so beautiful, but suddenly my hearing disappeared again. It was just like that. Nevertheless, I knew that having perfect hearing was possible and I was so inspired. And my hearing did finally come back. I was so happy about regaining it that I thought “Ok, saving quiet places might be someone else’s job, but I might as well give it a try.” So I established One Square Inch of Silence on Earth Day 2005 (April 22), at the Hoh River Valley. This is an ancient forest, it’s a world heritage site, the tallest living forest in the world and also the least noise polluted place in the lower 48 of the United States. I placed a stone at a moss-covered log over there and promised to defend it of all noise pollution. We’re now on our 11th year and our board continues to pursue this goal.   

Could you comment on your more recent hearing loss and the progress you’ve made so far towards a cure for this condition?

The more recent loss of my hearing happened because of stress. Stress led to an immune system imbalance, which created allergies that finally caused the swollen of my middle ear and cut me off from the world around me. So, I’m in the process of reducing my stress. Right now, the current condition of my hearing is that it is so bad that I would actually have trouble understanding my voice. But my stress level is reducing considerably since I’ve returned to this primitive place at Camp Hayden, so I’m very optimistic that I’ll be able to reconnect. Until then, I have been practicing my lip reading skills of nature. I can look at the surface of water at the two frog ponds that are just right in front of me now and occasionally detect the expanding rings on them, so I know that are light drip sounds coming from that place even though I can’t actually hear it.   

And what are your plans for the future?

I plan to retire the 1st of january 2017. Retirement means that I will continue to do projects but only projects that deeply inspire me. Those projects would include an academic speaking tour, where hopefully I would also give workshops. I will also be giving echo tours in Seattle where people would go to natural places just to listen. I can’t wait to record as well. I keep a database of all the places that I would like to go and all the sounds in particular that I think will be fascinating to explore and that database has more than a thousand records on it. An important thing too is that I do offer one on one tutorials and I’m very much interested in communicate with students that want to become professional recordists.

What kind of advice would you give for a novice interested in nature recording?

I would give the same advice my mother gave me which is: be yourself, do your best and accept whatever happens. I would also say that you shouldn’t wait for the right equipment or for the right opportunity. It’s the same with photography and field recording: the more you do it, the better you get. Make, if you can, a daily practice even if you’re trying to find nature in the city. Do it, get out there, feel it. Just pay attention to your feelings and everything else will come.    

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Win Shotguns HD Pro from The Recordist

shotguns-hd-pro-cover-art-400v2

Frank Bry is an old friend of the site, and has long been a heavy contributor to the community. When we asked him if he’d be willing to sponsor the give-away we’ve been running this month on DSX, he jumped in without any hesitation. He’s offered up a copy of his Shotguns library to one lucky member. The library clocks in at over 5GB, and contains recordings of eight different shotguns across 457 files. Naturally, all recorded in 24/96. I really don’t need to bother giving you all this information, because nearly everyone knows Frank’s work and what awesome libraries he puts together. But, you know, due diligence and all that. 😉

The only way to win this prize is to head over to DSX and take part in the conversation (make sure you check out the rules, if you haven’t yet).

Good luck!

…and big thanks to TheRecordist.com for sponsoring!

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Win Iris 2 by iZotope

iZotopeMerry Christmas to everyone! Even if Santa already finished his world tour, he still had some nice gifts for a couple of Designing Sound Exchange members here, starting with Iris 2, the powerful synthesizer by iZotope.

As you might already know by now, if you’re interested in Iris 2, please take a break from your chocolate-eating holidays and head over to DSX and start debating with fellow sound enthusiasts. Talk and listen, ask and answer, and you might end up having an extra Christmas gift this year!

More details about our give-away can be found here. Thanks a lot to Santa iZotope for providing us with a copy of Iris to give and good luck to y’all!

http://ift.tt/ZsssYX

Win Iris 2 by iZotope

iZotopeMerry Christmas to everyone! Even if Santa already finished his world tour, he still had some nice gifts for a couple of Designing Sound Exchange members here, starting with Iris 2, the powerful synthesizer by iZotope.

As you might already know by now, if you’re interested in Iris 2, please take a break from your chocolate-eating holidays and head over to DSX and start debating with fellow sound enthusiasts. Talk and listen, ask and answer, and you might end up having an extra Christmas gift this year!

More details about our give-away can be found here. Thanks a lot to Santa iZotope for providing us with a copy of Iris to give and good luck to y’all!

