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Sound Bites

Editorial By Carolyn Koh on December 26, 2006

Sound Bites
By: Carolyn Koh

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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Dana Massey’s editorial entitled Graphics Whores stuck a chord when I thought of my own gaming experience and what I look for before I consider a game really good. For that, I want sound. Good sound. Well produced sound.

Turn off the sound in a movie and what have you got? A bunch of moving heads and not much else. Turn off the sound in an MMOG and you don’t know that an Orc has come up behind you and is beating on your head like a drum, or that a pesky trooper has dropped down under you and is trying to take your BFR out with a popgun – that seems to be the challenge in Planetside currently – soloing a BFR.

As our senses go, sight seems to be primary. We smell something nasty… we hear the tiger’s roar. But we don’t start running until we actually see the danger. Perhaps it is the nature of most MMORPGs but sound often seemed to be added on as an afterthought. The annoying repetitiveness of Rivervale’s music was enough for many EQ players to turn sound off, but I sure kept it on in zones where there were giants! My character couldn’t track so I listened for their footsteps.

Thief3 in 2004 was the pinnacle of integrating sound into gameplay. It pushed the envelope. It proved immersive and successful, and the industry took note. In the MMOG genre, one of the first developers to hire a high-profile music and sound designer was Mutable Realms who tapped Academy and Emmy award winning sound editor, Michael Kimball for Wish (since cancelled). The first bars of music and sound I heard instantly transported me into their world of fantastical medieval Europe. It sounded like a movie soundtrack! I was in aural lust and slavishly downloaded the short sound tracks they released from time to time.

Since the ante was upped by a little guy from nowhere, other MMOG developers quickly followed suit. Reaching into deep Sony pockets and connections, SoE hired Academy and Emmy Award winning composer Laura Karpman to score the music for EverQuest II and record it with an 84 piece orchestra. Not to mention the Hollywood voice actors.

For ArenaNet’s Guild Wars, you can access upgraded sound packs and Flying Labs has teamed up with Richard King, Oscar winner for Master and Commander:Far Side of the World, to design the sound for Pirates of the Burning Sea.

But with all this great sound available in games these days, what are we as gamers doing? We spend a couple thousand dollars in the hand-picked components of our gaming rig –top of the line video cards, matched high-performance RAM, the fastest CPU we can afford, a kick-ass sound-card… then we cheap out on the component that transforms electrical impulses into sound and actually delivers it to our ears, the speaker system.

How many of us have a screaming fast gaming rig but rinky-dink speakers? Hands up now… don’t be shy! Who’s got a forty dollar 2.1 speaker system hooked up to that $200 sound card? Speakers with only a range of 40Hz to 20kHz trying to handle the output of a sound card capable of processing a frequency response of 10Hz to 40kHz in full 7.1 channel glory? Woot! 10 watts of power for that “thumping” bass! Or even more likely to be found… a stereo pair no taller than that 6ms response 20” LCD monitor with a frequency response of maybe 80Hz to 18kHz.

In theory, the audio band (what an average person can hear) is 20Hz to 20kHz. The lowest note on an organ is 16Hz which can be felt rather than heard, but 40Hz is about the 8th key from the bottom of a piano. You want to experience an explosion of magic or artillery? Feel the footstep of a gigantic Mech? Figure out where that damned sniper is shooting from? Ain’t happening with those dinky lil’ $24.99 speakers.

Reviews of “Gaming” speakers are far and few between, and most talk about “thumping” bass. Few about image and detail – that is, the ability to pinpoint where that sniper is, or about resolution – the ability for you to make out your squad leader’s instructions in Voice Chat over heavy weapon fire… or “More DOTs!” over the sound of sword and magic combat.

Yes, I’m a sound and music geek. Way back when, I plugged my PC sound into my music system. It was a boom-box to be sure, but I had replaced the boom-box speakers with better ones. The boom-box drove the speakers and when I was not gaming, I listened to music through the system. I never bought “computer” speakers as I felt that I got better sound through my “music” speakers. If they could resolve with detail and clarity, a harpsichord in a baroque orchestral or a sonorous double-bass without distortion, they could handle the highs of an incoming mortar shell and the explosion when it hit.

Invest in a good set of speakers and you’ll never have to spend another cent on upgrading them. You know why? That’s because unlike the rest of the computer system, you aren’t going to require better speakers to play new games every year or so. You’ll only upgrade them if you want, not *need* bigger, better. I play my Xbox360 on “bigger, better” but those speakers I had way back when? I still have them.

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