Eddie discusses the Design challenges to multipurpose game audio studios

Another installment from Eddie. Here he discusses the challenges to design when creating a multipurpose game audio studio.

With Covid, the hybrid way of working looks like its here to stay for a while yet. Since the pandemic the current hybrid working method of splitting between remote and in the office will probably become more of a norm for at least the time being but the rooms we work in have a significant effect on what we hear. With more game audio spaces being multipurpose there can be some acoustic challenges. One challenge can be creating a benign acoustic that works for most sound sets.  The acoustic balance to create a variable environment is quite fine, especially when designing for different types of games.

Although those making do with converted, untreated rooms are producing pretty amazing results given the circumstances, one of the biggest challenges faced is how to sound proof, dampen, treat small to medium sized rooms in a way that works for multi-use. Many engineers have their own studio where they are doing their best to continue with their work but a small room will, by virtue of its size and limitations, always develop a character that will produce better results for some types of work than others.  Most home studios will not have the space, isolation and acoustics of the professional studio and unless the owner is prepared to make a sizeable investment it will never work as well.  

The studio needs to be a comfortable space conducive to collaboration and fully support the creativity but there are some differences when designing audio mixing studios for video games and music production. The fundamentals of studios are the same; the significant difference is configuration for use. Music is about grabbing the listener and immersing them into the wall of sound to maximise the experience, the trick here is to create the mixing environment such that the engineer is in the same listening space as the listener will be so he/she can mix for the thrill, passion and excitement.  Similar for post except the outlet is cinema or television and here there is a chasm of difference – the cinema is a big landscape with the audience scattered in all parts and so experiences will vary and effects are often used as a focus. Television widely relates to the home lounge and where background music is played a careful balance is essential to avoid dialogue being drowned out – in fact a more intimate acoustic can help to clarify the effects.  Games can be considered as the most challenging, ideally differing configurations are required to match the game format. Games with a lot of surround ambience benefit from an ethereal distant background to avoid detraction from the focus and lead effects with an excellent definition for the foreground sounds, essential when transposing to headphones.

With many sharing their working week between working from home and the studio I understand that most of the audio work comprises of wearing headphones.  Headphone technology continues to grow in popularity with the advent of VR and AR. Mixing on headphones is part and parcel of the mix process, as is mixing in stereo, 5.1 or 7.1, but many games studios are predominantly using headphones to mix due to in-house limitations. This often results 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. A key studio can also double up as an amazing acoustically treated presentation space that not only looks awesome but sounds out of this world, a real bonus to show off your studios capabilities and wow clients.

The studio is not just about the sound but also the aesthetic as this is what creates the first impression and then what is heard has to excel. The front end space design and planning needs to be well prepared but if this get out of balance the challenges quickly grow. Once the mood boards are signed off the real acoustic work can begin, looking at geometry, selecting materials and engineering the acoustic environment. There are critical issues that need to be agreed such as how much sound isolation is required, will the sound level of the audio being reproduced in the studio impact on neighbours and what could the repercussions be, and how will any environmental noise impact on the studio and recordings.  It’s very important to determine the exact sizes for the room or rooms and bigger does not always mean better. And, of course, these decisions are generally dependent on budget. Once these things are understood the room(s) can then be designed around them. It’s invaluable to talk with sound designers, mixers, Foley artists and sound supervisors about what they like and don’t like to refine things and make the space work for them.

As immersive audio continues to develop and grow with VR at the forefront, maintaining acoustic quality in a properly calibrated reference room is essential to the audio process. Having a dedicated mix space allows you to mix with true accuracy in all formats so you can be confident that what you are hearing creates a true sound picture so you are able to respond rapidly to vary fast changing game requirements and makes mixing in the last couple of weeks before release much easier.

Studio Air Conditioning

Eddie discusses the importance how misunderstanding surrounds studio air conditioning and how ventilation that has taken on new dimensions since Covid.

The concept of air conditioning originates in a need for space comfort and began with air cooling systems to reject heat within a building.  Today this has a wide range of meanings from basic cooling to full environmental control.

Best judgement of air conditioning is that, when in a building, it is transparent and people feel comfortable.  Comfort is very personal and emotive because our sensations and perceptions of temperature and humidity vary, most differences being between males and females and these can depend upon body temperature, skin condition and exposure, as well as clothing type and amount.  It is, therefore, virtually impossible to please many at the same time.

The design of any system needs to, so far as possible, account for and include human appreciation; for example we are mostly accustomed, from general movement, to air moving towards our face, for temperatures to be a little lower than body temperature such that we may experience out side on a pleasant day and reflect seasonal variations, conditions familiar to us that our senses are comfortable with.  If our senses are disturbed they attract our attention and detract from what we are doing or, more importantly, annoy us.

Ventilation is key to comfortable conditions; without adequate fresh air CO2 and other contaminants will build up giving rise to fatigue, tiredness and worse.  Systems recirculate air and introduce some fresh air; of concern is the quality of the air, in areas of dense road traffic the air can be heavily polluted and this will make conditions worse.  Systems have air filters but many are simple dust filters and do little for air quality.

Green policies and safety; Covid, WELL and other examples have done much to build awareness and raise air quality.  Where possible heat recovery is used to add additional filtering, improve air quality and conserve energy.  Normal filters have negligible effect on Covid, a virus can be destroyed by UV (ultra violet light) and Ultraviolet C is germicidal and a class of light that is very harmful to humans; there are now filters that use UV-C and plasma that are effective and can lower infections.  WELL International provides a flexible framework for improving health and human experience through design and offers assurance of achievement.

Controls can be very sophisticated and control temperature, air flow and humidity according to demand.  Entry level systems have temperature and fan speed and these, in basic form, are referred to as split systems.  Similar plant can be linked together, share an outdoor unit and provide simultaneous heating and cooling in differing areas, and this can provide huge efficacies and energy savings, however cost can be difficult to justify on smaller projects.

Humidity needs careful consideration because different parts of a building will have differing needs.  For example a meeting room with sixty delegates will likely need additional humidity for comfort while a fitness area will likely need less humidity to help perspiration and the natural skin cooling process.  For studios and small rooms natural humidity can, with careful design and planning, be used to create acceptable conditions; humans expel water in their breath and this can be used to sustain and possibly raise humidity values.  Air conditioning units naturally remove humidity as part of their function to cool air passing through them; the cooling coil (over which the air passes) is cooled to a lower temperature than the air entering and this results in condensation on the coil and the removal of moisture – careful selection can reduce this effect.