On the Cover: Naughty Dog Puts a Byte into Game Audio

Videogame sound production has come so far so fast these past few years that it’s easy to forget it’s still an industry in its infancy. It didn’t come of age within a studio or network system, 9/09/2010 9:37 AM Eastern

The rear wall of Naughty Dog's Media Room, which incorporates designer Chris Pelonis' trademarked The Edge acoustical system

Videogame sound production has come so far so fast these past few years that it’s easy to forget it’s still an industry in its infancy. It didn’t come of age within a studio or network system, although dominant publishers and platforms have emerged. It didn’t start out with any rules of production, such as those that might be handed down by a guild or apprentice system, though a guild has been established to boost the level of professionalism and resources industrywide. Engineers didn’t really have the right tools to do the job in the beginning, instead borrowing from record and TV and film production to get the job done while middleware was being developed to free up creatives from their code-writing brothers and sisters. And the facilities, with a few notable exceptions, didn’t really exist to bring all the disparate audio assets together to handle the complexities of the increasingly complex 5.1—now 7.1—surround mixes.

But all that is changing, somewhat slowly over the past decade but definitely accelerating during the past few years. Microsoft built some sweetsounding rooms to go along with the acquisition of Bungee, built on the success of Halo. Electronic Arts has gone through a couple of incarnations now in its audio suites in Redwood City, Calif., and up in Vancouver. But nobody has done it quite like Sony Computer Entertainment of America, which has built a network of powerhouse audio design, edit and mix rooms in California during the past six years, from San Diego up to Santa Monica on through to Foster City. Sony’s latest—the Media Room/Theater in the new 45,000-square-foot Santa Monica offices of Naughty Dog, a wholly owned subsidiary—is pictured on this month’s cover.

Naughty Dog has been one of the world’s premier game developers since emerging in 1994 with the highly acclaimed and huge selling Crash Bandicoot series for PS 1. PS 2 brought Jak and Dexter, but it was PS 3 that put them over the top with a character named Nathan Drake and the hugely popular Uncharted 1 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The latter, released in October 2009, has sold well over 4 million units and swept awards shows worldwide, including Best Game, Best Art Direction and Best Sound at Game Developers Conference 2010 in February. The demands to keep up with expansion packs and online versions, not to mention new titles, led Naughty Dog into its new digs, which was occupied this March.

The Media Room, a 7.1 presentation/mix theater, was designed by Chris Pelonis, the TEC Award–winning, Santa Barbara–based designer/ acoustician who has now designed 45 production and mix rooms for Sony worldwide, most of which house his monitors. Pelonis, a first-rate guitar player and self-taught acoustician, has now designed somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 spaces, from control room/studios to nightclubs to home theaters to dub stages and mastering rooms. He has certainly refined his techniques and implementation during the years, yet he incorporates the same basic principles that led him into the business back in the mid-’80s, when he patented The Edge: a somewhat revolutionary acoustical device with multiple attributes, but primarily a low-frequency control device.

“The Media Room is a relatively large room, about 830 square feet, but it isn’t really all that different from what I might design for a mastering room, a control room, a home theater or any critical-listening space,” he explains. “Part of my signature, if I have one, is that I like a large sweet spot, and because of my approach to low-frequency control, I don’t get the low-frequency buildup and boundary interference that is typical in listening spaces, regardless of the size. Obviously, here we had to accommodate a lot of seating, sometimes up to 30 people on couches, and there is a zone where the energy is more focused, but that has more to do with the trajectory of the speakers and focal point/listening position of the multichannel system. Having said that, everyone in the room is still intimately involved in the playback. The combination of consistent off-axis phase and frequency response of my speakers [35-plus degrees] and well-designed acoustical control is the recipe for ‘not a bad seat in the house.’”

“Chris did an awesome job,” says Justin Monast, Naughty Dog director of information technology, who has been with the company since Crash Bandicoot 1. “And he had to teach me about sound. We had mixed in conference rooms before, with steel doors leaking into the offices. This time around, we wanted to do it right. We gave him a predefined space for six 5.1 production rooms and a 5.1/7.1 theater, and he worked within our constraints. We couldn’t float all the floors, for example, and we had to use metal studs, not wood like he would prefer. But he really wants to build a room that he would listen to.”