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The VR Soundscape of Secret Sorcery’s Tethered

01_tethered_key_art

Guest Contribution by Kenny Young

Tethered is an immersive VR strategy game in which you take on the role of a god-like spirit tasked with looking after your flock of ‘Peeps’, the cute but simple-minded inhabitants of the beautiful, floating archipelagos that you gaze down upon from your lofty seat amongst the clouds. This disembodied third person perspective sets the experience apart from the embodied, or implied-embodied, first person perspective employed by most other VR games and had a significant impact upon various aspects of its audio presentation.[1]

My intention here is to highlight a different kind of VR audio experience with the hope that this helps to further our collective understanding of what is common to all VR audio experiences and perhaps also what aspects are more readily applicable to the growing variety of sub-genres and experiences that VR supports.

02_tethered_island

The VR Illusion

A player’s reaction in VR is much more likely to be instinctual or subconscious – the layer of abstraction that is normally provided by the TV or computer screen, speakers and input device, is dramatically reduced in VR. For audio this means that the familiarity and comfortable habituation that players have accumulated from all the audio experiences they’ve ever had are no longer their only point of reference, they are also referencing their perception of how sound behaves in the real world.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the simplistic ways that we generally rely upon to represent sound in our virtual worlds often don’t translate all that well to VR and can fall short of players’ expectations.

However, not all VR experiences are the same or have the same challenges and requirements. This is easy to overlook when so much insistence is placed on the apparent necessity of the various different audio technologies which have found their true calling in VR. Don’t get me wrong, I love tech , and attempting to replicate the complex ways that sound can interact with its environment and our ears are super interesting problems, and it’s important to understand them and consider whether they are relevant to your project. But audio people, particularly interactive audio people, tend to skew technical in their abilities and interests which makes it all too easy to indulge that side of ourselves and get bogged down in the tar pit of technology. Technology exists to serve the player experience and all of its ludic, artistic, conceptual, dramatic, emotional and metaphysical pillars and pores. As always, you can’t really go wrong if you are evaluating tech through the lens of what the player experience truly needs.

Once I got stuck in to it, it was clear that Tethered didn’t need to invest in complex reverb models, obstruction, occlusion or propagation. It didn’t even really need a 3D audio solution. This didn’t particularly match my expectations of working on a VR game, but the project was nonetheless a great opportunity to try out and learn new things.

3D Audio

Everything is more or less in front of the player in Tethered, so 3D audio is a relatively subtle/nice addition to this VR experience rather than a significant deal breaker. There’s a bit of non-critical height differentiation between events that happen above you (such as the materialisation of clouds and falling eggs) and events that happen below you (which is pretty much everything else) and that’s about it.

The only thing that is guaranteed to be behind the player at some point is a distant flock of circling birds – normally, I probably wouldn’t have bothered scoring this kind of peripheral event, but these small details seem much more significant in VR and I found myself just gazing at the birds and enjoying them. So, I felt compelled to give them some sound support, but this also created the problem of them being rather distracting, especially when positioned behind the player. Placing them on the cusp of consciousness in the mix wasn’t quite enough, so I ended up emulating the way these kind of distant sounds can ebb and flow on the wind to make sure they weren’t an omnipresent menace.

In many respects I think this is representative of my first forays into creating a VR audio experience: try something; it invariably doesn’t quite work; iterate. Whilst this is a familiar way of working for any experienced games maker, the applicability of this across the entirety of the audio experience, coupled with an increased level of attention to detail, meant that there was significantly more to do before reaching a sense of satisfaction and completion with the work.

One of the primary knock-ons from using 3D audio tech is that it requires all of your spatialised sounds to be mono point sources (or composed from mono point sources). This is fine for the most part, but sometimes such overt directionality isn’t desirable. One event in Tethered which didn’t work so well when collapsed to mono is the lightning cloud strike, which you can use to zap marauding creatures or destroy obstacles on the islands. It’s a powerful event and one of the loudest and most visually striking in the game, which is also why it being so directional doesn’t quite work – the lack of any enveloping environmental reflections that you strongly associate with thunder and lightning just isn’t credible and feels off. Similarly, using a 2D stereo sound (i.e. going straight to the headphones) also feels strange because when you move your head around it doesn’t track. So, for this event I decided to try triggering two sounds at the same time.

