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Is the world ready for responsive audio? Are you?

Responsive web pages adapt to the screen size and device on which they are viewed. Why doesn't audio adapt to the device on which it is played? For that, we need 'responsive audio'.

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Let's start by Googling for "responsive audio". Try it. You will find nothing other than software audio players that adapt their size to the screen or device you are using.

So what do I mean by responsive audio?

Well responsive web design is a good place to start. This website is responsive, which means that it adapts to the screen size and device you are using.

If you are viewing this page on your computer, start with the window at the full width of the screen, then gradually narrow it.

At a point, you will see that the main column becomes more narrow, so that two columns still fit into a narrower window.

Narrow the window some more and the sidebar will disappear. Next, the column will change from being a fixed width to a width that is proportional to the width of the window. This works all the way down to mobile phone screen sizes - even the venerable iPhone 5 if you're as far behind the times in phone technology as me.

What do I mean by responsive audio?

So back to the question - What do I mean by responsive audio?

Well let me turn things around a bit and take as my starting point the idea that audio currently is not responsive.

Whatever device you play your audio on, and here's a short list...

  • Studio monitor loudspeakers
  • Headphones of studio quality
  • Earbuds
  • 'Beats By Dre'-style headphones
  • Laptop or tablet speakers
  • Home hi-fi
  • TV soundbar
  • Google iHome, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or similar device
  • Car audio

...the same audio file will be played. OK there are some differences, such as that Spotify will play an Ogg Vorbis encoded version of the original WAV file. Apple Music will play an AAC encoded version.

But it's all the same original audio, for playback on any device.

So where a web page will be responsive and will adapt to the screen size and device on which it is being viewed, audio does not similarly adapt. It's 'one size fits all'.

So as a creative musician producing music in your own studio, you have to mix in such a way that your work will sound as good as it possibly can on any listening system.

Indeed, it is standard practice to work on a mix for a while, then listen to it on a different playback system, then come back and work on it some more. A mix can't really be said to be finished unless it has been tested on a wide range of listening systems.

But what if..?

What if audio could be responsive?

What if it were possible for a mix to be made in several different versions, each optimised for a particular type of playback device?

So a mix could be made to sound fantastic on a good hi-fi or on studio monitors. Another version could be made to sound as good as it possibly can on earbuds. Yet another would have dynamic range treatment so that it sounds good against the background of noise in a car. There could be a mix for public performance through a shopping mall PA or even a full-blown concert PA system. Etc. Of course, there will be a radio mix and a TV mix.

All of these mixes could be encoded into one container file and, using metadata, the playback device would select the best version of the mix that is most highly optimised for that listening environment.

You know, this is just a thought. But maybe if it gets out into the world we could have better audio on all of our playback devices. I think I'd like that. Would you?

By David Mellor Friday October 13, 2017
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