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What is interactive audio? Discovering the final frontier in sound

The world of music and audio is so saturated that it’s natural to question if there’s any uncharted territory left. Well, there is, and it’s arguably one of the most exciting areas yet. Find out why it’s time to get involved with interactive audio, the final frontier in sound.


For the majority of us, a passion for 'traditional' linear music is often the starting point and gateway into the audio world. Learning how to produce music, mix records and arrange compositions within a DAW is an exciting pursuit based on well-established conventions, building on decades of refined knowledge. Working within these fields means the traditional production space is defined but what if you want to do something really new and unique? With even the most esoteric genres generally being well-established, how do producers or sound designers reach uncharted territories offering realistic and exciting career opportunities?

One answer to this question is to get involved in interactive audio, the final frontier in sound. What makes this field so exciting is the close relationship to other areas like science, technology, VR, augmented reality, video games, art, health and wellbeing and of course music composition.

The rapid ascent of applications that are interactive in nature, and also blur the line between physical and virtual worlds is being fuelled by the accelerated growth in our digital technologies. Consider this alongside the fast-paced rate of change we are experiencing on a global and societal level. The challenges in front of us demand novel technological solutions and the demand for interactive audio within these solutions is destined to skyrocket. 

What is Interactive Audio, Exactly?

Interactive audio is a technological approach to sound whereby allow audio, placed in a given application, is designed to react to user input and or changes in the application environment. It's sound or music that plays a dynamic part in the user's experience.

Interactive audio involves the input of action to effect sound, mostly Human-Computer Interactions. The input could be sensory data from human interaction with devices such as cameras, microphones or mobile phones, to name a few. This information is used to drive audio, sound characteristics and behaviours. Within 3D virtual environments, the sound will change depending on actions or events that are triggered.

If we consider virtual reality, for example, every part of the VR world is interactive. You can move into different spaces, pick items up, shoot weapons, ride a rollercoaster or hit targets with a laser sword while dancing to techno. Each of these moments features audio that responds to the user's choices at that time i.e. interactive audio.

Other examples include applications where users can have an active conversation with AI that's integrated into gameplay. In the health and wellbeing sector wearable devices have been designed to help with anxiety, like the ones found in MINDFLOW, a project our sister companies dBs-i and dBs Pro collaborated on. These pieces of tech play audio soundscapes that will alter your mood based on your biometric feedback. The experiences are dynamic and responsive to the input from the user.

The great thing about interactive is, there are so many compelling areas to discover and work in already, with plenty of room to innovate too. The field is broad and demand is high.

Get Excited About Interactive Audio

Interactive audio has something for everyone, even if your focus and passion is rooted in composition and music performance. If you gravitate towards other areas like game audio, sound for TV and film and sound art, there are some fascinating areas to get excited about as well. We spent some time exploring the interactive world and found the following inspiring projects for you to check out, no matter what your creative preference is.

Alien Isolation

Sound design in the gaming industry is a thriving creative space, offering some of the best career opportunities in the audio world. With that in mind, our first example of compelling interactive audio begins here with Alien Isolation.

Rather than build a typical 'shoot 'em up' like previous offerings in the Alien franchise, the developers decided on a different approach rooted in horror, where the protagonist is trying to escape the xenomorph. To create the extreme levels of tension found in the game, interactive audio played a key part in the narrative.

Sound is used as both an advantage and disadvantage in the gameplay loop. The way the audio is designed means that you can tell where the Alien is without having to look (hear it scuttling through the vents, or its footsteps around the corner. Where it’s a disadvantage is that your tools all make noise and you have to be tactical about how long and where you use them or the Alien will figure out where you are.

The developers created a system to dynamically mix the music and sound according to game states. For example, if you’re hiding from the Alien and it’s incredibly close to your hiding spot, the music will drop out and the sounds of the ship and the Alien will come to the centre to add the tension, making even the tiniest sounds deafening.

Finally, Alien Isolation features sound design that is incredibly faithful to the original ‘Alien’ movie from 1979. The attention to detail on the sounds of the ship, e.g. the hums, clicks and static is of particular merit making the audio a very important feature in the overall quality of the game.

