As we adjust to life within the confines of our homes, virtual connections with the outside world have become ever more vital to our work and personal well -being.
Video has garnered a lot of attention as it becomes an even more essential replacement for office functions and a multitude of social experiences. But audio is also rising in importance as we seek comfort in the familiar. Waylaid musicians have taken up the cause, providing streamed concerts to audiences in need of entertainment and social interaction. And simultaneously, the voice assistants we have welcomed into our homes are providing access to brands with shuttered storefronts.
“It's amazing to see how audio is being used as such a great connector,” says Eric Seay, Co-Founder and CMO of Audio UX, a full-service audio branding agency specializing in audio logos and sound design for products and mixed reality experiences. “Audio has the power to bring people together in the same room for music, as we see with events such as SXSW, but it also has the power to bring people together in a world gone virtual. Audio can be the venue, it can be the interface, and it can be the platform.”
The trends toward more virtual experiences in music and branding began long before these current circumstances, but the temporary elimination of physical locations is definitely accelerating audio’s position as a stand-in for brand experience across audio content services and voice-driven applications.
One of the lasting effects of these challenging times will be an uptick in the need for more customized audio experiences. As podcasts and audiobooks grow in popularity, and as voice control moves from home-based digital assistants into “smart earphones” (aka hearables), audio is moving to the fore. “The paradigm has shifted and inverted, and all of a sudden audio has become the primary communication tool,” Seay observes.
As more users begin to enter these new virtual spaces, the way we’ll know we’ve entered a new space is through sonic cues. Distinctive audio signatures will also be vital in other virtual gathering places. Digital meeting rooms and other virtual gathering places may require audible signals as unique as the virtual backdrops that are currently a sensation in video chats.
When a shopper enters a voice-activated virtual retail storefront, they may hear a tone that tells them they’ve arrived. Or in the broader landscape, maybe some of these “voice-commerce” skills will include background music and sound effects to evoke the familiar sonic elements of physical locations.
“You're able to virtually bring that retail experience into your living room,” Seay says. And it will be important to bring in all the elements. “Something to think about is what does your location sound like? What makes it iconic, and what makes people want to go there? And is that something that you can reproduce at home?”
Getting outside of the home, which we will hopefully do again one day, audio branding also has a role. For events seeking a distinct multisensory appeal, customized sonic signatures make the live experience more distinct. And then after the fact, the same sounds can be used in event replays, which are likely to be more common as people use digital assistant skills to revisit venues at home.
Again, this trend was on the rise even before recent events. Earlier this year, Audio UX crafted a multifaceted sonic experience of Pantone’s Color of the Year that incorporated audio branding as well as in-person and virtual experiences.
To celebrate the release of the first-ever “Sound of the Color of the Year,” along with other sensory elements created around this year’s selection of “Classic Blue,” Pantone created a launch event at Artechouse in New York, with immersive projections and multichannel audio. To make use of the 32 audio channels, Audio UX composed unique stripes of sound that could be placed anywhere in the space, altering users’ experience of each section of the venue.
The experience didn’t stop there. Through the Sound of the Color of the Year, Alexa listeners can explore the custom sound of PANTONE 19-4052 Classic Blue or relive the Artechouse event with a stereo mixdown of the launch party soundscape.
There again is a glimpse into the future. When we do return to entertainment and cultural venues, audio branding can also be used to deliver completely unique experiences for audiences when they return home. That’s the thing about audio, Seay says, “You can have it either be completely true to form or give people a completely different virtual experience than the one they saw. Maybe after the concert, the band releases an interactive version, where the listener feels like they're in the best seat in the house. You've already been to the show and now you want more out of it. Well, now you're sitting in the middle of the band. That's completely new content based on an existing experience.”