Adventures In Audio
Computer Game Designers Electronic Arts (part 2)

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Thursday January 1, 2004

The New Bat and Ball

Whereas once upon a time you could play a perfectly acceptable game with very
simple equipment, now the recommended minimum is a Pentium P90 equipped PC with
CD-ROM drive, a decent amount of RAM and hard disk space, graphics card, sound
card and stereo speakers. You may have noticed that there is a special type
of loudspeaker that you are apparently meant to use with a computer that are
beige in colour, small, and particularly puny sounding. You don't have to use
speakers like these, but they are almost forced on customers in PC hypermarkets
and form yet another limitation that Electronic Arts', and other games producers',
sound designers have to get over. In the early days of CD-ROM games, although
the software would of course be loaded into RAM, the greater part of the graphics
and sound data would be lifted as required from the CD. As you know, CD-ROM
drives are slow compared to hard disk drives therefore the data rate is limited.
To throw animated graphics up onto the screen at a reasonably fast frame rate
gobbles up a lot of the speed available and therefore something in the audio
is going to have to give. Possible options are to cut the sampling rate, reduce
the resolution, or go from stereo to mono. The first thing that goes is the
sample frequency, down from 44.1kHz to 22.05kHz, with the resulting halving
of audio bandwidth. With typical computer speakers, this might go unnoticed.
If this still doesn't allow sufficient bandwidth for the graphics, then sixteen
bits can be cut down to eight, and stereo can become mono - which actually might
be quite acceptable for speech or sound effects. All of these parameters can
be tailored for each element of audio so fortunately it isn't necessary to make
a global decision for the whole of the game. Also, don't forget that a mono
signal can be panned by the software, and Q-Sound too can convert an assembly
of single channel samples into a virtual 360 degree experience.

Squeezing audio into a narrow data channel isn't simply a matter of chopping
out the redundant data and throwing it away. For instance, if speech has to
be reduced to eight bits, then compression is vital, and some time would be
spent working out the optimum degree of limiting, compression and EQ to squash
the signal as much as possible while retaining maximum intelligibility and perceived
quality. Reverb doesn't really work very well in eight bits since long tails
inevitably fall apart and draw attention to the defects of the audio. As far
as music is concerned, although synthesised instruments can sound quite good
at reduced resolutions, real instruments, and any music that attempts a degree
of subtlety will suffer greatly. To get around these problems to a certain extent,
Electronic Arts are letting the computer's hard disk take some of the strain,
because if material can be loaded from the CD-ROM onto the hard disk, then it
can be accessed much faster, and it is likely that before long eight bit audio
will be a thing of the past, thankfully. Also, since double speed CD-ROMs will
undoubtedly be replaced by 4x speed drives over the next couple of years then
this particular bottle neck will be widened. One difference between games makers
and music and video producers is that where the latter will consider the limitations
of the equipment people have at home, and tailor their product to work within
these limitations, games producers tend to force the pace and almost demand
that their customers buy faster PCs, and faster everything else, every eighteen
months or so.

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