Most new Android devices are already equipped with Dolby Audio (www.dolby.com) (supporting Dolby Digital Plus), and Android game developers can take advantage of those built-in Dolby audio-processing components to noticeably improve their game’s sound experience. And best of all, they can do it for free with Dolby Audio API for Android. To help explain how game developers and audio pros can use and benefit from Dolby Audio, Somatone Interactive's (www.somatone.com) chief operating officer Adam Levenson sheds some light on mobile game audio and answers key questions about Dolby Audio.
But first, who is this Adam Levenson anyway? Although relatively new to Somatone Interactive (STi), Levenson has spent 23 years in the interactive audio biz, working as a composer and sound designer before stepping up to directorships at Interplay, Electronic Arts, and Shiny Entertainment. As senior director at Activision, he oversaw audio production and audio technologies on games like Call of Duty, Skylanders, James Bond, Spider-Man, and Transformers. He’s represented big-name composers, such as Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe through Levenson Artists Agency, before joining the game audio giant Somatone Interactive in 2014. Somatone is a leading global provider of music, sound design, VO, and audio implementation for the game industry, typically working on more than a hundred titles each year. They've recently teamed up with Dolby to help clients implement Dolby Audio into Android mobile games.
What is Dolby Audio?
We're all familiar with how Dolby's encode/decode processes can enrich the sonic experience of theatrical and home media content, but did you know that Dolby also has technologies specifically designed to enhance audio for mobile applications? It's called Dolby Audio, and it's royalty-free to application developers. Developers of Android apps can download the Dolby Audio API for Android from the Dolby Developer site (http://developer.dolby.com/tools-tech.aspx#android). It contains a Java library, quick start guide, and a sample of what the source code looks like in an example application — everything a developer would need in order to take advantage of the Dolby audio processing technology that's already integrated into the operating systems of licensed Android (and Windows) mobile devices. According to Dolby, adding Dolby Audio into a game app takes 15 minutes, with plug-ins available for Unity, Marmalade, Adobe Air, Xamarin, and Cordova. Levenson explains, “Dolby Audio is a few lines of code that gets integrated into the game code. It provides a dramatic enhancement effect to a mobile game's sound. People often get really wide-eyed and jump when they first experience it. I think we all recognize that even on really sophisticated tablets and phones the sound quality is not that terrific, but when the Dolby Audio kicks in, the contrast is mind-blowing.” Levenson likens the improvement to adding the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer to a final mix. “All of a sudden, the mix is in your face and everything is more clear. Dolby, in their magical way, has come up with a way to L1 (pump up) the whole mobile sound experience.” You can demo the Dolby enhanced audio here: http://www.dolby.com/us/en/technologies/dolby-digital-plus/life-of-pi-demo.html
What exactly does Dolby Audio do for a game's sound?
When developers add the Dolby Audio plug-in to their game, they can control the Dolby audio processing components on an end-user’s device by transferring configuration commands via Java. According to Dolby, a developer can choose one of four pre-defined profiles: Music, Movie, Game, and Voice. Each profile has unique parameters set to achieve the best audio quality for that specific category. For example, the parameters of the Movie profile are set to focus on the dialogue while still maintaining the full dynamic range of the film. The Game profile parameters are set to create a simulated live space to enhance the experience of fast-moving objects in the sound. A developer can simply add the code for the Game profile into their game. The quick start guide gives exact details and examples of the procedure. According to Dolby, the Dolby Audio API offers four main benefits: Volume Leveling which maintains constant volume across all content and applications, Surround Virtualizer which creates a surround sound experience, Audio Optimizer which gives listeners natural and louder, distortion-free sound, and Dolby Digital Pass-Through which allows direct home theater connections for a full multichannel experience. As Levenson points out, there are over 1.43 million apps on Google Play, and developers need ways to distinguish their games. Dolby Audio is a way to boost the sound experience without significantly impacting processing power or battery life. Levenson, who’s been in the industry for nearly 25 years, remembers creating games for Sony’s original PlayStation back in 1994. “We were having the same conversations back then in terms of game audio, selling the benefits of enhanced sound, better sound effects, better music, and explaining how those are going to help the game and provide a more immersive experience. Audio is a relatively inexpensive way to significantly change the game experience and Dolby is renowned for this last-action-in-the-chain kind of tech that enhances the sound.”
