Sound Design Is Becoming Sexy: Why Content Creators Should Care...
Music has always been sexy. And I don’t mean sexy baby-making music like Barry White. I’m talking about the idea of music; the industry, the stigma and characters that surround it. It’s cool to play, listen to or be involved in music. I guarantee even Mozart saw some action from the groupies in his time. Sound design is different though. Generally, audio for content has always leaned more towards the geeky side. Take the awesome sound design of the Star Wars movies...most people know it’s great and can recognise the famous lightsaber sounds but who actually cares how it was made? Nerds and middle-aged white men care and no offence, but they’re not the sexiest of demographics. That stigma is slowly transforming though, like the quiet geek at University you see years later that’s now smoking hot and owns a multi-million dollar business (and also loves Star Wars).
Products and brands such as wireless sound-bars, SONOS, Amazon Echo/Alexa, Google Home and (it pains me to say it…) Beats By Dre have made consumer listening trendy and spending money on audio equipment cool. Not so long ago if you spent more than $25 on a pair of headphones you were considered an ‘audiophile’ A.K.A. a fucking nerd. Now, you can drop a few hundred and you’re considered awesome and relevant. Celebrity endorsements and trendy brands have increased consumer spending in the audio sector. This consequently is increasing the aesthetics and more importantly the quality of the audio devices we listen on. This is great news for several industries including advertising, music and tech but having a more critical audial audience definitely comes with pros and cons for anyone creating content. This article discusses why the listening experience is becoming sexy, more desirable to average consumers, and why you should care about putting ‘below pro’ audio on your content.
What is Good Audio?
This is a somewhat subjective topic and the analog/vinyl lovers will certainly have a strong opinion on this but I’m going to try and be as objective as possible here. Audio consumption is getting worse...sort of. Technically speaking the CD/DVD era was the highest quality audio that mainstream listeners have consumed since Edison* recorded sound in 1877. We have actually regressed in audio quality for music distribution since the use of the mp3 and slightly higher quality AAC files became the industry standard (although the mp3 is dying out). Just to clarify, a CD is better quality than what you download from iTunes or stream online. Without getting into the technical details, an mp3 or AAC file basically deletes audio data in order to make the file size smaller (quicker streaming and downloading). This is called ‘Lossy’ compression. The encoders that delete the data do it cleverly so the data lost is fairly unnoticeable. When it comes to streaming content such as YouTube, unless set otherwise, they automatically adjust the quality depending on your internet speed to ensure constant playback. Even at it’s best though, the audio quality is rarely better than an mp3.
(*There is some debate that Edison actually was the first but I won’t get into it here!)
To add another element of quality degradation you have to consider that Bluetooth headphones or speakers have a limited bandwidth and reduce the quality of your audio playback too.
Full quality audio would be a ‘Lossless’ file format such as a WAV or AIFF file meaning no data is removed from the file ultimately making the file size very large. This is the format in which I provide the sound design and mixes for my clients. By the time content has been uploaded to a streaming site though, or broadcast through satellite or cable, this quality will likely not be what the audience is hearing. The degradation of quality over these distribution channels is exactly why the best quality at the source is so important. I provide the highest quality I can so that in the event the content is compressed and reduced in quality by whomever is uploading to YouTube for example, my mix will still (hopefully) sound decent even after conversion.
Do consumers Even care about audio quality?
I’m counting anybody that watches Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Vimeo, streams music on Spotify, Pandora or downloads music and podcasts from iTunes as an ‘average consumer’ here. In short, anyone with internet access that has watched or listened to anything, ever. Is good quality audio necessary, can consumers tell the difference, do they even care? Well, they are starting to whether they realise it or not.
Streaming quality is getting better. While quality control does not uniformly exist for internet content like it does for TV broadcast, streaming companies like Netflix have their own quality checks to ensure high standards both visually and sonically. Unfortunately when it comes to websites like YouTube, there is very little quality control because any user can upload content. This goes for the ads that are streamed too. I’ve been very frustrated more than once to see (hear) a commercial I have painstakingly sound designed and mixed that’s been uploaded by the client at an extremely low quality. Often the audio quality is the first thing to be compromised when a large file has to be uploaded which means the visual can look fantastic but the audio is crap!
