Jason Levine, Principal Worldwide Evangelist at Adobe, breaks down the lessons filmmakers can take away from this viral audio sensation.
The great debate of "Yanny or Laurel" took over the internet earlier this week. Like a particular blue (or gold?) dress of 2015 (only with sound), this is an audio clip where some hear the word "laurel" and others hear the word "yanny." The debate is fierce, not only online, but for many who stand in a room with other humans, listening to the same clip on the same speakers, and hear wildly different things.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2p4MpT-VgSo
Lucky for us, Jason Levine from Adobe took the time to delve into the clip with Adobe Audition, and his breakdown has some great lessons for filmmakers.
1. Audio (and all) perception is subjective
"You hear what you want to hear" is an important lesson for filmmakers to remember. While, yes, there are subjectively measurable aspects that pertain to audio, processing audio is done via the brain and uses not just the sound, but also our expectations of that sound, helping to analyze the content of what's actually there. This is a frequent obstacle for filmmakers in a post suite since, after months of editing, you're able to understand everything because your brain has already adapted to the actor who mumbles, or the actor with a thick accent, or the name of a specific prop. You stop "hearing" it objectively. Without test screenings, you lose your objectivity.
2. Hardware for playback matters
Not every speaker is going to play back the full frequency response of sound, and as a result, this leads to different perceptions of that sound. One unproven theory on "Yanny vs. Laurel" is that listeners who hear more high frequencies tend to hear "yanny," while those with less high-end response in their hearing hear "laurel." While that isn't backed up with data, it's good to remember that wireless earbuds aren't going to play the same sound that is played in a theater. As you mix, sometimes it's worth doing a safety check on low-end gear to make sure what the audience hears on crappy laptop speakers still conveys the vital information.
3. High-end hearing loss happens with age
Hearing loss is a natural part of life, only getting worse due to the prevalence of headphones played too loudly. If you and your team are all 20-year-olds, it's worth finding a few folks in their 50s to attend some of your test screenings. Why? To ensure that they're still able to understand your dialogue and score without the high-end frequencies they have likely lost due to age.
While it's unlikely that your dialogue will be heard differently by a variety of different people, it's important to test your playback on different platforms and for a wide variety of people. Something might sound crystal clear to you, but then you discover that a mass audience doesn't hear precisely what you do. The Dark Knight Rises famously had some issues with the voice effects for Tom Hardy, serving as a reminder that what might have sounded great to the creative team in a post suite, just didn't sound anywhere near as good to audiences in a theater.
And, if nothing else, you should probably avoid naming key characters "Laurel" or "Yanny" until this conundrum is fully sorted out.