Heard About: Xbox One audio tech

Heard About: Xbox One audio tech

By John Broomhall

September 4th 2013 at 10:00AM

John Broomhall quizzes Microsoft's Mark Yeend on Xbox One's audio potential

[This feature was published in the August 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Xbox One
Company: Microsoft
Released: November 2013
Sound specs: 7.1 surround sound
www.xbox.com/xboxone

In the next generation, sound is going to be a major consideration for developers. Mark Yeend, head of audio at Microsoft Studios’ Central Media Team explains what developers can expect from Xbox One’s audio prowess.

How have you been involved in the development of Xbox One?
Mark Yeend: Xbox One is a great opportunity to innovate, clearly. One of the coolest things for me about this process has been a new unity across all of the Microsoft audio teams. Audio directors and programmers from every Microsoft studio worldwide have opened up to a regular rhythm of sharing progress, wishes, trouble spots, fixes, tips and tricks, and new tech. We’re helping each other more than ever.

And the big middleware players are heavily involved too, which is essential.

It’s an incredibly powerful box. What I love is that the talented product teams – the dreamers, the makers – have the ear of our platform teams, who are doing a great job. And our central audio team is contributing to every launch title in some way or another.

How do you think game audio will progress and develop on the platform?
I think our E3 reveal was incredibly strong on exclusives and independent titles for launch. On top of our internal games like Forza Motorsport 5, Halo and others, we’re partnering with some of the best studios in the world – Insomniac, Remedy, Crytek – for huge exclusives.

For music, my team is raising the overall production values and focusing on memorable themes – I have a mantra that ‘music is IP’; shorthand for ‘a great melody can differentiate your title and make it more sticky with consumers’. And I fundamentally believe it should be budgeted and scheduled as such.

For dialogue, my team is pushing to improve system designs, pushing new technologies, and trying new in-studio techniques to deliver the best performances.

We’re also partnering with writers earlier than ever to develop characters with memorable voice-prints, which also contributes to IP.

For sound effects, I think here’s an area where many games are achieving cinematic quality, but I’m just as excited about the power of the box bringing quantum leaps in long-term, large-scale dynamic systems. This is the generation where we differentiate ourselves from film while hitting that high quality bar, instead of simply chasing film quality.

What can you say about Xbox One’s technical power for audio?
At E3, Marc Whitten did a great job outlining the tech specs. But one of the many new technical pieces I’m excited about is the cloud. Imagine mega-computational horsepower in exchange for some latency.

What asset types – or systems – can we push to the cloud? Music can often play with loose sync or no sync; same with ambiences and weather systems. How far can we push our expectations of these kinds of assets, and tap in to the cloud compute to create virtual worlds and also change them over time? What kind of content can be created with an algorithm? The mind boggles.

What’s the raison d’etre for a Central Media Team and how are things shaping up?
The two main reasons for certain functions to be centralised are quality and simple financials. The quality of individuals’ work improves game after game. We build a reliable brain-trust, our expertise gets deeper, our tasks go faster, and we can see and hear the quality improvements in the final product. We can help all teams solve the commonly repeating problems – we probably just solved it six months ago with another team.

The financial benefit is really this kind of economy of scale. For example, certain roles may be common but only needed in a short sprint – centralise those, deploy them to multiple titles per year, it’s more cost-effective. Another example is specialised tech muscle – host some of this centrally to support many different dev teams.

The audio talents in Central Media Content teams are broad and deep. Our art and audio directors do a lot of amazing things that drive quality.

In addition to five-and-a-half audio directors (I’m the half, split with management tasks), we have five or six sound supervisors under Kristofor Mellroth designing audio systems and helping the audio directors in various ways. And last year we added Paul Lipson as a central music director and Robert Ridihalgh as a central senior audio programmer. Our Soundlab team and facility are also busy and growing.

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