Soundscapes – The broken sound of console ports
There’s a problem with the sound in games that appeared in the last 5 years. Many “well done” console ports to the PC such as Alan Wake and Dragon Age 2 actually have a serious problem. If you run these games in stereo mode, the original intent of the sound designers is subverted and you are instead presented with a broken version of the game. Unless you know what the game is supposed to sound like you wouldn’t know that you’re getting a compromised version of the intended sound experience. Even critics and technically knowledgeable gamers seem to have overlooked this issue despite it appearing in many games over several years. It’s an issue of sound samples not being played properly, compromised dynamics and ultimately a lesser emotional impact than was present in the original design.
To demonstrate the problem the clip below compares an early bit of Dragon Age 2.
First is what you hear in stereo mode and the second half is how the artists intended the game to sound. The difference you should notice is that the initial magic bolt is louder and has more bass in the second clip as do the incidental music and sword cuts that follow it. The first clip lacks impact and sounds dull in comparison.
The wave form image is the sound of the video clip and the first 30 seconds is the first clip and as you can see the second clip is significantly louder. The biggest spike in volume in both halves of the clip is the magic bolt. What I did to make the game sound like the second clip was to trick it into running in 5.1 surround mode and then down mix it into stereo with my sound card. With Asus and Creative sound cards you can make Windows think you’re running with a full 5.1 or 7.1 system and then in the driver controls you can make the actual sound output be stereo or headphones. This will trick all software running on your machine into thinking you have a full surround system, even if you don’t. I have confirmed that the console versions of the game sound exactly like the 5.1 down mixed version if you run them in stereo mode and it is only on the PC in stereo that it sounds like the first clip.
In order to understand what is happening and why we have to understand how game audio is mixed. Mixing is the process of tweaking all the sound elements into what will become the final sound experience you as a player will hear at home. A 5.1 surround sound system consists of 6 audio channels, the five speakers and the subwoofer. When a movie is mixed it’s always done for at least 6 channels so if you watch something in stereo (2 channels) it’s a down mixed version of the 6 channel original. The down mixing is done by the dvd/blu ray player itself and there is no separate stereo mix done for any movie. While a movie is mixed the sound mixer makes sure that the soundtrack sounds great both when played over a surround system and when down mixed into stereo. In recent years game sound designers have become aware that there are a lot of 5.1 users out there and are deliberately cutting up sound into several pieces and making the sound mix more similar to how movies are done. The bass is sent to the subwoofer channel while the midrange and treble is sent to the front and rear channels. The effect of doing this is that the mixer gains more control over the bass and can generally produce a clearer and higher fidelity sound experience. When you play a console game in stereo mode you are hearing a down mixed version of the 6 channel audio track just as if you were watching a movie. The problem with the PC ports is that their sound is not played back in this way.
What happens in these ports is that the stereo version only plays the sound elements which are sent to the front speakers and completely ignores the hard coded subwoofer or surround speaker effects. Dragon Age 2 has many subwoofer specific sound effects and it also plays some sounds out of both front and rear speakers at the same time to double the volume of those effects. When you remove all those tricks and only play what is sent to the front speaker channels you get the loss of volume, bass and impact that the sound was intended to have.
A more recent example of console to PC porting gone wrong is Alan Wake. This is a port which is getting positive press for doing everything right in a PC port. If you play Alan Wake on PC in stereo mode however all the cutscenes are played back with mono sound and during gameplay subwoofer specific sound effects are removed. Why this was done boggles my mind since mono essentially ruins the music and drama when heard over even the most basic sound setup.
Even if you don’t notice that the sound is in mono specifically you will notice that the sound of the cutscenes is different somehow. The transition from gameplay to cutscene is sharp and you’re taken out of the experience. When the cutscenes sound as intended it takes a couple of seconds for the player to notice that a pre-rendered scene is playing since the transition is smoother. The clip demonstrates the difference between stereo and 5.1 down mixed into stereo. I’ve confirmed that the 360 version when run in stereo sounds like the down mixed version. During gameplay Alan Wake sounds less broken than Dragon Age 2 does, but it’s still a different sound experience from the intended one. The volume of music, sound effects and dialogue are slightly different but it roughly sounds the same as the intended mix. The biggest problem is the cutscenes only having mono sound.
It’s easy to see when the graphics of a game is wrong, but it’s harder to judge whether the sound is broken or not. In general people care much more about the graphics than sound and are willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to upgrade the visual experience. It’s much easier to understand the benefits of a visual upgrade compared to sound which you have to experience yourself in order to understand just how much better sound can be than what you’ve got. Poor framerate can drive you crazy while you can easily get used to a bad sound experience. Without a frame of reference there’s no way to know what you’re supposed to be hearing and if you don’t pay much attention to the sound to begin with I can easily see how this problem went unnoticed for so long. The people responsible for bringing over these games from the consoles to PC need to pay attention and make sure that the PC players are getting the intended experience not only with surround sound, but over stereo speakers and headphones as well. That high profile titles are allowed to exist in these substandard forms on PC should not be acceptable.