How does Dolby Audio fit into the workflow?
Once a game's soundtrack is completely designed, mixed, and implemented, the game developer can add the Dolby Audio API into the source code and test out the sound. Unlike Dolby Atmos, which has an interface that allows a sound designer or mixer to actively manipulate sounds to craft an immersive soundscape, Dolby Audio is an end-process enhancement for the final game soundtrack. It's designed to seamlessly integrate into a game’s code without disrupting the overall workflow. After years of collaboration to bring 5.1 surround to console games, big publishers in the game industry and Dolby have a well-established working relationship. Levenson explains, “It wasn’t like 5.1 surround was always available for console games. Dolby made that happen. It lifted everyone’s expectations so all of a sudden games became a home theater experience. I think major publishers and those coming into the mobile game arena are already familiar with Dolby delivering that kind of impact. So I think they are extremely receptive to the idea that Dolby will bring the same kind of changes to the mobile world.”
What should developers be aware of?
Nothing is perfect, and Dolby knows that. They work endlessly to improve their technology, for the developers who are integrating Dolby Audio into their mobile games, and for the end-user who gets a more immersive game experience. “Dolby Audio is available right now for developers and publishers, but Dolby never stops,” says Levenson. “They are constantly in R&D.” So what are some things to keep in mind when integrating Dolby Audio? Levenson notes that Dolby Audio really brings out all aspects of a mix, including flaws. The Surround Virtualizer widens the stereo field beyond the boundaries of a device, and opens up the mix. Suddenly, elements of the mix are more present. “You may think your mix sounds awesome and then you turn on the Dolby Audio technology and you hear everything, including flaws. That's where Somatone Interactive comes in. In addition to evangelizing Dolby Audio to the mobile community, we are working with Dolby to help developers create sound, music, and mixes that are optimized for the Dolby Audio technology.” Sometimes ‘enhancements’ can add ‘issues’ but Levenson says he hasn't noticed any undesirable by-products caused by Dolby Audio. He reports that there haven't been any funky frequency build-ups or strange phasing issues caused by the Surround Virtualizer. The Volume Leveler doesn't crush the dynamic range of a mix. And in terms of dialogue EQ enhancements, Levenson says, “Dolby has created some sort of band specific enhancement where they are successfully bringing out the dialogue frequencies to the point where, provided your mix is good, you're going to hear the dialogue even better. I think arguably one of the main problems with any entertainment media on mobile devices is, because you don't have high fidelity speakers, you tend to lose a lot of dialogue clarity. That can be pretty off-putting and annoying for the consumer who is trying to hear whatever they are experiencing.”
What does the future hold for mobile games? How does Dolby Audio fit into that vision?
Somatone Interactive has been around since 2003; that's four years before the iPhone was introduced to consumers. During Somatone’s early years, they created audio for the precursors to mobile games, i.e. browser games and “casual games.” When the iPhone hit the shelves, Somatone’s established reputation in the casual games market created instant brand recognition in the new mobile game publishing market. Their long history and extensive client list, which includes AAA and indie game developers, have given them a unique insight into game industry trends. Levenson reports, “People are starting to pay more attention to sound on mobile. We're seeing people use middleware, like FMOD, Wwise, Fabric, and Master Audio, to greater advantage. Even just in the past three months, clients are definitely more attentive to sound quality. It's really fantastic to see this happening right before our eyes, and I think we'll continue to see more of this. Dolby Audio is something that we offer all of our clients on Android and Windows games. We always encourage our clients to aim high and we're here to help them create a great audio experience. For indie companies, and companies coming up in the mobile game world, Dolby Audio is a great way for them to enhance their game and distinguish their game without having the huge budgets of a big publisher.”