Video Game Music Composers: New VR Headphones

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

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

As a video game composer, I’ve been working in my studio composing music for quite a few virtual reality projects lately (as pictured above), so I’ve been thinking a lot about issues related to audio in the VR environment.  Those issues include how gamers experience the audio content through various headphone models.  In this article, I thought we’d take a look at three newly-announced headphone models that are targeting the VR marketplace, and see what new technologies are being proposed to facilitate the best and most awesome VR audio experiences.  So, let’s get started!

The Audeze iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones

Photo of the iSINE Headphones for the popular virtual reality platform, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.The iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones made their debut in January of this year at the famous Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  These in-ear headphones (pictured right) ship with both HTC Vive and Oculus Rift compatible cables (in addition to a standard audio cable).  At first glance the iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones seem to offer no specific or overt accommodation for VR, apart from the handy cables.  A quick review of the web site reveals a headphone technology that relies on simply delivering great audio quality that exceeds the capabilities of other competing headphones.  However, when we dig a little deeper into the specifications, we see that the core technology of the iSINE headphones has a very specific application in the world of VR audio.

Planar magnetic technology is touted as the driving factor behind the iSINE’s ability to deliver more convincing 3D audio for VR.  Most headphones on the market today, from the cheapest to the most high-end audiophile models, deliver their sound by virtue of the most popular driver type: the standard dynamic driver, also known as the moving coil driver.  In a standard dynamic headphone design, a wire coil is attached to a diaphragm and suspended in a magnetic field.  The audio signal is passed through the coil in the form of a current that causes the coil and the attached diaphragm to vibrate back and forth, generating the sound waves that we hear.

Photo of a cross-section of driver from the iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.The Audeze iSINE headphones eschew this type of driver in favor of the less commonly used planar magnetic technology, which you can see in this internal view of the iSINE headphones (pictured left).  In the planar magnetic driver configuration, wires are embedded directly within a larger membrane.  The embedded wires are surrounded by two sets of oppositely aligned magnets that are pointed at each other, creating a magnetic field.  When the audio signal current passes through the wires embedded in the membrane, a second magnetic field is generated.  This field reacts to the field created by the magnets and the opposing forces generate vibration in the membrane, which creates the sound we hear.

To visualize this explanation a little better, let’s watch this video from headphones expert Tyll Hertsens (editor at InnerFidelity.com), who takes apart another pair of planar magnetic headphones to show us the inner workings of the technology:

For the purposes of delivering convincing VR audio, the primary advantage of a planar magnetic driver is to be found in the way in which the sound travels. Sound from a standard dynamic driver will typically travel in a Depiction of the famous spherical wave front, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer)spherical wave front, originating from a single point and traveling outward in all directions (pictured right).  In sharp contrast, the sound from a planar magnetic driver travels in parallel waves that proceed only in the direction in which they are pointed.  According to Audeze, these parallel, unidirectional sound waves are crucial to the enjoyment of 3D audio in the VR realm.  The spherical wave front of typical headphones delivers the sound waves in a cone shape that interacts with our ear canals in ways that wouldn’t occur in the natural world.  Depiction of the planar wave front, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer)The planar wave front (pictured left) delivers sounds into our ears in a straight line instead of a conical shape, and this comes across as much more natural and realistic. Also, the more natural interaction of the sound waves with our ears allows us to more easily localize the origin of sounds in our environment, leading to a more satisfying and convincing 3D soundscape.

After their release in January of this year, senior editor Vlad Savov spotlighted the excellent spatial positioning afforded by the iSINE headphones in his review article for TheVerge.com. “If you want soundstage — the sensation of music and sound surrounding you; the feeling of distance, depth, and separation between the various instruments and sound sources — the iSines have it in abundance.”

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the iSINE headphones is the focus on planar magnetic technology as an important enhancement for satisfying three dimensional sound.  As far as I can tell, Audeze is the only company connecting this specific technology with the idea of better spatial positioning for VR audio.  It will be interesting to see if other audio gear makers adopt this technology for VR applications.

