Why People Turn Off Audio – Designing Audio that Accommodates Rather Than Dominates

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This concept of audio respecting the user has been something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I know that often times people who work in audio may feel that they are the scapegoat or the black sheep, that they are ignored or only paid attention to when the audio is broken. Audio is also usually the last part of the production cycle, so people often don’t think about it until the very end. I don’t know if this contributes to the need often times for some people to overcompensate by mixing audio to be super loud, to make sure that they are heard and that the proper attention is given to audio, but there are so many things nowadays that are mixed so loudly to the point where it is disrespectful to the user.

So what do I mean by audio that respects the user? It has to do with the volume of the mix, but it also has to do with the content design as well. Let’s first talk about the volume since that is more straight forward.

Loudness Wars 

Many are familiar with this concept of loudness wars or have heard it in pretty much most forms of media. With so much flashiness going on in today’s media, it’s always about capturing the audience’s attention and wowing them. What better way to do this than by making things loud and bombastic. The trend for a lot of albums, trailer music, game audio, etc. is to make things louder and louder. I used to work with a movie trailer composer and the amount of loud music he had to compose regularly was making him deaf. This is not healthy for the composer or for audiences in the long run.

Metallica_My_Apocalypse_waveform.pngPhoto: Wikipedia.org

There is a lot of artistry and beauty lost when everything is just loud all the time. There is no contrast, no dynamic range. Everything just sounds the same all the time like someone is constantly yelling at you. It is an understandable trend though. How are you supposed to hear your bumping music in the car if there are sections that are too soft that get lost in the roar of the engine or in loud conversations?

I remember when I was studying composition in college, one of our teachers told us that most pieces that end with a bang or a loud section generate a louder applause from the audience compared to pieces that end more quietly. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever make things loud, as there are many situations that call for this. Loud music helps get the adrenaline going, which is why a lot of people listen to fast and loud music to enhance their workouts. They are also effective in clubs or any setting where the desired effect is to get your audience excited and pumped.

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However, there are also a lot of inappropriate places for music or audio in general to be too loud. One reason I wanted to write about this is because I was watching two different streamers on Twitch; one was trying to talk to some of his viewers and the other was trying to talk to his friend on Skype while streaming the game but the in-game VO was so loud that it blast through everything that was going on. It was jolting even for me as a viewer who wasn’t involved personally in any of those situations. I think this is especially important for multiplayer games where gamers may use voice comms to communicate with each other. Some games also have really loud theme music or menu music that I always have to turn down by at least 50% to be at a comfortable listening level. I think there needs to be more sensitivity to this as you don’t want your users to just turn off all of the audio just because they had one bad initial experience with things being too loud but many people will not think twice about doing just that and switch off the audio if anything gets on their nerves.

Respectful Sound Design in Content
From a content standpoint, it’s also important to consider what draws people’s attention and what is more subtle and respectful.

A lot of the sounds that are most annoying to people are things that contain high piercing frequencies. Think about fingernails on a chalkboard, a baby crying, metal scraping, a beginner playing a squeaky, out of tuned violin, or microphone feedback. These are all relatively high in frequency and have a harsh timbre to them that lend itself to irritating people quite easily. It’s important to think about the frequency spectrum when designing your sounds, especially if the sounds will be repeating quite frequently, or if you are creating a loop of some sort.

Repetition is not always a bad thing. People like things they are familiar with so using repetition properly will allow you to reap great rewards. However, it’s important to have some variation when repeating sounds. That is why random containers exist to help ease the machine gun effect. Think of someone talking. When someone says the same thing the exact same way to you constantly again and again, it will begin to get irritating. However, if they try to prove the same point to you using different words and in a different angle, it will come off as way more enlightening and persuasive.

The duration of a sound plays a big role in how noticeable a sound is to someone. The new short and nimble typing sounds on my iPhone made my actions feel way more tactile and pleasant; it was the first time I left the sound on my phone on for a very long time. I’m usually very disturbed by all the longer duration notification sounds that occur that I don’t want to risk it bothering me during the day but this was very unobtrusive and actually gave me satisfaction when using the product. I think that this is what we should strive to do – create tasteful and appropriate sounds that don’t try to dominate but rather accommodate.

Sounds that have a gentler fade in with a slower attack tend to give sounds a gentler and more background feel. Of course this depends on the content you’re actually working on, but in general sounds that feel like they’re swelling in and out are more pleasant and less disturbing to the ear.

Dialogue is obviously super important because it is always used as a form of communication of some sort. If anyone came to the Seattle Game Audio HoloLens meetup, you will have heard talk at lengths how important the human voice is and how it should be used as a guide for your sound design. However, if the VO is blasting at extremes in order to cut through the rest of the loud noises, then the mix may be improperly balanced and everything might need to be taken way lower in order to accommodate the VO.

In summary, I think that a lot of sounds, with the proper mix, can be made memorable, distinct, and effective by playing with a lot of those different parameters listed above. Of course there are also times when big sound design is needed in order to make the experience more visceral and “real,” but it’s important to know when this is appropriate and when this isn’t and what the role of audio is.  In terms of music, there are times when music should and can take the spotlight, which is often the case with music with vocals but if the music is in support of another form of media, it needs to actually be a support. Audio should enhance the overall experience and many times that means accommodating rather than dominating.

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