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The right sound in games enhances the gaming experience

Don’t underestimate the importance of a really good sound experience when playing. 

Text: Daniel Haaf

Published: 12 March 2021

This article is written by Prisjakt's editorial staff. No one else has influenced the content of it. There are no paid links or other types of advertising collaborations.

The right sound creates a stronger experience when you play. 

Creating a game is like putting together a big puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle must be carefully planned, have the right details, and be carefully composed to fit in with the next piece.

We talked to Carl Strandberg about the importance of good sound in games. Carl is a sound designer and works at the Swedish game studio DICE, amongst other things making sounds for the game series Battlefield. He says that players are becoming more and more aware of the sound in the games, and that that part of the puzzle is getting more attention than ever.

- People care more and more, and talk more often about the sound in games. We see many comments on the sound in reviews. Sound is extra important in the Battlefield games, says Carl.

The right sound in the right place.

As more and more people talk about sound, the pressure on those who design the sounds also increases.

In many games, such as those that take place during World War II, it’s important to use time-typical sounds, and that interactions with for example doors and levers, have the right character. In addition, it’s important to find an optimal balance between all the sounds in order not to overwhelm the player.

Carl prefers to record as much as he can in the field. Ideally, he wants to record, for example, real explosions and weapons to make it as faithful as possible. When that’s not possible, he has a library with reference sounds to be inspired by. He also watches different videos and does research at a detailed level to make sure the correct sound is being used.

- It’s inspiring to look at history and dig a little deeper into how it should sound for real, says Carl.

It could be listening to the engine of a vehicle or the mechanics of a weapon to be able to recreate the sound properly. Sometimes it involves long journeys to gain access to things typical of the time, such as when Carl travelled to the United States to meet a Japanese weapon collector to record, amongst other things, a Type 100 machine gun that was used by Japan during World War II.

- It's cool to be able to record and preserve the history of how the weapons sounded. We have recorded quite rare machine guns, rifles, and machine guns, says Carl.

Apart from the fact that it can be tricky to find the right gadget to record the sounds from, there are other challenges for sound designers. Like you can spend too much time trying to get the sound perfect.

It’s also important not to forget rooms and echoes when recording a sound.

If Carl knows that a sound should be heard, for example indoors, it’s best to record the sound in the same environment, than using so-called reverb, which is a simulation of a room's reverberation, to achieve the same result.

This is what it can look like when Carl works in the field.

Sound is as important as graphics

Another important detail is that the sound should interact with the graphics in the game. Often when you talk about gaming, it’s the visual pieces that come into focus. Like the graphics, the control, and how well they interact with different objects.

But a game that only looks good and has good controls, loses in feel and balance without a good sound experience. The gaming experience will suffer from poorly composed sounds that are out of balance with the rest of the game. Therefore, it is important that both your headphones are good and that the game's sound designers have done a good job.

Music, dialogues, and ambiance can together drive games forward by playing on your emotions. You can get a sense of immediate danger and stress when something important is happening out of sight, giving you a stronger impression of realism.

- Sound has a faster path to the brain, so we react faster to what we hear than what the eyes see. It’s important to concentrate on the sounds the player interacts with and to bring variation through the interaction, to get more depth, and ultimately a stronger experience, says Carl.

Sound can also completely overturn the experience if used incorrectly.

If everything sounds too heavy, some of the dynamics will disappear. It’s about creating a balance between ambition, interactive sounds, and human dialogues.

- It’s not always important that the sounds are as true to nature as possible, sometimes you may need to exaggerate something to make it stand out, or add sounds that the player may not normally think of to create a greater depth to the experience, Carl says.

In conclusion, Carl says that he hopes that people will enjoy experiencing good sound in games and perceive it as cool. And we can only agree, there is something special about a really good sound experience in games.

Carl Strandberg.

Who is Carl Strandberg?

Carl Strandberg is 25 years old and works as a sound designer at the Swedish game studio DICE. Together with his team, he works mainly with producing so-called core sounds, for the games in the Battlefield series. Core sounds include sounds from weapons, vehicles, and various gadgets that have a sound.

Carl also works with sound logic, which is how the sounds should be played. These include processing and whether a sound must be looped. He also makes so-called one-shots, which are sounds that are single samples, without being looped.

In addition to making sound for games, Carl himself also enjoys playing. There have been many so-called shooters over the years, including classics such as Quake and Doom. Other favourites are Halo, Counter-Strike, and of course the Battlefield series.

When Carl plays, it's on PC and Playstation 4. His favourite headphones are the Sennheiser HD 600 and the home theatre sound consists of a 5.1 system with the Genelec 8330 speakers.

The right sound when you play - bear this in mind when choosing your new headphones

1. You don’t have to buy gaming headphones - standard ones for music also works

You don’t have to buy gaming headphones. If you already have good headphones for music and films, they’ll generally work well for all forms of gaming too.

But you’ll need to be prepared to give up some handy features that gaming headphones offer. Most gaming headphones have a built-in microphone and are designed to stay comfortable even during long gaming sessions. 

Many gaming headphones also have built-in support for virtual surround sound, which makes it easier to hear where the sound is coming from. If you have regular headphones, it’s not certain that this function is built into the games you like playing.

Another detail is that gaming headphones sometimes have special sound profiles for different games. When you start a game that has an audio profile, it is activated to optimise the audio automatically. Maybe not the most important thing to think about before the purchase, but definitely worth mentioning for some gamers out there.

And then we have the design. If you already have several gadgets, for example, Logitech, Corsair, or Steelseries, you may want to continue with the same design in their series. It doesn’t help with the sound, but it looks better when all accessories are from the same gadget series.

2. Wireless or with cord

Don’t like having cords lying across the desk when you play? Or maybe you want headphones when you play on your game console? Then you should choose wireless headphones.

