Report: BBC Sound: Now and Next

The days of audio taking a back seat appear to be over, writes Erica Basnicki, following an immersive experience at the London event last month.

It was an absolute privilege to be able to mingle among audio’s brightest creative minds, discuss future sound technology and share ideas and inspiration at BBC R&D’s recent Sound: Now and Next conference.

For two days the BBC Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House in London was packed with over 200 sound geeks/gods of various stripes. My own personal geek-o-meter was in the red the entire time as the creative possibilities of sound were explored through talks from the likes of sound recordist Chris Watson, re-recording mixer Martyn Harries and electronic musician/inventor Tim Exile.

Most importantly, it was an excellent opportunity to get hands-on with the astonishing research advances in psychoacoustic engineering, audio for virtual reality and immersive sound on display at the Technology Fair.

Among them was the Moodplay interactive experience, which put DJ duties in the hands of listeners via an app. Rather than pick a song, participants chose where they were at emotionally (quirky, brutal, pathetic, dreamy etc) and Moodplay responded with mostly appropriate musical suggestions.

BBC R&D also demonstrated how the Web Audio API can take into account a listener’s individual listening environment using their device’s microphone, and apply personalised compression in real-time to maximise audio quality. Anyone who has ever blasted their eardrums pressing ‘Play’ on their device after last listening to it in a noisy environment can appreciate how useful personalised compression can be.

Dolby and the Fraunhofer Institute had their versions of personalised audio for broadcast, which will change how we consume televised content by giving viewers the power to mute certain audio content (so long, uninteresting announcer) or tune in to non-traditional audio sources (i.e. the conversation between an F1 driver and the pit crew).

There was more. Plenty more. But the bottom line is that sound is getting more personal, more immersive, more responsive… more exciting.

On the down side…

Despite this, there was a bit of a grumble that some key BBC staff were missing from the conference, specifically, commissioning editors and content producers. The people who can actually give the green light to experiment with these wonderful new technologies and introduce them to a massive audience.

It’s an understandable sentiment. For the most part, sound is only important to people who either work in sound or have a natural inclination to appreciate it.

Hearing is an under appreciated sense and those of us who care passionately about what we listen to – and how we listen to it – are in the minority. As the conference drew to a close, there was a sense that it will remain that way until the almighty commissioning editors and content producers wave their magic wands, and bestow onto the public a keen appreciation for aural entertainment.

Here’s why that’s total nonsense: Isabel Platthaus and Achim Fell of Germany’s WDR – two speakers at the conference – worked long and hard on 39; a radio drama that extended beyond traditional radio broadcast into a gaming app. Not only was 39 well received by critics, but iTunes named it a Best New App, which drew in thousands of new users.

Recho – the ‘Foursquare of sounds’ – has caught the eye (ears?) of online publications like PSFK and Vice’s The Creators Project. It’s also a joy to use: log in and find geo-located sound messages near you. The recordings could be a tip, a story, a spur-of-the moment rant or part of a game… but it’s treasure hunting at its finest and a modern day version of what draws people to amateur radio.

And wouldn’t you know it, even the BBC is unleashing its sonic experiments onto the public. Currently, the BBC Taster page allows users to select radio programmes based on a topic of their choice via the BBC Radio Explorer page. Previously, users were given the chance to experiment with responsive radio, choosing a desired length for a documentary on British author Derek Tangye (‘The Cornish Gardener’).

Yes, historically, sound has never been front and centre. Film came first, then we added sound to it. Radio was dandy until television came along. But these are all ideas and impressions of the past.

There was a key moment in which host extraordinaire LJ Rich asked delegates who among them were musicians. Nearly every hand shot up in the air, followed by a shy but audible titter – almost like a revelation to be among such a large group of people who share a common passion for sound, via music.

Community spirit?

There isn’t a person on the planet who needs to explain their love of music. Is it really such a stretch to extend that love of music to a love of sound, or to think that people outside the audio industry would make that same leap? Is it a stretch to think that listeners are ready for new experiences in broadcast audio? Cinematic audio? Portable sound?

If the Sound: Now and Next event was any indication, there is much to look forward in the audio world, and it’s happening with or without anyone’s external validation. The technology is there, the will to make it happen is there, but most of all the audience is there, and they are listening.

Erica Basnicki is a freelance writer for the professional audio/music technology industries and an occasional sound designer.