Dolby Laboratories however, recently created Dolby Digital Plus which is an encoder that allows multiple channels of high quality audio to be compressed and distributed through a web browser. It’s still Lossy but it’s a better encoder than mp3 with a higher bandwidth. In English, that means that high quality audio including surround sound (up to 7.1) can be streamed in real time over the net. This codec is used by Netflix for example and is what allows a home theatre system to be used for online content from your smart TV. Streaming quality is not quite perfect yet but with faster internet and technology like this, I guarantee in the near future sites like YouTube will follow suit and up their output quality game. If you are creating content, you will need to keep up with improving audio, trust me.
What’s making audio and sound design sexy?
As mentioned earlier, audio devices are becoming cool. Consumer headphones and speakers are getting better everyday. What this actually means is that your $100+ headphones or $1000+ home systems that look and sound amazing are actually emphasising the poorer quality audio that is generally distributed on most content over the net (whether it’s the streaming quality or just poorly produced content).
A recent commercial campaign that has caught my eye on Hulu is the SONOS Playbase. To advertise the importance of sound for the content you watch on your TV they show scenes from famous movies (my favourite being the Big Labowski, of course) but reduce the sound design for that scene. The result is a well-known epic visual that is completely deflated by the lack of audio. Cue the slow zoom out into the consumer living room where they add the full sound back in with the reveal of the Playbase product and a simplistic text making the viewer feel ridiculous for not owning one. A stroke of advertising genius in my eyes considering the majority of people will be watching that commercial from their crappy Smart TV speakers.
The important message that you should take from this is that the idea and importance of sound design is being highlighted to average content consumers. Eventually they will start to care about and notice audio quality. Even if they don’t care, it’s now simple, cool, and (somewhat) fairly priced to have professional-grade audio in your home and they will consequently start to hear the difference between good and bad audio. If the rise of 4K HDTVs has made even the most humble viewer realise the difference between SD and HD, they will definitely learn to love high quality audio.
Not only is the digital quality more noticeable now, the mixes and sound design are. Whether you write music, produce a podcast or make films, you may have been previously able to get away with poor audio mixes, clicky edits, or not-so-clean dialogue/voice over (at least for internet distribution). Having better audio devices in the average home though, will put an end to this assumption. Poor speakers and headphones mask imperfections and now there’s less places to hide. Even podcasts which are renowned for sounding poor are on the rise (again) with more listeners streaming and downloading than ever. Clients are using my audio and production services for podcasts more often than I’ve experienced before because they want their content to SOUND better than the competition. Why not get above the rest and have the best sounding product out there. Better production value will allow your content to rise above an over-saturated market.
Creating Better Audio
The simple and obvious solution to creating better audio is to use the pro’s (i.e. Full English Post...ahem). I recently attended a screening of an independant documentary at a BBQ restaurant in Manhattan. When the mix of a film isn’t done professionally and it’s played out over large and loud speakers, all the imperfections become extremely noticeable. In this case the dialogue wasn’t cleanly recorded nor was it cleaned up in post-production. This caused an extremely uncomfortable high pitched hissing each time an interviewee spoke. I noticed a lot of audience members wincing at the sound and I thought to myself how easily this could have been avoided. Using a professional means that a project is expertly mixed and scrutinised with a range of extremely high quality (and low quality, for reference) speakers preventing quality flaws such as this.
I’m obviously a strong advocate ‘for’ high quality/pro audio and my opinion may be slightly tainted since it’s coming from someone that reads audio equipment manuals in bed (even if I don’t own that piece of equipment). Understandably going the pro route isn’t always an option depending on budget. So why not just use someone that can edit the video, add sound design and mix it? Most video editors can offer somewhat extensive sound design and mixing but are limited in a number of ways when it comes to audio. I’ve had some great sounding edits sent to me from video editors to clean up where I’ve hardly had to touch them. I’ve also had some awful edits where I’ve spent days on them. My argument is that generally speaking, the time it takes a video editor to clean up, sound design and mix the audio on a project (on top of the video edit itself), could take much longer than it would an audio professional. Ultimately you pay extra for the audio mix either way, why not have separate specialists on both the visual and sonic elements?
Sound is usually the afterthought of most projects I work on due to either the budget, creative, quality or scheduling. This is changing. It’s becoming an extremely important part of most content that is produced and it’s being more closely judged by a larger audience. Don’t neglect your audio and make sure your beautiful 4K content isn’t restricted by poor audio. Sound is becoming sexy and people are starting to know the difference between good and great...keep ahead of the curve.
If you’d like professional audio for your content, don’t hesitate to email or call for a free consultation. Whether it’s for cinema, online, festivals or a simple podcast, Full English provides the highest quality recording, sound design and mixing.
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