Surround Music: The Emperor's New Clothes?
There has been much talk recently, predominantly among composers, dedicated
to the virtues and benefits of surround music in video games. Certainly
with the increased memory capacity of next-generation platforms, and a
greatly increased install-base of surround sound systems, the prospect
of surround score and licensed music seems more feasible than it was on
previous generation consoles. While this exciting expansion in the dimensions
of the video-games medium offers some fantastic opportunities and new
horizons for music in video games, there are also pitfalls which should
be carefully considered when designing a game's soundtrack with surround
music in mind. Leaving aside any technical aspects of surround music for
games (these have been discussed in depth and frequently elsewhere), there
are some pertinent questions that need to be asked of when surround music
is useful and when it is a needless distraction.
Surround sound systems are getting more and more
common in video gaming setups
Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Boundaries
For certain types of games, the notion of surround sound music offers
some very particular spatial and aesthetic challenges. In 3D first or
third person perspective games (mostly those games which aim to imitate
a 'cinematic' sound model), spatialization of music can break the 'non-diegetic
contract' between the space occupied by score and sound effects. Non-diegetic
music, or score, is not a part of the game world (diegesis). The score
is not expected, for example, to get effected by environmental reverbs
and it's volume or position is not attenuated according to where the player/listener
is positioned. So the spatialization of various instruments or textures
within a piece of score, particularly to the rear of the surround-field,
can be mistakenly read as a sound effect that is positional in the game-world
by the listener. This is due in part to the tonal similarity of much ambient
sound design to certain elements of an orchestral score. The same would
be the case if the game were set on board a space-ship and the score employed
positional ambient electronic bleeps in the rears, there would be a high
likelihood that the listener would be unable to determine what was a diegetic
sound effect and what was a non-diegetic positional part of the score.
If the style of the music and the style of sound effects are too similar,
then this spatial confusion can easily arise.
Distraction From Action and Immersion.
Surround sound has a unique function in 3D games as it allows for navigation
and essential off-screen action and space to be communicated to the player.
Sound effects such as gunshots, dialogue and footsteps coming from positional
points actually play a huge role in helping the gamer to play the game
and navigate the 3D space effectively. In cinema a very different set
of rules apply, anything too prominent in the surrounds is considered
a distraction from the screen, essentially having your audience looking
behind them towards the exit signs in the theatre to figure out what that
sound was. The use of surrounds in film, often tends towards ambience
to softly envelop the listener within the diegesis, essentially using
sounds that are non distracting. This is a clear, tried-and-tested formula
of maintaining immersion in cinema. Similarly, within these specific types
of games, anything in the musical score that can be misread by the listener
as a sound effect that is physically located behind them, can distract
the player and draw their attention to the music.
Not only would music that is making prominent use of surround channels
be confusing to the player who is attempting to use the surrounds for
navigation and for knowledge of enemy positions etc, it also has great
implications for the final mix of all the elements of the game's soundtrack,
particularly sound effects and dialogue. With music potentially taking
up a wide band of frequency in the rear-field as well as the front, this
introduces more clutter into the overall mix of sound effects, dialogue
and music and places further demands upon interactive mixing (an area
that still needs to make huge leaps technically and artistically in order
to catch up with the quality of cinema sound) to compensate and allow
the listener to clearly hear dialogue and sound effects at key moments
without being overwhelmed by the score.
Where Surround Music Will Work Well...
This is by no means a definitive list, but there are of course many
exciting areas where surround music can be exploited in ways that are
unique to interactive games and that look away from the cinematic 'film-sound'
model. In 3D games, a score that remains as 'underscore', and remains
in the 'ambient realm' could work well in a 3D environment. Provided there
is nothing to draw the player's attention to the rear field, nothing sudden
and unexpected in the score that reads as a sound effect. It is therefore
essential that communication between the composer and the sound director
occurs to figure out exactly how much activity is required in the rear-field
in terms of the score. Again, anything too prominent, and unexpected,
runs a high risk of being read as a positional sound effect by the player.
Positional sound effects are useful to the player, a cowbell
positioned in the rear field of the score is not. Having said this, there
are also occasions where the diegetic and non-diegetic 'contract' can
be exploited. Having surround elements in the music deliberately 'read'
as positional could be used in particularly scary or quiet moments in
a game, such as a survival horror, to create some very tangible aspects
of tension and confusion. "Was that a sound behind me? Ah no it was
just the music! phew... oh damn" etc. It all depends upon the requirements
of the game that are placed upon the sound, music and dialogue.
Racing games in particular also offer significant opportunities for use
of surround music in games as so much of the action in a racing title
is focused on what is directly in front of the player. There is also a
direct real-life example and sonic analogy that can be drawn between the
player and the listener as though they were sitting in a real car and
listening to a surround sound piece of music (from speakers actually placed
in the front and in the rear of the vehicle). The only sound effects that
the player is also likely to be interested in coming from the rears are
the sounds of other cars, not in themselves entirely subtle or hard to
mistake for elements of the surround music. Not only this, but the style
of music expected in a racing game, that of high-octane, electronic adrenalin-pumping
beats, is completely different to a 'score' and can be read and understood
more clearly by a listener as 'positional electronic music' as opposed
to 'positional sound effects'. It again comes down to a clear difference
between style of music (electronic) and style of sound effects (engines).
Racing games offer a real-life analogy of surround
music, with speakers often situated in the rear of the car as well as
Another good example is in 2D environments where there is no suggested
diegetic rear space for sounds to occupy. One such example is in front-end
menus, there is a good opportunity to use surround music there to fill
the rear field space. In 2D games there is also a great opportunity to
explore the space created with surround music, because, again, there are
no implications for confusing 3D sounds with any spatialized music that
may be heard.
A third example is diegetic, positional music, i.e. music that is emanating
directly from the game world, for example a live band playing in a nightclub.
The sounds of the separate instruments could be positioned in 3D at their
exact points of origin on the stage, thereby when the player walks around,
the balance of the music will change accordingly. The player could even
get up on stage and among the musicians to hear the vocalist in front,
the drummer coming from the rears, guitar and bass from left and right
respectively. There could even be specific audience reactions at a particular
moments in the performance positionally coming from the audience space.
An 8-channel interleaved stream, with each individual channel mapped to
a particular position would cater well for this implementation.
Guitar Hero offer real potential for convincing
surround music in games, as it represents an actual on-stage performance,
with potential for audience and band spatialization.
Planning Ahead for Surround Music
Deciding on exactly where each element of the soundtrack is to be placed
and what belongs to the scene (source sounds / music) and what comes from
'beyond the scene (non-diegetic) is a critical decision to be made up-front
by the audio director in conjunction with the game designers before the
composer begins their work. Also determining the 'style' and timbre of
sound effects and music will help to separate any confusion as to what
is music and what is a sound effect. Having a composer write a surround
score with specific uses in mind from the beginning will have a great
many benefits from suddenly deciding that the music should be up-mixed
into surround format when it is all complete. Finally, the type of game
will greatly inform many of these decisions, but also thinking about the
specifically designed functions of the music within a particular type
of game will help to define further creative strategies for the use of
surround music in games, and eventually make games a more immersive and
interactive experience for gamers. Any decision whether or not to commission
a surround score, or surround licensed music content , must first consider
all the elements of the finished games' soundtrack together as a single
final entity and the effects that this will have on the player.