FilmInstitute25th April 2020Abbey Road’s Head of Audio Products, Mirek Stiles, assesses the hype and reality behind so-called ‘8D’ audio.This week, I have had everyone from my mother to the Abbey Road Finance Director asking me about 8D audio. There is a WhatsApp message doing the rounds: “It is the new music of the Pentatonix, composed with 8D technology. Listen to it only with headphones. It will be the first time that you will listen to that song with your brain and not with your ears. You will feel the music from outside and not from the headphones. Feel the effects of this new technology.”
My first gut instinct was to delete this suspicious looking message immediately, without playing or opening anything – the paranoia in me thinking the link was probably riddled with malware. Putting aside my fear that the device I use for most of my banking has been hacked to within an inch of its life in the name of ‘game changer’ audio, I reluctantly put on my headphones and listened to a mono signal being panned around my head. I then went forth and googled 8D Audio.
A couple of choice definitions below:
• “8D audio is all about getting way deep into the music. It uses the power of left and right speakers through your headphones to give you the feeling that you're at a live show.”
• “8D music creators are using software that can manipulate a song's various stereo parts, placing and moving them within a virtual 360-degree space.”
But the prize must go to the person who answered the question I know is burning in the back of all our minds – is 8D audio dangerous?
• “Yes. It can be dangerous. It is so annoyingly boring and uninteresting that you may end up damaging your headphones, your mobile, your tablet computer or television set in the process when you lose your composure.”
For me, this answer really summed up my personal experience of listening to 8D audio on one of the many YouTube channels flouting this ‘unbelievable’ audio technology. I listened with great interest to the various offerings on one channel that had over 6m subscribers. Everyone from Billie Eilish to Pink Floyd had been given this revolutionary treatment. Some of the comments are priceless:
• “Becomes annoying in the long run, just repetitive sound coming back and forth”
• “Sounds like they're on a swing”
There are an awful lot of very positive comments too, but these two observations knocked the nail on the head for me personally. The name 8D Audio doesn’t mean anything as far as I know, maybe it could be 8 Directions but that is a random guess. It’s feels like a neat little marketing exercise. People know with 3D they are getting something bigger and better, so let’s just go really big with 8D! If it was called anything more scientific like Binaural Audio or Ambisonic Audio, it would immediately and understandably scare people away. So, I totally get the name.
But what is it?Well first off, to all those composers and producers out there who have been trying to sell the concept of proper immersive audio over the last couple of years (and in some cases longer), ‘8D’ must be outrageously infuriating. The ‘8D’ audio trend is the equivalent of a junior sound engineer back in the ‘60s discovering a pan pot for the first time and sitting down at the mixing desk mesmerised by panning a mono source from left to right across the stereo field, possibly whilst as high as a hippy on the third day of an open air festival.
That personal observation aside, in a nutshell it’s about externalisation. Externalisation over headphones isn’t something most people are used to because the very nature of headphones is they give the user a very internal experience. So for a lot of people hearing this WhatsApp message for the first time it must be something of a fun novelty. In that respect it’s very similar to people’s fascination with ASMR videos on YouTube.
How does this voodoo magic work, you might ask?
Over the last few years there has been a considerable growing interest in creating audio that sounds like it’s coming from outside the head, but over a pair of headphones. This technological demand has been largely driven by Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and good old-fashioned gaming. Most people experience VR and games via a pair of headphones. Headphones by their very nature directly fire sound into each ear at very close proximity; in other words, directly injecting audio into each left and right ear. It gives a very close and intimate sound that’s very pleasing.
However, it isn’t very good if you want to hear sound coming from in front, behind, above or below you. Such audio is extremely useful in VR, AR and gaming. In a game, for example, the ability to hear the enemy come from behind you so you can take appropriate action, or in VR being given spatial audio cues telling the user where they are supposed to looking and what they are supposed to be interacting with. As in the real world, your field of vision is around 110 degrees at best, so we use sound from all around us to fill in the blanks. So if someone is behind you and shouts your name, you know to turn around and face the other direction.
To create this effect over headphones for use in VR and gaming, the sound needs to be spatialised or in other words come from outside the head. Sound in the real world works by the brain processing spatial cues via:
• time delay (a sound from the left hits the left ear before it hits the right ear)
• sound filtering (the sound from the left will be filtered in tone to the right by your face, nose and even torso)
• the ear canal (the size and shape of your ear will vary the sound’s character)
• and the environment you are in will drastically affect the sound you hear i.e sound bouncing from walls and surfaces creating all sort of reflections and in-direct paths into the ear.
