Sony Playstation Recording Studios: Building the Future of Game Sound and MusicThere really are no precedents for what Sony Computer Entertainment America has done over the past seven years in its ongoing commitment to raising the quality of game sound. Other developers and pub 9/01/2013 5:00 AM Eastern
There really are no precedents for what Sony Computer Entertainment America has done over the past seven years in its ongoing commitment to raising the quality of game sound. Other developers and publishers have built world-class rooms and facilities, adapting to the sophistication and complexity of modern production chains and more powerful game engines. But nobody has done it like Sony.
To understand the full scope of what Sony has quietly developed in audio up and down the California coast, you have to go back those seven years, to when the company built its first true professional audio rooms in the U.S., in their San Diego facility. At the time, PS2 was maintaining its dominance and PS3 was soon to launch. It was still a game console industry, primarily, and it wasn’t uncommon for a title to bring in $1 billion or more. Audio, both creation and playback, was considered a major part of the format’s success, and the company backed the construction of 20 5.1 edit Pods, a tracking room, a Foley room, voice booths and three mix stages between its San Diego and Foster City, Calif., locations. A couple of years later, identical Pods were added to the Santa Monica development facility.
Fast forward to today, with the launch of PS4 less than three months away, and Sony has upped the ante again, in August opening 17 new edit Pods, an API control room, a D-Control control room, a Foley room, a sweet-sounding live room that holds up to 35 pieces comfortably, and the 7.1 Euphonix S5 mix stage pictured on this month’s cover—all as part of the company’s Northern California relocation from Foster City to San Mateo, a half-mile away.
Word first came down from management that the facilities would be relocating about two years ago. While it meant tearing down world-class rooms and moving systems over (all without down time), it was seen as an opportunity to do it all again, on a larger scale, incorporating new technologies and design criteria to both increase the scope of the company’s in-house work and improve on interoperability, workflow and collaboration. It was also an opportunity to bring in natural light, improving the comfort and vibe for engineers and sound designers who often work 16- to 18-hour days in the last few week’s before a game’s release.
“It’s all about talent,” says Dave Murrant, senior director of product development service groups, who also spearheaded the initial build-outs in 2006. “You want to have an environment where they are inspired to be creative. Our previous rooms sounded great, and it broke our heart to leave them. When we approached this next round of build, we thought first of what we could do to enhance the experience for the people who create the sounds.
“Sony has always understood that quality is paramount, and their support of this facility is emblematic of this,” he continues. “They see all the awards on the games—God of War, Uncharted, Journey, The Last of Us—there has been such a high regard for the quality of the audio on PlayStation games, the executives knew it was important. It’s a big investment and we got their backing.”
The core group of the creative and design and integration teams that came together for the 2006 build was largely the same this time around: Murrant; Chuck Doud, director of music; Matt Lavine of Bug ID, system design and integration; SC Builders, construction; and Chris Pelonis, studio design and acoustics. Two years ago, they met and began going over plans, joined by music engineering manager Marc Senasac and manager of sound and dialog in San Mateo Ken Felton, among a few others. The approach, by all accounts, was extremely collaborative. The goal was to improve on what they had learned over the years, recognizing that game sound production is an ever-changing target and building with future-proofing in mind.
Change characterizes the game market, perhaps more than any other media-related discipline. Constant change, in formats, technologies and production pipelines. Any facilities built today have to be flexible and adaptable, interoperable yet isolated. For Sony Worldwide Studios, the need for centralized music/sound design services and audio consistency across campuses, both hallmarks from the beginning, were deemed even more important.
“At Worldwide Studios we have a centralized music and sound team that supports all of our games,” explains Doud. “Every game we work on benefits from every other game we work on. We can also dynamically scale up or down as needed throughout the life of the project. Assets are shared across all three campuses via Isilon servers. The team is not only working in Pelonis-designed audio Pods but also using Pelonis speaker systems, so we have parity across all audio disciplines and campuses.”
“We do have best practices that we use,” adds Senesac, who records and mixes much of the music heard on Sony games and was instrumental in equipment selection and workflow considerations. “At the same time, every game is a little different, and we have to address that. Sort of modular best practices. The nice thing about this facility is we can dynamically allocate resources. One day we can have half the guys working on one game, and the next day all the guys working on the game, then the next day have 17 guys working on 17 different games.”
Just a few days after Mix’s visit in mid-August, and only a few days removed from the installation of the S5, the room was already working, with engineers assisting the San Diego team on nearly 100 cinematic mixes for Knack, one of the announced launch titles for PS4.
Collaboration and interoperability are really two sides of the same coin. A team can desire more collaboration, but without the right technologies and workflow and support in place, it can be much harder to achieve. While there has been no real change in Sony’s conceptual approach to audio production (other than doing more of it, more efficiently), there were more than a few design changes, most notably in the wiring and the use of light, that led to big improvements overall.
In the previous Foster City facility, also in a modern office park, the wiring had all run through conduit, without Pods connected to a central machine room. Any changes in format or any equipment swap required a run down the hall and an assumption of down time. There were no windows and only peepholes in the doors.
Pods in the new facility have sliding glass doors opening into a narrow hallway that rings the perimeter with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the surrounding city and hills. The hallway allows for local machine rooms, each serving two to four Pods. The sliding glass doors, with absorptive curtains when wanted, let in the natural light, while custom LED systems allow engineers to change colors in the room with nearly infinite variation. The Pod doors opening into the facility are also mostly glass, encouraging interaction as colleagues pass by. Efficiencies are improved, the comfort level is increased, and collaboration is encouraged.
