Video Game Composers: The Tech of Music in Virtual Reality (GDC 2018)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The Game Developers Conference is almost here! I’m looking forward to giving my presentation soon on “Music in Virtual Reality” (Thursday, March 22nd at 3pm in room 3002 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  Over the course of the last two years, I’ve composed a lot of music for virtual reality projects, some of which have already hit retail, and some of which will be getting released very soon!  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what role music should play in a virtual reality game. During my GDC talk in March, I’ll be taking my audience through my experiences composing music for four very different VR games –the Bebylon: Battle Royale game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike RPG-Shooter hybrid from Labrodex Inc.  In preparing my GDC presentation, I made sure my talk addressed some of the most important creative and technical hurdles facing video game composers working in VR.  However, time constraints ensured that some interesting info ended up ‘on the cutting room floor,’ so to speak.  So, I’ve written two articles that explore some of the best topics that didn’t make it into my GDC presentation.

My previous article focused on some abstract, creative concerns facing video game music composers and audio folks working in VR.  In this article, we’ll be turning our attention to more concrete technical issues.  Ready?  Let’s go.

New Binaural Developments

Illustration of popular binaural developments in VR audio, from the article by composer Winifred Phillips for video game composers.VR games currently focus on binaural audio to immerse players in the awesome soundscapes of their virtual worlds.  As we know, binaural recording techniques use two microphones, often embedded in the artificial ears of a dummy head (pictured right).  By virtual of the popular binaural recording technique and/or binaural encoding technologies, game audio teams can plunge VR players into convincing aural worlds where sounds are spatially localized in a way that conforms with real world expectations.  The technology of binaural sound continually improves, and recently the expert developers of the Oculus Rift VR headset have refined the quality of their VR sound with two significant upgrades.

First, they have introduced “Near-Field Head Related Transfer Function.”  We’re all probably familiar by now with the concept of Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF), in which sound interacts with our heads, bodies and ear canals on its way to our ear drums.  The subtle changes undergone by those sound waves endow them with the specific qualities that reflect the real-life aural world.  In the original Oculus Audio SDK, realistic HRTF was limited by distance.  Sounds that occurred a meter away or more would reach us with all the correct HRTF effects we’d expect, but when sounds were emitted within that meter-wide diameter around our heads, the HRTF effects would no longer function.  So now the Oculus team has introduced “Near-Field HRTF” to fill in that gap.   This allows sounds that might occur close to our heads to feel more realistic.

“With our recently introduced Near-Field HRTF, developers can model sounds much closer than one meter away with a greater degree of accuracy,” writes the Oculus team in a blog article announcing the new technology. “Now, if you’re holding an object that makes sound (like a ringing telephone) and bring it closer to your head, we’re able to replicate that experience in VR in a more believable way.”

Near-Field HRTF might have great applications for game composers interested in employing diegetic music that occurs close to the player, such as a musical instrument that the player is expected to ‘play,’ or a music-emitting device (a radio, a music box) that’s held in the player’s hand.  Here’s a video produced by the Oculus team that demonstrates Near-Field HRTF in action:

The second binaural audio upgrade from the Oculus team allows for “Volumetric Sound Sources.”  This is a simpler effect to understand, but with more interesting implications for music inside the VR space.  “Volumetric Sound Sources let sound designers model objects of virtually any size in a way that sounds realistic,” explains the Oculus team. “Rather than trying to pinpoint the source of a sound, designers can give a sound a radius—the larger the assigned radius, the larger the sound’s source.”

