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Opinion: Making rad audio for everyone
Opinion: Making rad audio for everyone
March 28, 2012 | By Ariel Gross

March 28, 2012 | By Ariel Gross
More: Console/PC, Audio

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Volition's senior audio designer Ariel Gross examines the problem of creating audio for a variety of sound system setups, and which to cater to.]

Team Audio is tasked with making the game sound amazing for everyone. Every single player should have an equally rad aural experience when they're playing the game. That's a typical goal for most Team Audios out there.

But I'm starting to think that it's not quite the right goal. Or that there's a problem with it. Or something. Let me explain.

Players have all kinds of crazy crap

When it comes to audio, players be crazy. Not meant as a dis. Just an observation. One person might have a high fidelity 7.1 surround sound system with discrete speakers placed perfectly according to THX standards. The next person might have the same system, but all of the speakers are stacked on top of each other like a tower in the center of their room.

And the next person is listening through their old CRT television's stock speakers. And the next guy is listening on amazing headphones. And the next person is listening on earbuds that they got from a plastic egg after depositing a nickel in one of those vending machines.

We never really know what the heck our player is doing when it comes to their sound system setup. The Volition offices are a microcosm of this. Some people here use professional speakers (Team Audio). Some people use headphones (Team Design). Some people use cheap PC speakers (Team Production). Some people use earbuds (Team We Hate Team Audio).

Again, not meant as a dis. All of these are, of course, perfectly fine means of getting sounds into ears. However, some issues can crop up as a result.

"I can't hear Sound X. Turn it up"

Story time! Also, disclaimer time! This is a dramatization. This didn't happen here at Volition. But I know it has happened elsewhere, and it's not some isolated incident. Team Audios worldwide will be more than happy to regale you with some variation of this story while sullenly drinking their whiskey and/or pink-colored bismuth.

Once upon a time there was an Audio Designer. Our dear Audio Designer had made Sound X and had implemented it into the game. Audio Designer was happy.

Two weeks later, Audio Designer is called over to Project Producer's desk. Audio Designer was scared. Nervous. Vulnerable. Naked. Okay, not naked. No, you know what? Naked. May as well make this story extra weird.

Project Producer was frustrated because they could not hear Sound X very well, and demonstrated this through their cheap PC speakers. Naked Audio Designer responded that the reason that Sound X couldn't be heard very well was because of the crappy sound system that Project Producer was using.

Project Producer frowned. Project Producer rebutted that perhaps Naked Audio Designer shouldn't be testing sounds on top-tier studio speakers and should instead be testing sounds on crappy PC speakers, or television speakers. And why wasn't Naked Audio Designer wearing clothes? Well, that's another story altogether, isn't it? It is.

Well, Naked Audio Designer immediately went home and wept for two weeks in their crawl space and forgot to drink any water, and therefore died, and was of course eaten by rats.

So, why don't we just test on TV speakers?

I find that the easiest way to answer that question is to refer to our dear friends in Team Art. While it's possible that Team Art might have to use whatever monitor is in front of them, they tend to want to work on the highest possible quality, perfectly color calibrated monitor. When they work on these monitors, they can assume that the visual quality will be maintained to all the different types of screens.

We're in a similar situation in audio. We do our work using high-end studio speakers (usually called reference monitors, but I tend to use the word speaker to avoid confusion), sometimes with especially flat frequency responses (meaning the speaker itself isn't changing the sound), and usually in calibrated listening spaces, because that way it should translate better to all the different kinds of speakers that our players have.

If a colleague from production or studio management wants your Team Audio to work with low quality speakers because that's what most players will be using, point to this article if you want. Maybe then you'll be able to scam them into getting you nice equipment. Wait, did I just ruin that strategy? Maybe I did. But I'm too lazy to go back and change the word scam to convince. Moving on.

But testing on TVs… that just seems smart

You make a good point, Blog Heading.

Testing on TVs still seems like a good idea. I'm not trying to make a case against testing your mix on a ridiculously wide range of audio systems. You should probably still do that. And you should still test your game audio on a system that you're most familiar with.

Test it on the system that you play games on. Then capture some audio from your game, burn it to a disc, and listen to it in your car. Test it in the conference room where you do your show n' tells. Test it on the Jumbotron in your living room. What, doesn't everyone have a Jumbotron in their living room? Well, then do your best with what you have, I guess.

In my experience, the most important thing to test on a wider variety of sound systems is your mix. If you are struggling to hear the dialogue in your game on your television where you play most of your games, then that's something that might be worth looking into.

Does the music seem too loud when you listen on the headphones you're most used to? Data point added! Just be careful. If you're doing a final mix of the game, then you're probably pretty close to submission. Choose your battles wisely!

Another trend in audio is to give our players a bunch of audio options. We give them discrete volume options to adjust sound, music, and voice, sometimes even more granular than that. We also occasionally give them overarching presets like Hi-Fi, Television, Headphones, etc, which can do things like control how much compression there is on the master mix or on sub-mixes, among other wizardry.

This is awesome, but if we're being thorough, it can put an increased burden on the audio team as well as audio QA.

No time. Who care about most?

Wow, Blog Heading, the way you wrote yourself is really convincing. You even deliberately left out a couple of words. Nice work.