Mantis VR and the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap

Illustration of the Mantis headphones used in conjunction with the popular PlayStation VR headset, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.While the Oculus Rift VR headset shipped with a set of on-ear headphones built directly into the device, the same could not be said for its competitors.  The HTC Vive and the PlayStation VR arrived in the marketplace without any audio delivery system, leaving users to pull together their own solutions. Wearing a separate set of headphones on top of a VR headset could cause discomfort as the two head-mounted devices squeezed against each other, and the extra dangling cables could be a hassle.

Now help has arrived in the form of two audio solutions for the Vive and the PSVR that are designed to attach directly to their respective VR headsets.  The Mantis VR (developed by the Bionik gaming accessories company) is designed with spring-loaded clips that attach to the headband of the PlayStation VR.  The Mantis VR was designed in the same black and white color scheme of the PSVR headset, allowing the Mantis headphones to blend in and look like a built-in component of the device.  While they look attractive, there is little information provided regarding their audio specifications, which should lead us to assume that these headphones are of a basic, serviceable variety without any technological tweaks to accommodate VR audio.  Here’s a video in which Bionik head of marketing Crystal Duggan demonstrates the Mantis PSVR headphones:

Photo of the Deluxe Audio Strap for the famous Vive VR headset, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.The Vive Deluxe Audio Strap is the solution developed to address the lack of built-in headphones for the HTC Vive.  On the surface, the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap is a dramatically different solution than the one Bionik devised.  As we recall, the Mantis VR consists of a pair of petite headphone cups mounted on short swing-arms that clip to the sides of the PSVR.  In contrast, the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap completely replaces the entire head-strap assembly of the Vive with a brand new version.  Here’s the instructional video on the installation of the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap, produced by the makers of the HTC Vive:

Again, the audio quality of these headphones is never addressed by the manufacturers, and according to a review in PCWorld.com, “Deluxe Audio Strap’s sound quality is “good enough” for most people and purposes.”  Definitely not a glowing review, but the quality of the audio may not really be a major consideration for either the manufacturers or the intended audience. It seems that this device was meant simply to address an oversight in the original design of the HTC Vive.  Audio is now provided, and that may be enough to make some Vive owners happy.

 

Conclusion

So, that concludes this article that gathered together some of the new developments in VR headphones that might interest us as video game music composers.  In my next article, we’ll be revisiting some VR headphones that were announced last year.  We’ll check in with the OSSIC X, the CEEKARS VR, the Entrim 4D and the Plantronics RIG 4VR, and we’ll see how development on these VR headphones is progressing.  Until then, please let me know what you think in the comments below!

 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her 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.

Understanding Audio in VR – A Game Music Composer’s Resource Guide

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her game composers production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

When I’m not at work in my studio making music for games, I like to keep up with new developments in the field of interactive entertainment, and I’ll often share what I learn here in these articles.  Virtual reality is an awesome subject for study for a video game composer, and several of my recent projects have been in the world of VR.  Since I’m sure that most of us are curious about what’s coming next in virtual reality, I’ve decided to devote this article to a collection of educational resources.  I’ve made a point of keeping our focus general here, with the intent of understanding the role of audio in VR and the best resources available to audio folks.  As a component of the VR soundscape, our music must fit into the entire matrix of aural elements, so we’ll spend this article learning about what goes into making expert sound for a virtual reality experience. Let’s start with a few articles that discuss methods and techniques for VR audio practitioners.

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VRDC 2017 takeaways: VR music for the game composer

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips, at work in her music production studio - from the article about music for virtual reality / VR.The Game Developers Conference is always an awesome opportunity for game audio experts to learn and share experiences.  I’ve given presentations at GDC for a few years now, and I’m always excited to hear about what’s new and notable in game audio.  This year, the hot topic was virtual reality.  In fact, the subject received its own dedicated sub-conference that took place concurrently with the main GDC show.  The VRDC (Virtual Reality Developers Conference) didn’t focus particularly on the audio and music side of VR, but there were a couple of notable talks on that subject.  In this article, let’s take a look at some of the more intriguing VR game music takeaways from those two talks.  Along the way, I’ll also share some of my related experience as the composer of the music of the Dragon Front VR game for the Oculus Rift (pictured above).

