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Surround sound for games

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Joined: 28 Aug 2007
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 21, 2009 9:31 am    Post subject: Surround sound for games Reply with quote

There's an interesting opinion article on the use of surround sound for gameplay and cutscenes at

The State of Surround

BY Ed Kirchgessner // Commentary // January 21, 2009

While impressive, is 5.1 surround necessarily better?

When it emerged on the scene in late 2001, Microsoft's Xbox must have seemed like a godsend to home theater aficionados. As the fist system to offer real time Dolby Digital surround throughout its game library, the Xbox promised to usher in a new era in gaming - one where audio would no longer take a back seat to visuals. Sony was quick to respond by supplying a limited number of DTS Interactive titles, and Dolby Pro Logic encoding brought matrix surround to a vast array of PlayStation 2 and GameCube releases. By the time 2002 rolled around, I was itching to join in the revolution - so much so that when I began to spec out my first home theater setup, gaming figured more into my requirements than movie watching. While many early surround titles made rather ostentatious use of my system's surround channels, I was confident that five years down the road we'd see audio mixes as skillfully wrought as any Hollywood film soundtrack.

I guess I can't be right all the time. More than seven years have passed since the release of the original Xbox and discreet audio in games is still little more than a gimmick. Granted, it can be helpful - I've been spared assassination in Halo 3 countless times thanks to my side surround speakers. Step outside the first person arena, though, and real time surround sound is often more hindrance than help. For instance, consider the storytelling segments of a game like Fable 2. Since the player can continue to move around the environment whilst NPCs chatter away, it's far too easy to place the speaker at an awkward angle from which dialog is practically unintelligible. Now, if I owned my own home and was able to play back these games at reference level, this wouldn't be such a huge problem because the volume of my surround channels would be raised relative to my front and center channels. Then again, if I was to play most games at reference level, I'd be deaf by now.

Recording engineers have been improving the quality of film and music surround sound content for well over a decade - while SACD and DVD-A releases were both plagued by an overuse of the surround channels a few years back, today's best surround sound music recordings show restraint as often as they show spaciousness. In the same way a cello player is unlikely to be playing at you from ten feet behind, someone speaking to you will be doing so from the front. While dynamic surround sound has its uses, cut scenes and storytelling sequences should be presented in the Hollywood style - with a focus on the three front speakers. Sure, I can move around my environment as I choose, but I still need to hear what a quest giver has to say.

To all video game audio editors: consider this your mission. Real time surround has its uses, but it isn't much of a storytelling tool. As surround film and music recordists have already discovered - 5 channels of discreet audio does an excellent job of setting a mood, but it shouldn't be overused. Stereo (or at the very least front-centric) audio has been the standard of home audio for nearly five decades, and for good reason. When it comes time to present information and depth to a listener, clarity almost always trumps immersion.
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