I think the question that the Blog Heading is trying to ask is, when we're low on time, which is typical in audio land, then who should we be designing audio for? Should it be for the player with the kick ass high-end sound system? Or the player with the crappy earbuds?

Your team may have varying opinions on this. Some people or disciplines will suggest that you need to appease the lowest common denominator. Like when you make your PC game playable on an 80486SX, even though you may need to wait two years to play the same game on max settings. So, if that's the case, then we need to design for earbuds gamer. Or at least crappy Labtec PC speakers gamer.

Well, my current opinion is the opposite. Go for the gamer with the higher end sound system. Why? That gamer probably gives a crap about the sound in the game.

I know, earbuds gamer might care, too. Maybe earbuds gamer just isn't able to afford a nice sound system. Well, that's okay, because fortunately for earbuds gamer, we always do our best to accommodate everyone, right? Right!

But the gamer with the higher end sound system is basically begging you to put that system to good use. Higher end sound system gamer probably wants you to do some serious face melting. Why else would they spend all that money? They probably want an aural experience more similar to the (good sounding) movie theaters.

This might be kind of controversial. I don't really know. I haven't tested the waters on this one, yet. I guess I should say that this is only my personal opinion, not that of any company that I work for, and it's just an opinion, and I'm just a dude whose opinion changes, like, all the time.

I'm not running for president, here. And if I was, I'd probably make a law that proclaims bologna as the official meat AND undergarment material of the country. Does the president make laws? I can't remember, but I don't think so. I think it's Congress, actually. Anyway, just remember, a vote for me is a vote for bologna.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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Mark Kilborn
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You're not alone in this belief. I subscribe to it as well. Try to accommodate everyone, but defer to the high end user because the low end user probably isn't going to hear it anyway. I have a nice 5.1 system in my living room and I'm frequently let down by how little games push the envelope when it comes to dynamics and mix.

I feel we need to focus more on educating the customer though. In addition to those nifty whiz-bang audio options in the menu, we should have a "Help me!" button that walks the player through setting up their speakers and choosing the presets/balance that works best for them. I don't trust that the player knows what to do with things like dynamic range presets, even if they're as simple as "Hi-Fi," "TV" or "Home Theater."

Ariel Gross
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Mark, thank you for the comment.

That's a really good idea, too, about the "Help me!" button. Having something like this in-game would be huge. It could be in the manual, but people aren't really reading the manual as much these days, it seems. It could have some visual diagrams of how to set up a surround system.

Something else I mentioned in a comment over on #ADBAD is that we're kicking around the idea of using the Kinect to calibrate for the room that the player is in. Not sure if games are already doing this, but it seems like an interesting idea. Also, haven't really thought it all the way through. But definitely interesting to me.

Michael Theiler
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I agree make sure your game sounds great on the best system, but there are methods for making your game sound "right" on any system. Its next to impossible to sound "good" on a crap system, but if you treat your sounds right, the balance will still be there, it won't distort etc. on the crap system. It takes some work, but it is much like the massaging that occurs in a music mix to get everything sitting right. Treat you sounds as if they are sitting on layers, with a hierarchy of importance, and use frequency and level to get the important sounds to sit on top, and layer the rest beneath (figuratively). Sorry, this is sounding like a patronizing how to, but we used this method for the sound in LA Noire, and although it took a LOT of work processing the sounds with this in mind (complete with spread sheet of 100's of sounds and their processing for guidance), it can be very effective.

Peter Hasselstrom
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The "Hi-Fi, "TV", "Headphone" etc settings are confusing even to a crazy audio enthusiast like me so there definitely needs to be an explanation in the game of what those do. The "home theater" setting is easy enough to understand if I'm using a surround system, but the other settings are not consistent across games. Uncharted 3 for example has a headphone mode which squeezes the stereo field together to avoid extreme pans that can be fatiguing to listen to. The problem is that it filtered both sound effects and music so it completely collapsed the soundstage of the music. The headphone mode filter is bad enough that it made my HD 800 sound very similar to earbuds. By far the best sounding setting in that game was "default", whatever that means.

If I'm using a 4000$ stereo or headphone setup, which of those settings should I use? Hifi or home theater? Is there a difference in dynamic range? Does hifi remove the .1 channel? Is home theater correctly downmixing the .1 channel to two channel sound if I'm only using stereo? This is stuff that I as an enthusiast at the moment have to find out by trial and error for each game and it's getting tiresome.

Dynamic range controls is something that I can understand easier and those have acted as I would expect them to do in games like Mass Effect 3, Uncharcted 2/3 and Gran Turismo 5. But in other games like the Battlefield games or Syndicate which have these settings that are called "hifi" or whatever I don't know which sounds best. When those controls exist I vastly prefer the default to be the best sound quality, but so far only Mass Effect 3 has done that as the other games default to the safer lowest common denominator settings.

Movies don't have settings apart from what your dvd/bluray player or receiver can do, so I would like it to be similar in games. There should only be one setting and it should be the one with 18db of dynamic range where it will actually sound like a car exploded in my room every time I blow one up. Only portable games should have a compressed dynamic range designed for crap speakers and games designed for console or PC play should be designed for reference systems like movies are.