The Future of Music is VR and Spatial Audio

Kristin Houser Writer & Editor, LA Music Blog
spatial audio

At SXSW, industry insiders discuss how virtual reality (VR) is inspiring artists and musicians to explore new ways to transform music into a three-dimensional experience.

From Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” to Frank Ocean’s “Endless,” visual albums are becoming a fixture of the music industry. With the high-quality video footage receiving as much attention as the audio, these multimedia releases pack a serious visual punch to go along with their sonic one.

The next generation of music lovers, however, can expect even more from their favorite records.

Björk, The Weeknd, and Run the Jewels have all shot and released VR-optimized music videos, while music legend Paul McCartney has used VR to give fans all over the world the feeling of being inside his recording studio. Seemingly every music festival worth its wristband price has a VR component, and acclaimed underground broadcasting platform Boiler Room has even announced plans to open the world’s first VR music venue in 2017.

“Immersive technologies aren’t mainstream, but we all see how quickly they’re evolving,” Marcus Behrendt of VR platform Vrtify told BBC. “It will soon represent a very important income for the music industry because it is changing how fans are consuming music.”

Tech and music junkies descending upon Austin, Texas, for SXSW 2017 this year are getting the opportunity to learn more about this trend from the people pushing it forward at a panel entitled “The Future of Music is Space.”

spatial audio
Photo Credit: Maya Dondonyan

“Sound has only been recorded for the past 140 years,” explained Sarah Stevenson, one of the panelists and the co-founder of REVRIE Immersive Works, a VR production company.

“Recorded music is an amazing feat that has allowed us to listen to songs over and over at different times and in different spaces,” she said. “It doesn’t accurately replicate what we hear in real life, where sound is all around us in all directions.”

Today’s technology is changing that. Creators now have the ability to blur the lines dividing the sound of recorded music and the sound of live music.

“Recent tech advancements now allow us to more accurately record and manipulate both depth information and large data sets,” Stevenson said. This is one way to add more dimension to the music in order to simulate real life, she said, where people walk around from point to point, seeing and hearing objects in all directions as they move.

“As these technologies get better and better, we’ll be able to record and play back music in ways we’ve never been able to before.”

Another panelist, Ryan Origin, is a mixed reality developer, musician and educator. He has firsthand experience using virtual and augmented reality tech as part of his creative process.

“I utilize spatial audio techniques in my compositions regularly, often simply for aesthetic effect,” he said. “For example, the fine folks at Oculus have created the no-cost Oculus Spatializer device where you can freely pan a source around a 3D space. This plugin can be automated in your [digital audio workstation], offering animations that can range between natural and otherworldly.”

Origin added that Sound Particles and Panagement are other tools that allow for simple audio manipulation, offline and in real time. The “wow” factor of this technology has given Origin an added weapon within his teaching arsenal.

“I show these tools to my students to make sounds feel alive and convincingly animated in novel ways,” he said. “Inspiration and attention are tricky to hold onto, so showing your pupils a bit of audio magic is a great way to have a lesson stick in their minds.”

spatial audio
Photo Credit: Maya Dondonyan

VR isn’t just for artists and educators to play with. Panelist Adam Arrigo is the CEO and Co-Founder of TheWaveVR, a music tech startup that is creating the world’s first social platform for VR music concerts. Instead of using VR to create or teach music, he is focused on using it to augment the music experience for listeners and performers.

“When you’re in VR, it really feels like you’re in a place; the tech is so good, it tricks your brain into believing you are somewhere else,” explained Arrigo.

“That has all kinds of implications for new types of content involving spatial audio and the construction of virtual spaces where people can have new types of music experiences, providing remote access to real music concerts.”

His company gives artists the ability to design virtual spaces for concerts, which fans can then experience using a VR headset. The platform affords listeners the ability to interact with performers, socialize with friends and dance along with the music from anywhere in the world.

Because these worlds are virtual, the artists have more options when designing their live shows as well. They can eschew the typical stage to put on a concert in outer space or create a light show far beyond the one possible using their real-world budget.

Audiences at SXSW 2017 are getting an inside look at all the innovative ways technology is transforming the music experience for creators and listeners.

Creators at the forefront of the trend say the field is open to all possible scenarios.

“I want music I’ve never heard before made by instruments I’ve never seen before in places I’ve never been before,” Origin said. “The details are all up for debate.”

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