Soundscapes – The broken sound of console ports

There’s a problem with the sound in games that appeared in the last 5 years. Many  “well done” console ports to the PC such as Alan Wake and Dragon Age 2 actually have a serious problem. If you run these games in stereo mode, the original intent of the sound designers is subverted and you are instead presented with a broken version of the game. Unless you know what the game is supposed to sound like you wouldn’t know that you’re getting a compromised version of the intended sound experience. Even critics and technically knowledgeable gamers seem to have overlooked this issue despite it appearing in many games over several years. It’s an issue of sound samples not being played properly, compromised dynamics and ultimately a lesser emotional impact than was present in the original design.

To demonstrate the problem the clip below compares an early bit of Dragon Age 2.

First is what you hear in stereo mode and the second half is how the artists intended the game to sound. The difference you should notice is that the initial magic bolt is louder and has more bass in the second clip as do the incidental music and sword cuts that follow it. The first clip lacks impact and sounds dull in comparison.

The wave form image is the sound of the video clip and the first 30 seconds is the first clip and as you can see the second clip is significantly louder. The biggest spike in volume in both halves of the clip is the magic bolt. What I did to make the game sound like the second clip was to trick it into running in 5.1 surround mode and then down mix it into stereo with my sound card. With Asus and Creative sound cards you can make Windows think you’re running with a full 5.1 or 7.1 system and then in the driver controls you can make the actual sound output be stereo or headphones. This will trick all software running on your machine into thinking you have a full surround system, even if you don’t. I have confirmed that the console versions of the game sound exactly like the 5.1 down mixed version if you run them in stereo mode and it is only on the PC in stereo that it sounds like the first clip.

In order to understand what is happening and why we have to understand how game audio is mixed. Mixing is the process of tweaking all the sound elements into what will become the final sound experience you as a player will hear at home. A 5.1 surround sound system consists of 6 audio channels, the five speakers and the subwoofer. When a movie is mixed it’s always done for at least 6 channels so if you watch something in stereo (2 channels) it’s a down mixed version of the 6 channel original. The down mixing is done by the dvd/blu ray player itself and there is no separate stereo mix done for any movie. While a movie is mixed the sound mixer makes sure that the soundtrack sounds great both when played over a surround system and when down mixed into stereo. In recent years game sound designers have become aware that there are a lot of 5.1 users out there and are deliberately cutting up sound into several pieces and making the sound mix more similar to how movies are done. The bass is sent to the subwoofer channel while the midrange and treble is sent to the front and rear channels. The effect of doing this is that the mixer gains more control over the bass and can generally produce a clearer and higher fidelity sound experience. When you play a console game in stereo mode you are hearing a down mixed version of the 6 channel audio track just as if you were watching a movie. The problem with the PC ports is that their sound is not played back in this way.

What happens in these ports is that the stereo version only plays the sound elements which are sent to the front speakers and completely ignores the hard coded subwoofer or surround speaker effects. Dragon Age 2 has many subwoofer specific sound effects and it also plays some sounds out of both front and rear speakers at the same time to double the volume of those effects. When you remove all those tricks and only play what is sent to the front speaker channels you get the loss of volume, bass and impact that the sound was intended to have.

A more recent example of console to PC porting gone wrong is Alan Wake. This is a port which is getting positive press for doing everything right in a PC port. If you play Alan Wake on PC in stereo mode however all the cutscenes are played back with mono sound and during gameplay subwoofer specific sound effects are removed. Why this was done boggles my mind since mono essentially ruins the music and drama when heard over even the most basic sound setup.

