Hear Ye, Hear Ye: The Importance of Digital Sound

New processors and advanced graphics are always a hit at the Game Developers Conference, but digital audio companies like Cakewalk, Dolby, and DTS also have a presence. With new PC games starting to take advantage of Dolby 7.1 surround sound -- and DTS’ unveiling of 11.1 surround sound with DTS Neo:X technology at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 -- sound is playing a more important role in today’s video game landscape.

By John Gaudiosi

New processors and advanced graphics are always a hit at the Game Developers Conference, but digital audio companies like Cakewalk, Dolby, and DTS also have a presence. With new PC games starting to take advantage of Dolby 7.1 surround sound  -- and DTS’ unveiling of 11.1 surround sound with DTS Neo:X  technology at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 -- sound is playing a more important role in today’s video game landscape.

“We have seen the evolution of game audio go from sounds that accompany video to fully immersive musical scores that envelope the user in the action or world,” says Steve Thomas, public relations director of Cakewalk, which has Sonar X1 audio software available for game developers. “And when it comes to cut scenes, where the expectation for video and audio quality is very high, it’s like producing for TV/film. No more cheesy sound FX and simulated strings -- now you get high-quality sampling and real orchestras. Game on!”

With the recent emphasis in the game business on stereoscopic 3D from both PC- and console-makers, Matt Tullis, marketing director at Dolby for games, says that essentially, video is only now catching up to audio.

Sound Rounds out the Game Experience

While 3D visuals add depth to the picture, surround sound is a great complement to that experience, says Tullis. “Sound is an integral part of delivering any entertainment experience, but sound is especially important in games,” he notes. “When playing games, surround sound can give you a competitive advantage because you can literally hear your opponents sneak up behind you.”

One of the audio technologies making its way into new PC games like Electronic Arts’ Need for Speed World  is 5.1 surround sound for Dolby Axon, the company’s voice chat solution for online games. What this means in-game is that multiplayer teammates playing online games like Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops will be able to hear their teammates from the locations of their in-game characters. This will add another level of realism to the audio.

Beyond 5.1, Tullis says the recent rollout of Dolby Pro Logic IIz  into home theater systems, which adds height channels into the mix, means it’s now ripe for game developers to tap into that sound technology. Guerilla Games’ Killzone 2  was one of the first games to support discrete 7.1 channel output on PlayStation 3 a few years ago. Killzone 3 is expected to push that technology further this year. Tullis expects more game developers to tap into the fact that every 7.1 channel receiver in the market includes Dolby Pro Logic IIx. This technology works great with Dolby Digital 5.1 channel games to create a 7.1 mix.

Next Generation of Immersive Home Theater

At the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, DTS demonstrated DTS Neo:X , which the company calls the next generation of immersive 3D entertainment for home theater enthusiasts and industry audio professionals. Designed for cinema, music and gaming entertainment, DTS Neo:X provides a semispherical sound field using an 11.1 speaker configuration adding height/wide speakers to create a natural, immersive, spacious and lifelike 3D surround soundscape. The first electronics supporting this technology will be in homes by summer 2011.

This is all part of the always-improving audio landscape, which is often overlooked by media coverage. But game developers have always realized the importance of sound in games, even when cartridges and CDs didn’t allow for much creativity.

“We’ve been working with game developers for over 15 years to bring immersive surround sound to games,” says Tullis. “In the early stages of rolling out surround sound in games, audio was always an afterthought. Game developers had significant challenges to building high-quality games, coupled with minimal audio resources. As the industry has matured, so has the approach to audio. Audio in games now receives the attention it deserves, with proper attention being paid to sound design.”

In the PC gaming space, every new laptop and gaming rig opens up new opportunities for not just improved visual fidelity, but also a whole new audio experience to complement the virtual world.

John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for the past 17 years for media outlets such as The Washington Post, CNET, Wired magazine and CBS.com. He is editor in chief of GamerLive.tv and a game columnist for Reuters and RhMinions.com.