Noise Floor and IcedFunk

Although there's scope to apply interactive audio across all sonic disciplines, sound art is an area that offers unbridled creative opportunity for expression. Installations featuring interactive audio are common in the sonic art world. Those drawn towards sonic art can explore its application within projects that shine a light on historical events, contemporary themes or other important issues. 

Noise Floor and IcedFunk are two interactive audio pieces by composers Dave & Gabe that highlight sound art's more playful side. Participants collaboratively create music through movement triggering sound via a touch-sensitive dance floor and walls. Noise Floor is a great example of interactive audio bringing people together and fostering community spirit. 

IcedFunk is another project with a lighthearted character, inviting the audience to trigger vocal samples from classic soul and funk records. The aesthetics are crafted brilliantly, with the sounds being activated when ice blocks with coloured lasers shining through them are touched. If you're also drawn towards visual art, interactive audio is a great field to get into as it provides ample opportunity to marry both passions.

Mmorph by Massive Music

If you get the feeling that this is all very futuristic and artistic, that's because it is, but that doesn't mean traditional music makers can't take advantage. There are a range of technologies capable of creating listening experiences that are more enjoyable than simply playing your favourite song through a set of speakers.

Making your music interactive, so that users can edit, remix and hear it differently based on their own choices is a great way to create a totally immersive experience. It's still your music and sound but the listener can customise how they hear it and alter elements of the composition themselves. 

Mmorph by Massive Music is a great example of an interactive music experience. Hosted in a web browser or mobile device, Mmorph is dynamically controlled by the user and is a lot of fun to play! Massive Music are not the only people presenting their work this way, many artists are also taking their creations online and delivering albums to their fans in interactive form.


Bulletproof Interactive

Interactive TV is an exciting new area very much in its infancy. Rather than passively following a narrative, viewers directly participate in the show. The Netflix series Black Mirror was one of the first to adopt an interactive approach with its 2018 film Bandersnatch. Other's have since utilised the format including Sky's Bulletproof Interactive. Bulletproof invites you to interview a serial killer in a bid to save potential victims from their pending doom. Your conversation affects the outcome of the story. 

Although the audio implementation in Bulletproof is fairly straightforward, the adaptation of the format by mainstream institutions like Sky signals very promising prospects for career development, especially as the format evolves and becomes integrated with VR and augmented reality. 


Google Arts & Culture - AR Synth

Augmented Reality is on the cusp of a colossal expansion with potential uses spanning many sectors including education, storytelling and historical documentation, not to mention mobile and VR gaming. Augmented reality works fantastically on mobile and is well equipped to be used in teaching. Take Google's AR Synth which lets you learn about and play an augmented reality version of a vintage synthesiser, through your mobile.

Planet Music - Jeremy Howard Smaller

You can view and interact with the synth in any situation as long as there's light in the room and an internet connection. Tools like this work exceptionally well in blended learning, a method that mixes forms of online and face to face teaching. 

This example is directly music-related but augmented reality systems that blend the real and virtual worlds must include convincing sound pallets to stand a chance of success. As developers become more creative, sound designers will follow, leading to a creative boom in the AR industry, particularly relating to mobile applications.  

Although we've featured examples of larger-scale works, the interactive audio field is wide open for anyone who wants to get involved. Independent production houses and developers creating exciting new projects appear regularly, meeting the increasing demand for solutions as technology grows. Interactive is a very collaborative space with sound designers, web developers, coders and visual artists coming together frequently to combine their areas of expertise. There is also a growing demand for individuals with skillsets that combine art, science, technology and engineering too.

Starting a Career in Interactive Audio.

There are opportunities to get into many areas and a number of routes for career progression. If you're excited about game audio, sound for VR or sound for apps, our BSc Sound Design & Audio Programming is a great option to consider. With a professionally targeted focus, the course will give you the opportunity to train at the forefront of the field equipping you with the tools you need to work in this growing industry. If you're drawn towards sound art or sound for television and film we have a range of courses available to cater for these areas too. Our career spotlights are a great way to explore different career options in the sound industry that also include opportunities to work with interactive audio.

Applications for our BSc in Sound Design and Audio Programming are now open. Read five reasons you should consider it or head to our course page to apply for 2021 entry today.


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