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Moving beyond traditional surround sound

There are many techniques used in surround, from panning and volume control across multiple channels to binaural synthesis. However there is new technology emerging, and this interview with Christian Schilling, Senior Audio Designer at Crytek, explores it

For quite some time surround has been the same, not only in games but in feature films, with the answer to leaping beyond seemingly only being adding channels. IOSONO, a company based in Erfurt, Germany, is changing that, and a first step was taken using the Crysis 3 engine. Read on for what the experience was like with Christian Schilling, Senior Audio Designer at Crytek. 

How would you describe PROXIMITY? What effect did PROXIMITY have on you?

CS: PROXIMITY actually is the right term, it brings things closer to your ears. It sounds a bit as if you’re using headphones, it simulates that the sound source is really close to your head. That’s what I experienced with PROXIMITY, things get much closer than you’re used to from common sound systems. It had a bit of a magnetic effect to me.

How would you describe PROXIMITY’s added value compared to common surround mixes?

CS: I think as a sound designer you can control the player’s emotions more precisely. The player can really dive into the situation. During a fight for example you feel the enemy coming at you, it actually seems like he’s passing you. Probably this can be tweaked and perfected endlessly, there’s still room to make this even better, but the proximity effect is already working very well.

Do you think there are certain game genres that PROXIMITY will work best for?

CS: I can’t really limit it to a certain genre. A game like Crysis is pretty ideal. Action games in general, where being close to the enemy signals danger. It allows you to express danger even better, because you really get a feeling for being close to the enemy. Also typical shooters work very well. Bullets whizzing past your ears, that’s a certain proximity effect showing you you’re in a dangerous situation.

In general it works very well for games where you use your ears for orientation. Dark games where you have to rely on what you hear. I can also imagine this being a gameplay factor. So you could guess how far away something is and get a better gaming performance through it. Also I think that first person-games might work a little better than third person-games (like Uncharted or Tomb Raider), because you’re more close to what’s happening.

A while ago I compared this to the transition from black-and-white TV to color TV. Back then, suddenly all TV shows were extremely colorful, because a certain value was assigned to this ‘new’ effect. Today nobody really notices it because a film in color has become standard. The main character doesn’t have to wear a colorful shirt to show the color effect. But it was a new effect back then and so we also use the PROXIMITY effect wanting to show what we can do with it in the mix. And maybe this effect will be standard too in some time and it will be used for games that might not be perfectly suited for it at first sight.

How much extra effort did this mix take compared to a common 5.1 mix?

CS: We were able to limit the additional effort by making the PROXIMITY effect depend on the distance curve. The effort mostly lay in adding the effect everywhere by doing copy/paste. Usually, you start with the 5.1 mix and then do a mix for PROXIMITY. Or, assuming that PROXIMITY becomes a standard and everyone with a 5.1 or 7.1 system owns PROXIMITY speakers than you could immediately mix for PROXIMITY.

We worked on the mix for the level for one week now – of course this wouldn’t be enough time for the whole game. I think that at the moment you’d have to add two weeks to the two weeks needed for the ‘normal’ mix. Of course this effort could still be reduced as the tools continue to be developed.

How far did working with the customized FMOD Designer meet your expectations?

CS: I thought it would be more difficult. I’ve never mixed on a system like this and I thought there might be things I didn’t know at all or things I wouldn’t have a feeling for. But it was pretty intuitive! The workflow matched our usual approach and so it was pretty easy.

Do you think that there are sounds that are especially suitable for using PROXIMITY or some that are less suitable?

CS: Low frequency sounds are not suitable as a matter of principle. But besides that I think all sounds are suitable for using PROXIMITY. I don’t think PROXIMITY is an effect that should just be used for certain sounds, but for the whole mix. So every sound that gets close to the player is suitable. For me it somehow functions like a volume control to create proximity and so it works for every sound that’s meant to be close.

What was the collaboration with IOSONO like?

CS: I really enjoyed it! The week we spent mixing together was highly productive. Everyone could bring in his knowledge and focus on what he does best. During this week we did several modifications in FMOD, added a new parameter, changed some software behavior and everyone could give his own input on the mix. That was really helpful as it was the first time mixing with PROXIMITY for me. It was a really cool collaboration!

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