Student in front of computer
Senior Mason Mast evaluates Netflix clips in the sound booth.

Netflix project provides Ball State students, faculty real-life, interprofessional experience.

By Andrew Walker, ’14

When Dr. Paaige Turner was approached with the idea of working with Netflix to conduct an independent evaluation of its sound quality, she knew Ball State University was the perfect partner for the popular streaming service.

Dr. Turner, dean of the College of Communication, Information, and Media (CCIM), could certainly leverage her own college’s expert faculty and talented students, but she realized a project of this magnitude and technicality provided the perfect opportunity to utilize the services of other colleges and units across campus.

By the time Ball State had submitted its findings to Netflix, students, faculty, and staff in CCIM, the College of Fine Arts, and the College of Health had all made major contributions. The depth of their work was so impressive that Netflix decided to continue working with Ball State on additional ongoing projects.

“When you talk about the power of partnerships at Ball State, this opportunity to work with Netflix has it all,” Dr. Turner said. “We have faculty and staff across three colleges lending their expertise in production, audio, and hearing. We have students from across campus gaining invaluable experience as expert listeners and by conducting tests in the lab. This focus on innovation and collaboration is why we feel Ball State provides such a solid foundation for our students, faculty, and staff to have fulfilling careers and meaningful lives.”

Netflix initially worked with Ball State to evaluate the quality of audio codecs by developing subjective tests by expert listeners in a controlled, high-end environment. Stan Sollars, ’78 MA ’80, a senior lecturer in CCIM’s Department of Media, compares this process to packing a suitcase: a shirt hanging up in the closet is the original studio audio recording, but getting that audio from the studio to your streaming device requires folding and packing, which can lead to wrinkles.

To help iron out those wrinkles, the University tasked Dr. Christoph Thompson, MM ’11 DA ’14, a recording engineer, assistant professor of Music Technology and area coordinator for Ball State’s Music Media Production program, with creating custom software to be used as a “training manual” to get the students up to par as listening experts.

“When they first started, they had a really hard time hearing what was compressed or uncompressed,” Dr. Thompson said. “And then they had an eight-out-of-10 accuracy in picking between the very high transparent codec and the uncompressed, which is very good and would qualify them as an expert listener.”

Professor Sollars and Dr. Thompson then worked with Drs. Lauren Shaffer, MS ’91, and Lynn Bielski, professors and audiologists at Ball State’s College of Health, to facilitate the physical space and conditions under which to collect the data. Utilizing sound booths at the new, state-of-the-art Health Professions Building, Doctorate of Audiology students helped conduct hearing screenings and assisted with the development of the final results that were sent to Netflix.

Megan Brown, a third-year student in the Doctor of Audiology program, conducts a hearing screening.

“The students are getting this hands-on experience by training for how to find these clips, find these sort of impairments, if you will, in the samples, and then that can be used for when they go out to find a job,” Dr. Bielski said. “For our grad students, every participant they see gives them an opportunity to practice and polish their clinical skills. It also gives them an opportunity to work on a research project—and a large-scale research project at that. This gives them sort of basic marketable skills, like, ‘I can organize something. I can keep track of large data sets.’ These are things that any employer is looking for.”

While the tangible results of the project have been clear, those involved said it has made a positive impact in many other important ways.

“I have made new friends in Christoph and Lauren and Lynn. They’re fabulous people,” Professor Sollars said. “As we’ve all worked together, we’ve gotten to meet a certain number of each other’s students, and it’s been an experience of affirmation as well as education here to see how we are all trying to accomplish the same thing—good sound—in three different disciplines.

“Everybody is busy—students, faculty, people across the world. We’re all busy,” he continued. “But the more we take time to collaborate with people unlike ourselves, but who share a commonality, the better off we will be here at the University, and the better off the world’s going to be.”