Most virtual reality audio is a combination of created atmospheres, in-scene sounds, dialogue, and computer-generated music. But the BBC VR Hub’s Nothing to be Written, like The Turning Forest before it, takes sound as the basis of its conception.
VRTOV and BBC Research & Development created the magical visual world of The Turning Forest out of the S3A project’s specially-written spatial audio drama. And in Nothing to be Written, 59 Productions have crafted a moving montage of First World War imagery, to accompany new music by composer Anna Meredith. Commissioned by the BBC Proms, Edinburgh International Festival, and 14-18 Now, Meredith’s piece, Five Telegrams, is written for orchestra, choir, and several offstage instrumental ensembles. The immersive VR experience takes the second movement, Field Postcards, as its basis, setting to music the chillingly generic messages available to troops to send home from the battlefield; the choir opens the piece with the words “I am quite well”.
The cutting-edge spatial soundtrack for Nothing to be Written was recorded live at the 2018 Proms performances. For each Proms season, over one hundred microphones are rigged at the Royal Albert Hall in London to create BBC Radio 3’s stereo mixes and BBC Television’s surround sound mixes. For Five Telegrams, further mixes were created for live PA reproduction at the Proms Curtain Raiser event, and for an immersive installation in Edinburgh. But the aesthetics of a VR soundtrack are very different from a broadcast mix or an ambient installation, so Field Postcards needed careful remixing to transform the live recording, made in a traditional classical concert setting, into a musical experience that fully surrounds the listener.
BBC Research & Development engineers used the Reaper digital audio workstation and audio plug-ins from Blue Ripple Sound to pan the microphones in three dimensions, and to produce a ‘third-order ambisonics’ mix - a high quality spatial audio format suited to VR production. This encapsulates the entire spherical ‘soundfield’ in 16 channels of audio, which was imported into the Unity game engine using Blue Ripple Sound’s Rapture3D audio SDK. The project served as a useful opportunity to evaluate a growing number of ambisonics panning, rendering and reverberation plug-ins for use in future VR productions.
The immersive soundscape changes and responds instantly to your movements in VR. This tracked audio experience means that as you look around the VR environment, the audio will render in real-time in order for sound sources to appear static within the scene, despite constant re-orientation by the viewer. Although the music is not anchored to any visual element in Nothing to be Written, the dynamic audio experience really heightens the musical emotion and the visual narrative of the work.
Similar technology from BBC Research & Development was used this summer to help the Radio 3 sound engineers create binaural sound mixes of some other BBC Proms concerts. This is an immersive audio experience, without the tracked VR experience, but which you can listen to on normal headphones, and sounds much like being at the hall in person.
Or experience it at one of the BBC orchestras’ Armistice Day events:
Or at libraries around the country this weekend:
Sailsbury, Chorley, Oldham, Taunton, Ripon, Plympton, and Oxford.