Justin Monast, Naughty Dog director of information technology

Justin Monast, Naughty Dog director of information technology

Naughty Dog occupies a full floor within a five-story building in Santa Monica’s Water Garden area. Isolation was a focal point from the early meetings, as was HVAC and electrical. (Pelonis is an avowed fan of balanced power.) From the first meetings, Naughty Dog made it clear they needed the Media Room to be something for everyone. It had to be able to show dailies, host training exercises and serve as a meeting place for brainstorming between and within departments. It needed to show the latest titles and updates in press previews and serve as a final mix room. And, of course, people needed to play games. But it was clear they wanted a first-rate theater, not a multipurpose room.

“One of the things I really pushed for was couches in segments instead of the typical seating in a theater, with director’s chairs and captain’s chairs and the editor and three or four people discussing a movie,” explains Monast. “With games, you might have 30 employees talking about certain aspects of the levels with animators and programmers. So for that many people, it’s a much more inviting and comfortable area. There are actually two sweet spots in the room, for 5.1 and 7.1, and his subs are just amazing. We’ve had the composers who scored the Uncharted games come in, and they were just blown away.”

“Low end is a given any time you work with a game company, and they definitely need to hear it correctly,” Pelonis says, calling it, with a wink and a nod, a 7.2 room because of the two Pelonis Signature Series subs. “The stuff that these guys play isn’t wimpy. The low frequencies are the most difficult and problematic to deal with in any room. They’re also the big determiner of whether you get a nice, wide sweet spot or a small, confined sweet spot. By reducing boundary interference with welldesigned and well-located acoustical systems, the typical bass buildup—the pressure zones as I like to call them—is mitigated.”

The “acoustic system” Pelonis refers to is The Edge. Basically, it provides a very gradual transition from absorption to dispersion and diffusion as the frequency rises. As the system becomes more reflective, it transitions into dispersion as a result of this faceted geometric condition, similar to the varying well depths of a Quadratic Diffusor. While he has never been a big proponent of back-wall diffusion, he says there is an inherent diffusion and dispersion characteristic in The Edge without the splashback in the mid to high frequencies.

“You will find some diffusion occasionally on my back walls, and I’m not at all saying that is a wrong approach,” Pelonis explains. “But you have to be cognizant that if you get in the proximity of where all this phase gradient is occurring, you will find your head swimming in a comb filter. That said, I do have some of Peter [D’Antonio’s] diffusors back there, but probably less than a quarter of what you might see in other rooms. If you think of The Edge creating a ‘W’ on the back wall, in this case, the valleys of the ‘W’ are where I added diffusion. Over the past 25 years, I’ve learned to blend the rest of the room into the system so that every aspect of the room is more meaningful acoustically than maybe what it was when I started.”

Pelonis had just shy of 12 feet height to work with within the isolation shell. There is trapping in the ceiling, as would be expected, and he incorporated some proprietary new techniques for dealing with absorption along the soffited speaker wall, a common trouble area where front meets side.

Pelonis Signature Series speakers, built and distributed by Tannoy, are used throughout the room, with three passive PSS 110s across the front and two on each side, placed for optimum 5.1 and 7.1 listening positions. (“I don’t like them less than 100 degrees off the center of the front wall for 5.1,” Pelonis says. “And I prefer in the 115 to 117-degree range.”) The PSS 12LF subs are flush-mounted as well and were doubled up to maintain the impact throughout the room. All amplification and processing is also by Pelonis.

“The team at Sony Computer Entertainment is really top-shelf, and we’re pretty fine-tuned at this point,” Pelonis concludes. “They’re extremely efficient from a design-build perspective, and I’ve learned to value working with people who not only have experience, but who understand what I’m after when I sit down to listen to a room.”

Tom Kenny is the editorial director of Mix.

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