Theoretically, this effect should make a single sound source emit a more expansive breadth of sound, sidestepping the otherwise mono-like qualities that many object-based sound sources typically display.  When implementing music in ways that attach it to the environment (such as audio mixes that separate instrument sections and spread them out across the virtual landscape), this kind of “Volumetric” effect would prevent these sounds from feeling as though they each emanate from a single point.  For instance, a violin section might have the wider breadth expected from such a recording.  Here’s the video produced by the Oculus team that demonstrates this effect.  Unfortunately, in the video the developers focused on white noise-heavy sounds like rushing/falling water, hissing machinery noises, and ocean surf.  This is less than revealing for other types of sound (such as musical sources), but it might give us a general idea of the developers’ intentions:

Both of these recent innovations depend on the binaural delivery system in order to function.  Binaural is currently very important in VR audio, and is likely to remain important for some time to come.

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio.GDC 2018 Presentation Preview

In my upcoming GDC talk, I’ll be reviewing the history of the binaural recording method and its importance to virtual reality game development.  By virtue of both my own experiences with multiple VR projects, I’ll be describing several ways to spatially-localize music and audio content within a binaural audio delivery system.

However useful binary audio may be for VR audio design, binaural also has some logistical drawbacks for the consumer.  Let’s take a look at those, and examine some solutions that have been proposed.

The headphones problem

Illustration of the famous headphones problem in VR audio, from the article by Winifred Phillips (award winning video game music composer).In today’s modern high-tech environment, smart devices are everywhere.  One of the defining characteristics of a smart device is its ability to identify itself when used in combination with other technologies.  Smart devices are essentially plug and play.  We can plug a smart device such as the famous iPhone into a computer, and the computer will immediately know what it is.  Lots of peripheral devices are instantly recognizable, such as keyboards, game controllers, hard drives, etc.  Most standard headphones, however, aren’t smart devices.  When we plug them into a computer for use with a VR system, the system won’t be able to identify the headphone model, nor will it be able to detect any onboard signal processing such as noise cancellation or spatial rendering (surround sound or binaural).  That means that the VR system can’t automatically compensate for the headphone technology currently plugged into it.  This is where things can go wrong.

What if a pair of surround-sound headphones are plugged into a VR gaming device outputting in binaural sound?  The VR game’s binaural audio is going to get spatially reprocessed by the headphones, resulting in a serious degradation of the sound quality.  Consumers are accustomed to their devices communicating with each other and sorting these sorts of issues out autonomously.  If the VR system is smart, but the headphones are essentially dumb, what then?

Pictured: today's popular analog headphone models (an illustration from the article by composer Winifred Phillips for video game composers.“For any poorly perceived mix, the user may not know what the problem is or how to go about rectifying it. Even worse the user may even assume the poor mix is a fault of the game’s audio engine,” observed audio programmer Aristotel Digenis in his presentation “Challenges of the Headphone Mix in Games” at the 56th Audio Engineering Society Conference.  “Smart headphones” may be the natural evolution for headphones,” Digenis points out. “The analogue nature of conventional headphones means they have no way of identifying themselves in an equipment eco-system that is rapidly able to identify one another and each other’s capabilities.”

So, in an ideal world, the VR system would be able to identify the nature of the headphones and adjust its output accordingly.  We can all hope that smart headphones will eventually appear on the high-tech horizon, but what about the other end of the equation?  Can VR audio systems provide multiple audio mixes for different types of headphones?  Aristotel Digenis proposes a way in which this can be achieved… although it includes the use of a new audio format, and a dramatic re-evaluation of the way in which VR audio is currently delivered.


The MPEG-H Audio Alliance logo from the creators of the famous MPEG format, included in the article by Winifred Phillips for video game composers.First announced in 2013, the MPEG-H 3D Audio coding standard supports multiple audio channel output configurations including binaural rendering and higher order ambisonics.  One of the advantages of MGEG-H is its compatibility with multiple audio playback systems, from simple stereo, to complex surround configurations, to interactive virtual reality audio systems.  This flexible delivery mechanism, which the designers have coined Universal Delivery, allows the MPEG-H format to be cross-compatible with any type of listening equipment, from simple stereo headphones all the way to the most sophisticated home theater setups.  In other words, MPEG-H would allow VR audio to work on any playback system instead of its current limitation to headphones alone.

