Here's the story behind these fascinating tools for VR audio work, as told by sound engineer and co-founder Christian Sander:
Written by Adriane Kuzminski. Images courtesy of Dear Reality.
Hello, Christian. Could you tell us a little about yourself and your company, Dear Reality?
Christian Sander (CS): Hi Adriane, I’m Christian Sander – Sound Engineer, Software Developer and Co-founder of Dear Reality. I have been working with VR/AR audio for over 7 years now. My Co-founder and partner Achim Fell is also a Sound Engineer and Game Designer. Our company has the mission to create exceptional 3D audio technology and virtual acoustics for audio professionals by delivering state-of-the-art tools for immersive audio content creation.
Could you give us a quick overview of the dearVR 3D audio engine and Spatial Connect VST and what they’re capable of?
CS: The dearVR engine renders virtual sound sources to a binaural output as well as Ambisonics and loudspeaker formats with a high level of “out of head” localization and acoustics simulation. The plugin is available in all common DAWs formats (VST/AAX/AU) and it also comes as a Unity plugin. An audio middleware version for FMOD is still under development but very close to being finished. You can hear the plugin’s capabilities in this technical audio demonstration:
The dearVR Spatial Connect lets audio professionals like sound designers and sound engineers, and also musicians and composers, mix and create outstanding 3D audio content within VR/AR while keeping their existing workflows, tools and preferred DAWs.
What is the experience of mixing audio in VR like?
CS: I guess you’ll have to come to Düsseldorf and try it out yourself! If you use it for the first time, it feels like you are liberating yourself from the limitations of conventional audio tools when it comes to VR/AR. In the past we’ve spent a lot of time mixing 3D audio using only a mouse to align and mix audio VR elements, which was not only cumbersome and tedious but also quite frustrating.
The dearVR Spatial Connect workflow is actually simpler then you’d think: you open your DAW of choice, then import the audio files there as usual and add the spatializer plugin (dearVR pro for VST/AAX/AU) on each source. As soon as you want to start to work with positioning, leveling and acoustics selection, you start your dearVR Spatial Connect on your VR PC that connects to the dearVR plugins (we have an option that you can run the VR application on a separate rig as preferred by audio professionals). After this you put on your HMD device – for instance the Vive or Rift – and you are ready to mix! All your settings and automations are written in your DAW and you can export the mix to binaural, Ambisonics and Stereo or Multi-Channel formats.
And the settings you create in the VST can be saved and manipulated in your Unity mix?
We evaluate constantly with our partners in our beta test program to improve & perfect the workflow of various mixing scenarios
CS: Yes, all automations are recorded in the DAW and can be easily accessed at a later point. The first version of it is mostly suited for linear audio (360° video, binaural mixes, Ambisonics, linear parts of VR/AR experiences). The next version will give you access to mix interactive audio as well, which should enable the users to learn the tools step-by-step. This later version then will also include the transfer functionality to bring the mix to Unity, as shown in the video. This approach allows us to optimize & enhance the mixing process first and then extend the dearVR Spatial Connect with the Unity export functions. In addition, we evaluate constantly with our partners in our beta test program to improve & perfect the workflow of various mixing scenarios (linear, non-linear, 360°, VR/AR mixing, video games).
Straight out of the box, what parameters can be controlled on game objects when mixing in VR?
CS: Currently we identified that the most important parameters for the users are position, level and virtual acoustics. There are more additional parameters which we’re still developing and testing.
You also have 45 impressive reverb presets, but are you planning to support convolution reverb or third-party impulse responses?
CS: We are looking into supporting third-party impulse responses in the future, but at the moment we’re focusing on fully optimized presets that sound great out of the box.
What separates dearVR from other VR/360 audio plugins by Valve, Facebook/Oculus, Aspic Tech, and G’Audio Lab?
CS: In past years, we got really amazing feedback and compliments which not only confirmed that our tools have a very intuitive workflow, but also approved the pristine audio quality of our audio engine especially when it comes to binaural spatialization, room simulation with its outstanding presets, and the Ambisonics output rendering. We are really proud that we can offer a very unique mixing workflow for our users which enables them to mix high-quality content in VR/AR (dearVR VST -> dearVR Spatial Connect -> dearVR Unity).
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Along with FMOD compatibility, your website says you’re planning a version for UE4 and Wwise, too, though I’m assuming the VST version of Spatial Connect is still the number-one priority?
CS: Since we’ve received lots of requests for the dearVR Spatial Connect 360° version we decided to release this version first. As already mentioned earlier we will provide the full workflow from editing and playback in the DAW with the dearVR pro/music VST/AAX plugin. A positive side effect is that the dearVR Spatial Connect requires that the next generation dearVR engine and its development run parallel so they affect each other in a very positive way.