To start with I had the blast of the initial lightning bolt as positional and the following rumble of the thunder as stereo, but that sounded more or less the same – the blast didn’t really register as positional, perhaps because it was too short to track, but maybe also because my ear immediately caught hold of the stereo tail. But, after some more experimentation, what I settled on was having a stereo blast with an additional (and unique) positional element layered on top, which then gives way to the thunder which is initially stereo but smoothly resolves to being positional. The stereo elements really sell the power and size of the event, especially when juxtaposed against all the other mono-positional sounds in the game, and, whilst it makes little sense on paper, having the thunder resolve to being positional really helps with localisation. There’s clearly plenty of room for experimentation here and it’s going to be cool to see these kinds of techniques progress and mature.

Sense of Place

Reinforcing the sense of place is central to backing up the reality presented to players in VR. Because a strategy game essentially boils down to ‘lots of things happening in the world as a result of the player’s actions’ one of the primary ways of reinforcing the sense of place in Tethered was by paying close attention to the presentation of sounds that take place within it.

Background ambience is clearly an important consideration for all VR projects. However, the world surrounding the player in Tethered is of much less importance than the world they are observing in front of them. As a result, using surround ambiences of some ilk (e.g. first order ambisonics) wasn’t a good fit for this project. So, the backgrounds in Tethered are a mixture of plain vanilla stereo beds (without too much detail in them – it’s primarily air or wind with a wash of birdsong or crickets, depending upon time of day) with some random ambient spots to help create variation (e.g. sporadic birdsong and other wildlife, gusts of wind), and then there are also positional spots placed in the world to accentuate the features of a given island (e.g. a waterfall, an ominous cave, the wind in the trees).

The broadband noise of the waterfalls on some of the islands in Tethered was a bit of a nightmare – they’re huge and impressive which meant they needed a sound to match, but they’re also omnipresent, sucking up room in the mix. I addressed this by having them be loudest at the start of a level, when the player is most likely to be observing them as they survey the landscape, and then reduced them gradually over 45 seconds to move them out of the way. Another solution I considered was to subtly and smoothly ride the volume based on the player’s gaze, but I was put off that idea when it became clear from some other gaze-related issues in the game that just because the player is facing directly towards something doesn’t mean they are necessarily looking at that thing – in fact, it’s entirely possible to be looking at nothing in the world whilst having an absent-minded think! But there is something in this idea even if I couldn’t find a use for it here, and I’m absolutely convinced that once eye tracking tech comes online there is a whole world of intent-related mixing and dynamic audio which is super exciting to think about.

Alan McDermott, Secret Sorcery’s Creative Director, had the nice idea of adding unique ambient sounds to each of the buildings that the player can construct – these are designed to be relatively unobtrusive additions to the overall soundscape, but if the player leans in and gets close enough they ramp up and the player can hear what’s going on inside. It’s subtle stuff, but all of these nice little touches add up to an engaging experience that enhances the sense of place, draws the player in and (hopefully) meets their expectations.

03_peep

Some of the most important sounds in Tethered are those made by the Peeps. On one level, hearing the various different sounds of them going about their daily business – gathering resources, calling out to each other or humming to themselves as they move between tasks – are simply nice touches that fill the air and help make the world feel vibrant and inhabited. On another level, there’s some crucial gameplay information to be gleaned about what is going on in the world, and where. And on yet another level these sounds compliment the animation and AI code to bring these little creatures to life in a way that is greater than the sum of its parts, and really helps to cement your emotional bond with them. It’s understandable, then, that these sounds received a lot of attention and iteration. One of my fundamental epiphanies was realising that all these sounds really needed to sound like they were taking place in the world, and that this was a great way of backing up the sense of place. I paid more attention to the impact that size, space and distance had on the sounds in Tethered than I have in any other game I’ve worked on.

Tethered always presents an exterior location to the player, and from a similar mid-distance, so this allowed me to bake a nice exterior reverb and EQ in to all of the samples that represent events emanating from the world. This is something I revised throughout development as I got a better sense of what worked, which allowed me to hone in on a sound that I felt was credible and supportive of the world we were presenting. This approach also permitted content-specific tweaks (e.g. different reverbs and settings for different sounds and categories of sound), something that is currently a bit more of an ask when using real-time effects.

