During Sony’s Road to PS5 press conference on Wednesday, Mark Cerny breezed through fifteen minutes of very technical – yet exciting – talk around the PS5’s approach to audio. Let’s take a closer look at what some of that jargon actually means, and how it could be a game-changer for consoles.
The main tenet of Sony’s audio presentation was Great Audio For All, with two goals that related to that theme – hundreds of advanced sound sources, and presence and locality. When it comes to games, or anything with a visual component, sound often takes a back seat, particularly when it comes to assigned resources. All games have a processing resources budget determined by the processing power of the platform, and audio usually gets a small slice of that pie to work with. An important part of designing the sound for a game involves optimization of the sounds being implemented and finding ways to use, or re-use a sound clip, then prioritize what is most important for the player to hear and what can be left out. With the PS5, there’s a real focus being placed on more detailed audio processing in a 3D space than we’ve seen before in a console.
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So how is Sony achieving this? The PS5 will have a dedicated audio hardware processing unit called the Tempest, which is based on AMD GPU technology that has been modified to make it more ideal for audio. The processing power of this new Tempest unit will roughly equal the processing power of the eight Jaguar AMD chips in the PS4, of which only a small portion would have ever been relegated to audio.
This is an enormous increase in processing that will be available to sound designers and allow audio to be far more involved. Currently, because the amount of processing resources delegated to audio is limited, the way designers use audio is also limited. For example, there could be many layers of sound happening at once, but some sounds have to be given priority over others. For instance, it’s far more important to hear that monster barreling towards you baring its teeth than the birds circling overhead. If the processing power available is limited, the sound of the birds might not be played. But with all the dedicated processing power from Tempest, the sound design can have significantly more depth and complexity instead of prioritizing what’s more important and dropping what is less important.
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3D audio is where much of that extra processing power will go. For VR and PC gamers, 3D audio will sound familiar; more involved implementation of 3D audio has been showing up in games and headsets over the past couple of years. The more discrete channels in a 3D audio system, virtual or physical, help place that enemy player you’re stalking more accurately. The obvious and easy choice for the PS5 design team would be to use an already existing system as the basis for any advanced sound processing. Something like Dolby Atmos that can be found on the Xbox One (although it had some problems when the update was rolled out). But Cerny specifically addressed why Atmos peripherals weren’t the most ideal solution – namely the need for players to use licensed Dolby Atmos product,s and Atmos’ limit to 32 sound sources.
The extra processing in the PS5 will also allow the sound to be tailored to the individual player using head-related transfer function, or HRTF. The main implementation of HRTF has thus far been to help us hear in the virtual space when playing in VR. Without getting too much into psychoacoustics (how we hear and perceive sounds) and our own physiology, basically the shape of our heads affects how sound reaches our ears. One way you can test this yourself is by going to a static sound, like a water fountain, and change your orientation to it. Turn your head left and right, lean backward and forwards, and turn your back to it. The sound changes with each movement and these changes are what help us localize sounds.
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Using HRTF can greatly increase immersive sound. As opposed to the 32 sound sources that Dolby Atmos is limited to, HRTF profiles can have hundreds of possible sound source locations that can more accurately place sounds around you. They also can be tailored specifically to you. Everyone’s HRTF profile is different because everyone’s head and ear shape is different. But that means one of the challenges of using HRTF is making sure whichever profile you’re using is closely matched to what your natural profile would be. At launch, the PS5 will have five profiles to choose from and there are plans to have some sort of test to determine which of those five is closest to your own.
The Best Way to Listen
Most of the presentation was focused on how the PS5’s audio will work while wearing headphones because that’s where Sony started with its implementation and is its gold standard. Sony is still developing a virtual surround sound system for use with TV speakers that will give as close to the same 3D sound experience. This is a tall order, as there are significant challenges in causing two speakers in front of you to localize sound all around you (also, TV speakers are generally terrible).
Overall, though, this newfound focus on immersive 3D audio is extremely promising. While Sony still needs to develop some of the 3D technology and there are questions as to how that technology will be implemented, this peek behind the curtain of development should be encouraging for audio enthusiasts. Even for those that don’t identify as audio enthusiasts, the benefits could be drastic. In both solo and multiplayer games, you’ll have a more accurate indication of where unseen enemies are and where their gunfire is coming from. If Sony is able to pull it off, the PS5 could very well deliver the best audio experience we’ve ever seen from a console.
John Higgins has been writing and testing all manner of audio, video, computer, and gaming gear since the early ’00s. He is also a post audio editor, composer, and musician in Los Angeles.
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