Video games are often regarded as a visual medium (well, there’s a clue in the name…) but as with films, sound has become a vitally important part of the production, sucking the player into the action, giving gameplay cues and clues and using music and voice acting to add emotional punch to key sections. 5.1 and even 7.1-channel surround sound is now commonplace in games.
Big budget titles now feature huge audio development teams to work on creating sound effects and bring Hollywood composers like Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino on board to deliver suitably epic musical scores. With so much time and resources channelled into delivering sound, relying on tinny TV speakers to convey it to you seems like a huge missed opportunity.
But it doesn’t have to be that way: investing in some home cinema equipment allows you to do your games justice and experience sound as the developer intended. We asked Sam Kieldsen to put together a quick guide on some of the gear available and some of the best games for audio design.
Which console or computer?
The Nintendo Wii isn’t able to output anything more than analogue Dolby Pro Logic II, so if you’re looking for a system able to offer discrete surround sound you’re going to have to choose between the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360.
The PS3 can output 5.1-channel Dolby Digital or DTS audio via an optical digital cable, and if decoded by a good AV amplifier you’ll get fantastic, thoroughly immersive surround sound, broadly equivalent to the results you’d get from a DVD soundtrack.
But if you can, an even better option is to send both video and audio signals into your AV amplifier via a single HDMI cable:your AV amplifier will decode the sound, and pass the video signal on to your TV. Depending on the soundtracks encoded on to the games you’re playing, this will give you access to lossless or uncompressed audio, just like the audio you’ll get from a Blu-ray movie.
Another option is to go with a PC, which can be configured to output pretty much any kind of surround sound via HDMI or optical cable. PCs are somewhat less living room friendly than consoles, of course – but that is steadily changing thanks to the likes of Steam Big Picture Mode.
Assuming you’re going with the audio-via-HDMI option, the Rotel RSX-1550. You can hook up your console or PC to it via a single HDMI cable (it has four HDMI inputs) and have the amplifier decode the digital signals into 5.1 or 7.1 analogue surround sound while channeling the HD video feed to your TV via another HDMI cable.
The RSX-1550 is a 5.1-channel amp, delivering 100W per channel and works perfectly with the compact speakers we’re recommending you hook up to it. If you have larger speakers or you want a true discrete 7.1-channel arrangement, you could opt for the higher end RSX-1560 or 1562.
The latest edition of Bowers & Wilkin’s 5.1 Mini Theatre system, the MT-60D, makes a fantastic set of gaming speakers. Despite its diminutive size the package excels in its versatility: it’s able to provide a light touch when required, as well as (thanks to the PV1D subwoofer) a gloriously weighty amount of bass for explosions, the rumbling of car engines and the like. So whatever you’re playing, the MT-60D will play along nicely.
If you have a larger room that needs filling with sound, a package like the B&W 684 Theatre might be more suitable: the front speakers are sizeable floorstanders, while the rear channels are smaller bookshelf-style speakers. There’s also an ASW610 subwoofer to supply a large, yet taut and controlled, level of bass.
With hardware sorted, you’re going to need some games to give those speakers a workout. Here’s a selection of some of the best titles for audio design in recent years.
1. Battlefield 3 (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
Modern Warfare may be the more popular first person shooter series in terms of sales, but Battlefield 3 is in our opinion far more impressive on a technical level – and never more so than when it comes to its sound. Zipping bullets, shattering glass, roaring tank engines: it all sounds incredibly accurate and crisp (perhaps because developers DICE attended and recorded real world military exercises) rather than simply picking sound effects from a digital library.
2. Dead Space 2 (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
Sci-fi doesn’t get much creepier than this, as you venture through a vast abandoned space station infested with vicious Necromorphs (corpses reanimated by an alien infection, if you didn’t already know…). The music and effects brilliantly ramp up the tension as you explore, and when the horror begins the sounds are appropriately disgusting.
3. Company of Heroes (PC/Mac)
It’s been around for a few years (in fact a sequel is due in early 2013), but this real-time strategy game set during WWII retains a strong following among PC gamers for its balance, visuals and yes, its audio design. One of the few strategy games that lets you zoom in right up with the troops, COH backs that up by letting you hear – and almost feel – the force of artillery shells, machine gun fire and mortar rounds. That’s not to mention the sweary shouts and screams of your men.
4. Limbo (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
This inexpensive platform game’s grainy monochrome visuals are ably abetted by its strange, distorted soundscape in creating one of the most memorable gaming experiences in recent times. With no dialogue or cutscenes to tell the story, a huge burden is left on the audio design to suck the player into the game – and the creators stepped up marvellously.
5. The Beatles: Rock Band (PS3/Xbox 360/Wii)
A collection of plastic instrument add-ons allows you to play and sing along to 45 of the Fab Four’s greatest tunes, which have been created using high fidelity versions of the original recordings (with the help of Giles Martin, Beatles producer George Martin’s son).