“I placed the windows where they make the most sense,” says Pelonis, who besides seven years of Sony projects has designed facilities for Sony subsidiary Naughty Dog, Valve and several other game developers, not to mention hundreds of recording facilities. “Windows are reflective and must be carefully incorporated into the acoustical design like any other surface. I utilized absorptive curtains over sliding glass doors and diffuse walls to create variable acoustics in the recording spaces. The curtains can be drawn to taste across quite a wide range of sonic characteristics. In the Pods I have absorptive curtains to let the light in or block it out, while also tightening up the acoustics depending on what is required at any given moment. It’s really about creating an environment where the talent is inspired.
“The rooms we did in Foster City were wonderful, but we’ve learned things with the equipment changing, the wiring,” Pelonis adds. “In the previous studios, the machine rooms were more removed. With the new design, the machine rooms are closer and visible. As well as being much more flexible for equipment changes, this allows us to move more equipment out of the Pod and into the machine room, creating a more open space. This facility is pretty limitless. If they want to record a superstar recording artist, they can. They can record orchestra, do sound effects, Foley, mix, overdub—whatever is required of audio for media. From the Pods up to the main mix rooms, they are capable of doing just about anything you would hear in a game, on TV, on radio or in film.”
“To me, interoperability also means flexibility,” adds Matt Lavine, owner of system integration firm Bug ID. “We try to make every room flexible enough to do tracking, ADR or orchestral recording, editing or mixing. In the big control rooms, we put in floor troughs to get cabling in and out of the machine rooms easily. Then we have conduit to interconnect other rooms. We installed modular panel I/O systems enabling the end-user flexibility to change cabling and connector type in the future. Basically, all the rooms are connected and upgradeable.
“We also wanted to get the machines out of the room, but close enough for connections like HDMI directly from computer or game system into the Pod, or to hook up a new video monitor or hardware EQ,” he continues. “We can get cable through a floor or conduit pretty easily. When technology changes, they don’t want to be calling us every time they put in a new piece of gear. If a sound designer wants to customize their Pod with select hardware, they can put it in a rack and run cable through these isolated chases we designed. Very simple.”
The Mix Rooms
The Euphonix S5 room on the cover is big and wide and built for a multiformat mixing world, with emphasis on 7.1. The team did its due diligence in selecting the board, Senasac says, trying to foresee where the industry itself was heading, whether console games or mobile, handheld or online. Any console/controller they selected, needed to address the future, and the evolving production chain of game audio.
“Gene Semel, senior manager of the PlayStation Sound Group, wanted to look at better panners for surround material,” Senasac explains. “Our work is about 80 percent surround at this point, so we got really interested in S5. We went to Todd-AO and other facilities and got intrigued with the idea of running multiple workstations for more collaboration at the mixing stage. Avid acquiring Euphonix has only improved the Pro Tools pipeline.”
Pelonis’ patented Edge system, a backwall approach that absorbs low frequencies and gradually transitions into dispersion and diffusion as the frequency rises, is custom to the room, with modular variants appearing in every room throughout the facility. Pelonis Signature Series PSS215a three-way, dual-concentric 15-inch mains were brought over from Foster City and outfitted with new crossovers and bass amps. They measure well below 20 Hz. The Pelonis PS110a monitors that outfit the Pods were designed and developed concurrently with the Sony facilities in 2006, tailor made for the Pods themselves.
“One thing unique to my rooms, and their rooms in particular, is a wider sweet spot, where you can have quite a few people in there, move around, and everybody is experiencing the imaging and the frequency response in a similar fashion,” Pelonis explains. “I’m able to do that because of the off-axis response of my speakers. Both the phase and frequency response stay consistent out to better than 30 degrees off-axis conically, so I’m able to open up the front wall so that the direct trajectory of the tweeter can point past the listener. The response is the same over a much larger, wider area. That’s due to the nature of the driver; you can’t get that kind of performance with a discrete driver. It’s physically impossible. All the rooms are built with this philosophy. The low-frequency control and diffusion and the whole combination of acoustical palettes, built specifically around my monitors, creates a situation where everyone in the room is involved in the response that the engineer is getting. If there are 15 people in there, they are all involved.”
Every room in the facility essentially serves three masters—Recording, Post-Production and Implementation—and has been designed to flip on a dime. That said, the Euphonix room is primarily for mixing, and the 32-channel API 1608 room (with companion Avid D-Command surface as a hybrid option) is mainly for tracking music. There is line of sight from control room, through the live room, on into the Foley room. Analog and digital available.
The increase in size and scale of the new facility, not only in the physical dimensions but in capabilities, reflects the company’s evolution toward bringing more music production in house. “We are owning more of the process, and partnering with our composer talent in ways that helps them in creating signature-sounding scores for our games,” Doud says. “The combination of the talent we have on staff and our production facilities gives the composers that work with us an edge. They have the opportunity to experiment and innovate on a scale that many of them couldn’t do on their own.”
The studios speak for themselves. They attract top talent, and that talent is in turn given the tools to be creative. Less often stated is the commitment throughout Sony, that extends to the architects, designers, integrators, builders and engineers they have brought on board these past seven years.
“The Sony PlayStation company, in general, honors the creative process,” Pelonis says in summary. “They commit to their own team, but also to the people they bring on to facilitate creativity. I never feel shackled when I work for Sony. They give me the freedom I need to do my job the best that I can. And they are extremely collaborative. They make a point to understand what’s happening on an artistic level. The second floor is kind of the jewel of the whole facility, and they are proud of it. So am I.”