Utilizing the most cutting edge HRTF technologies from DEARVR Ambisonics and Dolby Atmos, SOLAR’s sound design defines the listener’s perspective and placement for a fully staged audio experience SOLAR
Unlike anything you’ve ever heard – SOLAR is a twelve-part sci-fi thriller podcast starring Stephanie Beatriz, Tony Award winner Alan Cumming, Academy Award winner Helen Hunt, and Jonathan Bangs that takes listeners on an emotional journey into the heart of the solar system and explores the vastness of the human spirit. Disconnected from Earth and trapped on separate parts of their spacecraft, crew members must fight for survival following a disaster onboard the ill-fated Aethon, a manned solar research probe sent to explore temporal distortion around the sun. However, sonically rendering such a complicated, technology-driven experience required some creative solutions.
SOLAR Sound Designer C.J. Drumeller explains: “In Solar, there is no use of a narrator to describe the scenes other than the mission date. We learn everything from being in the room with the characters. Having the actual action and location being told from sound design alone is risky, but it’s pure joy when it works as it adds a whole new layer of immersion. Each location was mapped with specific height and width dimensions through the use of DearVR’s real-time room reflections. We’d have long discussions working out the layout of the ship and placement of the actors to ensure it was consistent throughout the story.”
Combining the directors’ immersive vision by utilizing DearVR and Dolby Atmos, SOLAR opened up a whole new world of sonic possibilities. “Everything was mastered in the end by Dolby Atmos Renderer,” summarizes Drumeller. “We future-proofed the masters so as listening devices continually adapt to spatial effects, we will be ready.”
Each episode of SOLAR contains close to 1000 tracks of ambisonic sound. And just like in real life, no sound is ever static. SOLAR has a breath of fresh discovery with each listen. In life, even a simple conversation has subtle changes as one tilts their head or adjusts position. This is the level of detail and immersion achieved in SOLAR to bring the listener closer and make them feel as though they are witnessing the story firsthand.
“I remember reading the script for the first time and highlighting all the challenge areas,” CJ continues. “With lines like, “Wait! I have to push off the ceiling!” and other instances where the ship would have gravity malfunctions causing everything to float away. The most challenging sound design is usually anything with direct vertical motion above or below the listener. So we knew early on that this was more than a stereo show, we’d need to be using full spatial audio through ambisonics and binaural rendering. With this script it was more than just sound designing objects, it was sound designing the perspective of the voices as well. Since all of the dialog was recorded in the studio with pure mono, this is where using ambisonics and Dolby Atmos object-based binaural renders saved the day. You can really hear the vertical motion while listening with any standard set of headphones.”
Headphone listening is encouraged to hear the massive level of detail contained within the audio. “From day one of SOLAR, we wanted it to be an immersive storytelling experience. We wanted the listener to be in the same ‘space’ as the action, instead of viewing it statically from afar. From the intimacy of being in the same spacewalk helmet to walking the grand loading bay of the spaceship, we wanted the listener to be part of the action. To achieve this lifelike experience through sound, we maintained a microscopic level of sonic detail, not only to how BIG we could make the sound but also how close and intimate we could be to the story’s nuances,” says Drumeller.
There was one scene in Episode 5 – “The Anniversary Party” that posed a unique problem to solve. “The story is a set of playbacks from the ship’s many recording mics placed around a large room. The same scene plays back over and over from different perspectives as we learn new information from different crew discussions. For this, I ended up literally story-boarding the whole scene with movement and camera angles. Without the use of DearVR and Dolby Atmos this might not have been possible, but with the use of occlusion, distance, and room reflection we were able to get just the right perspectives.”
The creators never wanted the technology to get in the way of the story–only to enhance it. Drumeller explains, “The real beauty of any audio drama is what the listener brings to the table. They get to see these scenes in a way that is completely unique to their imagination. We may all see the story differently, but all the pictures are correct and personal. This is a joy that you just can’t get with fully filmed action and why I love audio drama so much! My goal with the sound design was to push the listener far enough to start seeing for themselves, activating the imagination to fill in all the other senses.”
SOLAR was created by Chris Porter and directed by Jenny Curtis and Chris Porter, with sound design, mixing, and mastering by C.J. Drumeller.
SOLAR is a CurtCo Media production in association with WorkHouse Media. To learn more, visit solarthepodcast.com