With the addition of new digital craft categories at this year's Cannes Lions, sound design and music now have a stronger presence than ever. Creative audio has always been closely linked to the rapidly advancing technologies of the film industry, but recently we have seen even faster adoption of these new technologies into mainstream environments. Will we see these advancements in audio technologies featured in this year’s winning soundtracks?
But before we dig into that question… Let’s wind the tape back. Remember tape? Let’s take it all the way back to the 1950s to Lester William Polsfuss. Who, you say? More commonly known by the name Les Paul, Lester was a multitalented pioneer of guitars, effects and, most importantly to me, multi-track recording. Les Paul didn’t like the way his recordings sounded, so he did something about it. He was instrumental in developing the concept of multi-track recording, and in my humble opinion, he single-handedly paved the way for modern digital audio – in short, everything we listen to today.
Without Les’ steps, there would be no ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ (simply too many advancements in recording technology to mention), no (Quadrophonic) ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, no ‘Gravity’ with Dolby Atmos, or even HD broadcast television in Dolby Digital 5.1 (Ray Dolby's contribution to modern digital audio is for another day). All the creative milestones, all the technological advancements in audio formats, recording technologies and methods that I am thankful for, both as a listener, and as a practitioner, can be traced back to Les’ desire to make everything sound better.
Let’s scrub forward along the timeline to today, ‘the modern digital world’ as we know it… As speaker count continues to grow, both in cinemas with the adoption of Dolby Atmos and its use of multi-dimensional audio, and in the home with domestic home cinema products, so too does the number of listeners ingesting content on phones and tablets. We are truly living in the world of multi-format entertainment, and the newest additions to make their presence felt are Virtual Reality (VR) video and game experiences and 360° video content. Facebook and Youtube are already serving 360° content up into their users’ feeds, utilising readily available, built-in smartphone technologies as ad-hoc VR headsets. And yet, most of the 3D content that I have experienced has featured only 2D stereo soundtracks.
And so... We arrive at the need for 3D Audio designed specifically for VR / 360° video content. In the commercial world it is still very much in it's infancy, particularly with regards to both the technical and creative workflows. Some challenges certainly may lie ahead, challenges that will start in pre-production meetings, affect recording techniques on set with binaural and ambisonic recordings having precedence, and go right through to how we sound design and post produce the final soundtrack. And with the DPP launching commercial broadcast HD file delivery earlier this year, we may even see multi-dimensional and multi-track audio in final delivery to broadcasters.
For me there is a ‘one hit wonder’ nature to most of the content currently out there, and so far it has seemed easy for the idea to be 'ok' with 2D audio.
Technology aside, we still face the same creative challenges we have all been working through for decades - a feature film played out in a large cinema can have multi-dimensional audio, but how do we make that same soundtrack sound great on the audience’s phone, television, tablet or computer? And how will this technology improve our creative output? Do we have the artists out there who can push it to it’s limits and create an experience truly ‘worth’ listening to?
There's still a somewhat ‘novel, gimmicky’ ‘wow factor’ element to the content that currently tries to boldly highlight the effects and possibilities of 3D audio. But with that said, I'm looking forward to the more subtle, immersive effects that will no doubt compliment a film or commercial, be it in 3D, 360° or dare I say it, 2D.
Les Paul was one of the first, to not only ask the questions, but also to endeavor to answer them. And now, in order to take steps forward into this bold new future, we should all remember to draw from past lessons and practitioners for inspiration. I, for one, look forward to embracing the technical and creative challenges ahead, and hope we begin to see bold new leaps in sound and music at this year’s Cannes Lions, to inspire a new generation of pioneering creatives who will embrace and enjoy the possibilities of great creative audio.