A Whole New Headspace: Creating Audio in Virtual Reality
In the video game Jurassic World: VR Expedition, there are about five minutes of audio that were designed and mixed by Richard Ludlow B.M. ’14 and his team at Hexany Audio. Five minutes—enough time to order and receive a coffee during the morning rush. For Ludlow and his team, however, creating those five minutes took a solid month, and that was on a rush schedule.
Every project for Hexany Audio requires its own cocktail of services. “Our company is made up of 11 people and it’s split between sound design and [original] music,” Ludlow says. “Our projects are sometimes us doing both, sometimes just music, sometimes just sound design.”
In the case of Jurassic World, the focus was on sound design and mixing, as most of the music used in the game was licensed from the film franchise. And while Hexany Audio—which employs many Berklee alumni—cut its teeth in the video game audio world, it's also found success in the virtual reality (VR) industry.
In talking about what goes into a creating audio for VR, Ludlow peeled back the layers of the Jurassic World project—along with how it differs from other projects the company takes on, such as Blade Runner: Revelations. What follows are some key behind-the-screen moments in the lifecycle of a Hexany Audio project.
The Beginning: What Makes the Project Different
Jurassic World is not played on a classic console or VR headset. “It was ultimately created to be a VR experience, but also to be a simulator/ride that is in every Dave & Buster's [arcade],” Ludlow says. The sound design, referred to as “spatialized audio,” or audio that surrounds the player as opposed to a more two-dimensional audio experience, needs to work in a VR setting: providing ambient background sound, playing musical clips from the Jurassic Park/World films, and highlighting "narrative" audio attached to the specific characters in the game. In addition, the audio needs to perform well on the machine itself to help dissolve the lines between a game and theme park ride.
By contrast, Blade Runner: Revelations was designed for a mobile VR platform (Google's Daydream), and the audio operates in a more limited fashion since it has to be playable on a phone—too many sound files and the game simply won't load.
The Middle: Being a Technician and an Artist
After the sound assets have been gathered and created, much of the work comes in the form of mixing. When working with the kinds of spatialized audio needed in a VR environment, the sound designer has to be both technically proficient and artistic. If designers do their job well, the whole experience feels seamless.
Ludlow points out that working in VR “is a lot more technical and takes a lot longer” than does working in two-dimensional visual media. For example, picture yourself playing a traditional video game on a television or computer screen, and a cannon shoots from the left. “The sound is spatialized over there and the player knows it’s coming from the left. That’s pretty much it. But in VR, there’s also these spatial audio plug-ins that simulate sounds that are behind you, above you, or below you—they simulate the head, basically.”
The End: There Is No End
After countless audio iterations and mix adjustments, and testing in both 2D and VR settings as well as in the game itself, the audio is shared with the client. “For Jurassic World, it was very helpful to go and experience it with the client,” Ludlow says. “It was great to get all of their feedback right then, after I’d experienced the game with them for the first time.”
You'd think this is where the process would start to wrap up, but VR audio projects are always evolving. “An interesting thing about our projects is that games are often updated,” Ludlow explains. “We’re often still working on projects after they’re released or future updates will be planned or changes based on user experience.”
In a way, the industry and the technology are both moving in a "spatialized" direction. Hexany Audio's employees contract with many media companies, allowing them to keep trying new things. Working at a media company's in-house audio department, a specialist might get to work on one project for a couple of years, but at Hexany, Ludlow says, "We get to touch a number of different projects, and that's really my favorite part."