Even if you don’t notice that the sound is in mono specifically you will notice that the sound of the cutscenes is different somehow. The transition from gameplay to cutscene is sharp and you’re taken out of the experience. When the cutscenes sound as intended it takes a couple of seconds for the player to notice that a pre-rendered scene is playing since the transition is smoother. The clip demonstrates the difference between stereo and 5.1 down mixed into stereo. I’ve confirmed that the 360 version when run in stereo sounds like the down mixed version. During gameplay Alan Wake sounds less broken than Dragon Age 2 does, but it’s still a different sound experience from the intended one. The volume of music, sound effects and dialogue are slightly different but it roughly sounds the same as the intended mix. The biggest problem is the cutscenes only having mono sound.

It’s easy to see when the graphics of a game is wrong, but it’s harder to judge whether the sound is broken or not. In general people care much more about the graphics than sound and are willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to upgrade the visual experience. It’s much easier to understand the benefits of a visual upgrade compared to sound which you have to experience yourself in order to understand just how much better sound can be than what you’ve got. Poor framerate can drive you crazy while you can easily get used to a bad sound experience. Without a frame of reference there’s no way to know what you’re supposed to be hearing and if you don’t pay much attention to the sound to begin with I can easily see how this problem went unnoticed for so long. The people responsible for bringing over these games from the consoles to PC need to pay attention and make sure that the PC players are getting the intended experience not only with surround sound, but over stereo speakers and headphones as well. That high profile titles are allowed to exist in these substandard forms on PC should not be acceptable.

19 Comments

  1. Chrispy

    This is a pretty interesting article. I have a ASUS ROG mobo with the Creative Xi-fi card in it. I don’t run anything but a pair of crappy monitor speakers, but do most of my gaming with headphones anyway. I’m curious about the tweaks you were talking about in the article. Do you mean to set the speaker type in the Xi-fi control panel for 5.1 and then make sure the stereo speakers are selected in the Windows audio mixer, or some other settings? I haven’t really messed around with my settings very much, but this makes a good case to figure out how to make my hardware really work for me.

    Figured if it helped others with their settings, it would be good info to spread around.

    • Peter Hasselström

      I can’t say for sure that the X-fi motherboard version is the same as the other X-fi stand alone cards, but here’s how it’s done on the X-fi card I have. When you change the driver settings to 5.1 and then change to headphone mode the Windows sound settings will still tell you that you’re running in 5.1 mode. This is so you can use CMSS 3D to emulate surround over headphones, but if you leave all those settings off you’re simply downmixing 5.1 to stereo and it should sound like those videos.

      With Asus cards it’s a bit easier as they on the main page of the driver controls have two separate settings for Windows speaker settings and actual output where you can combine any settings you want such as Windows in 5.1 and output in stereo or the other way around.

      • Chrispy

        It sounds like the Xi-Fi interface for the mobo must be similar. I did exactly what you said by selecting 5.1 and then switching to head phone mode, and it still says 5.1 in the Windows Speaker mixer. I can also force 7.1 with the Crosshair IV version. :)

  2. Oh I have a Creative card, is there a simple breakdown of getting it to do that?
    (I have in the ‘Creative’ Audio ConSole on 2/2.1 and in the ‘Windows Control Panel’ Sounds and Audio Devices 7.1, is that it or is that backwards?)

    • Peter Hasselström

      Yes if the sound card drivers say you’re outputting in stereo or headphones and the Windows settings believe you’re running in 5.1 or 7.1 you’re successfully downmixing to stereo. If you’re not getting downmixed sound you’ll notice it right away since you won’t hear anything when sounds are coming from the center or rear channels.

  3. Lalaland

    Glad to read a series of articles by someone who cares about PC Audio. I was Aureal A3D 1&2 customer so I was one of those severly turned off by Creative’s legal bum rush on that company. Hell it was Aureal that pushed Creative to0 release a PCI card back in the day when they were happy with the SoundBlaster 32 on E-ISA. I was further turned off by all the driver drama with my own Audigy, will they release a Vista driver?, yay they will will!, wait they want me to pay for the damn driver?!?, OK it’s free now, yay, but it still crashes like Win9X? Begone foul Audigy!

