• Type: Whitepaper
  • Topics: Live Events; Audio;
  • Date: August 2015

By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

You know them. By now they’re earwigs imprinted on the limbic regions of your brain: the four notes that tell you Intel is inside; the five notes that alert you to the proximity of a T-Mobile phone; the swelling crescendo of the THX logo; Skype’s cartoonish sound effect punctuated by a cork pop. These are sonic signatures — examples of successful audio branding. In many ways, they’ve come to replace the television-commercial jingle as the sound of brands and products.

And they’re growing ubiquitous at live events.

Background music that plays between moments of attention, such as speeches, performances or presentations, can go a long way toward establishing a mood that makes the crowds more receptive, but making the right connection is important — and something of an art. It can be hard to control how members of an audience might associate one type of music with a brand, which is why a widely-recognized, signature sound bite is the Holy Grail of audio branding — think of the enduring triad that has signaled the NBC network since the 1930s.

Applying audio branding at an event can be a challenge, as content developers try to make sonic signatures work for every possible platform — from ear buds to stadium PA systems. But companies are addressing the issues and opportunities for using audio to reinforce brand awareness at live events are taking shape.

“People want to be entertained, but they don’t want to be marketed to,” says Steve Milton, co-founder of Listen, a New York-based sonic-identity company whose work includes audio effects for Skype, Audi and Microsoft.

That’s where more subtle, audio branding comes into play. Listen will develop musical riffs off a sonic signature, using its tonal structure, esthetic texture and production elements, to create a more expansive music bed to score a live event.

“It’s not a good idea to constantly play a signature over and over,” Milton says, “The threshold between being entertained and being annoyed can be thin, and you never know exactly where it is.”

Audio Infrastructure

Audio branding has become an integrated component of marketing and advertising — Europe has even embraced it institutionally, with the Hamburg, Germany-based Audio Branding Academy promoting scholarly research and industry excellence on the topic. And although it’s well established in media like TV and radio, audio branding can be less straightforward when it comes to propagating sonic signatures at live events.

When Listen developed a signature for Virgin Mobile to be used during a South by Southwest event in 2014, it tested its ability to maintain timbral fidelity ahead of time. The company wanted to hear its impact not only over small speakers, but also much larger arrays. Therefore, Listen played the signature through the PA system at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, a 15,000-seat amphitheater in Columbia, Md., during sound checks for a separate Virgin corporate event.

“We think about the infrastructure through which a signature is going to be played for people,” says Milton. “They could be played through anything from a laptop to a cinema-sound system and it has to sound good across all touch points. The systems we use to execute them are critical.”

Still, Milton concedes, there are few best practices for achieving the desired effect of sonic signatures through different sound systems. Not surprisingly, audio system providers and operators rarely take this element of a production into account. Sometimes, it’s a matter of trial and error, “And we may need more than one deliverable,” Milton says.

Tuning the Sound

As sonic signatures migrate from broadcast TV to live-event spaces, they’re going from highly controlled acoustical environments, such as recording studios and film sound stages, to less acoustically predictable places. Moreover, many of these branded audio snippets will have been optimized for the broadcast environment — heavily compressed to accommodate relatively limited bandwidth.

The situation is not dissimilar to what the music industry has faced, first with MP3 downloads and more recently as streaming has become a major distribution method. In such cases, the transfer media had a noticeable effect on sound quality and impact, thus Listen’s strategy of creating sonic signatures across different deliverables.

Jay Paul, CTS, Vice President of Engineering and Quality Assurance at AVI-SPL, says it’s impossible to know what the acoustical environment of a particular space will be ahead of time and how each piece of audio might interact with it. Over his career, Paul has worked as an audio engineer and consultant.

“Something that’s just a few notes could be swamped by the noise floor or obscured by the acoustics,” he says. “And how would you know what kind of low-frequency response a space or a sound system might have?” Paul notes that low-frequency energy has become an expected part of the audio experience, which may pose a challenge to the use of sonic branding at events.

There are modeling solutions that may offer an alternative to trudging down to the local baseball stadium and asking to play an audio snippet through the sound system. Convolution audio, a process used for digitally simulating the reverberation of a physical or virtual space, is based on an algorithmic operation and uses a pre-recorded audio sample of the impulse response of the space being modeled. This type of auralization, says Paul, may offer a way to preview a sonic signature before it’s rolled out to a crowd.

All of this may seem like overkill (especially for what could be only a few catchy notes), but given the importance that corporations are placing on sonic branding, brands will want to be as certain as possible that their semiotics are well represented and received by audiences. The need to optimize sonic signatures for a wider variety of playback situations may lead to new practices in creation and delivery, such as fewer notes or more strident tonality that can survive less-nuanced sound systems.

Whatever the case, as audio branding moves to a larger stage, let the earworms roll.