"You're Not Deaf, So Why Do You Act Like One?"
Juice announces its latest series of sometimes ugly yet essential inside stories that make its visual effects and sound work stand out.
In this episode, you have a chance to meet Simon Astbury, managing director of Juice Shanghai. He’ll share thoughts on the possibilities of sound design and the impact of quality audio experiences both on people’s lives and the postproduction industry. Tune in!
“You’re not deaf, so why do you act like one?”
That question, which admittedly came from a good friend of mine who’s a sound engineer, caught me by surprise. It’s not that I didn’t know the answer to it. It was the fact that I didn’t think of myself as suffering from any hearing impairment up until that moment. At the time he posed the question to me I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, part of a morning coffee+social ritual of sorts. There was nothing strange about it - it’s what millions of people are doing on Facebook, Linkedin, WeChat, or any other social platform that is trending between when I write this article and when you’re reading it. There were personal pictures, passionately written posts, memes, silly quips, and of course video. Lots of it.
No, the strange thing was that all the video was playing sans audio, I was letting it do it! It was like watching a silent-era version of my Facebook wall. And it was happening because the social media algorithm was designed to mute all the video content unless you unmute one first. Add to that the complicit tendency of everyone who is posting a video to add subtitles, supers, and all manner of captions and you end up with a silent social agreement to avoid half the audio visual experience of any video unless you deliberately want it. And like any good herd behaviour, once people catch on, it’s hard to switch it off. It becomes the norm. It’s how media is consumed and therefore how sound is treated when media is made. In some instances, we’ve seen sound budgets drop to a mere 5% of the total production cost. In many instances, it’s even less than that.
But does it mean we’re seeing the end of sound? Are we going to replace our two million dollar sound studio with a premium Spotify account and a monkey banging on a tin can? Should brands forget about audio signatures, subtle vsoundscaping, or original score? Are social media users slowly becoming deaf? Not quite. In this article, we'll take a quick tour through the changing landscape of commercial sound design and original scoring, the pros and cons of reserving an audio budget, and share our humble, if slightly biased, opinion on the future of original audio along with a few tips and tricks on how to enhance that experience for your consumers.
Once Facebook went silent, everyone followed. Of course, they had some sound logic to back this up: people were browsing their feed 1-2 times an hour, often with other people around them, and not always with their earbuds on. So blaring out music whenever you hit a video has become a nuisance. The exception to this preamble is, of course, TikTok (Douyin in China), which made music and sound effects its centrepiece. It’s more pop and less sleek sound design but if you can marry your brand with a catchy tune like Justin Bieber’s Peaches (voted #2 best Tik Tok tune of all times) you’re already half way to stardom. in fact, a recent Kantar study showed that:
- 88% of TikTok users said that sound is essential to the TikTok experience
- 73% of respondents said they would "stop and look" at ads on TikTok with audio, a significantly higher result than any other platform
- TikTok is the only platform where ads with audio generate significant lifts in both purchase intent and brand favourability
- And with a 66% higher rate than other platforms, users described having sound on ads as “fun.”
But social media is a mixed bag, with trends quickly popping up only to die down months later. Even Linkedin, which follows Facebook best practices, has done their own research into video ads on the platform and found that videos using a distinctive and memorable soundtrack tend to have higher engagement rates. There’s one caveat to it, for best results, you’ll need to use one audio source in your video ad. So either use narration or use an original soundtrack, but not both. But Tiktok is the exception. So should we ditch our audio tracks on the next ad we produce altogether? Not so fast.
Music—rich, catchy, original—is far from dead but we’ve been conditioned to ignore it on most social media platforms because it makes for 'a smoother scrolling experience'. Well, nature gave me two ears and I am not looking to return those to the manufacturer anytime soon. In fact, whenever I would leave the highly controlled experience of my feed, I became acutely aware again of the range of original audio experiences that brands and content creators have been employing all around us. It made me think that perhaps I’ve been listening to the value of original sound through a cheap set of mono speakers.
Endel is one company that’s using neuroscience and the science of the circadian rhythm to make AI-powered mindfulness accessible to all. The company’s core technology Endel Pacific creates personalized, adaptive soundscapes to reduce stress, improve sleep, and boost productivity. Imagine interacting with a car commercial for an AMG – C63 Mercedes, immersing yourself in an edge-of-your-seat story, high-powered visuals, and a tantalizing audio experience like this one in the link. You then head over to a Mercedes dealership to test drive that coupe when you’re met with an in-car audio integration powered by Endel AI, designed to keep drivers focused and relaxed while in motion with smart, adaptive soundscapes like this (listen in the link). In this example, pushing for audio on both ends of the user experience enhances the brand and I felt the intense visuals of the ad were begging me to turn the sound on. Meeting the in-car audio at the showroom further cemented the idea that this brand is obsessive about the subtle effects of sound design and about the future of audio science. What other aspects of the driving experience might they be obsessive about?
