Sound for Linear and Non-Linear Media

 In TSM Studio Blog

When approaching the topic of sound for various forms of multimedia, there are a number of different contexts in which audio can be adapted. Whether your sound is built for film and television, Broadway theatre, a solo artist’s music catalogue or a large scale, AAA video game, all of these media formats fall under the categories of either linear or non-linear media.

Linear Media

By definition, linear media, within the context of sound design and music, is audio content that abides by a fixed, unwavering position on a timeline. In essence, the sound effects and music will remain wherever they’re placed on a narrative timeline without any fluctuations across the series of events.

Take for example, some linear, multimedia projects recorded right here at TSM Studio in Orlando, Florida. The song, “It’s OK To Be Black” by Jac Ross has it’s 2nd chorus begin at exactly 1 minute and 25 seconds, time and time again. This allows the song to repeatedly elicit the same emotions in order to deliver both a consistent and familiar listening experience.

Another example of linear media in the context of music and sound design can pertain to our documentary chronicling NBA All-Star Dwight Howard’s road to recovery following a season-ending back injury in 2012. At the 17 second mark of the documentary, a piano melody emerges from the soundscape as the opening shot of Los Angeles, California is presented. Regardless of how many times you were to stream this documentary, the timeline would remain consistent each and every time.

Non-Linear Media

As indicated by the prefix “non”, non-linear media within the context of sound follows no timeline of events. A non-linear format is an extremely interactive and adaptable way to amplify a user’s experience by enabling user-defined immersion.

Perhaps one of the most popular non-linear media formats are video games. As a player meanders their way throughout levels and open worlds, they have total and complete control over the pacing of the experience. Whether a player decides to explore the surrounding environments or venture off and perform side quests unrelated to their primary objective, music and sound effect cues will standby, prepared to trigger at a moments’ notice.

By allowing a user’s decisions to dictate which sounds are included or excluded from the experience, gameplay can be customized to feel either active, fast-paced and focused or passive, relaxed and leisurely. This level of customization enables nearly infinite possibilities for how a game can play out.

In Closing…

There will always be a time and place for both linear and non-linear media. While it may sound enticing to play a video game that constantly conforms to your decisions, having arranged linear sections enable developers, producers and directors to create some semblance of a unified structure.

Oftentimes an even more enticing approach is to incorporate elements of both linear and non-linear media. Simultaneously interweaving these characteristics can create unique experiences that enable a user to maintain several degrees of control while maintaining a fixed outcome.

An action-adventure video game may allow you to make personal decisions that affect the game’s ending, but that closing cinematic that your choices led up to will still result in a linear cut-scene to conclude the game. A non-linear, interactive film such as “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” may allow your decisions to impact the final outcome, however the scenes that play out are all pre-defined and constructed linearly in order to react to the user’s decisions.

Embracing both forms of media and identifying the benefits and drawbacks of each can allow you to maximize the immersion of your listeners and curate a one-of-a-kind experience.