Although our tech is hardware agnostic, our partnership with Sennheiser empowered us also to provide a perfect end-to-end solution when it comes to recording, mixing and listening to 3D audio (e.g. AMBEO mic, dearVR, ASH headset).
Could you tell us a little more about your partnership with Sennheiser? Are you supporting Sennheiser’s new initiatives like their AR demos on AMBEO headphones (which was fun to try out last GDC)?
CS: Yes, we are very happy that our cooperation with Sennheiser allows us to support Sennheiser’s hardware in the best way possible. For instance, we showcased an AR demo with the ASH system (AMBEO headphones for capturing, adding virtual sound sources and listening) at SXSW with our dearVR Unity plugin, which not only sounded great but also worked flawlessly!
Having (Sennheiser) as our investor helps us to create outstanding products and offers our customers a complete hardware and software solution for all audio scenarios.
We officially partnered with them early this year and we are absolutely amazed to have an experienced strategic partner with such a strong and powerful history when it comes to audio. Having them as our investor helps us to create outstanding products and offers our customers a complete hardware and software solution for all audio scenarios. As an independent company we’re in full control over what we develop but we’re very fortunate to learn from their experience with over 70 years of audio history!
So then how did Dear Reality come to be? When did you and Achim meet?
CS: I was studying sound engineering at the Robert-Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf, and I developed a 3D audio renderer for iOS (rendering up to 27 3D audio sources on an iPhone 4S) as my diploma thesis. My AES paper which I presented at the AES in San Francisco in 2012 got into Achim’s hands as he was looking for a 3D audio mobile solution for his Master of Game Design Thesis at the Cologne Game Lab. Achim then found out that this AES paper being presented in San Francisco was actually written by a guy living only a few kilometers away. We decided to bring my 3D audio engine to Unity to create a 3D audio mobile game for the biggest German radio station (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) that went phenomenally well (over 100,000 downloads). In 2014 we founded Dear Reality to create 3D audio technology and tools – by content creators for content creators. And that’s what we’ve been doing since! :-)
That’s fascinating that the person Achim was looking for was just right around the corner. Was the game you developed 39?
CS: Yes, 39 – WDR HörSpiel. It’s in German-only, but here is a clip of the audio capture without visuals of the app. It’s from the dearVR engine from 2014… so a lot has happened since then.
By the way, a lot of German organizations for blind and visually impaired people were very interested in the 39 app, but that might be probably another story for a second interview!
You know how much I like to talk about game accessibility ;). But it’s interesting to note how 3D audio engines like dearVR can make games not only more immersive, they can also portray subtle positional informational for people who rely on audio to understand their surroundings. But yes, for another interview…
As far as your personal career, it’s interesting that you’ve gone back and forth between audio production and software engineering. How did you decide to make these transitions?
CS: I was always fascinated by audio and software engineering and recent developments in the last 20 years made the two topics come even closer together, so it just felt natural for me to grow in and learn from both.
We decided to focus completely on software and work closely with production companies to build great tools suited for their needs.
For example: although we had already released the dearVR Unity plugin, we still did VR sound design projects for e.g. Deutsche Telekom during that time. That gave us pretty good insights of what was required from audio developers and sound designers to work in VR. That’s how we realized that there was a huge demand for a tool like the dearVR Spatial Connect. At that point we decided to focus completely on software and work closely with production companies to build great tools suited for their needs.
What companies and studios currently use dearVR?
CS: The dearVR pro/music and dearVR Unity plugins are used by a lot of companies worldwide, from small independent studios starting in spatial audio to big audio production companies, AAA game studios & well-known recording studios and public broadcasting institutions. You can check out very positive quotes from audio producers in the music biz on e.g. our Plugin Alliance store page.
Those are some shining reviews! Now, other than the recent AES convention in Milan, will you be showing dearVR at any other conferences or trade shows coming up?
CS: Sure, we’re planning to attend IBC Amsterdam, Tonmeister Konferenz Cologne, and last but not least AES New York this year. If you won’t be able to make it to the conventions I’m sure there will be further chances to try it out yourself! We will also soon open our portal for applications for the next closed beta program.
…Is that an open invite to readers who are interested in beta testing? ;)
We encourage everyone in 360°, sound design, music, and game audio to apply for the program
CS: Yes, the dearVR Spatial Connect beta program hasn’t started yet, but we encourage everyone in 360°, sound design, music, and game audio to apply for the program. Anyone interested in the program can contact us with a brief description about their work. They can also stay up to date with our newsletter on our website and Facebook page.
A big thanks to Christian Sanders for giving us a look at the dearVR audio engine and dearVR Spatial Connect VST – and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview! Find out more about Dear Reality on Twitter here, and on Instagram here.
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