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  • Writer's pictureRupert

BBC Sound Now and Next

Report from the BBC R&D Conference, May 2015.

No Sums.

“Sound Now and Next” organised by BBC R&D was different from other audio conferences I have attended. I didn’t know it was possible to talk about audio without a PowerPoint slide showing a mathematical equation so complex it fills the screen with unreadably small squiggles, but apparently it is. Quite a bit of time was spent listening to sound, both recorded and created live before our ears. Organisers of other audio conferences take note.

TV has sound, too!

Many of the presentations were given by practitioners who record or create sound, getting their Rycotes dirty in the process. Many of them work for television; apparently TV has sound as well as pictures, who knew? It’s very easy for those working in radio and other media where audio is dominant to be critical of TV sound, especially the unimaginative surround sound mixes which seem to predominate. Chris Watson, a sound recordist with an impressive list of credits, played some stunning audio from the Antarctic including the sound of a glacier moving. He’s working on an ambisonic hydrophone to record underwater, not so much “sound with height” as “sound with depth”. Some of the audio he played was deeply moving, an object lesson in the fact that mono can be “immersive” if it is good enough. It is perhaps just as well my former colleagues from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were not at the conference, given his views on the way music is “smeared” across his pristine location recordings before they are broadcast!

Martyn Harries (Senior Lecturer in Broadcast Audio and Music Technology) explained that you can’t make the sound from behind the viewer too interesting on TV, or people will be distracted from the screen and wonder why they aren’t seeing the interesting thing that’s happening behind them. Martyn also suggested that sound could become much more important as the use of a “second screen” expands. People using social media whilst enjoying a TV programme aren’t looking at your lovely pictures, but they are listening to your lovely audio, and it can grab their attention back again.

Record companies are blocking creativity for music coverage on TV, according to Andy Rogers (Senior Producer, Live Music, BBC Radio 1 / 1Xtra) who explained that when they broadcast a band at a festival, the record company expect it to sound “like the record, but with a little bit of crowd ambience added”. The bands and record companies won’t allow the broadcaster to capitalise on the home cinema experience to make something more interesting.

On Tour with Spotify

Attendees were given the chance to enjoy a “technical tour”, which included demonstrations of immersive audio from BBC R&D, Dolby and DTS alongside a demonstration from Fraunhofer IIS of the power of MPEG-H to deliver immersive interactive services on a tablet. All worked well, with Dolby’s system to create “height” using upward firing speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling showing promise as an alternative to Fraunhofer’s impressive prototype 3D sound bar which I heard in Los Angeles last year. DTS demonstrated binaural rendering of their 9.1 sound; given this was achieved using a standard head model rather than one adapted for my unusually narrow head, and without head tracking, it worked extremely well. The A/V amp used in the Dolby demo was a wake-up call to the radio industry, the logo on the amp didn’t feature Dolby’s famous “Double D”; it had the Spotify logo on the front panel… clearly the manufacturers think Spotify will sell more systems than 3D Audio, even on an expensive Dolby Atmos capable amplifier.

It’s all about production.

The presenters and audience were international, this wasn’t a “BBC only” event. Sadly very few producers attended despite the effort which had apparently been put into encouraging them, so a lot of the time the presenters were preaching to the choir. There is a real gap between technology and production in much of the media. In my experience it is usual for technologists to invent a “thing” and then tout it round producers to see if any of them would like to try it; it is very unusual for a producer to come to a technologist and say “I want a thing that will enable me to…” even if the thing in question is a new audience experience. I had high hopes the production friendly nature of this conference wold entice them it, but with few notable exceptions I was disappointed.

The conference was presented by LJ Rich, an accomplished musician and presenter of BBC TV’s “Click” technology programme. She gave an impressive performance, getting the audience involved in the Q&A sessions and making the event flow in a more cohesive manner than is usual at audio conferences. The benefit of picking a presenter with some charisma to link the whole thing together was very clear, again organisers of other conferences should take note.

What We Learned

  • BBC R&D’s audio team can host a spectacular conference.

  • Very few producers turn up to audio conferences even if the conference is free, with no maths, a well-known presenter and lots of respected practitioners speaking.

  • TV may have the best delivery mechanism for audio (high bit rates and surround sound) and not use it very creatively, but there are good reasons for at least some of this.

  • Lots of people and companies are working on “sound with height” and there are ways to enjoy it without hanging speakers from your ceiling. But at least some of them think Pandora is more important.

You can find out more about the conference, with links to information about the presenters, here.

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