How Music Can Intensify Video Games: Part One

Tension has always served a crucial role in music composition and performance.  My next two blog articles will focus on how music works to shape tension and intensity in a dramatic presentation such as a video game.

Composer Winifred Phillips, working on music for Homefront: The Revolution in her music studio.During these blogs, we’ll be consulting with lots of top experts on the subject, and I’ll be sharing my experiences in regards to the tension-filled music that I composed as a member of the music team of Homefront: The Revolution – an open world, triple-A first person shooter game that was just released by Deep Silver/Dambuster Studios.  Along the way we’ll check out some excerpts from music tracks I composed (in my music production studio, pictured right) for Homefront: The Revolution, and we’ll talk about multiple techniques to build tension in a piece of music, with the goal of inciting the most emotional intensity possible in our audience. With that in mind, let’s start things off with a great quote from philosopher Henry David Thoreau:

“The fibers of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument.”

Image illustrating anxiety (from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips)Thoreau not only saw the connection between music and tension, but also made a good point about the stresses and strains in our lives – we all possess our own inner emotional pressure. The more fervently we pursue our goals and struggles, the higher the tension grows. Taken to the extreme, it can feel as though our insides are wound up as taut as clockworks. As game composers, our job has always been to induce players to care about what’s happening in the game, and that includes inciting and escalating the nervous anxiety associated with an awesome investment of emotion and empathy.  So let’s explore the best ways we can make players feel the tension!

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VR Audio: Past, Present & Future

VR Audio (article by award winning video game music composer Winifred Phillips)In this blog, I thought we might take a quick look at the development of the three dimensional audio technologies that promise to be a vital part of music and sound for a virtual reality video game experience. Starting from its earliest incarnations, we’ll follow 3D audio through the fits and starts that it endured through its tumultuous history.  We’ll trace its development to the current state of affairs, and we’ll even try to imagine what may be coming in the future!  But first, let’s start at the beginning:

3D Audio of the Past

Alan Blumlein (article by award winning video game music composer Winifred Phillips)In the 1930s, English engineer and inventor Alan Blumlein invented a process of audio recording that involved a pair of microphones that were coincident (i.e. placed closely together to capture a sound source).  Blumlein’s intent was to accurately reflect the directional position of the sounds being recorded, thus attaining a result that conveyed spatial relationships in a more faithful way.  In reality, Blumlein had invented what we now call stereo, but the inventor himself referred to his technique as “binaural sound.”  As we know, stereo has been an extremely successful format, but the fully realized concept of “binaural sound” would not come to fruition until much later.

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Can Game Music and Sound Combat VR Sickness?

dizzyVirtual Reality Sickness: the nightmare of VR developers everywhere.  We all know the symptoms.  Nausea.  Headache.  Sweating. Pallor.  Disorientation. All together, these symptoms are a perfect recipe for disaster. No one wants their game to make players feel like they’ve been spinning on a demon-possessed merry-go-round.  So, how do we keep this affliction from destroying the brand new, awesome VR industry before it even gets a chance to get off the ground?

In response to this possible VR apocalypse, the top manufacturers have taken big steps to improve their popular devices.  Oculus improved the display on its famous Rift device, Valve introduced a motion-tracking system that helps us orient ourselves and not get nauseous when wearing the Vive, and PlayStation VR incorporated a wider field of view designed to make players feel more comfortable. Even with these efforts, players are still reporting motion sickness symptoms, and the creators of the VR systems have responded by pointing the finger of blame at game developers.  So, if the developers of VR games have to solve the problem, then how can the music and sound folks help? Can game music and sound combat VR sickness?

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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:

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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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Music Composers and Sound Designers in VR: The Headphones Problem

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Over the past few months I’ve taken several opportunities to blog about the role that music and sound may play in the virtual reality systems and games that have become famous in the media of late, and which will begin to hit retail during the holidays this year.  Today I encountered a very interesting research paper that warns of a possible problem that may face game developers as they attempt to deliver three-dimensional audio for virtual reality experiences.  I explored some issues regarding three-dimensional game audio in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, and as game composers, I thought that audio for VR might be of particular interest to us.  So, I’m going to share what I learned about the issue from this research paper, including a conclusion which may indicate an imminent problem for some VR gamers.

All of the popular VR systems rely on headphones for audio delivery, but only one (the Oculus Rift) will include built-in headphones as a part of the system.  The rest will allow the consumer to use their own headphones, and even the Oculus Rift allows for its attached headphones to be removed so that the user can replace them with their own “high quality” headphones.

The Oculus Rift, shipping with detachable headphones.

The Oculus Rift, shipping with detachable headphones.

So, here’s where things start to get tricky.

What do the words “high quality headphones” mean to the modern gamer?  Well, the gaming website Kotaku held a survey last year so that its hardcore gaming community could vote to determine the very best gaming headphones.  The winner (by a wide margin) was the Astro A50 7.1 Wireless Surround Sound headset, followed by the Logitech G930 Wireless 7.1-Channel Surround Sound headset.  Two surround-sound models had come out on top.  Of the other headsets in the survey, most were stereo rather than surround, and the only other surround-sound headset in the survey was wired rather than wireless.  Clearly, the community had told us what “high quality” meant – and that was a surround sound experience.

The Astro A50 Wireless 7.1 Surround Sound Headset.

The Astro A50 Wireless 7.1 Surround Sound Headset.

