Audio waveformI’m not sure how I managed to miss the term ‘acousmatic’ until now, but having found it, I have a whole new take on sound.

If I’d been one of Pythagoras’ akousmatikoi around 500 BCE, I’d have known about it. And if I’d been part of the musique concrète movement during the sixties, I’d have known about it. If you’re involved in radio, TV, movies or games, you need know about it too...

OK, acousmatic sound is heard without seeing an originating cause. I have to thank Rebecca Parnell’s presentation at the recent Develop conference for making the introduction.

She discussed the role of acousmatic sound in games audio – reasonable, given that Develop is a games conference – arguing its case as a means of relaying instructions and navigational information. Of course, acousmatic elements are essential to a film soundtrack and quintessential to radio drama. But games, as ‘an adaptive cinematic experience’, offer a wider role and far greater importance to acousmatic sound design devices. If you’re going to put sound clues into a game, they have to be both engaging and effective for the gameplay to advance.

BlindsideAcousmatic sounds play an essential role in the real world. As well as nearby unseen dangers, they warn us of threats through our instinctive fear of loud sounds (which live music and dance clubs exploit to generate adrenaline). We are talking natural events and human instincts here...

Rebecca used a series of examples from both film and games (The Godfather, Portal) to illustrate her talk. Later in the conference, the clips used by (former Microsoft rock chick) Chanel Summers to support her own passionate invitation to games sound to aspire to becoming ‘higher art’ were every bit as well chosen.

Some of these were also acousmatic, but ventured into more abstract uses of sound in filmmaking (Pi, The Cell) to illustrate how games are poised to take sound into genuinely uncharted territory.

While much of the development of games consoles – and their evolution into domestic media centres – has focused on the power of their graphics processing and connectivity, the arrival of games such as Papa Sangre and The Nightjar (from Something Else), and Blindside (Epicycle) prove that sound is still willing and able to take the lead role.

These all use binaural sound, and are completely reliant on audio for every aspect of their play apart from control input. And while Siri struggles to shed her ‘blonde rep’, natural language user interfaces are just around the corner – then it will be an all-audio environment.

Microsoft Games Studios’ Creative Director Mark Yeend was to deliver an admirably partisan keynote speech on ‘next-gen’ games technology later at Develop, making another of Rebecca Parnell’s observations sit well in the mix: ‘In a coming world of next-gen, where having as much sound as you need is not an issue, it is likely to be the power of sound ideas that produces award-winners’. Are you listening at the back?

Games are the new froniter in sound design. Moving away from the singular focus of music and away from the pre-defined linearity of film, games present genuinely new opportunities supported by technologies that are still evolving, not least the cloud. The games industry is still young and vibrant, and largely free from the constraints of its ‘mature’ stablemates. This is not just kids’ stuff.

To punch out where I dropped in, the term acousmatique was first used by French composer, and pioneer of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, who derived acousmatique from akousmatikoi (hearers) – a term used in the time of Pythagoras to refer to his uninitiated students. Followers of Pythagoras reportedly underwent a three-year probationary period, followed by a five-year period of ‘silence’, before becoming mathêmatikoi (learned).

I’d say that I learned something important at Develop... and I’d like to share.

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