Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Uncharted 2 - Audio Settings Explained

Uncharted 2: Among ThievesImage via Wikipedia
This is straight from Jonathan Lanier, Senior Programmer at Naughty Dog.

Actually, the dynamic range menu option in U2 isn't *exactly* the same as a processor's DRC, but it is similar in many respects. You are correct that it's really all about how much difference exists between the loudest and softest sounds. In U2, the dynamic range game audio setting breaks down as follows.
Default: The game picks what it thinks is the most appropriate compression based on your output format. This will be 'Wide' if you have 'Stereo Headphones' selected, 'Normal' if any discrete multichannel output 5.1 or better is selected, or 'Narrow' if 'Stereo' or 'Dolby PLII' is selected. Note that 'Maximum' and 'Midnight' are not in this list; those have to be set explicitly.
Maximum: No dynamic range compression applied at all.
Wide: A small amount of dynamic range compression is applied; threshold for volume maximization is -4.0dB.
Normal: A medium amount of dynamic range compression is applied; threshold for volume maximization is -8.0dB.
Narrow: A large amount of dynamic range compression is applied; threshold for volume maximization is -10.0dB. This really squashes the dynamic range, but makes quiet sounds perceptible on poor fidelity systems. Like, your average TV set.
Midnight: A very large amount of dynamic range compression is applied; threshold for volume maximization is -16.0dB, and the volume is also scaled back quite a bit. The end result, is almost everything sounds the same volume. Also, the LFE channel is disabled in this mode. Meant for playing the game at very low volume levels late at night.
If you ask me, the amount of dynamic range you want is going to be based on more about whether or not you like what you hear. 'Maximum' is the way the game was mixed, with reference monitors. However, unless you are listening in a room that has very good acoustic treatment, the quiet bits might be a tad too quiet with all compression disabled. The default dynamic range will pick 'Normal' on any 5.1/7.1 setup, which should hopefully not sound too squashed. I'd be keen to hear feedback from audiophiles about what they think about the fidelity of these different modes.
I cringe when I see forum posts where people suggest setting the option to 'Midnight' to make anything louder. I'm quite sure they aren't aware they're ruining the fidelity (and losing their sub!) with that option. A true shame none of this information was printed in the instruction manual. Oh well...
And while I'm on the topic of U2 audio options, note that the center channel size defaults to 'small', and for good reason. It isn't just about having a full-range center, though if you don't, I CERTAINLY wouldn't pick 'large' unless you have good bass management. What it is really for is to manage whether or not FX pan across the center or not. Dialog always pans across center, but in movies, most FX generally don't. In games, since much of the action happens up front, even with full-range centers, putting all of the volume in one speaker for all the dialog *and* FX happening directly in front of you generally doesn't sound as good as spreading the power for the FX around to the front mains. It also can make the sound field feel a bit narrower. Movies don't generally spread FX across center for the same reason, so I don't see why games should. However, if you've got a 5.1/7.1 setup where all 3 front speakers are identical, and you like the way it sounds spreading the effects across center, then by all means go for it. The reason this option even exists, is because unlike a movie, the game mixes its dialog and effects on-the-fly, so there is no reason to force the user to have (or not have) 'phantom center' for FX.
The LPCM options will always sound better than DD or DTS options, because the audio doesn't have to be transcoded into another compressed format. The game internally stores audio in a variety of compressed formats (VAG, MP3), decompresses it as sounds are synthesized and mixed, and then has to recompress the final result if DD or DTS is selected. If LPCM is selected, that last lossy recompresssion step doesn't have to happen.
If you don't have HDMI, LPCM output is limited to 2 channels over the optical output, so you're better off sticking with DTS and DD, in that order (DTS is less lossy than DD). In fact, if you leave the output format setting on 'default', the game will do this for you; the best mode possible is always selected automatically based on the audio settings you've enabled in the PS3 OS XMB.
Overriding the default is most useful when you are using an output format the game can't detect, such as headphones (uses a completely different panning algorithm) or stereo (default 2-channel output is Dolby PLII, which doesn't sound good when played on a device without a surround decoder, like a TV). Or if you just want to do A/B comparisons of the different modes. But if you do that, bear in mind you're not A/B'ng game audio assets or the codecs themselves; you're comparing the PS3's internal realtime compression modes for those formats (DD, DTS), which due to their realtime nature are never as optimal as content that is compressed offline.

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