The Audio Dynamic Range Calibration System is an attempt to improve the way players use the dynamic range option in video games. Such options have flourished in recent years, especially in AAA games. However, they are not always understood, nor used properly because audio dynamic range is an obscure concept for those who are not familiar with it. Some studios, like Bioware, have found some solutions to help players use the dynamic range option in the right way. Still, a lot of work has to be done to ensure most players experience the dynamic range that best suits them, their sound systems and environments. Moreover, as players most likely play multiple games on the same platform, the dynamic range value should ideally be shared across games so that the player does not have to tweak the option for every single game that they play.
The need for a dynamic range option
If all gamers were audio people playing on high-end sound systems and in perfect listening environments, we would probably not see this option in games, and the dynamic range would most likely be very wide, as it is at cinemas for example. Everyone would enjoy great audio experiences and our ears and brains wouldn’t suffer from sound being too loud or too compressed (in dynamics).
Yet, most gamers do not have high-end sound systems, nor great environments. Also, whether players are audiophiles or don't know or care much about sound, will have a big impact on the volume they will play their games at, and how wide they would like the dynamic range to be.
For example, if a person plays on their laptop speakers, having a very wide dynamic range would be very inconvenient:
– The volume of the game would be globally too low because of the limited output gain of their sound system.
– The width of the dynamic range would make the quiet sounds too quiet to be audible.
On the contrary, having a dynamic range that is too narrow would be very frustrating for a player with a high-end sound system and calm environment.
Consequently, in the last five years or so, we have seen several games with a dynamic range option, which is a great thing compared to not having any settings. Sometimes, the dynamic range option is “hidden” and included in other audio settings like “Output” or “Speaker Type”.
Dynamic range option examples in recent games
The problem with having the player choose
So every year, more and more games include a dynamic range option. Isn’t the problem solved then?
Not exactly. As most players do not know much about audio or audio calibration, they usually have no idea how to choose the best option and most will just keep the default value (or won't even open the audio settings menu). Some choose the highest dynamic range value as they would use the highest screen resolution or anti-aliasing option (especially gamers used to PC games), and others search online and ask the community for THE best dynamic range setting. You can see a few examples on www.gamefaqs.com, battlelog.battlefield.com, and www.reddit.com.
As we can see, if we allow the player to choose the dynamic range without any sort of guidance, they will likely not know how to choose the option which best suits them, their sound system and environment.
Some games have proposed ideas to prevent the players from making bad choices with the dynamic range option. As far as I know, there are two ways of doing it:
1 – Having the dynamic range included in an “Audio Output” or “Speaker Type” option
Even if the player does not know anything about dynamic range, they may select the right one just by selecting their audio setup properly. It’s probably the best way to be sure a maximum of players select the correct value with the least amount of explanation. However, I can see four problems to this method:
GTA V : Headphones, TV speakers, Stereo Speakers, Surround Speakers
|Battlefield 4 : War Tapes, Headphones, TV, Hi-Fi, Home Cinema|
- The sound fidelity of different speakers inside the same “Audio Output” category varies a lot; should crappy stereo speakers be in the same dynamic range category as high-end monitoring stereo speakers?
- As mentioned previously, some sound systems have a low output gain and, for example, having headphones plugged on an integrated sound card won’t allow the player to use a high dynamic range option, even if the headphones are great and the environment calm.
- The player’s environment has a big impact on how much they can hear quiet sounds and should be taken into consideration.
- What I call the audio culture has a substantial impact on how well the player will tolerate high dynamic content. People who rarely go to the cinema, think the volume is too loud there when they do, and are used to listening to their TV or radio with the volume just loud enough to barely hear the news, will not enjoy high dynamic content as sound designers will, for example.
2 – Briefly explaining dynamic range to the player
The game developer BioWare uses a different approach. With as little text as possible, they explain what audio dynamic range is and which option to select depending on the player’s sound system and their environment.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Night, Headphones, TV, Home Theatre
Mass Effects : Low, High
I actually like this way of doing it, since it does not “hide” the option under another one as with the previous example. Instead, a player can select the audio output and the dynamic range independently, and a player who has fancy surround speakers and a noisy environment, for example, can use a more appropriate dynamic range option than the highest one. Also, it has an informative aspect which I appreciate. By doing this, developers raise awareness of audio dynamics among gamers and make them understand that there is no universal best value and that it depends mostly on sound systems and environments.
However, this method also has its issues:
- The low output gain of certain sound systems remains a problem here.
- As before, the players can’t instantaneously compare the different options to be sure they are choosing the right one for them. Even by understanding that it depends on their sound systems and their environment, they still have to basically guess which one is the best.
- What if they just ignore the instructive text about dynamic range and just select the highest option as they do with graphic settings? And, what if they never go into the audio settings menu at all?
