VR for the Game Music Composer – What’s New?

google-cardboard_winifred-phillipsRecently I bought my first VR headset, and since then I have been adventuring in the world of virtual reality courtesy of Google Cardboard. For something as high tech and impressive as the VR experience, Google Cardboard makes the whole process easy, low-cost and accessible.  While Google provides instructions for users who’d like to make their own headsets from scratch using simple craft materials, I opted to purchase a version made by the good folks at IMCardboard.com.  Pictured to the right, you see me wearing their EVA 2.0 headset, made from a rubber-like material that’s very comfortable and lightweight.  Despite the more sophisticated look and materials, this headset still adheres to the Google Cardboard specs in terms of its design.  Coupling the immersive visuals offered by this headset with powerful music and sound from my trusty pair of Sennheiser HD 650 headphones, I was now ready to go adventuring in cyberspace.

I don’t know if 2016 is going to be the year of virtual reality, but since I’ve taken my first step into the VR world, I thought we could use this blog to touch base with developments in the VR world.  We’ll look at a brand new audio tech conference that should be particularly interesting to VR folks.  We’ll also get an overview of a couple of top audio technologies for virtual reality video games.  One of these new technologies pertains directly to Google Cardboard, so that’s where we’ll begin:

It wouldn’t be make believe…

First, let’s get a little historical overview.  A good place to start may be with a popular old song that seems particularly appropriate right now:

“It’s only a paper moon… sailing over a cardboard sea… but it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.”

This music rings true at the moment, because Google has taught us all to believe in cardboard.

google-cardboardIn June 2014, Google announced their new virtual reality initiative called Google Cardboard, and a lot of people didn’t believe in it (they thought it might be a joke).  Over a year and a half later, nobody’s laughing.  Google just created a dedicated VR division with a new VP to run it, and 5 million Cardboard headsets are currently out in the marketplace. While some say that the VR experience delivered by this device is limited at best, it has opened up the awesome visual spectacle of virtual reality to the masses. (Personally, I’ve been enjoying my initial forays into VR with Google Cardboard, and I’m looking forward to broadening my virtual horizons).  While 3D visuals have wowed users of Google Cardboard, the enveloping audio of a true VR experience has been unavailable to users of these headsets – until now.

google-cardboard-devOn Jan. 13, 2016, Google announced the introduction of spatial audio capabilities for the software development kits designed for Google Cardboard Unity (iOS) and Google Cardboard Android.  The underlying technology was developed by ThriveAudio; a group of research engineers from Trinity College Dublin who specialize in 3D virtual audio environments. While previously focusing on the audio needs of the Oculus Rift VR device, ThriveAudio was acquired by Google in July 2015 and set to work bringing spatial audio to Google Cardboard.

In an interview with journalist Drew Olanoff of TechCrunch, Google Cardboard’s project manager Nathan Martz stated that the spatial audio technology would “allow creators to control the direction of sounds in an immersive experience.” Martz explained, “Sounds that come from the right will reach a user’s left ear with a slight delay, and with fewer high frequency elements (which are normally dampened by the skull).”

It’s good news that the most famous and accessible VR platform is getting spatial audio – it shows how serious Google is about entertaining its Cardboard users.

Introducing AMBEO


At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the German audio company Sennheiser (my favorite headphones manufacturer) unveiled a suite of immersive audio technologies, dubbed AMBEO.  The proposed AMBEO product line is designed to provide solutions for three dimensional audio in multiple listening situations.  While AMBEO has applications in the world of complex surround speaker systems, the emphasis of this new technology line is clearly on headphones.  In fact, AMBEO represents Sennheiser’s ambitious entry into the world of spatial audio for VR.

CES2016_SennheiserMuch of the AMBEO tech on display at CES was in an early prototype phase, which intrigued journalist Tyll Hertsens, editor in Chief at the audio technology site InnerFidelity.  He draws a parallel between Sennheiser’s bullish attitude towards VR sound and the threat of imminent competition from Apple.  “With the acquisition of Beats,” Hertsens speculates, “Apple now has all the pieces in-house to develop the technological ecosystem to commercialize immersive audio… (Sennheiser needs) to get things moving along. And that’s why they produced a technological demo at CES, to wake people up and get their creative and competitive juices flowing.”

The AMBEO VR audio technology for headphones was presented in a three-pronged approach.  The first was the Venue Modeling software that could faithfully replicate room acoustics, allowing DJs to play their music sets from within several dance clubs around the world.  The second was a virtual reality microphone designed to capture audio in four quadrants (launching Q3 2016).  Finally, the third was a proprietary Sennheiser algorithm designed to enable video game developers to create three dimensional soundscapes for VR.  At the Sennheiser booth at CES, this algorithm was put to the test in the virtual-reality game EDEN, developed by SoulPix.  The video game is still in development, but an early proof-of-concept demo is now available for download for the Oculus Rift. Here’s the trailer for EDEN:

2016 AES International Conference on Headphone Technology


Finally, a brand new conference organized by the Audio Engineering Society should provide lots of useful takeaway for game audio pros working in VR.  The International Conference on Headphone Technology will focus on “technologies for headphones with a special emphasis on the emerging fields of Mobile Spatial Audio, Personal Assistive Listening, and Augmented Reality.”  Of particular interest are the proposed mobile spatial audio discussions, which should directly pertain to VR projects for mobile platforms such as Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard.