The better wireless gaming headphones on the market have many hours of battery life, have no delay in sound, and sound as good as headphones with a cord. However, they often cost a lot more for the convenience of avoiding the cable.

If you want wireless gaming headphones, you need to think about the connection method (Bluetooth or RF), battery life, range, and supported platforms.

3. The right headphones for the right platform

Not all headphones work optimally with all gaming platforms. If you play on a PC, most headphones work without problems, but if you have an Xbox, Playstation, or Switch, it can be a little trickier. Therefore, it’s important that you choose a model that is adapted for a game console, if that’s where you’re playing. 

This is especially important if you want wireless headphones. Then you need to make sure that they are compatible with your game console to work at all, in some cases. Check the label on the headphone package or on the manufacturer's website for the platforms you want to use.

4. Don’t underestimate the comfort factor

If you are going to play for many hours straight, comfort is at least as important as anything else. It’s of course very subjective how good a pair of headphones feel because we are all different, so it’s a good idea to try on several different headphones in a shop if possible. One tip is to choose headphones whose ear cushions can be replaced, because they deteriorate over time.

There are 5 things you need to think about regarding comfort and fit, and that affect how the headphones fit over your head.

  • The size of the ear cushions
  • The depth of the ear cushions
  • The headband
  • How much the headphones weigh
  • How hard the ear cushions press against the side of the head

If the ear cushions are too small in size or don’t have enough depth, the ears will touch the inside, which quickly becomes uncomfortable. The headband should sit comfortably over the head with the right elasticity, without being too pressing. Large and heavy headphones can quickly become burdensome after several hours of playing and if the ear cushions press against the sides, you are almost guaranteed to get annoyed.

Photo: IM_VISUALS, Adobe Stock

5. Built-in microphone or external

It’s important to have a microphone that has a nice sound and doesn’t make any buzzing noise. Most gaming headphones have a built-in microphone that works really well (but it can vary greatly from model to model).

If you want the best possible sound quality from the microphone, you must buy a separate USB or XLR microphone. It increases the cost but is a good investment if, for example, you want to record high-quality audio to your YouTube channel or a podcast.

For the normal user, the built-in microphone in the headphones is enough. If you want to read more about choosing the right microphone, you can do so here.

Being able to position sounds gives an advantage in games like Counter-Strike. Photo: alfa27, Adobe Stock

Virtual surround sound enhances the gaming experience - but not for everyone

If you play so-called FPS games, it’s important to be able to position different sounds in the game. Footsteps and shooting can reveal where your opponents are, which gives you an advantage when you play online against others, for example.

One technology that is often used is virtual surround sound. With true surround sound, for example for the home theatre system, several physical speakers are used that play different audio channels. For example, sounds that come from the front, from the sides, or from behind.

The vast majority of headphones are so-called stereo headphones and have only two audio channels, left and right. For the players to have the same effect as with a real home cinema system, the sound channels are simulated with different effects to make them sound as if they are coming from different directions.

The Battlefield series supports 3D Audio with headsets using HRTF, which stands for Head-Related Transfer Function, a technology that allows audio engineers to colour the sound to indicate where it comes from and thus fooling the ears and brain. How well it works depends on several factors, including how our heads and ears are shaped.

Worth thinking about virtual surround sound

  • Virtual surround sound is not magic. In some games, it works really well, but in others, it may sound really bad. Try it out and see what suits your ears best.
  • You don’t have to buy special headphones for virtual surround sound. Stereo headphones with a wide soundstage generally work best.
  • There are a few headphones with real surround sound. They are large, clumsy and often really expensive, and the effects are rarely good enough to justify the cost compared to regular stereo headphones.
  • Not all games have built-in surround sound support. Overwatch and the Battlefield series have it, but in other game titles, you may have to rely on your headphones to simulate the surround sound for you.

Test virtual surround sound

If you want to try out what it sounds like with virtual surround sound in stereo headphones, you can do it here. Start the video and close your eyes while listening.

Imagine that you’re sitting at a barber’s and notice how the sound moves in different directions as if someone was walking around you without you being able to see the person.

If you don’t want to use virtual surround sound, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro is great when playing FPS games.

Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO - the headphones for both music and gaming

If you want to get really good headphones that work just as well for games as for films and music, are durable, and don’t cost a fortune, we recommend the Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO.

This model was first introduced in 1985 and is well-liked for its durable design, excellent sound quality, and comfortable ear cushions.

The Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO has a wide sound stage and a V-shaped sound that highlights the treble a little extra. This makes footsteps and shootings extra noticeable when you play FPS games, and thus you can more easily position your opponents.

However, the sound from the DT 990 PRO can be experienced as a bit sharp. Even to the point that it hurts your ears if you are sensitive. A tip is to use a so-called equaliser to fine-tune the treble when listening to music, and remove the sharp spikes.

The Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO is available in three models (32, 250, and 600 Ohm), with different sound characters.

Many newer computers have good sound cards that can operate both the 32 and 250 Ohms models without any problems. If you want the more expensive 600 Ohms model, you may need an extra headphone amplifier, but that depends entirely on the sound card.

It's worth trying several headphones

There are lots of headphone models and they are all designed differently. Don’t be discouraged if the first model you try doesn’t sound completely right, sits uncomfortably on your head, or if your gut screams that something is wrong.

If you are going to play for several hours straight, it’s important that the headphones fit perfectly and don’t hurt. Don’t forget to install the correct drivers and additional software so that you can try all the features.

It’s also important that the headphones work optimally with your favourite games. Read reviews, try different models and see what best suits your needs.

This article is written by Prisjakt's editorial staff. No one else has influenced the content of it. There are no paid links or other types of advertising collaborations. Daniel Haaf can be reached at [email protected].