Designing Sound for Virtual Reality

Over the past few weeks we’ve noticed that lots of those playing Land’s End have particularly enjoyed its incredible soundscape, as created by audio designer Todd Baker and programmer Manesh Mistry.

So, as a special treat, we’ve made the album available for free via Spotify.*

Todd and Manesh also put their heads together to tell you a bit about the process of designing the audio for Land’s End, and more generally, thinking about sound in virtual reality.

Finding an audio identity

Even in it’s early stages, the visual style of Lands End had a distinctly dreamy, tranquil and surreal atmosphere, so the sound and music would clearly need to reflect this mood. Many players have described the experience as ‘meditative’, and the audio definitely aims to encourage this feeling.

It can be difficult to find the right balance, as there’s a fine line where ‘tranquil and meditative’ can start to sound like a new-age relaxation tape. We wanted the audio to have more of a stylised edge, and a unique identity. Effects such as tape saturation and vinyl noise were used to add character to sounds, along with organic performed instruments like slide guitar and percussion. Many of the sound sources were guitars and synths that were heavily-processed to create drones and ambient textures with a primal and ethereal feel.

In terms of influences, there’s a definite nod to the tone of games like Journey, and the ambient cues in the Interstellar soundtrack came to mind. We also wanted to be sympathetic to the audio atmosphere in Monument Valley, in the same way that the visual style shares similar DNA.

Discovering the challenges of audio for VR

In VR, people are more attuned to what sounds and feels right in the environment, and therefore can be equally distracted by what doesn’t. Land’s End is very much about immersion, creating a sense of place and transporting players to the world — so making the soundscape feel seamless with the environment is central to the experience.

With this in mind, the role of positional and ‘3D’ audio is much bigger in VR. In most 3D games, environmental soundscapes tend to consist of positional 3D sounds that are placed at specific points in the world (e.g. a crackling fireplace), as well as non-positional ‘2D’ sounds (e.g. a stereo or surround track of windy ambience). Put simply, in VR the non-positional 2D layers don’t work as well. Hence almost all of the environmental sounds in Land’s End are 3D. Even if there is no obvious object in the world to attach them to, ambient sounds such as wind and air are always positioning as you rotate your head, so you can always feel a sense of direction.

As well as fixed positional sounds such as those on the shoreline, 4-point ‘quad’ sounds oriented around the VR camera as the base layer for ambient audio such as wind and air.

The role of music in VR

When we watch a film we’re very used to hearing what’s called a ‘non-diegetic’ musical score — meaning music that characters in the movie aren’t aware of. For example, when Darth Vader walks into his Imperial March theme, we don’t expect to see the trombone section in the background… In VR, however, it’s easy to be aware of (and distracted by) music.

So in order to avoid breaking the immersion, care was taken to ensure that music didn’t draw too much attention to itself. Cues are always introduced subtly, and gently build and subside in and out of the ambience. We only introduced more intense, rhythmic music towards the end of the game. By this point players are more settled into the experience, and the subtle start gave us headroom to build the intensity for LE’s somewhat epic finale…

There is also a musical character to many of the sound effects, which blurs the line between what the player would recognise as music or sound, and helps them to instead accept that this is how the world sounds. The entire game is actually tuned to a global musical key, so as you interact with the world, there are random musical elements in the sound effects that harmonise with the subtle cues playing in the background.

Rock and Roll All Night

As well as proving one of the most difficult aspects of the game in terms of interaction, the sound design on the physics objects (movable rocks and boulders) proved to be one of the main technical challenges. We wanted the rocks to feel believably enormous and heavy, and for the player to feel a sense of weight and exertion when moving them with their gaze.

When a rock collides with something, the resulting sound needs to reflect the force of the impact and the type of surface it hits, as well as being instantaneous and correctly positioned in the world. Any latency or discrepancy immediately breaks immersion. Games physics systems can be notoriously unpredictable at times, and a lot of effort therefore went into translating information from the physics system into meaningful “hooks” that we could attach sounds to. The end result should be a continuous experience where rocks simply sound and feel like rocks!

Todd at work in his studio.

Understanding and crafting a final experience

As with any game, there is a constant re-balancing of the audio as the design and art take shape. The more the experience feels complete, the more finely the audio needs to be tweaked. Early on in the project, when there were only a few mechanics in place (such as the system of basic movement between points) it was tempting to make the audio for these elements overly elaborate, when it would later become obvious that a much more simplistic approach sounded better.

Game development is such an iterative process, and it was only much later in the project that we truly began to understand the nature of the overall experience and exactly what would be required to get the sound we were aiming for, both in terms of pacing, and in moving from one world to another.

Land’s End was a small enough project to have just one audio artist behind all of the sound and music, and it was a huge benefit to have almost full-time programmer support for the audio — especially considering the relatively small team size. While I (Todd) love to work with bigger audio teams with multiple sound designers and composers, it was refreshing to have the control over how everything sounds, and there’s a completeness and personality to the audio that, looking back, we can feel very proud of.

The Land’s End Original Soundtrack can be heard here for free.

*This album was previously available for download via Soundcloud.This download is currently no longer available. Sorry!

===

Todd is an audio designer and composer with many years of experience working on high-profile projects in games and media. Aside from Ustwo, recent work includes projects with Media Molecule as an audio designer on the critically acclaimed Tearaway games, as well as composing music for the LittleBigPlanet series. @TheToddBaker

Manesh is a senior games programmer at Ustwo Games, with a background in audio technology and a lifelong love for the craft of video games. His first foray into games was minimalist puzzler Blip Blup and more recently, Ustwo’s critically-acclaimed Monument Valley. @mnshm

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated ustwogames’s story.