Music Goes Interactive

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Verizon Beatbox Mixer
Verizon Beatbox Mixer
When's the last time you turned the volume down on your computer, simply because the audio on a site was annoying? Sure, it still happens, but maybe you've noticed that more and more, you're turning it in the opposite direction, as music and sound design have become increasingly crucial parts of the interactive experience. Look no further than landmark campaigns like Tribal DDB's Philip's "Shave Everywhere," innovative sound-driven initiatives like R/GA's Verizon "Beatbox Mixer" or even Mitchum Deodorant's "Armpit Orchestra," out of Carat Fusion, to see how great sound can enhance, even drive the interactive experience. As more agencies and clients are devoting talent and dollars to the online space, and the arrival of broadband has narrowed the gap between what you see on the tube and on your computer screen, aural details can no longer be considered backburner components in serious online initiatives.

"Every commercial job that we get these days has an interactive component because there's not an advertising agency out there that would want to limit itself to one medium, especially with today's appetite for all media in all places," says Marc Altshuler, executive producer at commercials music shop Human Worldwide. Scoring online work is no longer just a side gig at his company, which recently created the music for the web component of Goodby's Adobe "Anthem" campaign. The new territory, however, presents a unique set of challenges. "You're no longer just writing one piece of music," he says. "As you hit different pages, you're really writing an album of music, so it has to sound like it's related and from the same family, but it has to be different enough to keep you interested."

The layered, time-consuming nature of the web also goes against the grain of what typical advertising demands from a song, whether composed or licensed. "Music has a specific duration," says PJ Pereira, ECD of interactive shop AKQA. "But if you go to a website, sometimes you can have people spending anywhere from 15 seconds to 15 minutes. What do you do then? [You can] have a sequence of songs that you could just shuffle, but it's a lame, corporate way of doing things and it doesn't have the right attitude. The challenge for interactive guys is how we can make music flexible time-wise. When we can do that, you get a better result."

AKQA faced that issue when creating its "The Way the News Spreads" website for Microsoft Live Messenger, on which the agency's sound designers revamped obscure tracks that fit the theme of the sketch-animated site. "It's a black-and-white animation that plays Filipino nursery rhymes," Pereira explains. "It parades the magic, exotic feel and though you don't know exactly what is going on here, it's cool. The initial soundtrack almost felt like it was composed to fit that animation, but we still had to hire a sound designer who could make it look seamless in a way that didn't feel repetitive." Unlike spots, interactive sound design is often about "how we can take a soundtrack and re-compose or restructure that in a way that can be flexible enough for the type of experience the user wants to have." When you're starting from scratch, things can even get more complex. Goodby Silverstein and Partners has continued to boost its creative reputation on a host of standout multiplatform efforts featuring high-end production values, including in the area of music and sound. One example is the agency's website PlanetinNeed.com, part of its ongoing campaign for milk, for which it outsourced high-end audio talent. "We always knew that sound would play a major role on that site," says Goodby director of interactive production Mike Geiger. "When we animated the whole site, we hired one of my favorite sound designers, Gino Nave. He's also a composer, but he really understands the interactive experience and what the end user is thinking while navigating through the site. Interactive is more of a deep experience, a different thought process and Gino understands really well the way we're trying to tell a story. He doesn't think linearly the way broadcast people normally think with the 30-second spot."

Nave also lent his sound skills to Goodby's "Comcastic" site, another example of Geiger and team's growing tendency to outsource talent, a sign that music production for online initiatives is becoming as well-orchestrated as it is in spots. "If you always use the same people, you have to use a certain style," Geiger says. "But what if the style doesn't match your idea? It's like when we go to Flash developers, we have a pool of about 40 partners. With sound, I need someone who understands what we're aiming for. Why not outsource that just like we outsource everything else?"

Like Goodby's Geiger, R/GA enlisted outside help on its ambitious Verizon project "Action Hero," which allows visitors to upload pictures of themselves and become full-blown 3D action stars battling evil robots or alien bug creatures in personalized featurettes. R/GA's team, led by producer Peter Blitzer, brought in composers Brian Jones & Espen Noreger, sound designer Rob Daly and engineer Winston Philip, all from Bang/M.O.D. Music Sound & Design. "Understanding the [technicalities] of what we need in order to create engaging interactions online can be really challenging for musicians and composers who are used to thinking in terms of one piece of music for one visual," explains R/GA creative director Douglas Dauzier. "On 'Action Hero,' there were dozens of possible permutations of every scene, and the sound design had to work for all of them. We also wanted to give the user a choice of score in each part of the movie. It requires a different way of thinking—creating a series of elements that will still work harmoniously when they are assembled in many different sequences by a user. Not everyone can do it."

Outside of "scored" interactive work, both AKQA and R/GA have fronted a number of music-driven branding initiatives that put users at the wheel, providing them with tools to create customized audio and video. AKQA, for instance, launched the studio mixer for Sprite's "Lebron 23:23," which was essentially a widget that allows users to mix a track based around King James' frenetic "Sublymonal Message" spots. R/GA designed Verizon's "Beatbox Mixer," which lets visitors manipulate a virtual mixer and sync up verbal bursts from some of the top mic-spitters around, including Rahzel and Masai Electro. "We worked with five beatboxers and recorded them ourselves at Avatar Studios here in New York," R/GA's Dauzier recalls. "Music was at the core of the idea, and we were able to use the interactive medium to let people experience music in a new way. Like everything that is happening in the digital space, our use of music has become a lot more sophisticated—more bandwidth gives us more flexibility, and production values are just getting better all around."

But as in the case of other areas of production, dollars remain the tricky aspect of navigating new media terrain. "The way we go about producing what we produce is the same though budgets really vary," notes JSM founder Joel Simon. "It's like the Wild West to some degree because broadcast and music are really so dependent on budgets as far as unions and the 'going rates' so to speak. For webisodes and things that are strictly online, there's no true barometer. But there are obviously tremendous opportunities in non-traditional broadcast media. You just hit so many people and it's beneficial for the clients and the agencies because the media costs are pretty non-existent."

That aside, perhaps the ultimate challenge for musicians online—just as in spots—is tapping a user's emotional core. "Music is a very strong and important component of the emotional part of the experience and even if you don't recognize it, it can help create a brand's universe in the same way images can," explains Christine Santarelli, principal of French-based, Avenue A | Razorfish-owned Duke Interactive, the agency behind interactive promos for Van Cleef and Sony PSP, both which feature high-end sound design.

So what lies ahead for interactive sound? Pereira believes there's still plenty of room for improvement. "The expectations are pretty high now, but it hasn't got to a point where we have a lot of campaigns [in which] the main idea is the song that is playing," he says. "You can see it here and there, but it hasn't got to a point where a big chunk of the campaign is sound-driven and visually static."

Nevertheless, industry players can no longer ignore interactive projects if they plan to sustain their businesses in the long term. "It's absolutely a critical part of our future," says Human's Altshuler. "We recognize it as not just an alternate revenue stream, but also as an alternate creative stream to keep us interested while working on straightforward packaged goods spots that put you to sleep. Good advertising is great fun. Good advertising is a great experience. Now, we recognize that the Internet is another extension of that good advertising."
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