Inside and outside

The talks we’ll be discussing in this article are entitled “Audio Adventures in VR Worlds” and “The Sound Design of Star Wars: Battlefront VR.”  Here’s a common issue that popped up in both talks:

An illustration of music in the popular VR platform, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).Where should video game music be in a VR game?  Should it feel like it exists inside the VR world, weaving itself into the immersive 3D atmosphere surrounding the player?  Or should it feel like it’s somehow outside of the VR environment and is instead coasting on top of the experience, being conveyed directly to the player?  The former approach suggests a spacious and expansive musical soundscape, and the latter would feel much closer and more personal.  Is one of these approaches more effective in VR than the other?  Which choice is best?

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: tools and tips for composers

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio on the music of the SimAnimals video game.

By video game composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to this three article series that’s bringing together the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers explored discoveries they’d made while creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to broaden our viewpoint and gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. We’ve been looking at five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

In the first article, we examined the basic nature of these interactive systems. In the second article, we contemplated why those systems were used, with some of the inherent pros and cons of each system discussed in turn.  So now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of tools and tips for working with such interactive music systems.  If you haven’t read parts one and two of this series, please go do so now and then come back:

  1. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?
  2. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Ready?  Great!  Here we go!

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Cross Controller

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three article series dedicated to collecting and exploring the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers shared ideas they’d developed in the process of creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to cultivate a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we looked at the basic nature of five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

If you haven’t read part one of this article series, please go do that now and come back.

Okay, so let’s now contemplate some simple but important questions: why were those systems used?  What was attractive about each interactive music strategy, and what were the challenges inherent in using those systems?

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?

By video game music composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, presenting at the Game Developers Conference 2017.The 2017 Game Developers Conference could be described as a densely-packed deep-dive exploration of the state-of-the-art tools and methodologies used in modern game development.  This description held especially true for the game audio track, wherein top experts in the field offered a plethora of viewpoints and advice on the awesome technical and artistic challenges of creating great sound for games. I’ve given GDC talks for the past three years now (see photo), and every year I’m amazed at the breadth and diversity of the problem-solving approaches discussed by my fellow GDC presenters.  Often I’ll emerge from the conference with the impression that we game audio folks are all “doing it our own way,” using widely divergent strategies and tools.

This year, I thought I’d write three articles to collect and explore the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC audio talks.  During their presentations, these five speakers all shared their thoughts on best practices and methods for instilling interactivity in modern game music.  By absorbing these ideas side-by-side, I thought we might gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the current leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we’ll look at the basic nature of these interactive systems.  We’ll devote the second article to the pros and cons of each system, and in the third article we’ll look at tools and tips shared by these music interactivity experts. Along the way, I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on the subject, and we’ll take a look at musical examples from some of my own projects that demonstrate a few ideas explored in these GDC talks:

So, let’s begin with the most obvious question.  What kind of interactive music systems are game audio folks using lately?

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Variation for the video game composer: the music of Little Lords of Twilight

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips at the BKOM booth during GDC 2017.

Since one of my most recent projects, Little Lords of Twilight, became available worldwide earlier this year and was recently greenlit on the famous Steam platform, I thought I’d write this article to share some of my creative and technical process in composing the music for this game. In particular, this project presents a great opportunity to look at how compositional variation (as we understand it from music theory) can be useful for the structure of interactive music.

Developed by BKOM Studios, Little Lords of Twilight won a Best in Play Award at GDC 2017, a Best Designed Mobile App Platinum Award from the BMA Awards, a Communicator Award for Best Mobile App, and has appeared on numerous “Best of” lists, including those published by PocketGamer, Explore Gadgets, and GameInOnline.  As a player-versus-player turn-based strategy game, Little Lords of Twilight offers a unique gameplay mechanic influenced by the in-game passage of time.  Day and night cycles dramatically alter your character’s appearance and abilities. Depending on whether it is currently day or night in the game, your character will have access to a completely different complement of awesome skills and spells to wield on the battlefield.

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