Well, that’s my blog this week!  If you’ve encountered any interesting developments in VR audio tech, or if you’re taking your first trips into the world of VR, please let me know in the comments!

Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer.  Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Cool and Inspiring Ideas for the Game Music Composer

As game composers, we need a little inspiration now and then.  This blog will share some fun thoughts and ideas that have the potential to stir our creative juices, or just help us to think about game music in a different way.  First, we’ll get a perspective on what the classical symphony performance has in common with the act of playing a video game. Then, we’ll learn about a method of turning a video game into a musical instrument for performance art.  And finally, we’ll hear about a sonic toy that lets us trigger game sounds and music as a spontaneous aural performance to accompany roleplay gaming. I hope these ideas will get us thinking about the relationship between game music and live performance. At the very least, some of these ideas may tickle our creative fancy, so let’s get started!

Andrew Norman’s Play (Boston Modern Orchestra Project)

andrew_normanFirst, let’s consider the viewpoint of acclaimed symphonic composer Andrew Norman (pictured left), who is currently nominated for a Grammy in the category of “Best Contemporary Classical Composition” for his symphonic work entitled Play. The nominated recording was performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, as conducted by Gil Rose. As a composer, Andrew Norman is no stranger to accolades, having previously achieved the finalists list for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2012 for his string trio The Companion Guide to Rome.  What’s most fascinating about his symphony Play, aside from its bold and experimental approach to musical composition, is the philosophy with which it was created. As it turns out, video games played a key role.

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Game Music Composer Guide to Upcoming VR Events


In a new report released January 5, 2016, the research analysis firm SuperData issued a forecast of the future of Virtual Reality gaming in the coming year.  Among the results: 5.1 billion dollars are predicted to be spent on VR hardware in 2016, and 55.8 million consumers will have adopted some version of a VR platform by year’s end.  The report also predicts that inexpensive VR gaming on mobile devices will prove the most popular in the short-term, dominating the market in 2016. The report also suggests that small indie studios may benefit by jumping into VR development early (since the top publishers are proving to be a bit more reticent). These are awesome times to be in the video game industry, and there will certainly be lots to learn as we go boldly into the world of VR.  In this blog, I’ve collected information about upcoming video game conferences – some that are already famous and some that are brand new.  These events might help us to learn more about our role in the creation of VR music and audio.

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VR for the Game Music Composer – Artistry and Workflow

Since the game audio community is abuzz with popular excitement about the impending arrival of virtual reality systems, I’ve been periodically writing blogs that gather together top news about developments in the field of audio and music for VR.  In this blog we’ll be looking at some resources that discuss issues relating to artistry and workflow in audio for VR:

  • We’ll explore an interesting post-mortem article about music for the VR game Land’s End.  
  • We’ll be taking a closer look at the 3DCeption Spatial Workstation.
  • We’ll be checking out the Oculus Spatializer Plugin for DAWs.

Designing Sound for Virtual Reality

In these early days of VR, postmortem articles about the highs and lows of development on virtual reality projects are especially welcome.  Freelance audio producer and composer Todd Baker has written an especially interesting article about the audio development for the Land’s End video game, designed for the Samsung Gear VR system.

Here, you see me trying out the Samsung Gear VR, as it was demonstrated on the show floor at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in 2015.

Here, you see me trying out the Samsung Gear VR, as it was demonstrated on the show floor at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in 2015.

Todd Baker is best known for his audio design work on the whimsical Tearaway games, and his work as a member of the music composition team for the awesome LittleBigPlanet series. His work on Land’s End for Ustwo Games affords him an insightful perspective on audio for virtual reality. “In VR, people are more attuned to what sounds and feels right in the environment, and therefore can be equally distracted by what doesn’t,” writes Baker.  In the effort to avoid distraction, Baker opted for subtlety in regards to the game’s musical score. Each cue began with a gentle fade-in, attracting little notice at first so as to blend with the game’s overall soundscape in a natural way.

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More Game Music for the Holidays


The holiday season is in full swing, with the New Year right around the corner, so here’s some more game music that’s perfect for the holidays…and one bonus track that I composed for LittleBigPlanet 3 (I’m told it makes most everybody think of Christmas!)

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Game Music for the Holidays – Cover Tunes


Happy Holidays, everybody!  It’s become a tradition in this blog to share some holiday tunes from some awesome video games, so here’s a selection of holiday cover songs to fuel your festive spirit (and one bonus cover song with a very different take on the holiday spirit).  Enjoy!

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A Composer’s Guide to Game Music in 2015

CCGM-BalloonsBowHappy Holidays, everyone!  2015 has been a really memorable year for me, and a successful one for my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Writing this book not only allowed me to express my excitement about game music, but also opened up my world to a huge community of game music enthusiasts that I’m now proud to call friends.

I’ve been delighted to meet so many people who have read my book – from aspiring composers, to scholars and educators, to game audio pros.  It’s been tremendously gratifying!

I’d like to spend this blog recapping the events of 2015 as they related to my book, and I’ll also be sharing some book-related resources and tutorials that I created in 2015 (in case you missed them).  Happy Holidays, everyone, and thank you so much for your tremendous support this year!

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