And that was it. Suddenly, by demanding that I commit more to the brand, I got so much more out of the experience and it translated directly to a higher brand value. It was an indirect way to condition me to expect more from a Mercedes. Sound wasn’t an afterthought but a backdoor into my unconscious cognition.
Take a look at Dolby, the supreme king of surround sound who, a few years back, decided to apply the same rigorous process they use in their audio labs, to video. Here again, was a brand that managed to insert itself into the equation of high-end movie theatre and home theatre experience through its sheer commitment to sound. We had the honour of producing the first spot in a series about Dolby Visionaries who turn to the science of Dolby to tell the stories they were creating, where the spectrum of frequencies was shared by both colour and sound. Take a look at the min-doc we link here. Could it tell the story of Alec using only images? Perhaps. But when you turn on the Dolby Atmos sound and you dive into the dark water with Mr. Semenov and his royal jellies, the soundscape places you right there alongside him and the music makes your belly tremble when he comes back up for air. It’s NOT the same piece with and without audio. That relationship is very personal and very potent if harnessed properly and it simply doesn’t work when you couple six-figure CGI and video imagery with some off-the-shelf track that lacks the nuanced relationship to the story.
The science behind the connection between our animalistic desires and a familiar audio logo dates back to Pavlov’s famous dog. According to classical conditioning, when we hear the sound of a strong audio logo that we know quite well, our brains respond without us even realizing it, setting into motion a myriad of physiological processes from salivating to tearing up, and from perking up to all out dancing. Brands that have taken the time to craft an audio logo and to saturate the market with it, enjoy unparalleled intimate relationships with their audience. While it’s not for everyone, the top consumer brands in the world have all but perfected their audio identity and their audio logos: from Macdonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” to Intel “inside” you can read up on a few lessons from the masters of audio identity in the link.
At this point, you should be as excited as I am about the possibilities of sound design and quality audio experiences. But could stock music replace an original creation? If people are mostly numb to the idea of sound, why bother when music libraries are overflowing with soundtracks and sound effects? Clearly, clients, ad execs, agency media mavens are spending millions on picturing the right audience and then crafting a specific message for them. Why on earth would you want to stop short when audio is concerned? In fact, Another proof that people are actually delving deeper into the subtle effect of sound is the ASMR phenomenon. If you don’t know what it is, I encourage you to stop what you’re doing, put on a pair of headphones and click this link. You’d agree that the audio experience is not a mere backdrop to Zoe Kravitz but an inseparable partner. It’s a spot that begs you to turn on, tune in, and zone out. Riding the ASMR wave has one added benefit in that you don’t even need to ask people to put on their headphones and listen in, the very mention of these four letters, which stand for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, are enough to make the hair on the back of some people’s necks start tingling with anticipation. Again, a wonderful sensation if you manage to tie it to your brand.
Check out on the Juice website how sound design practically brought to life this game trailer for the acclaimed Cyberpunk with a smart breakdown of the contribution of each aspect of the audio project. Then head over to the full trailer for the complete experience created by Juice. It’s a trip!
In some cases, the sound is so powerful that it doesn’t even need the eyes to produce a complete experience. In fact, in some cases, the eyes will only get in the way and limit the emotion that our brains, jacked up on sound, is capable of producing. If you’re too young to remember, Orson Wells figured it out when War of the Worlds aired in 1938 on public radio and drove half a nation into frenzy. It’s still a powerful experience to this day. And Apple TV figured it out when they launched the hugely popular Calls series based almost exclusively on phone conversations, subtle soundscapes, and eerie graphics.
As soon as I got my head out of the social stream, it felt like I had it underwater all this time. You see, science aside, our eyes are what our brain relies on to make sense of a scene, to construct a picture of reality, or of an imagined reality. But the sound design, the score, the sound effects, are a bridge to a higher emotional experience. The eyes see but the ears feel. And the neural bonds that are formed between our brain and our experience are far richer and more immersive through sound. Just think of your favourite music video and try to hum, or even sing, the entire song in your head – no problem. Try to recreate the video portion in your mind’s eye, second by second – not so easy. There’s your proof.
So after all this, do I think we should ditch video and go all out into sound production? Clearly no. Do I think high-end sound design, original music, and immersive soundscapes are for every brand? also no. I do think you should take the time to evaluate the trajectory of your brand and the role original sound can play in it. Consider investing in creating an immersive audio identity, especially if your brand also lives offline. Find creative ways to hook people to your audio logo. Include click baits designed to lure viewers into becoming listeners by adding ASMR or a headset icon to your video to denote a special sound experience. In simple terms, don’t act like you’re suffering from a hearing impairment.
Most of all, talk to our sound specialists before you lock your production budget. It’s a sound investment. (I had to throw that one in).