Now, here’s where we hit upon the problem, and it’s explored in the paper “Challenges of the Headphone Mix in Games,” written by Aristotel Digenis (lead audio programmer with FreeStyleGames), who presented his paper in February 2015 at the Audio Engineering Society’s International Conference on Audio for Games in London.  Virtual reality games will be offering binaural audio to simulate a fully three-dimensional listening environment.  While binaural audio can present an awesome level of immersion and realism, the technology of binaural sound isn’t the same as that of surround sound.  In fact, they’re fundamentally different.  If gamers have opted to use their own “high quality” surround sound headsets, then they may be experiencing a lower-quality sound environment than the game developers intended.

Many of the highest quality surround sound headphones include the ability to process an incoming non-surround audio signal into a compatible surround-sound mix (essentially imitating surround sound by virtue of some built-in digital signal processing).  If this processing were applied to the binaural soundscape of a virtual reality game, the effect would cause the immersive quality of the audio to deteriorate rather than improve.  Gamers would be left wondering why their stellar top-of-the-line headphones are making their VR game sound lousy.

So far I haven’t heard any reps from the three VR system manufacturers address this issue, and gamers should definitely be warned that “high quality” headphones for VR will need to be stereo, rather than surround.  VR enthusiasts who are hoping for the ultimate virtual reality experience may need to purchase some excellent stereo headphones, if they don’t already own them.  Without a warning about this issue, some VR gamers may be set up for a nasty sonic surprise.

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning game music composer with more than 11 years of experience in the video game industry.  Her projects include Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and many others.  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.

E3 2015 for the Game Music Composer

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The Electronic Entertainment Expo is upon us once again, so I’ll be spending this blog exploring what we can expect to see and learn that’s most relevant to the field of game audio from this year’s big convention.

Virtual Reality

The impending releases of three virtual reality systems should make things especially interesting on the E3 show floor, and it will be awesome to see and hear what these systems have to offer.  Let’s take a look at what we might expect from the three top VR systems, as well as a possible surprise VR reveal that might happen next week.

Project Morpheus

PlayStation president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida has already announced that several internally developed VR games for the Morpheus headset will be unveiled during E3, and we also learned during the 3D Audio in VR talk at the Shayla Games VR Jam in Denmark that the Morpheus will now incorporate an audio system involving Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF was discussed in this blog during a previous post about audio in VR).  It should be interesting to see if this HRTF system is implemented into the hardware that will be demonstrating on the E3 show floor.  The latest model of the Morpheus doesn’t include built-in headphones, as you’ll see in this video demo that TechCrunch released last month.  The demo discusses the capabilities of the hardware, including its audio functionality:

Oculus Rift

The newest model of the Oculus Rift, the famous Crescent Bay, offers 3D audio through a set of built-in headphones.  Here’s an interview that Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe gave to Gamecrate during the ever-popular Consumer Electronics Show 2015 about the new VR audio features of the Oculus Rift.

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive doesn’t currently offer built-in headphones, but the developer assures us that the final consumer version will offer integrated 3D audio.  The current model offers the user the option to connect their own high-end headphones to the Vive.  E3 attendees may get to see how aurally immersive that can be by playing Arizona Sunshine, a game designed for the Vive and set in a genre so famous and pervasive that its appearance in the VR world was inevitable: the apocalyptic zombie shooter.  The game was announced on May 21st by its developer, Vertigo Games, and it’s a good bet that the game could be showing on the E3 exhibit floor.  Here’s a look at a trailer for Arizona Sunshine:

Microsoft VR System

Finally, the rumor mill is swirling around speculation that Microsoft may officially reveal its own virtual reality headset system during this year’s E3.

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Audio exhibitors at E3

The Electronic Entertainment Expo is an opportunity for consumer audio hardware manufacturers to show off most of their top products, so let’s take a look at what this year’s exhibitors are offering.

Astro Gaming

Game Audio Products:

  • A50 XBox One Edition Headset, 2nd Generation
  • A50 Astro Edition Headset & TX, 2nd Generation
  • A40 Xbox One Edition Headset + MixAmp M80
  • A40 Astro Edition Headset + Mixamp, 2nd Generation
  • A40 Astro Edition Headset + Mixamp, 2nd Generation
  • A40 PC Edition Headset, 2nd Generation
  • A38 Astro Bluetooth Wireless Headset
  • MixAmp Pro, 2nd Generation

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dreamGEAR

Game Audio Products:

  • Prime Wired Headset for PS4
  • Universal Elite Wired Headset

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Performance Designed Products

Game Audio Products:

  • Afterglow Karga Headset for Xbox One
  • Afterglow Fener Premium Wireless Headset for PS4
  • Afterglow Kral Wireless Headset for PS4
  • Afterglow Nur Headset
  • Afterglow PS4 Bluetooth Communicator

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Plantronics

Game Audio Products:

  • RIG Gaming Audio System
  • RIG Surround Sound Gaming System
  • RIG Flex
  • GameCom 788 Gaming Headset
  • GameCom 388 Gaming Headset

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Polk Audio

Game Audio Products:

  • Striker Zx Xbox One Gaming Headset
  • Striker P1 Multiplatform Gaming Headset
  • N1 Gaming Sound Bar
  • 4 Shot Xbox One Gaming Headset

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Turtle Beach

Game Audio Products:

  • Turtle Beach Elite 800X Gaming Headset for Xbox One
  • Turtle Beach Stealth 500X headset for Xbox One
  • Turtle Beach XO Seven Pro
  • Turtle Beach XO Four Stealth
  • Turtle Beach Call of Duty Online PC Gaming Headset