Audio Dynamic Range Calibration System
So, after thinking about the different issues caused by the current ways of choosing dynamic range in games, I tried to imagine how it could be improved and I created this prototype which I called Audio Dynamic Range Calibration System, or ADRCS. It’s basically a fake game, with an intro scene, a menu scene, a game scene, and three other scenes for three different ways of calibrating the dynamic range. If this was actually a game, one of the calibration scenes (probably the Full Calibration scene) would be included into the audio settings menu of the game.
(click on thumbnail images to enlarge)
First game session audio setup
Have you seen these gamma correction screens being more and more frequent in recent games when you start them for the first time? As many people do not set up the brightness of their screen, it’s very good to have a short calibration process the first time players launch a game. If it was not a mandatory step the first time you start the game, most of the players wouldn’t go to the graphics menu to change it.
Gamma calibration in GTA V
Why don’t we do the same for audio? Wouldn’t it be great to have a first-time calibration process for the player to choose their best dynamic range? If it’s not automatically detected by the system, we could also ask the player for their audio output just before the dynamic range calibration.
For now, this is the ideal calibration process in my opinion. It’s a bit long (two screens) but I can’t see how to make the player choose their best dynamic range value properly with a shorter calibration process. If you have any ideas on how to shorten it, please share you thoughts in the comments section. I also made sure all the non-critical text is not shown unless the player hovers their mouse over some parts of the critical text (or selects them with their controller).
The loudest sound here is a really simple sound generated in Wwise, synthesized in real-time. Any very loud sound would probably be fine, although, keep in mind that the nature of the sound may change the loudness perceived by the player. An aggressive sound, like a gunshot or an explosion, will probably make the player set the volume of their sound system a bit lower than they would with a peaceful sound, even if the two sounds have the exact same loudness level. In any case, in order to be certain that the player perceives the loudest sound of the calibration as loud, the best option for this sound calibration is actually the loudest sound of the game, whatever that sound may be.
Note that this is just my guess; I am not sure how different the results would be depending on the nature of the loudest sound of the calibration. It would be interesting to run some user testing to confirm this hypothesis and see how much it actually influences the results.
Volume boost: -15 LUFS (+8 LU)
This is not considered at all in many games: What if the player’s sound system has a quiet output and -23 LUFS is too quiet for them?
Some recommend an alternative integrated loudness level target in this case, like -18, -16, or -15 LUFS; but, there is no clear universal convention yet, especially in games.
For the prototype, I have chosen -15 LUFS, which is then 8 LU louder than without the volume boost. It gives enough gain that quiet sound systems do not have to be only used with low dynamic range options.
For the second step of the calibration, what kind of quiet sound should we play?
As with the loudest sound, we probably want to similarly use the quietest sound of the game here. However, sound masking can play an important role here and we should probably take this into consideration. Ambiance sound might not exactly be the quietest sound of the game, but you might want to use it in the calibration as the quietest sound at a lower volume, because it is easily masked by background noise around the player such as air conditioning, traffic, or computer fans.
For obvious reasons, we also want a sound with a constant volume, so pink noise is actually a great choice for that too.
Dynamic range slider
Here, the players actually choose the dynamic range which suits them the best. Everything before this slider was just to make sure the player is ready to choose the dynamic range value properly.
Below the dynamic range slider, and depending on the current dynamic range value, the player gets examples of corresponding sound systems and environments.
For the moment, this is the best way I can think of to get the player to choose the best option depending on their audio culture, their hearing, their sound system, and their sound environment.
The Wwise project portion
Using volume curves driven by RTPCs on each bus
The Master-Mixer Hierarchy has been implemented in the following way:
When the dynamic range parameter increases:
- The busses above the bus “N0_normal” get louder.
- The busses below the bus “N0_normal” get quieter.
In this image, I put all four curves from the busses L1, L2, Q1, and Q2 on the same graph so that we can compare them:
There is another volume curve on the parent bus to compensate for the loudness changes and to make sure the loudness of the whole project stays consistent, whatever the dynamic range value is:
All these curves depend on the content of the project.
Finally, here is the Wwise Gain Effect, which applies the 8 LU boost to the master:
The Effect is bypassed unless the player enables the Volume Boost in the prototype:
It could also be possible to use ADRCS with an HDR bus, where the HDR threshold would be affected by the dynamic range value.
I am not expecting a problem like this to be solved with just one idea or one prototype. But, as we pay more attention, as developers, to the dynamic range calibration in games, and as we inform players via games about the importance of dynamics (and, by extension, of the importance of audio in games in general), with short and simple explanations, we should progressively achieve our desired outcome where every player experiences the best audio experience possible.
If you would like to learn more about this subject, you can find a longer version of this article here. It contains a link to download the prototype seen in the screenshots, and many more details about normalization, standards, what affects the ideal dynamic range of given players and theirs system and environments, the prototype itself, a variation of the calibration process exposed here, how the results of the calibration could be shared by any game on a given platform, and other alternative ideas.