Immersive Storytelling with Spatial Audio

1st October 2019
Hash Riaz, Junior Programme Manager of Abbey Road Red and member of the Abbey Road Spatial Audio Forum explains the importance of binaural rendering and catches up with platinum producer, Benbrick, to discuss how binaural audio can be a powerful tool for immersive storytelling.

Storytelling as a concept is nothing new, but the introduction of new technologies brings new and exciting ways to tell stories that engage audiences and help to immerse them in the narrative or scene. From the invention of the printing press to modern day developments in computing and smartphones, storytellers and brands now have more tools than ever before to tell their story.

When we think of immersion, we typically lean towards an ocular experience where the visuals dominate and unfortunately sound can sometimes be an afterthought – but have you ever watched a movie trailer with the sound off? Sound is integral to immersion, it engulfs us in three dimensions every day in the real world and should be valued with regards to the end-user experience.

Our listening experience has evolved over the years from mono, to stereo, to surround sound and this evolution has no doubt impacted storytelling and the cinematic experience in a positive way. This evolution continues with recent developments in spatial audio and technologies such as Dolby ATMOS and DTS:X among others. These emerging technologies provide an increased three-dimensional listening experience by employing overhead speakers (height channels) in combination with traditional surround sound formats. If you haven’t experienced these technologies, I would recommend you do!

This is great for cinema goers, but how can we distribute spatial audio to the masses?

One of the key developments in delivering Spatial Audio to the masses is binaural rendering, which allows for vast multi-channel spatial mixes to be rendered to just two channels (left & right), ultimately allowing end-users to experience spatial audio over headphones. Binaural audio has found its home with immersive media such as Virtual and Augmented Reality, where conventional stereo just doesn’t cut it.

Podcasts are another interesting use case for binaural audio. Podcasts are not limited to headphones, but are widely consumed on mobile devices with headphones, and producers are harnessing binaural audio to augment the overall storytelling experience without visuals.

On the back of last week’s Abbey Road Spatial Audio Forum, set-up by our Head of Audio Products, Mirek Stiles, I caught up with multi-platinum selling British songwriter, producer and composer Paul Carter AKA Benbrick. Benbrick is currently working with acclaimed artist George the Poet on his podcast series ‘Have You Heard George’s Podcast?’. The podcast won four Gold British Podcast Awards, two Silver and the coveted 2019 Podcast of The Year Award.
The podcast series respects the impact of sound and Benbrick uses original compositions, sound design and the use of binaural audio to support George’s narrative throughout each podcast – “George is telling such intimate, and real stories, and as a result I have to raise my game as a composer each time. Each chord needs to be considered - there is already power in the words, so my job is to accent it” explains Benbrick.

Speaking more about adopting spatial audio for use within the podcasts Benbrick mentions “I think it represents a new method of storytelling. If our job as creators is to make people feel new emotions through our art, then we should be open to exploring new ideas. If you can have the instruments represented as characters that can also move around a 3D space, then you can start to paint new mental pictures for the listener.”

Getting technical, we asked Benbrick what tools are key to his workflow whilst producing each podcast. “I write everything in Logic and I’m really into the last two things I picked up from Plugin Alliance… the Brainworx BX_control V2 for adding width to the stereo mix and Dear VR Pro which is great for placing sounds around the listener's head. I use hundreds of Spitfire Audio instruments too - honestly almost everything you hear is probably Spitfire or random Omnisphere expansion packs!”

Benbrick’s role is challenging and puts him in both the engineer and producer seats, having to juggle vocal recordings, sound design and underscore – “We typically end up with around 300 individual tracks for each podcast episode so organisation and keeping on top of things is a challenge. Making sure that things are panned the correct way that make sense, and that moving a track hasn’t also changed/copied some random automation. It’s a challenge, but it’s incredibly rewarding too - you are using your brain all the time.”

There is little doubt that the use of binaural audio has helped support George’s brilliant storytelling and helped the first series gain critical acclaim. There also seems to be lots more to look forward to according to Benbrick. “We are making season two right now, planning for live shows, working out how communities could be governed more fairly in the future, asking what money will look like in 30 years and checking out what Elon Musk is up to”.

If you haven’t already, we recommend catching-up on the first season before the second drops! You can find ‘Have You Heard George’s Podcast?’ on all the usual podcast distribution platforms such as Spotify, Soundcloud, Acast and the BBC, as well as George the Poet's and Benbrick’s official websites.

If you are interested to read more about spatial audio, the Abbey Road Spatial Audio Forum and our ongoing research in the area click here to head to our dedicated page.