“Widespread adoption of the MPEG-H standard could mean game developers may not need to provide binaural mixes for their users,” Digenis asserts. “Instead they can continue delivering multi-channel mixes to the console/A V system, and it can provide a suitable binaural mix to the user if they are using headphones.”

Currently, the developers of MPEG-H are concentrating their focus on TV broadcast applications.  Here’s a short video demonstration of the television use of MPEG-H.  Notice how the audio content remains interactive on a highly detailed level, allowing the manipulation of individual sonic elements by the end-user.

While it seems like the MPEG-H format is a long way from practical implementation in VR applications, it shows some promise in providing future options for game audio folks working in VR.  We can imagine a future in which a virtual reality game may have its audio recorded and mixed in ambisonics, and then output in any number of configurations depending on the nature of the sound playback system.

In this photo, game music composer Winifred Phillips is pictured working in her music production studio.GDC 2018 Presentation Preview

In my upcoming GDC talk, I’ll be discussing the role of ambisonics in game audio development, starting with a historical overview and moving to the importance of the format in modern VR games.

Creating more opportunities for ambisonics to flourish in VR audio is an interesting topic to consider.  Let’s examine one intriguing possibility.

Ambisonics and the orchestra

In October of last year I wrote an article about some of the VR topics discussed at the Virtual Reality Developers Conference.  As a part of that article, I touched upon an idea that was briefly mentioned by Jay Steen of Criterion Games during his talk about the audio of Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One X-Wing VR Mission.  During the Q&A portion of his talk, Steen was asked about spatial positioning for a Star Wars musical score in VR.  “We did do a quick experiment on it, and we found that it’s like having an orchestra sitting around you,” Steen observed. “We didn’t want to evoke you sitting in the middle of an orchestral recording. We just wanted it to sound like the movie.” Even with that seeming dismissal of a spatially-positioned Star Wars score, Steen went on to add,  “Ambisonic recordings of orchestras for example, I think there’s something fun there. We haven’t experimented with it anymore than that, but yeah, definitely, we’d want to try.”

An illustration of popular ambisonic recording techniques for live orchestral performance, from the article by Winifred Phillips for game composers.Ambisonic orchestral recordings are not often encountered in VR games, but they’re becoming a bit more common in other forms of virtual entertainment.  As a way to imagine how ambisonic orchestral recordings might be deployed in future VR games, let’s take a look at an experiment undertaken by the Institute of Communication Systems at RWTH Aachen University in Germany.  In April of last year, the Institute began a cooperative venture with the Aachen Symphony Orchestra.  Over the course of several months, the orchestra was recorded with an em32 Eigenmike microphone array, which is capable of recording 32 channels of audio for fourth-order ambisonics.  They placed the microphone in the middle of the string section, and also positioned a 36o° camera at the microphone array location so that a VR video could be made.  The result replicates the experience of sitting right in the middle of the orchestra during a live concert.

The Institute of Communication Systems reports that “the recorded content will be used for future research activities in the area of audio signal processing for immersive audio systems, e.g., 3D audio formats, binaural signal processing and spatial audio playback.”  So these experiments may yield results that prove to be useful to game music composers working on VR projects.  Here’s a video of one of the recorded performances of the Aachen Symphony Orchestra.  Remember to wear headphones when listening, and feel free to swing the camera view in all directions!


In my past two articles, I’ve shared some of the additional research I’d encountered that didn’t make the cut for my GDC 2018 presentation, ‘Music in Virtual Reality  (Thursday, March 22nd at 3pm in room 3002 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  The presentation I will give at GDC 2018 will include lots of practical and concrete techniques and strategies for video game music composers and audio folks looking to implement music strategically and effectively within VR. That being said, the more general research and techniques in these two articles can also provide helpful insight. I’ve included the official GDC description of my upcoming talk below.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section at the end of this article!


