In the television industry, the phrase “sound is half the job” is one you hear all the time. Polishing the sound once the pictures are locked is usually the last stage of the process, and is seen as the final chance to add a bit more ‘fairy dust’ and bring everything together. Great thought is given to the choice of music, sound effects, voice over, and the overall mix, in order to complement the mood of the piece. In the movie industry staggering amounts of time and money are spent crafting convincing sound. Why is it then that such a large proportion of the web is a soundless vacuum? Could we be missing a trick here?
It’s quite common for well known brands to have mnemonics accompanying their logos in commercials. There’s the sound your computer, games console or phone makes as it boots, giving you an audio cue which you associate with the brand. Some commonly used applications have very recognisable sounds as they launch – take Skype for instance. In the music world, bands all have a ‘sound’ – a sonic slant on what they are doing – which differentiates them from their contemporaries.
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When I’m navigating the interface of my Xbox 360, I’m often struck by how much feedback I get from the simple, unobtrusive sounds which accompany my actions. Microsoft provide ways to change the palette and background images of the interface but not the audio. This may be merely a technical consideration, but perhaps it’s because the interface sounds are considered a part of the experience, helping reinforce the brand in the mind of the user.
Imagine if The Next Web had a look, a style and a sound. I’m not talking about a looping bit of horribly compressed audio, I’m talking sound design here. What if there was a palette of sounds in addition to a palette of colours? A collection of sounds which, when taken as a whole with the look and feel of the site, enhanced the experience?
I put it to you, dear reader, that we have had our fingers burned in the past. In my early internet days it was quite common to click on a link and then be bombarded by a wholly undesirable ten second loop of ultra low bitrate grainy music, but these sites tended to be the same ones which also used every font ever made and every colour in the visible spectrum, all on one page. Flashing.
Just as sound in movies, television programmes and video games has evolved from crude beginnings to the spectacular audio we are used to hearing these days, sound on the web can become something beautiful and meaningful.
I’ll admit it’s a tall order though. Many people who have no opinion when it comes to design considerations will have very strong opinions when it comes to sound, since it plays such an important role in our lives from the moment we are born, and there’s evidence to suggest we do a lot of listening even before that moment.
People these days often use their computers as entertainment hubs and have them wired up to their surround speakers. If you are listening to some music whilst having a browse, having set the volume in your music app as opposed to using the system volume control, or have your amp turned up high, you could get your ears blown off. If every web site had a mnemonic when you landed on it and potentially some navigation sounds too, the relaxing nature of a quiet read of your favourite sites would be lost. The danger of auditory overload is high, but if you mute your speakers to compensate, you lose the ability to listen to other media at the same time.
What, then, if your browser had its own master volume control and mute button? We as users would get to decide whether we wanted the ‘full’ web experience or not. Problem solved! Well, one problem at least. Let’s not even talk about how poor things sound on laptop and phone speakers – this will hopefully improve with time.
I honestly feel there is room for sound to play a more involved role on the web other than streaming audio and video sites, and specialised audio sites like Soundcloud. Yes, the media we consume online is different in nature to more traditional forms, but there’s great potential there.
The ways in which we connect to and enjoy the web are changing all the time, as are our expectations of it. If we cautiously assume available bandwidth is likely to increase along with the speed of the devices it services (okay, a few steps behind), let’s free our minds and see what we can do with it. Let’s experiment, iterate, learn from our mistakes, change our expectations and push things forward. Just as the web has evolved visually and technically as the result of millions of creative minds seeking to refine and enhance the experience, perhaps it it time for us to consider what role audio has to play in its continued evolution.