Spatial Audio Plugins and Software (Free and Paid)
Spatial audio is in a funny place right now, it exists in a no-man’s land of priority in today’s immersive-tech world. We have an emerging technology that is both new enough that some of the best softwares are made by one fella in his office, and acknowledged enough to be shipped as £1000+ products from the biggest of companies. We have free, open source software standing up against the output of billion-dollar global franchises, and it’s anybody’s guess which product is better. So, let’s have a look of some of my favourites, in no particular order.
Facebook 360 Spatial Audio Workstation (FREE)
The FB360 Audio Workstation has a very intuitive UI, making it a great entry-point for immersive audio.
Everyone knows Facebook, and everyone knows that you don’t pay for Facebook. So, why pay for anything made by Facebook? Thanks, Zuckerberg! The Audio Workstation is a free download, along with the video player and video encoder, and is everything you need to start experimenting with sound in 360° and VR video. The UI is very well made, and really gives the feel that you’re working in a professional piece of software. The fact that FB360 offers the extra tools needed to encode the video with the appropriate metadata to upload to Facebook (of course) and YouTube, and that they’re all easy to use is a massive plus. The key downside, and one that you would definitely not expect from an audio specific plugin, is that the audio can end up sounding completely mangled in the mid to high frequencies. While one can look beyond this for the sake of free software, you would expect a company like Facebook (the company that Oculus belongs to, arguably the most popular VR headset on the market) to iron out these kinds of creases.
3 FOR: 1. Fantastic user interface 2. Extra software included to export 360° video and automatic metadata encoding 3. Very smart object tracking features
3 AGAINST: 1. Audio can sound phase-y and manipulated when turning 2. In-plugin video player currently very buggy (standalone player works fine though) 3. 360° video has to be in different formats for the Audio Workstation and Encoder.
AudioEase 360pan Suite (€249)
The 360pan plugin window.
The 360pan Suite consists of 6 separate plugins: Pan, Monitor, Reverb, Limiter, Radar and Turner.
Pan – Allows you to change the direction and distance of sound objects directly onto the video. Monitor – Video player to allow you to check your sounds in the video, with or without VR, just like the FB360 video player. Reverb – A convolution reverb that has ambisonics impulse responses, a nice touch for creative and technical use. Limiter – Not your usual plugin limiter. Works like a LUFS meter in true ambisonics, to ensure precise limiting to the correct standards. Radar – Shows the location and spread of audio sources in the video, perhaps not too necessary considering than pan already provides this feature. Turner – Great little plugin, to align ambisonics samples. Samples can be tilted or rotated.
AudioEase have done a great job with the 360pan Suite, offering a good set of features for a reasonable price as far as plugins go. That said, it is remarkably similar to FB360. The panner and monitor are both near-identical to the Audio Workstation, and while FB360 doesn’t offer ambisonic tilt alignment it does allow rotation. The 360reverb is a very nice feature, especially with ambisonic impulse responses, and since a lot of 360° videos are made in a single room this feature can be implemented fairly easily. Also, the audio sounds as good post-process as its original.
3 FOR: 1. Good convolution reverb 2. Useful to have video player within your DAW 3. Clean resulting audio
3 AGAINST: 1. A little too similar to the (free) FB360 plugins 2. No help with exporting 3. Some plugins feel like filler to justify the £200+ price tag
Blue Ripple Audio 03a (FREE..and not free)
O3A Spatial Delay
Blue ripple audio are great! Not only are they creators of the £950 Rapture3D, but they also provide us with the completely free 03a core bundle. While this bundle is more than enough to get going, there are a number of more well-featured additions that can cost between £100-600 per pack. We’ll look at the 03a core for now. With this free pack, we are offered:
O3A Panners (Standard, Classic, Hemisphere, Large, Two Channel and Eight Channel)
O3A Decoders (Mono, Stereo and 5.1 Basic)
O3A Converters to/from FuMa or classic ambisonics and between orders
O3A Virtual Microphone
O3A Look and O3A Rotation
O3A Spatial Delay
O3A Metering (Standard and Signal)
O3A Visualisers (Standard, Hemisphere, Colourizer and Flare)
That’s a serious amount of functionality for the price of a glass of nothing! What’s more, unlike FB360 and 360pan Suite, the O3a core pack serves a different purpose. Its tools at this level are not built for video quite as much as the previous two mentions, but instead allows decoding of ambisonics to stereo, binaural and multi-channel audio and let’s you create 3D mixes with the insane number of different panners. You can also convert between ambisonic formats (ambiX and FuMa) and which order. For a free set of tools, Blue Ripple have really given a brilliant product and not just a demo of their pricey upgrades.
3 FOR: 1. Ambisonic decoders are very handy 2. O3a Metering is a welcome inclusion 3. Incredible number of uses for a free bundle
3 AGAINST: 1. Not quite as intuitive for working with video 2. The number of panning options can be confusing 3. Doesn’t support all DAWs
dearVR Pro ($349)
dearVR Pro in DAWs.
While dearVR do have a free plugin that you can download now, it is not nearly as useful as the O3a Core bundle and just doesn’t cut it for a review. The dearVR Pro bundle on the other hand is worth talking about. DearVr Pro regards itself as a “High-fidelity 3D audio spatialiser” with features including:
Multi-channel speaker support
46 Virtual acoustic presets
Higher order ambisonics formats
Head-tracking in VR
Now, I’m sure that this seems a touch underwhelming after having read about the last three (cheaper) plugins, but dearVR needs talking about because it’s just so damn good. The UI is so simple that your nan could make a solid 3D mix faster than she can walk down the shop, which varies depending on the mobile performance of your nan, and results are so satisfying. It’s also worth knowing that Dear Reality have got a spatialiser on the Unity asset store too, which lets you and that dearVR magic to your game projects. The acoustic presets serve a similar purpose to the 360pan Suite’s convolution reverb, and while they can be useful sometimes they do seem a bit much. While I’m yet to find an effective use for this feature, I don’t feel like it’s a worthless addition. If you want possibly the best online demo you can watch, I definitely recommend you check out this video. The binaural capabilities of dearVR seem god-like to other plugins, and the amount of different surround formats really makes dearVR Pro feel like it’s worth the money.
There of course a load more bits of software that could be talked about, like the Wigware plugins, ATK, Dolby Atmos and Pro Tools‘s Soundfield plugins, but they didn’t quite make the cut this time. Reasons may include overpricing, lack of DAW availability or just not being as enjoyable to use! There’s plenty of software out there, and they all have features to applaud along with issues to uncover. Thats the joy of being part of a new digital culture!