Music in Virtual Reality

Illustration of the VR projects to be discussed in a GDC talk presented by Winifred Phillips for video game composers.This lecture will present ideas for creating a musical score that complements an immersive VR experience. Composer Winifred Phillips will share tips from several of her VR projects. Beginning with a historical overview of positional audio technologies, Phillips will address several important problems facing composers in VR.

Topics will include 3D versus 2D music implementation, and the role of spatialized audio in a musical score for VR. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic music will be explored, including methods that blur the distinction between the two categories.

The discussion will also include an examination of the VIMS phenomenon (Visually Induced Motion Sickness), and the role of music in alleviating its symptoms.  Phillips’ talk will offer techniques for composers and audio directors looking to utilize music in the most advantageous way within a VR project.


Through examples from several VR games, Phillips will provide an analysis of music composition strategies that help music integrate successfully in a VR environment. The talk will include concrete examples and practical advice that audience members can apply to their own games.

Intended Audience

This session will provide composers and audio directors with strategies for designing music for VR. It will include an overview of the history of positional sound and the VIMS problem (useful knowledge for designers.)

The talk will be approachable for all levels (advanced composers may better appreciate the specific composition techniques discussed).


Photo of Winifred Phillips in her video game composers music production studio.Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent projects are the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution and the Dragon Front VR game for Oculus Rift. Her credits include games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in 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 MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.






The Virtual Reality Game Music Composer


Project Morpheus headset.

Ready or not, virtual reality is coming!  Three virtual reality headsets are on their way to market and expected to hit retail in either late 2015 or sometime in 2016.  These virtual reality systems are:

VR is expected to make a big splash in the gaming industry, with many studios already well underway with development of games that support the new VR experience.  Clearly, VR will have a profound impact on the visual side of game development, and certainly sound design and voice performances will be impacted by the demands of such an immersive experience… but what about music?  How does music fit into VR?

At GDC 2015, a presentation entitled “Environmental Audio and Processing for VR” laid out the technology of audio design and implementation for Sony’s Project Morpheus system.  While the talk concentrated mainly on sound design concerns, speaker Nicholas Ward-Foxton (audio programmer for Sony Computer Entertainment) touched upon voice-over and music issues as well.  Let’s explore his excellent discussion of audio implementation for a virtual space, and ponder how music fits into this brave new virtual world.


Nicholas Ward-Foxton, during his GDC 2015 talk.

But first, let’s get a brief overview on audio in VR:

3D Positional Audio

All three VR systems feature some sort of positional audio, meant to achieve a full 3D Audio Effect.  With the application of the principles of 3D Audio, sounds will always seem to be originating from the virtual world in a realistic way, according to the location of the sound-creating object, the force/loudness of the sound being emitted, the acoustic character of the space in which the sound is occurring, and the influences of obstructing, reflecting and absorbing objects in the surrounding environment.  The goal is to create a soundscape that seems perfectly fused with the visual reality presented to the player.  Everything the player hears seems to issue from the virtual world with acoustic qualities that consistently confirm an atmosphere of perfect realism.

All three VR systems address the technical issues behind achieving this effect with built-in headphones that deliver spatial audio consistent with the virtual world.  The Oculus Rift licensed the  Visisonics RealSpace 3D Audio plugin to calculate acoustic spatial cues, then subsequently built their own 3D Audio plugin based on the RealSpace technology, allowing their new Oculus Audio SDK to generate the system’s impressive three-dimensional sound.  According to Sony, Project Morpheus creates its 3D sound by virtue of binaural recording techniques (in which two microphones are positioned to mimic natural ear spacing), implemented into the virtual environment with a proprietary audio technology developed by Sony.  The HTC Vive has only recently added built-in headphones to its design, but the developers plan to offer full 3D audio as part of the experience.

To get a greater appreciation of the power of 3D audio, let’s listen to the famous “Virtual Barber Shop” audio illusion, created by QSound Labs to demonstrate the power of Binaural audio.