Distance attenuation also received quite a lot of experimentation and tweakage over the course of development, starting out with an overtly realistic approach on everything – because that’s what VR requires or the player dies from lies, just like in The Matrix – but ending up with something relatively subtle that merely alluded to distance. Having committed to baking reverb in to samples, dynamically adjusting it in real-time wasn’t an option, but I never got to a point where I felt like volume attenuation and low pass filtering wasn’t enough to appropriately sell the effect – again, the lack of any real close proximity to events certainly helped here because it meant my baked reverb only had to contend with representing mid to far distances.

Similar to my content-specific approach to reverb, most sounds were split in to two main attenuation categories – important gameplay events that must be heard by the player (with a max attenuation of -3dB and LPF at 12.5kHz over 20k distance units), and sounds that are more just part of the soundscape and exist to bring the world to life and could therefore afford to have a more significant roll-off (max attenuation of -48dB and LPF at 16kHz over 60k distance units).[2] It’s interesting that for key events the allusion to distance comes primarily through frequency roll-off – I wanted them to sound affected without being easy to miss in the the mix – but for all other sounds the opposite is true – I didn’t mind them being a lot quieter but I didn’t want them to disappear completely either so I had to keep more high frequencies in there to catch your ear. Not letting the low pass filters go crazy is also beneficial for the HRTFs used by 3D audio tech (or, at least, it gives your ears more information to work with once an HRTF has been applied to a sound), but that was an ancillary benefit to be honest as I was primarily mixing for what felt and sounded right.

Significant visual occlusion exists in some of Tethered’s levels (e.g. an island’s topography might peak in the middle, hiding what’s on the other side and requiring the player to change position to get a better view) but backing this up in an overtly realistic manner with an audio obstruction effect would have had the same detrimental and unfair impact on the player experience as enforcing a realistic distance attenuation effect. I’m sure a subtle nod towards this might have been nice, and the facility was there if I wanted to try using it, but the lack of this never felt problematic and I didn’t want eat more CPU just to tick this box. Perhaps the coincidence of obstructed sounds generally being more distant and therefore sounding more obfuscated due to the attenuation effects kicking in helped to tick this box…

Music

The music in Tethered has much in common with many other VR experiences in that it is quite chilled and offers players some calming reassurance in an effort to counterbalance the fact that being transported to another place is, in and of itself, quite an intense experience. So, the musical palette is generally one of lush string quartet intermingled with analogue synths, warm wind band-like brass and sparse solo instrumentation.

Where the music experience differs is that Alan had tasked me with looking in to using music, or musical sound, to communicate key information to the player in order to reduce the amount of visual UI clutter displayed in the world – Secret Sorcery had identified that this worked against maintaining the sense of presence in VR. So, on top of the ambient bed tracks sits a suite of easy to remember, symbolic musical motifs that the player comes to learn and associate strongly with some of Tethered’s most important gameplay events. When the player hears one of these iconographic music stingers they are informed as to what is happening, the positional audio and head tracking helps them to tune in to where it is happening and this in turn helps them to locate it visually and respond as they see fit.

So, on paper, this sounds like a great idea and, indeed, the end result works well for Tethered, but there was an awful lot of effort required to pull this off. The fundamental issue is that naively playing musical motifs at the same time as an underlying music bed track is a recipe for disaster – you need temporal and harmonic alignment for this to be a pleasant experience. So, I spent a couple of weeks prototyping an interactive music system in Unreal Engine 4 that proved this approach was at least technically viable and then handed it over to Scott Kirkland, Secret Sorcery’s Managing Director and one of their l33t coders, who spent a couple of days making it more robust and scalable for using in the game proper. Once it was up and running, there was then the issue of authoring all the stinger content, which was no small feat given that the stingers were memory-resident samples that had to be recorded from scratch (you can’t use virtual instruments or samples as samples – it’s against their licensing terms) and were segmented in to beat boundaries that could update at any point in their duration to match changes in the underlying harmonic progression of the bed track.

Doing this topic justice would be a whole other article in and of itself, so I won’t go in to more detail here because this piece is already a bit sprawly, and I’m at risk of cannibalising the audience for a GDC talk on this subject. But here’s a video that helps to illustrate the technique:

The main bit of takeaway here is that it’s pragmatic to spend your time and resources in the places that will return the biggest bang for buck on your project, and this might not relate to any of the technologies or approaches that are flavour of the month or that you are keen to utilise or learn more about. Prioritising amongst all the different technologies you could throw at a VR project is crucial, particularly for an independently developed and published title like Tethered.