Various recording techniques and post recording processes can mimic the various time and filtering effects created by the human head and the acoustic reflections of environments, and thus over a pair of headphones you can trick the brain into thinking it’s hearing sound from outside the head. Some people refer to this as Binaural Sound. Examples of these technologies have been around for over 50 years, but due to the current interest in VR and AR, a new breed of tools is ever expanding on the pro audio market. Many of these tools are free or very affordable; most of them do a very good job and are getting better all the time.
I have been experimenting with workflows for VR and gaming over the last couple of years, so the effect presented via ‘8D’ audio is rather familiar to me. The way it’s being created is rather crude in the grand scheme of things. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure the creative people churning out tunes from the ‘8D’ pipeline have their own personal tricks and tweaks and have ironed out a few creases along the way, but essentially they are taking a mono mix of a popular song and panning it from left to right using software like Dear VR, which can be bought for $199. I tried it just to sense check myself and it had the same effect within minutes. No doubt there is a lot of free software out there that will also get similar results, but they are all essentially based on the same aforementioned 50+ year technology.Now I’m not trying to belittle this ‘8D’ fad in anyway. If someone wants to pan a song binaurally around his or her head then good luck to them. If other people take pleasure in listening to the results, then all the better. If 6m subscribers are interested in Spatial Audio that is a very good thing. This current WhatApp message has been a powerful and interesting lesson in self-promotion – from that point of view it is rather inspiring. Like all good fads the timing has to be right. Currently there are a lot of very bored people on their phones and probably wearing headphones so as not to annoy each other in isolation, so there is basically a captive audience. And, again, I applaud the person who seized this opportunity.
Having said that, there is a growing number of spatial audio content creators out there who have been working really hard constantly selling the benefits of spatial audio, so the only thing that is slightly annoying with ‘8D’ audio is it’s very much the lowest common denominator of what spatial audio is. In most spatial audio productions, the sound is a little more static, for nothing more than taste and making musical decisions. The effect on demonstration in the “8D” YouTube videos is taking the basic fundamental element of spatial audio and consistently moving it around your head, or in other words ramming it down people’s throats in a very unsubtle manner. It gets the point across like a sledgehammer to a crystal ball and to my ears it isn’t particularly musical. I would love to know what the artists make of their work being treated in this way? Maybe they love it? Maybe it infuriates them? Who knows, it’s all subjective.
If any producers or artists out there have been listening to ‘8D’ audio with any interest I encourage them to think about the possibilities if they applied the same technique, but only spatially panning certain elements of the mix. The ‘8D’ examples on YouTube are crude, literally taking an entire (most likely and rather ironically mono) mix of a song and panning it around the head like a seesaw. But what if artists used similar software to spatially pan only certain elements of their mix, like just the synths or only the vocal effects or a trippy guitar solo. This would leave the rest of the mix in normal stereo mode as a foundation for the more experimental out of head sounds; there is no reason the two can’t be mixed together. If anything this makes more sense because spatialising anything like kicks and bass lines starts to lose punch and impact. Spatialising audio seems to work better on higher frequency content. Used more subtly and tastefully, the spatial audio element could take productions to a whole new level. On that note, it was brought to my attention Max Cooper has already rised to the challenge – this is what I’m talking about!
If the current ‘8D’ fad inspires more artists and producers to explore Spatial Audio then it has done a great job. My concern though is because the Spatial Audio in the “8D” instance is so repetitive and so gimmicky people will be become bored very quickly and be forever put off by it.
‘8D’ Audio is a gimmick but I want to see more producers, artist and engineers using similar spatial audio tools and really take it to the next level creatively. Check out the software by Facebook, Audio Ease, Blue Ripple, Dear VR, IEM, ATK and Sennheiser to name just a few.
I think it’s fair to say ‘8D’ isn’t taken very seriously amongst the pro audio community, but it has got people talking and thinking about Spatial Audio, and perhaps it’s the seed needed for using these amazing tools in more creative musical ways for the next generation of artists. Currently we have Dolby Atmos, Sony 360 Reality and most streaming platforms offering ‘3D’ content; just look at the popularity of ASMR videos on YouTube, which use Binaural techniques. Both Google and FaceBook have Spatial Audio solutions and tools for creating sound beyond stereo. All the tools are becoming ever more available and more importantly content delivery platforms ever more accessible.
So I encourage artists and producers to get your spatial audio groove on. Show us what can really be done. You can find more information on the topic here.