Retail Sound Environments

Innovations in the future of store audio.
by Ethan Rose, Creative Director

It’s all too obvious that the pandemic has only hastened an already occurring transformation in retail. Online sales are rising, physical stores are transitioning, and the entire landscaping of shopping is transforming before us. Instead of simply being a place to purchase a product, brands are seeking to use stores as sites where customers can connect with brand experiences in new and meaningful ways.

In the midst of this shift, it is time to reconsider the position of sound in retail locations.

On the surface, it seems obvious that what we hear profoundly informs our experience of the world around us. However, all too often elaborate visual store designs are accompanied by uninspired playlists or even silence. This is a mistake. Sound uniquely expresses feeling, adds context, and emphasizes meaning. Underutilizing the creative potential of environmental audio is a major oversight for any forward thinking brand that wants to create deep and lasting connections with customers.

This article outlines the novel ways in which sound can greatly enhance environments. These are real-world sonic strategies that have been implemented in a variety of environments, including brick and mortar retail locations. Sharing these ideas is meant to introduce and advocate for sound as an essential experiential design element that can elevate and expand retail environments.

Spatialized Soundtracks

Imagine that you enter a store where the sounds you hear change depending on where you are in the space. As you move around, you hear relevant layers of audio dynamically unfolding around you. Each sound you hear connects with what you are seeing and feeling at that particular location. The audio is purposefully constructed to create an immersive spatial experience as you chart your journey through the store.

The underlying concept here draws from game design where audio changes as you move through virtual worlds. A similar effect can be accomplished in a physical space by positioning different sounds in different speakers throughout a floor plan. Original audio content can be purposefully created to playback in each group of speakers creating a holistic experience.

Spatialized Soundtracks create an immersive audio experience that works in tandem with other sensory experiences that are designed within the environment. Specific areas within a floor plan can be highlighted with relevant audio. A journey through the space with a narrative arch can be reflected in the sounds that people hear as they move through it.

Depending on the architectural layout and sound system design, the physical constraints of the site will determine what is sonically possible. These constraints act as a leaping off point for audio content creation. For example, if there will be significant bleed between speakers due to a wide open floor plan, a successful solution is to keep all the musical sounds in a matching key and tempo. This creates a holistic and seamless experience that is sonically pleasing while still allowing for diverse soundtracks throughout the space.

Algorithmic Audio

One common issue that arises from the misuse of audio in physical environments is playing back a short loop of audio that quickly becomes repetitious. Think of a two minute video that plays again and again with the same voices making the same statements over and over. Even short term visitors become aware of the repetitions, and the magic of the experiential environment is cheapened. The solution here is Algorithmic Audio.

It can be helpful again here to reference game design. Game audio engines often algorithmically manipulate sound in order to create a greater sense of variety. This is used in games for things like varying the sound of explosions so they don’t sound the same every time and therefore become unrealistic. The implications for experiential environments are much broader than just varying single sounds though.

Algorithmic Audio means that musical parts can be separated and randomly layered, voices can be randomly triggered over longer time intervals, and sound FX can be assembled from overlapping files - all to create a sense of atmospheric variation. From the outside this can seem like a fairly technical process but the outcome is simple and noticeable to any listener: less repetitious soundscapes that are constantly shifting and changing without beginning or end.

Synchronized Media

When considering syncing sounds to environments it is useful to step back and consider cinematic history. Synchronizing sound to image came late to film, but when it did arrive, new possibilities emerged and the art form burgeoned into what we now know as contemporary cinema. As George Lucas famously said:

“Sound is 50 percent of the movie going experience.”

In the same way that sound became essential to filmmaking, it holds equal importance for the future of experiential environments. Just like in a movie, what you hear in a space changes and amplifies what you see and feel. By synchronizing sounds to other media within an environment new levels of immersive experience become possible.

Through network communication, audio can sync to images, lights, robotics, fog, even scent and touch. Connecting multiple senses together amplifies messaging by immersing audiences in multi-level experiences. The emotions and meanings of stories are powerfully amplified with the use of synchronized sound.

Sonic Interactions

Alongside syncing audio with a variety of media, sound can also be connected to real world inputs via a variety of sensors or data streams. Audio can dynamically change in real-time based on human presence and interaction. For example, if a person is approaching a particular location or display the sounds can change or emerge based on an individuals proximity and location. Touch, bodyweight, heartbeats, and more can be utilized to create unique interactive experiences that transform sound in real time. Allowing customers to physically interact within a storytelling experience creates a sense of physical connection that can be exhilarating and memorable.

Sound can also respond to streaming data in a process similar to Data Visualization called Sonification. For example, inputs like real-time weather data, stock market prices, or social media feeds can trigger relevant audio that plays back in a space. Relevant data that connects to the brand story can create a unique sonic experience for customers in the space.

Sound Connects

Savvy companies recognize that customers crave meaningful experiences that can foster a deep connection with their brand. Retail locations provide a unique venue to engage and connect with customers at a personal level, and little connects to emotions and amplifies meaning better than sound. Employing the techniques described above significantly increases the power of brand storytelling opportunities and is a useful tool in the continuing transformation of brick and mortar retail locations.