With professional quality plug-ins, superior vocal suppression and sophisticated surround upmixing, SingStarâ??s audio technology and production processes have hit the high notes.
At the early stages of the game’s migration from PS2 to PS3, Dan Bardino (pictured, right) was impressed and inspired by the team’s proposals. He explains: “The plans were ambitious and extremely ‘next-gen’ – a whole new visual aesthetic and flow. My SingStar Online promised a social network-style community where users could upload their own performances and SingStore would provide a seamless online shopping experience built into the game itself with frequently updated content. I was blown away and knew the audio had to be stunning.”
Bardino and his team set about re-thinking internal processes and methodology, soon deciding to look beyond their own shores within the Sony empire. He says: “Fortunately, Sony has various fingers in various pro-audio pies, including the Sound Forge crew.
“The end result was cherry-picking their VST plug-ins and adapting them to run natively on PS3, optimised for the SPU media processors. We now have truly professional vocal production techniques running real-time. The vocal signal chain includes a high pass filter, the wave hammer compressor (5:1 ratio, threshold of minus 16dB plus automatic gain control), and then Sound Forge’s [pictured right] great sounding reverb.
“Settings are tweaked for the SingStar microphone and we have to be fairly heavy handed with processing – we don’t have studio control. People’s lounges are noisy, the microphone’s passed around and there’s a huge variance in volume input. We aim to make the quiet audible and the loud not too loud, with no distortion.
“TV talent show auditions clearly demonstrate people’s misguided perception of their own voice so providing a menu of choices for the input is not really workable – it has to be automatic. Therefore, we prescribe ‘input’ reverb settings to help sit the vocal down in the mix – a kind of catch-all warm space with 1.2 second decay but, on playback, allow the player control. They can use pitch shifting, wobbling chorus and cavernous reverb to make themselves sound bonkers if they want!
“The qualitative difference of the pro quality plug-ins isn’t always easily explicable to non-audio people. However, one useful yardstick is consistent consumer feedback that the microphones sound so much better, when they are basically the same as for PS2.”
A highly significant aspect of production is ADRes technology, designed by Dr Dan Barry of the Dublin Institute of Technology, which allows isolation of instruments in a stereo mix. As soon as SCEE’s audio technology manager Jason Page drew attention to it, Bardino started thinking about vocal suppression. After proving it could work real-time, an exclusive licensing deal ensued.
”We soon had it running natively on PS3, isolating and pretty much removing the vocal,” explains Bardino. “Exactly how it works is confidential, but I can say that as well as filtering frequencies it also works on stereo width and position.
“The authoring ADRes settings vary from record to record, our aim being to push the original vocal back enough in the mix so that the user stands out more. Sometimes you’re left with the reverb of the original vocal; sometimes it appears to be gone altogether. So far, we’re hitting an 80 per cent success rate. It’s very, very good.”
The team’s previous methodology was gathering multi-tracks of SingStar songs from around the world and re-creating each record’s final mix (minus the vocals) – fascinating and enjoyable but also a cumbersome and unpredictable process. The commercial value of the ADRes tech to the overall production path and pipeline speaks for itself by comparison – now a stereo master can be used, an approach also extending to creating surround versions, working with Rik Ede. According to Bardino, Ede’s patented upmix techniques are “so clever, they sound like the whole track’s been re-engineered in 5.1 from the original stems.”
So, how does Bardino reflect on the project overall? “Obviously it was vital the audio would be as ‘next-gen’ as those wonderful visuals – and I’m happy we’ve done both in terms of quality and pipeline. Beyond this, I guess this title has really woken me up to user generated audio content as a growing phenomenon – especially with titles like Home coming along. How we manage it technically is a serious issue.
“With SingStar, our approach is to balance creative freedom with technical control – funnelling the audio into the shape we need it technically without spoiling it. More and more user generated audio content is a scary prospect but SingStar’s been a perfect head start.”