    Of course all that was eventually sorted but Creative have to be one of the most obtuse companies I’ve ever had the misfortune to deal with to the extent where I just gave up on dedicated sound cards altogether. It’s only these articles that have woken me up them again. I’ve been interested in a Xonar but had been turned off by some horrible experiences a friend had with their drivers. Would you say that’s all been sorted at this stage? Or have Creative finally sorted out their drivers?

    • Peter Hasselström

      Of the two I’d say the Xonar drivers are better. As long as you keep the “GX Mode” disabled which is their EAX emulator (which doesn’t work) they are very stable. The only blue screen I’ve ever had was when I was playing around with GX Mode to see if it worked. I’ve used Xonar cards for several years now and I’ve got the D1, Essence STX and HDAV 1.3 and all the drivers are pretty much identical in their stability and settings layout.

      Unless you want to play old EAX games I would recommend the Xonar cards over Creative since Asus use higher quality components on their cards. This means that everything else you listen to such as music or movies will sound better. Also if you have a surround system you can use Prologic 2x or DTS Neo 6 to upmix games, movies, music etc if you get a card with those features. On the main page of the driver settings you can set Windows to stereo and then output to 5.1 or 7.1 to enable those effects so it works universally across all sounds in Windows. In the same way you can set Windows to 5.1/7.1 and then output to stereo or headphones to downmix or use virtual surround tech such as Dolby Headphone.

      Creative also have virtual surround tech for headphones in the form of CMSS 3D and while it works fine I think Dolby Headphone sounds nicer. It depends on the kind of headphones you have, but on my Sennheiser HD 800 it sounds like CMSS 3D cuts off the lower bass so the resulting sound is a bit tinny. Dolby Headphone on the other hand adds a room echo to all the sound which can also sound a bit bad, but they at least don’t cut off the bass.

      Both Creative and Asus are fine alternatives at this point, but for modern games I’d go for the Xonar. It’s what I’ve been using primarily since 2009 and I only get the X-fi card out for when I want to play retro titles. If you get a Xonar card I recommend the custom Xonar Unified drivers http://brainbit.wordpress.com/ They have a smaller memory footprint and the Dolby effects sound noticeably better with them as Asus didn’t quite implement them properly in the official drivers.

      • Lalaland

        Xonar it is then! I was hoping that was the case to be honest, cheers for the tip on the community driver too. I particularly like the live DTS encoding feature as it will save me some cabling behind the surround amp.

        • Lalaland

          Found a D2X for €80 in a PC World which for non-Irish folks is as likely as them giving out free gold at Fort Knox. Very Happy and noticing much better sound effect ‘placement’ in BF3 and other titles. Those community drivers were a cinch to install too so for anyone thinking of it, take the plunge they’re great! I was doing this from a clean install though and they recommend a DriverCleaner run if you already have Asus drivers on your system

          • Peter Hasselström

            I didn’t use DriverCleaner or anything like that before I installed them on my system and it worked just fine. Glad you’re happy with the card! I’ve never used the D2X but from the specs it has always looked like a very nice all-round solution.

            You mentioned that you’ve got a surround receiver, is it a cheaper model or is it a somewhat fancy one? If it’s a cheaper model it’s possible that the sound card might give you better audio quality via analogue connections since you’ll be using the digital-analogue components of the sound card instead of the ones that the receiver has when it converts the DTS or PCM signals to analogue before sending it out to the speakers.

            You could try comparing digital stereo PCM from the sound card with analogue stereo before committing to doing all the cabling that analogue 5.1 requires. Of course if you really don’t want to have all those cables running from the PC to receiver you could just stick to digital, but it’s worth considering!

          • Lalaland

            It’s a Yamaha RX-v357, it’s an older low-end Yamaha AV receiver (analog video only, no lossless support) so I’d say the Xonar destroys it for DAC quality but the cable of SPDIF. convenience is overwhelming. I only hook it up to the amp occasionally when I set up my rig in the frontroom so the extra quality isn’t worth making the cable ‘briar patch’ any thicker!

