By Randi Altman
New York City’s Silver Sound has been specializing in audio post and production recording since 2003, but that’s not all they are. Through the years, along with some Emmy wins, they have added services that include animation and color grading.
When they see something that interests them, they investigate and decide whether or not to dive in. Well, virtual reality interests them, and they recently dove in by opening a VR division specializing in audio for 360 video, called SilVR. Recent clients include Google, 8112 Studios/National Geographic and AT&T.
I reached out to Silver Sound sound editor/re-recording mixer Claudio Santos to find out why now was the time to invest in VR.
Why did you open a VR division? Is it an audio-for-VR entity or are you guys shooting VR as well?
The truth is we are all a bunch of curious tinkerers. We just love to try different things and to be part of different projects. So as soon as 360 videos started appearing in different platforms, we found ourselves individually researching and testing how sound could be used in the medium. It really all comes down to being passionate about sound and wanting to be part of this exciting moment in which the standards and rules are yet to be discovered.
We primarily work with sound recording and post production audio for VR projects, but we can also produce VR projects that are brought to us by creators. We have been making small in-house shoots, so we are familiar with the logistics and technologies involved in a VR production and are more than happy to assist our clients with the knowledge we have gained.
What types of VR projects do you expect to be working on?
Right now we want to work on every kind of project. The industry as a whole is still learning what kind of content works best in VR and every project is a chance to try a new facet of the technology. With time we imagine producers and post production houses will naturally specialize in whichever genre fits them best, but for us at least this is something we are not hurrying to do.
What tools do you call on?
For recording we make use of a variety of ambisonic microphones that allow us to record true 360 sound on location. We set up our rig wirelessly so it can be untethered from cables, which are a big problem in a VR shoot where you can see in every direction. Besides the ambisonics we also record every character ISO with wireless lavs so that we have as much control as possible over the dialogue during post production.
For editing and mixing we do most of our work in Reaper, a DAW that has very flexible channel routing and non-standard multichannel processing. This allows us to comfortably work with ambisonics as well as mix formats and source material with different channel layouts.
To design and mix our sounds we use a variety of specialized plug-ins that give us control over the positioning, focus and movement of sources in the 360 sound field. Reverberation is also extremely important for believable spatialization, and traditional fixed channel reverbs are usually unconvincing once you are in a 360 field. Because of that we usually make use of convolution reverbs using ambisonic Impulse responses.
When it comes to monitoring the video, especially with multiple clients in the room, everyone in the room is wearing headphones. At first this seemed very weird, but it’s important since that’s the best way to reproduce what the end viewer will be experiencing. We have also devised a way for clients to use a separate controller to move the view around in the video during playback and editing. This gives a lot more freedom and makes the reviewing process much quicker and more dynamic.
How different is working in VR from traditional work? Do you wear different hats for different jobs?
That depends. While technically it is very different, with a whole different set of tools, technologies and limitations, the craft of designing good sound that aids in the storytelling and that immerses the audience in the experience is not very different from traditional media.
The goal is to affect the viewer emotionally and to transmit pieces of the story without making the craft itself apparent, but the approaches necessary to achieve this in each medium are very different because the final product is experienced differently. When watching a flat screen, you don’t need any cues to know where the next piece of essential action is going to happen because it is all contained by a frame that is completely in your field of view. That is absolutely not true in VR.
The user can be looking in any direction at any given time, so the sound often fills in the role of guiding the viewer to the next area of interest, and this reflects on how we manipulate the sounds in the mix. There is also a bigger expectation that sounds will be more realistic in a VR environment because the viewer is immersed in an experience that is trying to fool them into believing it is actually real. Because of that, many exaggerations and shorthands that are appropriate in traditional media become too apparent in VR projects.
So instead of saying we need to put on different hats when tackling traditional media or VR, I would say we just need a bigger hat that carries all we know about sound, traditional and VR, because neither exists in isolation anymore.
I am assuming that getting involved in VR projects as early as possible is hugely helpful to the audio. Can you explain?
VR shoots are still in their infancy. There’s a whole new set of rules, standards and whole lot of experimentation that we are all still figuring out as an industry. Often a particular VR filming challenge is not only new to the crew but completely new in the sense that it might not have ever been done before.
In order to figure out the best creative and technical approaches to all these different situations it is extremely helpful to have someone on the team thinking about sound, otherwise it risks being forgotten and then the project is doomed to a quick fix in post, which might not explore the full potential of the medium.
This doesn’t even take into consideration that the tools still often need to be adapted and tailored to fit the needs of a particular project, simply because new-use-cases are being discovered daily. This tailoring and exploration takes time and knowledge, so only by bringing a sound team early on into the project can they fully prepare to record and mix the sound without cutting corners.
Another important point to take into consideration is that the delivery requirements are still largely dependent on the specific platform selected for distribution. Technical standards are only now starting to be created and every project’s workflows must be adapted slightly to match these specific delivery requirements. It is much easier and more effective to plan the whole workflow with these specific requirements in mind than it is to change formats when the project is already in an advanced state.
What do clients need to know about VR that they might take for granted?
If we had to choose one thing to mention it would be that placing and localizing sounds in post takes a lot of time and care because each sound needs to be placed individually. It is easy to forget how much longer this takes than the traditional stereo or even surround panning because every single diegetic sound added needs to be panned. The difference might be negligible when dealing with a few sound effects, but depending on the action and the number of moving elements in the experience, it can add up very quickly.
Working with sound for VR is still largely an area of experimentation and discovery, and we like to collaborate with our clients to ensure that we all push the limits of the medium. We are very open about our techniques and are always happy to explain what we do to our clients because we believe that communication is the best way to ensure all elements of a project work together to deliver a memorable experience.
Our main is Red Velvet for production company Station Film.