Head Tracking and Head-Related Transfer Function

According to Nicholas Ward-Foxton’s GDC talk, to make the three-dimensional audio more powerful in a virtual space, the VR systems need to keep track of the player’s head movements and adjust the audio positioning accordingly.  With this kind of head tracking, sounds swing around the player when turning or looking about.  This effect helps to offset an issue of concern in regards to the differences in head size and ear placement between individuals.  In short, people have differently sized noggins, and their perception of audio (including the 3D positioning of sounds) will differ as a result.  This dependance on the unique anatomical details of the individual listener is known as Head-Related Transfer Function.  There’s an excellent article explaining Head-Related Transfer Function on the “How Stuff Works” site.

Head-Related Transfer Function can complicate things when trying to create a convincing three-dimensional soundscape.  When listening to identical binaural audio content, one person may not interpret aural signals the same way another would, and might estimate that sounds are positioned differently.  Fortunately, head tracking comes to the rescue here.  As Ward-Foxton explained during his talk, when we move our heads about and then listen to the way that the sounds shift in relation to our movements, our brains are able to adjust to any differences in the way that sounds are reaching us, and our estimation of the spatial origination of individual sounds becomes much more reliable.  So the personal agency of the gaming experience is a critical element in completing the immersive aural world.

Music, Narration, and the Voice of God


Now, here’s where we start talking about problems relating directly to music in a VR game.  Nicholas Ward-Foxton’s talk touched briefly on the issues facing music in VR by exploring the two classifications that music may fall into. When we’re playing a typical video game, we usually encounter both diegetic and non-diegetic audio content.  Diegetic audio consists of sound elements that are happening in the fictional world of the game, such as environment sounds, sound effects, and music being emitted by in-game sources such as radios, public address systems, NPC musicians, etc.  On the other hand, non-diegetic audio consists of sound elements that we understand to be outside the world of the story and its characters, such as a voice-over narration, or the game’s musical score.  We know that the game characters can’t hear these things, but it doesn’t bother us that we can hear them.  That’s just a part of the narrative.

VR changes all that.  When we hear a disembodied, floating voice from within a virtual environment, we sometimes feel, according to Ward-Foxton, as though we are hearing the voice of God.  Likewise, when we hear music in a VR game, we may sometimes perceive it as though it were God’s underscore.  I wrote about the problems of music breaking immersion as it related to mixing game music in surround sound in Chapter 13 of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, but the problem becomes even more pronounced in VR.  When an entire game is urging us to suspend our disbelief fully and become completely immersed, the sudden intrusion of the voice of the Almighty supported by the beautiful strains of the holy symphony orchestra has the potential to be pretty disruptive.


The harpist of the Almighty, hovering somewhere in the VR world…

So, what can we do about it?  For non-diegetic narration, Ward-Foxton suggested that the voice would have to be contextualized within the in-game narrative in order for the “voice of God” effect to be averted.  In other words, the narration needs to come from some explainable in-game source, such as a radio, a telephone, or some other logical sound conveyance that exists in the virtual world.  That solution, however, doesn’t work for music, so it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Voice in our heads

During the Q&A portion of Ward-Foxton’s talk, an audience member asked a very interesting question.  When the player is assuming the role of a specific character in the game, and that character speaks, how can the audio system make the resulting spoken voice sound the way it would to the ears of the speaker?  After all, whenever any of us speak aloud, we don’t hear our voices the way others do.  Instead, we hear our own voice through the resonant medium of our bodies, rising from our larynx and reverberating throughout our own unique formantor acoustical vocal tract.  That’s why most of us perceive our voices as being deeper and richer than they sound when we hear them in a recording.

Ward-Foxton suggested that processing and pitch alteration might create the effect of a lower, deeper voice, helping to make the sound seem more internal and resonant (the way it would sound to the actual speaker).  However, he also mentioned another approach to this issue earlier in his talk, and I think this particular approach might be an interesting solution for the “music of God” problem as well.

