Few things are as evocative as sound; the way the right score can produce an emotional reaction is something film-makers have been capitalising on for decades, and more recently, videogame developers too. Games are now telling more complex stories and we are seeing more cinematic aspects incorporated into their sound design. There is now a shift towards hyper-realism; delivering cinematic experiences with emotional heft and using complex object based audio to achieve a more immersive sound environment. Put simply it means more content with more depth and detail and more demands.
Mixing on headphones is part and parcel of the mix process, as is mixing in stereo, 5.1 and 7.1, but many games studios are predominantly using headphones to mix due to in-house limitations, resulting in companies being reliant on external facilities to record for them, driving up cost and reducing in-house flexibility. Having internal recording and mix facilities mean that companies are no longer dependent on outsourcing and acquire the ability to respond rapidly to fast changing game requirements. Good quality facilities afford the opportunity to produce more in-house, plus every games studio is looking for the best talent and good facilities are key to attracting them.
Frontier Developments moved to the Cambridge Science Park in 2005 and the company has been gradually growing ever since. By 2017, they occupied 3 separate buildings on the park. “We really wanted the whole team to be together in one location” said James Dixon, Director of Operations at Frontier Developments. “Trinity were planning on building some new, modern offices which tied perfectly to our needs, and allowed us to work together to specify the space.”
In 2018 Frontier moved into their new building, as part of their new home they decided new professional audio facilities would be hugely beneficial, providing a great work environment, enabling the audio team to be more efficient, respond quicker and encourage team interaction, as well as reducing the need for outsourcing. Veale Associates were part of the process to design their new rooms. “It was important to us to provide quality facilities for our audio team” added Dixon. “They had been making do with converted, untreated rooms and what we were producing was pretty amazing given the circumstances, but this afforded us the opportunity to take our audio to the next level.”
Veale Associates created acoustic and construction designs, delivering 12 Sound Design Rooms, two recording studios with one Foley pit, two Audio Mix suites and an AV Editing suite. The facilities were designed to provide each sound designer with their own independent and acoustically treated working environment, with separate dedicated rooms for accurate recording and mixing on 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound formats; as well as providing the infrastructure for future Dolby Atmos productions. Eddie Veale, Principal of Veale Associates said “Our acoustic and studio design knowledge was critical to the design team in order to develop the layout to accommodate the sound facilities. Being involved at the front end when the project was still a green field site enabled us to work with the architects to build the necessary studio isolation into the fabrication of the building rather than trying to retrospectively fit it. The building design featured an impressive fully glazed façade with louvers to control sun glare which looked great but acoustically provided a number of reflection, flanking and noise issues; being able to work with the architects to deliver something that intrinsically worked saved Frontier a lot of time, headaches and money. The rooms needed to be quality sound rooms, compliant with industry standards and meet certain aspirations for Frontier’s uplifting work ethos and achievement.”
The audio team are very happy with their facilities. “We had to strike a balance between rooms that designers could spend all day in, enjoying natural sunlight and rooms that were fully acoustically treated for critical listening” said Jim Croft, Head of Audio at Frontier Developments. “Everything has been used to its fullest and you can hear the results in our games! Happy staff make the best audio.”
Mixing on headphones is and always will be part and parcel of the mixing process as is mixing on stereo, 5.1 and 7.1. “It remains an essential part of mixing because most of our customer base is listening on phones. We have to cater for all levels of consumer quality. We use telemetry to detect the number of speakers a consumer is using, and apply different levels of compression and volume to different buses accordingly” said Croft.
However, having a pro level mix space rather than mixing on headphones alone has certainly impacted positively on the work practises at Frontier. “They have massively improved our work practices and raised our quality bar” added Croft. “Having the pro mix space allows you to mix with true accuracy in surround and stereo, and be confident that what you are hearing is a true picture of what is there. Being able to mix in a properly calibrated reference room as we go along makes mixing in the last couple of weeks before release much easier, as does our new bus centric Wwise mixing setup. Also having dedicated recording spaces – particularly with our fantastic foley floor – leads to much greater depth, detail and originality in our soundscape because we are using libraries less. However, if anything, I believe headphone tech will grow in popularity with the advent of VR, AR and HRTF tech. Consumers have never really taken to traditionally unwieldy 5.1 surround in the home, although sound bar surround tech is advancing quickly.”
Looking forward, Frontier faces some huge but exciting challenges. The quality expectations of audio have grown along with the scale and detail of the games being made. Having professional audio facilities have not only proven to be great value for money but given the ever growing demand for content, Frontier are able to afford the opportunity to produce more in-house, to experiment and develop in a fast paced industry.