Grab your headphones, a pen, some paper and a stop watch - take 60 minutes out to complete a 3D puzzle whilst indulging in an immersive fictional audio drama. Binaural sound just got competitive...
56 minutes and 8 seconds, that's how long it took me to complete the 3D Escape Room: Frequency podcast. And that even included a trip to the toilet and having to find a new pen...
Last week I opened pandora's box on the world of binaural sound and podcasting. I most definitely was NOT expecting to discover 3D audio puzzle dramas on my 'to listen' list.
But turns out, I've been living in a tiny bubble. There's a whole plethora of 360 audio work happening out there - my mind has officially been blown!
In yesterday's blog, I shared my five must-listen podcast recommendations, as heard on BBC Radio 5Live. One of which was by production company The Owl Field.
They've be making binaural audio dramas for a while. Series like Fairy Tree, Overnight, Terminal, Infiltrator... Genres such as horror, fantasy, sci-fi, crime, thriller and even children's and animation. It was their recent series which caught my eye.
I'll be honest, I'm a sucker for a puzzle and am ruthless when it comes to competition. So it was no surprise that I fell in love with the concept of an audio escape room, just from reading the blurb.
But where do you even start in making a podcast like this? How is it recorded? What happens in post-production?
Just a few of the thoughts I asked Michel Lafrance, managing director for The Owl Field production company over email. Here's his answers, and a fascinating insight in to the role of a 3D audio producer...
Clare: What is 3D Escape Room: Frequency?
Michel: The podcast is part fictional audio drama and part escape room game, where the listener must navigate a series of audio-based puzzles as quickly as they can to successfully reach the end within 60 minutes. We’ve focused on making this as accessible as possible, so the experience is contained within a single podcast feed; no specialised software is needed, only-begotten a pair of headphones
is recommended for the 3D audio.
The interactive element involves deducing the correct audio tracks to play from amongst the forty tracks contained within the podcast, all of which have coded track titles, and many of which are decoys. Each time the listener solves a puzzle, the code they receive leads them to the track with the next puzzle. Once they’ve reached the end of the puzzle sequence, the listener stops their clock to determine whether they’ve succeeded in escaping.
How did the idea for an audio escape room come about, and how long from planning to release did the process take?
We’re always very keen to develop new ways to have the listener feel at the centre of the experience, which is what attracted me to binaural audio. With The Fairy Tree, it was adding the interactive element, and the escape room idea came from wanting to further add a challenge element. We also wanted to bring the interactive experience to podcasting. I’m a big fan of escape rooms so it clicked as an ideal fit quickly. It was a concept I’d personally been exploring for a while—devising various audio-based puzzles in my free time—so once a workable format finally clicked, I proceeded to write the full production. Being interactive meant the writing process required—and was often dependent on—the alpha testing, with several rough mixes sent to various testers like chapters going back and forth between author and editor. Often, we would listen along
with the tester, studying their interaction with the puzzles, unnerving for the tester of course, but invaluable. I’m not sure exactly how long it took to develop from conception to launch but it was several months.
What kind of response have you had from listeners?
The response has been brilliant. Most listeners have yet to experience binaural and it tends to be a stunning revelation the first time, hearing a taste of what’s to come in the future of audio. Also, for many, escape rooms are not yet accessible, either due to location or cost, so this is a chance to hear
what it’s like. And it’s particularly enjoyable as the listener’s finishing time is personal and can be compared socially with friends. A tremendous challenge was developing puzzle difficulty that would be appropriately challenging for enthusiasts, who would most likely to listen, but also accessible to those new to escape room type puzzles. And that’s aside from the fact that few would be accustomed to solving purely audio-based puzzles. From the response, it seems as though a good balance was found.
How did this project compare to your others - The Fairy Tree, Overnight etc?
The format of having the listener at the centre of the binaural soundscape was the same, but the approach was a bit different in that the listener was not in the story themselves, but instead playing along with the characters. Regarding the production, we did benefit from having already produced
the interactive The Fairy Tree, which certainly helped in anticipating the potential pitfalls. Despite this, it was indeed a daunting project with numerous challenges ranging from initially developing the game’s format for a podcast stream, to devising multiple accessible yet challenging audio-based
puzzles. The greatest challenge, though, was unquestionably working out the timing to ensure the average finishing time would average sixty minutes. Several rounds of testing were required, with puzzles being reassessed at each stage from feedback that needed to consider each individual tester’s puzzle-solving proficiency! In the end, I think a good balance has been achieved.
Binaural sound has been and gone a few times over the last 140 years, now everyone is wearing headphones (45% of podcast listeners) - is it back in fashion?
And is here to stay. And there is yet still a giant leap to come with 3D sound when every consumer will have their own individual settings for the processing of the audio to match how they personally localise sound. When that happens I have no doubt binaural will do to stereo what stereo has done
to mono. The fact that headphone use is up dramatically, and that half of all audiobook consumption is happening at home (recent Audio Publishers Association survey) are clear indicators that listeners are more ready than ever to deeply immerse themselves in audio experiences. (I wrote an article for FutureBook about “How audio publishing can take on Netflix” which may be of interest)
What kind of microphones, software and headphones are you using to create the 3D audio dramas? How much does some of this cost?!
I’ve tried both approaches and for a few different reasons, I prefer the post production approach. I prefer having more precise control over the soundscape and prefer polishing the sound to a cinematic level. Having said that, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some high end ambisonic
and binaural microphones which provide different opportunities in capturing location sound, but they are pricey. Having worked in 3D sound for 5 years now, I have quite a collection of different software to work with, but it’s a fast moving field so we’re constantly trying the new developments
and upgrading with the improve offerings. I usually recommend newcomers start with the free FB360 Spatial Audio Workstation and go from there.
How can more audio producers make better use of binaural sound in their own podcasts? Where do they start?
The first step is determining your preferred production approach as there are different approaches to producing 3D sound (binaural or ambisonic recording, or post production software). The production approach is different in that with binaural recording you’d typically be recording the cast
together around a microphone, similar to recording a play. Whereas in post production, you have more technical precision with the sound and can take your time in shaping it after recording. After that you could try some of the free trials for software or hire a mic for a couple weeks and see how it
fits your workflow and whether it matches the sound you intend to produce. The different approaches yield noticeably different results with different qualities.
What's next for The Owl Field?!
We’re working with a fantastically inventive writer to produce a lengthy and highly relevant fictional series. We hope to release it as a podcast, and are currently pursuing funding and distribution options.
3D Escape Room: Frequency podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the usual podcast places. Also on YouTube too. To stalk The Owl Field a little bit more, go to their website: owlfield.com