On the Cover: Naughty Dog Puts a Byte into Game Audio

Sep 9, 2010 1:37 PM, By Tom Kenny


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The rear wall of Naughty Dog's Media Room, which incorporates designer Chris Pelonis' trademarked The Edge acoustical system

The rear wall of Naughty Dog's Media Room, which incorporates designer Chris Pelonis' trademarked The Edge acoustical system

Videogame sound production has come so far so fast these past few years that it’s easy to forget it’s still an industry in its infancy. It didn’t come of age within a studio or network system, although dominant publishers and platforms have emerged. It didn’t start out with any rules of production, such as those that might be handed down by a guild or apprentice system, though a guild has been established to boost the level of professionalism and resources industrywide. Engineers didn’t really have the right tools to do the job in the beginning, instead borrowing from record and TV and film production to get the job done while middleware was being developed to free up creatives from their code-writing brothers and sisters. And the facilities, with a few notable exceptions, didn’t really exist to bring all the disparate audio assets together to handle the complexities of the increasingly complex 5.1—now 7.1—surround mixes.

But all that is changing, somewhat slowly over the past decade but definitely accelerating during the past few years. Microsoft built some sweetsounding rooms to go along with the acquisition of Bungee, built on the success of Halo. Electronic Arts has gone through a couple of incarnations now in its audio suites in Redwood City, Calif., and up in Vancouver. But nobody has done it quite like Sony Computer Entertainment of America, which has built a network of powerhouse audio design, edit and mix rooms in California during the past six years, from San Diego up to Santa Monica on through to Foster City. Sony’s latest—the Media Room/Theater in the new 45,000-square-foot Santa Monica offices of Naughty Dog, a wholly owned subsidiary—is pictured on this month’s cover.

Naughty Dog has been one of the world’s premier game developers since emerging in 1994 with the highly acclaimed and huge selling Crash Bandicoot series for PS 1. PS 2 brought Jak and Dexter, but it was PS 3 that put them over the top with a character named Nathan Drake and the hugely popular Uncharted 1 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The latter, released in October 2009, has sold well over 4 million units and swept awards shows worldwide, including Best Game, Best Art Direction and Best Sound at Game Developers Conference 2010 in February. The demands to keep up with expansion packs and online versions, not to mention new titles, led Naughty Dog into its new digs, which was occupied this March.

The Media Room, a 7.1 presentation/mix theater, was designed by Chris Pelonis, the TEC Award–winning, Santa Barbara–based designer/ acoustician who has now designed 45 production and mix rooms for Sony worldwide, most of which house his monitors. Pelonis, a first-rate guitar player and self-taught acoustician, has now designed somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 spaces, from control room/studios to nightclubs to home theaters to dub stages and mastering rooms. He has certainly refined his techniques and implementation during the years, yet he incorporates the same basic principles that led him into the business back in the mid-’80s, when he patented The Edge: a somewhat revolutionary acoustical device with multiple attributes, but primarily a low-frequency control device.

“The Media Room is a relatively large room, about 830 square feet, but it isn’t really all that different from what I might design for a mastering room, a control room, a home theater or any critical-listening space,” he explains. “Part of my signature, if I have one, is that I like a large sweet spot, and because of my approach to low-frequency control, I don’t get the low-frequency buildup and boundary interference that is typical in listening spaces, regardless of the size. Obviously, here we had to accommodate a lot of seating, sometimes up to 30 people on couches, and there is a zone where the energy is more focused, but that has more to do with the trajectory of the speakers and focal point/listening position of the multichannel system. Having said that, everyone in the room is still intimately involved in the playback. The combination of consistent off-axis phase and frequency response of my speakers [35-plus degrees] and well-designed acoustical control is the recipe for ‘not a bad seat in the house.’”

“Chris did an awesome job,” says Justin Monast, Naughty Dog director of information technology, who has been with the company since Crash Bandicoot 1. “And he had to teach me about sound. We had mixed in conference rooms before, with steel doors leaking into the offices. This time around, we wanted to do it right. We gave him a predefined space for six 5.1 production rooms and a 5.1/7.1 theater, and he worked within our constraints. We couldn’t float all the floors, for example, and we had to use metal studs, not wood like he would prefer. But he really wants to build a room that he would listen to.”

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