Proximity Effect

“I wanted to talk about proximity,” said Ward-Foxton, “because it’s a really powerful effect in VR, especially audio-wise.”  Referencing the Virtual Barber Shop audio demo from QSound Labs, Ward-Foxton talked about the power of sounds that seem to be happening “right in your personal space.”  In order to give sounds that intensely intimate feeling when they become very close, Ward-Foxton’s team would apply dynamic compression and bass boost to the sounds, in order to simulate the Proximity Effect.

The Proximity Effect is a phenomenon related to the physical construction of microphones, making them prone to add extra bass and richness when the source of the recording draws very close to the recording apparatus.  This concept is demonstrated and explained in much more depth in this video produced by Dr. Alexander J. Turner for the blog Nerds Central:

So, if simulating the Proximity Effect can make a voice sound like it’s coming from within, as Ward-Foxton suggests, can applying some of the principles of the Proximity Effect make the music sound like it’s coming from within, too?

Music in our heads

This was the thought that crossed my mind during this part of Ward-Foxton’s talk on “Environmental Audio and Processing for VR.”  In traditional music recording, instruments are assigned a position on the stereo spectrum, and the breadth from left to right can feel quite wide.  Meanwhile, the instruments (especially in orchestral recordings) are often recorded in an acoustic space that would be described as “live,” or reverberant to some degree.  This natural reverberance is widely regarded as desirable for an acoustic or orchestral recording, since it creates a sensation of natural space and allows the sounds of the instruments to blend with the assistance of the sonic reflections from the recording environment.  However, it also creates a sensation of distance between the listener and the musicians.  The music doesn’t seem to be invading our personal space.  It’s set back from us, and the musicians are also spread out around us in a large arc shape.

So, in VR, these musicians would be invisibly hovering in the distance, their sounds emitting from defined positions in the stereo spectrum. Moreover the invisible musicians would fly around as we turn our heads, maintaining their position in relation to our ears, even as the sound design elements of the in-game environment remain consistently true to their places of origin in the VR world.  Essentially, we’re listening to the Almighty’s holy symphony orchestra.  So, how can we fix this?

One possible approach might be to record our music with a much more intimate feel.  Instead of choosing reverberant spaces, we might record in perfectly neutral spaces and then add very subtle amounts of room reflection to assist in a proper blend without disrupting the sensation of intimacy.  Likewise, we might somewhat limit the stereo positioning of our instruments, moving them a bit more towards the center.  Finally, a bit of prudently applied compression and EQ might add the extra warmth and intimacy needed in order to make the music feel close and personal.  Now, the music isn’t “out there” in the game world.  Now, the music is in our heads.

Music in VR

It will be interesting to see the audio experimentation that is surely to take place in the first wave of VR games.  So far, we’ve only been privy to tech demos showing the power of the VR systems, but the music in these tech demos has given us a brief peek at what music in VR might be like in the future.  So far, it’s been fairly sparse and subtle… possibly a response to the “music of the Almighty” problem.  It is interesting to see how this music interacts with the gameplay experience.  Ward-Foxton mentioned two particular tech demos during his talk.  Here’s the first, called “Street Luge.”

The simple music of this demo, while quite sparse, does include some deep, bassy tones and some dry, close-recorded percussion.  Also, the stereo breadth appears to be a bit narrow as well, but this may not have been intentional.

The second tech demo mentioned during Ward-Foxton’s talk was “The Deep.”

The music of this tech demo is limited to a few atmospheric synth tones and a couple of jump-scare stingers, underscored by a deep low pulse.  Again, the music doesn’t seem to have a particularly wide stereo spectrum, but this may not have been a deliberate choice.

I hope you enjoyed this exploration of some of the concepts included in Nicholas Ward-Foxton’s talk at GDC 2015, along with my own speculation about possible approaches to problems related to non-diegetic music in virtual reality.  Please let me know what you think in the comments!