            I’d love to hear your thoughts on the quality of the integrated audio offered by video cards these days. Do they support sending multi channel PCM game audio over HDMI?

            All that being said the thought of those DACs is now eating me up :)

          • Peter Hasselström

            I don’t have a receiver with hdmi inputs so I haven’t had an opportunity to try it in practice, but from what I’ve seen it looks like they identify themselves as completely generic multi channel sound cards, so they should be able to transfer multi channel PCM with no problems. I haven’t looked at the nvidia forums or anything so I don’t know if they have some kind of issues that I don’t know of. But usually with drivers that simple there’s not much room for problems to occur.

  4. Michael Rougeau

    Hey Peter,

    This article has been very eye opening for me. I tried the downmix with Skyrim, and I was blown away. Do you know what other games suffer from this stereo problem? What about certain games that have in game audio settings, such as Battlefield 3, Left 4 Dead 2, etc? If you select headphones in one of those games, is it automatically selecting a proper stereo downmix, or am I still getting gypped? Thanks!

    • Peter Hasselström

      All Valve games are fine, so Left 4 Dead 2, Portal 2 etc all sound like they should in stereo or headphone mode. Battlefield Bad Company 2 sounds better down mixed in “home theater” mode, while Battlefield 3 sounds like it should in stereo and headphone mode.

      Many racing games have this problem, so Need For Speed Undercover, The Run, Hot Pursuit and Carbon all sound better down mixed while Shift and Shift 2 sound like they should in stereo mode. All Codemasters racing games sound like they should in stereo. I used Dragon Age 2 as an example in the article, but from what I can remember all the Mass Effect games sound like they should in stereo and don’t need downmixing.

      • Michael Rougeau

        Very interesting. I wonder if there is some kind of list or something of games that aren’t downmixed properly? That would be extremely helpful. Also, is there a general rule you follow, such as if the game has in game options for speaker setups, it likely downmixes correctly? Or if it doesn’t and it’s a console port, it probably doesn’t? Or is it just something you have to test from game to game?

        • Peter Hasselström

          It varies from game to game. Some don’t have in-game settings and detect your windows settings while others have settings. There’s no correlation to a game properly down mixing and whether it has settings or not for the speakers. You just have to test it. I don’t know of any list of games, but I might make one in the future.

          • Michael Rougeau

            After testing Skyrim a bit more, I’m fairly certain that having 5.1 going through my headphones actually isn’t the way the designers intended. It’s almost as if there is too much sound, like the mix is unbalanced. So perhaps Skyrim got 2 channel sound right, but I can’t be sure without a console version of Skyrim to test it against. Also, it seems that having ANY game run 5.1 through headphones makes the sound louder and have more “oomph” ( a la Dragon Age 2) than just running 2 channels, so that doesn’t necessarily mean that one is missing out on anything if sound effects are louder using 5.1. But again, there’s no way to be certain without a console version of the game to test it against. (Which you did for DA2)

          • Peter Hasselström

            Yes you can run into issues with volume balance when down mixing some games. Serious Sam 3 for example sounds absolutely dreadful when down mixed. With Dragon Age 2 I did a test where I changed the volume on the recorded samples I took so they were the same and the difference was still there so it’s definitely a game where you lose things in the stereo version.

            It’s the same with all the games I mentioned as NFS Hot Pursuit and The Run clearly remove audio samples from their nitro sound effects for example when run in stereo compared to 5.1. Just because something can initially appear to be better because it’s louder it doesn’t mean it’s what the designers intended, but in many cases it is actually what was intended. Most often it’s really obvious when the down mixed version is incorrect compared to stereo since things can be hard to hear.

  5. Donny

    Funny enough, I actually find the downmix for Skyrim to be a lot better. Without it, i I have to crank my receiver high just to be able to hear anything, from voices to sfx.