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Making the Web sound good.

Despite all its visual allure, the Web can be a very quiet place to surf. Dave Schroeder, founder of Pilotvibe, doesn’t think this has to be a permanent condition; he’s working to make the Web sound as good as it looks. He talks about developing new interactive environments that are full of vibe.

How did you become interested in doing interactive sound design?

I’ve always been interested in creating sound for visuals. I spent a lot of my youth experimenting with super 8 movies and tape recorders. In the late ’90s I was working in Detroit scoring for film and television. In 2000, an advertising agency asked me to produce music and sound design for the official Ford Focus Web site. It was my first experience scoring for interactive and I was instantly hooked on both the problems and potential of the medium. The audio compression issue and the nonlinear aspect presented cool challenges.

Why did you decide to start Pilotvibe, and why did you give the company that name?

After my first experience scoring for interactive, I knew I wanted to specialize in it. At the time, the Web was very quiet, and most interactive agencies didn’t have enough audio work to sustain a full-time sound designer. But everyone I talked to agreed that they would be working more and more as the Internet evolved. So I decided to start a company that could serve that growing demand.

The name Pilotvibe comes from the idea that we’re developing new environments for people to experience. The end user “pilots” through the media, and the “vibe” refers to aesthetic aspects of the environment. So “Pilotvibe” refers to the overall quality and character of an interactive atmosphere.

Why isn’t more sound being created in interactive multimedia?

Unfortunately, audio isn’t usually built into budgets for a lot of projects, and if it is, it tends to be the first thing to go when the production goes over budget. When there’s no budget, developers end up having to use less-than-great stock music and sounds and the end results can be pretty discouraging.

It also tends to be overlooked as an option. It’s always been taboo for the Web due to its cumbersome file size and to all the variables of the end user’s audio playback capabilities. Better bandwidth, MP3 technology, and Flash have changed that, and I think we’re still getting used to the idea that it’s now actually a viable component to Web-based media.

How do you design interactive sound environments for a specific site?

It tends to vary from site to site based what the content is and who the audience is. If bandwidth is the main concern, then I work backwards from reasonable download rates. If appealing to a very select group is the main objective, then I focus first on how to reel them in with audio. Most projects ultimately become a combination of the two. If there’s voiceover content, I produce that first. It can set the tone for the rest of the audio.

Then I score the musical intros, outros and loops. Then I create what I call the Navsounds–sounds for mouse actions and animation events. The idea is to create Navsounds that can occur at any point without disturbing the mood and timing of the music, but can still be distinguished. I also master all the sounds so that they have proper balance and volume as well as similar spatial and tonal characteristics.

How do you respond to those who argue that audio and usability don’t mix?

Audio is the one component of interactive media that can actually transcend the flat screen and come into the room around a user. It physically affects their atmosphere. I think the traditional usability arguments against audio are somewhat shortsighted in that they focus on the current lowest common denominators, such as, it slows down the experience, users have to have the right plug-ins, they need their speakers turned on.

Consumers will change those denominators if they’re able to access better, richer content. The trick is that the better content has to exist. Significantly better content is always the catalyst for standardized change in media players and standardization.

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