Tools

I think it’s important to mention that the audio experience in Tethered was implemented using stock Unreal Engine 4 without any middleware and I found this to be a good experience! This isn’t an anti-middleware point – I love using middleware on projects where it enables a whole other level of finesse that otherwise would not be possible (Unity, I’m looking at you) – but Unreal’s own audio tools were a great match for this project’s needs despite any apprehensions I had due to the prevailing received wisdom. The most refreshing thing for me was having a totally seamless development environment with minimised abstraction between the audio implementation tools, the game engine and previewing the game. The fact that I was able to prototype and experiment with new functionality myself using the Blueprints system, despite never having used the Unreal Engine before, was of massive benefit to this project.

Teamwork

Working remotely as a freelancer and being an integrated part of the team was made possible by the brilliant support I received from Secret Sorcery. Alan McDermott isn’t just their creative director, he was previously the audio director at Sony’s Evolution Studios and it’s this level of AAA audio insight from someone in a senior creative position at the company that enabled the audio experience in Tethered to be a central part of the player experience – Alan was sowing audio seeds long before I was brought on to the project to help realise them. Similarly, having the managing director of a company as your audio coder is a real perk. This wasn’t the tragically familiar case of Scott “doing audio” because it fell in to his lap – he’s a massive fan and champion of audio, appreciates its contribution towards the player experience, and was brilliantly responsive to all of the hair-brained things that Alan and I cooked up.

There is no substitute for teamwork and close collaborations – this is where the good stuff comes from and it deserves as much of your attention as any other aspect of a project, be that your own chops in your given craft or the technology you choose to use in it or develop for it. If you are working with reasonable people, there is a strong relationship between being seen to do the right thing for a project and being given the trust, freedom, encouragement and support to take that to the next level. Sound is viewed primarily as a utilitarian and technical discipline by most non-audio professionals – merely a box that needs to be ticked. If you feel alienated, uninvolved or unsupported, consider whether this is because your words and actions are confirming this false suspicion.

Final Thoughts

Creating the audio experience for Tethered wasn’t so much about slavishly recreating reality, it was more about alluding to it with a focus on backing up the world presented to players, being hyper-aware of the importance of this and, as a result, paying attention to the subtle details that helped to fulfil this function. Additionally, when there were problems that didn’t have easy solutions, but were clearly central to making the experience work, spending time on these paid dividends and helped to create a unique experience. I think all of that is equally applicable to any game and, in that regard, VR audio is nothing new – the overall approach hasn’t changed, the player experience has and this is where the knock-ons stem from.

I think it’s quite easy to dismiss a lot of the solutions I’ve discussed here because they quite clearly could have been used in a non-VR game. This is both true and totally misses the main point I’ve been trying (and possibly failing) to get across – none of the technologies or approaches in VR are new or unique; they have and are being used in non-VR games too. What’s new is that VR puts a pressure on your approach which pushes you in directions that you are unlikely to have considered, unlikely to have been able to justify, and unlikely to have had the determination to persevere with were it not for the amazing sense of presence and the requirement to back that up. If VR game audio is anything, it is this.

Another way of looking at it is that it’s important to differentiate between the requirement to present the virtual world in a way that meets the player’s expectations versus how you go about achieving that. The former is VR 101 and common to all VR experiences, the latter is project-specific (possibly sub-genre-specific) and no amount of reading up on “VR audio” is going to tell you precisely what the right thing to do is on a given project, it’s simply going to make you aware of what other people have done on their projects and possibly inform aspects of the approach you choose to take.

There are no rules.

Go nuts 🙂

Kenny is a freelance audio director, composer and sound designer best known as the brains behind the celebrated audio experiences in Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway franchises. You can follow him at @kcmyoung and find out more about his work at AudBod.com

