The future of sound: The opportunities of 3D sound

When it comes to stellar sound design, an unorthodox approach is paramount to immersing audiences. Reece Webb speaks with sound artist Augustine Leudar to discover how unique approaches to 3D audio can open up a sonic world of possibilities.

The world of 3D sound and immersive audio is built on pushing boundaries beyond their limits, and for sound artist Augustine Leudar, pushing creativity to the limits is at the heart of any memorable sound installation. Leudar worked with multiple bands before living in South America, undertaking a BSc degree in sonic arts alongside music and sound engineering and then pursuing a career as a sound artist.

Leudar explained: “My main medium is 3D sound. I was doing a lot of recording in the jungle. I was at the Eden Project [attraction in the UK] and we experimented with putting 3D sounds into the tropical biome of the project in a giant bubble dome. It was a huge, nocturnal experience and you could hear sounds coming from different places. We ended up doing another five installations there and we started experimenting with the installation side of things, flying the sounds around the trees. It really brought home to me what you could do with immersive audio; it’s around this time that I dropped ambisonics for large, walk-around installations.

“I see any place that I’m doing an installation as a blank canvas and I design sounds that work with that place. From Neolithic henge monuments to gardens in a country house, I make sounds that fit with the environment.”

Leudar foresees a more widespread adoption of 3D sound and immersive audio post-pandemic, incorporating physical spaces into the experience rather than exclusively limiting the immersive experience to the realm of bulky headsets.

“I think 3D sound is going to grow in VR and AR. I do a lot of physical installation work but because of lockdown I’ve been doing a lot more binaural [3D sound over headphones] work; people can’t meet and are doing meetings in VR. After lockdown, I think there is more that can be done with cinema but the problem is that it’s a 2D screen and you don’t want people looking behind them when there’s a dog barking over their shoulder but with dome screens [it would be possible]. I’d like to see a lot more emerging 3D technologies built into the physical world rather than headsets.”

Leudar specialises in using irregular speakers to create realistic and immersive sounds more similar to those experienced in the real world, shying away from the typical approach of a dome of speakers which can create an unrealistic, even distribution of sound.

Leudar said: “Sound doesn’t work like that in the real world. We don’t hear sound on a dome of speakers; there are wasps flying near your ear and a myriad of irregular shaped objects moving in irregular trajectories, so I try and create that as much as possible.

“I have no interest in using ambisonics. Wavefield synthesis is better at proximity effects but is impractical as it uses a million speakers in a square. You can’t do that if you’re setting up an event in three days. I tend to use a technique where I place speakers from point A to point B in a grid or a network of speakers, allowing me to position sounds in irregular places. If I can hide the speakers then you can get the sound coming close to you, known as focussed sources. Ambisonics can’t do that very well.”

"If you want to make something convincing, there is a skill to it, but part of it is using sounds that work with not what people see, but what they expect to hear." - Augustine Leudar

Leudar uses amplitude panning to achieve these results, acting in a similar way to the L/R balance on stereo to create complex, convincing soundscapes and keeping kit visibility to a minimum to maintain a suspension of disbelief.

Leudar clarified: “A really important aspect of spatial audio is cognitive cues. What you see will often override what you hear and it’s very important for me to match the sound with the visuals so that it can seem real and believable. I often walk into galleries and there are lots of speakers in there, it’s really obvious that the sound is coming from the speakers and you can’t create an illusion if you can see all the technological nuts and bolts. For me, the technology has to be hidden. Some immersive technologies can allow you to create extraordinary environments that you couldn’t do before, so the technology is important but the focus should not be on the technology but the illusions you create with it, the content.

“I don’t want to see a speaker. If you want to make something convincing, there is a skill to it, but part of it is using sounds that work with not what people see, but what they expect to hear (cognitive cues). One of the holy grails of spatial audio is to get a sound to hover next to you. It’s almost impossible to do with a dome array of speakers.”

Finding new ways to break the mould and deliver new, mind-bending sounds in uniquely distinct ways is a cornerstone of Leudar’s approach, using LeapMotion to pick up voices with the human hand, time stretching the voice and ‘throwing’ it 50 metres away.

Leudar said: “We do these things at festivals, allowing people to move their voices with their hand. People just hadn’t really heard anything like it. We did a football boot for Adidas with stroke sensors, twist sensors, gyroscopes and other sensors to control the 3D sound. If you pointed the football boot, the sound would go around and if you twisted it, the sound would crunch. I’m quite into using haptics and unusual sensor technology to manipulate sound in 3D space.”

Looking to the future, Leudar sees immersive audio playing a central role in the creation of memorable, world-class installations across an ever-expanding range of verticals. The secret lies in creating experiences that users cannot replicate at home, be it at gigs and other live events or more traditional VR training applications. Leudar explained: “I think that 3D sound will transition away from ambisonics. Ambisonics is good for home use as it’s one file that can decode to lots of different speaker arrays. For installation work, there’s no need to use it as you can do bespoke work specifically for the space. For me, the future of 3D sound is in art installations and music events, it’s got a big market in museums as well.

“The long-term future could even progress beyond speakers entirely using some kind of array technology where you could get sound to appear in a 3D space without a physical speaker or a pair of headphones.” 

Main image: In this collaboration between Augustine Leudar and painter Milos Todorovic immersive sounds are emiited from and fly between the paintings as if they were communicating with each other.

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