Notes

1 – I don’t think that the terminology of “first person” and “third person” makes a great deal of sense in VR – arguably, all VR experiences are intrinsically first person irrespective of ‘camera placement’ because the player is always directly experiencing the world through their own eyes and ears and very much in control of where they are looking. So, perhaps it makes more sense to consider whether the player is embodied (i.e. looks down and sees their body) or disembodied (looks down and sees no body). That’s not a fool-proof distinction either because there are VR experiences where you have no visible body but you do have disembodied floating hands which make it feel like you have a body present in the world – “implied embodiment”. And then there are first person experiences where the player isn’t playing ‘themselves’, but is role-playing as someone else. This can work brilliantly if the player is invited to participate, but if handled clumsily it can easily bump the player out of the experience (e.g. you are given hands that you can’t move, or your character speaks on your behalf, or someone speaks to your character in such a way that it doesn’t feel like they are talking to you) – “implied disembodiment”. What I find interesting is that these are all issues in non-VR games too, but the lack of abstraction in VR puts a magnifying glass on them – the player’s sense of personal identity is stronger when they are in the world rather than merely peering in to it. Indeed, I think this puts a welcome pressure on the ability for players to communicate directly and naturally with NPCs. I’ll wrap-up this rambling brain-fart of a footnote by asking you to consider the possibility of the player being an acousmêtre that can observe and haunt other inhabitants in the world as a disembodied voice. I think that’s pretty rad 🙂

2 – I know these distance units are essentially meaningless, but consider them relative to each other. FWIW, 20k units equates to something like the distance from your viewing position to the middle of an island (“just in front of you”), the result being that important events are perceived to be either “near you” or “not near you”, which is a useful cue for the player. 60k units is a little less than the length of the largest islands in the game, so a sound which is waaaaaaaaaaaay over there is going to be on the threshold of hearing – audible if you choose to tune in to it in a quiet moment, but otherwise out of the way.

Copyright © 2016 Kenneth C M Young

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Sunday Sound Thought 52 – Reflection

I started this series a year ago…well, a year ago next week…with the goal of making myself continue thinking about sound in new ways. When I was regularly writing longer pieces for this site, that was easy to do. As I stepped back into more of a background role though, I found myself missing the constant motivation to evaluate the way I approach sound. So this was all about getting myself into the habit of thinking more regularly on a smaller scale, in the hopes that I would find ways beyond my daily work to continue developing my skills and aesthetics. It started with just exploring some ideas, and eventually turned into a weekly post-mortem of the work I had done or little inklings of ideas I had because of work, media viewing or even common everyday experiences. It’s made me be more aware of myself, the way I work, and the ways I want to develop further. The weekly posts here were an accountability system to keep me on track. So I think I was successful in what I wanted to achieve. I honestly won’t know until I take away that accountability system and see if I truly have turned this into a habit. It’s helped me though, so I encourage others to try it.

Now I think you’ve all indulged me in my ramblings long enough. I set the goal of one year, and this is week number 52. Last I checked, that’s how many there are in one year. So I’m going to turn this idea over to the rest of the Designing Sound team who are going to run with it how they see fit. Thanks for helping me change!

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Round 3 Winners and Next Week’s Prizes

dsx_decmber_giveaway

So how did we pick this week’s winners? We took the two users who asked questions that generated the most discussion, and the two users who answered the most questions (with overall reputation as a tie breaker), then randomly drew names out of a hat to assign our prizes. So here they are…

  • BernC wins a copy of Krotos Dehumaniser II for answering 5 questions this week
  • JustinMacleod wins a copy of Zynaptiq Adaptiverb for starting the “Ethical sound design” discussion
  • AzimuthAudio wins a vehicle library from Airborne Sound for the daring people to “Scare me into being better at archiving”
  • Avi Ziv wins the Urban Ambisonics Bundle from Pro Sound Effects for answering 5 questions this week
  • stevefanagan is this week’s randomly selected winner of an annual subscription to Production-Expert.com

Congrats to this week’s winners, and thank you, Krotos, Zynaptiq, Airborne Sound and Pro Sound Effects!

Just a quick note to our winners…I’m traveling today, but I’ll be reaching out as soon as I can this weekend.

We had some overlap between between categories (Justin Macleod answered 23 questions this week!), and we had to disqualify a few others who were extremely active this week…because they’d already won something. It’s great to see this level of interaction! Keep it up, and remember that even those who have already won are still in the running to win the Grand Prize. We want to see those who’ve been rewarded for their participation to continue participating…and that’s our way to do it. If you haven’t been participating there’s still a chance to win some awesome free stuff. Head over to DSX, check out the rules, and get involved!

Here’s what we’re giving away in our final week…

Sound Particles

iZotope Iris 2

Shotguns HD Pro

Any single library from ASoundEffect.com

A 1 year subscription to Production-Expert.com

….oh and we’ll be announcing the winner of the Hybrid Library from Pro Sound Effects on January 1st!

Be excellent to each other, have fun conversations and good luck!

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