Microsoft is taking very good care it seems, of an oft-ignored part of console design — the sound. In the past, console manufacturers have gone with off-the-shelf solutions (usually Yamaha, in fact) and Nintendo’s last console didn’t even have a real audio chip. As a result, much of the N64’s processing power is taken up with audio functions. Microsoft’s Audio manager, Chanel Summers explains to Daily Radar that she is making sure that doesn’t happen this time around.
At the unveiling of the X-Box during the Game Developers Conference in March, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates joked that the processor was so secret, even he didn’t know what it was. While Microsoft still hasn’t named the device, the company has started to unveil details. One thing we now know, is that the sound chip will share the 64 Megs of unified memory and may include some of its own. But here’s Microsoft’s ace in the hole: while the PS2 can generate very convincing noises and tunes from a stunning 48 channel chip, the X-Box will feature a staggering 256 total stereo voices. Overkill? Tommy Tallarico, president of his eponymous game music company thought so when the system was announced as having only 64 voices, saying, “How many channels of sound do you really need?”
The ping pong demo debuted in San Jose in March.
Chanel Summers counters this apparent overkill by explaining that “as graphics quality gets better and sound isn’t catching up, the sound can actually make your great quality graphics seem worse. So it’s that thing where you need the whole, complete experience. We can’t have these rich textures, amazing polygon counts and then just think about sound at the last minute.”
It’s certainly true that sound technology hasn’t kept pace with the graphics. Microsoft will not announce the manufacturer of the chip at this point, but there are only a few candidates; Yamaha, Creative Labs, Aureal (gone now, but still viable technology) and even Roland. Who makes the chip however, is less important than the fact that Microsoft is giving this so much energy and attention. Sony’s chip is no slouch, but now seems underpowered by comparison. It is ironic given the fact that Sony’s Ken Kutaragi designed the sound chip for the Super NES (one of the best ever) and that very project inspired him to eventually create the PlayStation.
The famous koi pond butterflies
Summers is quick to point out the failings of rival consoles in the audio department, saying “if you look at the PlayStation2, and not to mention that it only has 48 channels versus our 256, but the composer has 2 Megs of RAM to create some kind of compelling score. That’s just not possible. With our unified memory architecture, you have 64 Megs of RAM, and sure, that’s going to be split up for other functions, but if you wanted, you could use the whole 64 megs for music. You have that choice, we have that capability.” While a composer would obviously never devote all of the system RAM to music, the flexibility, 3D capabilities, and the storage of a hard drive will certainly lead to interesting audio possibilities.
Although Microsoft won’t elaborate, it seems that negotiations to include the brand-name standards (Dolby Digital, DTS etc) are still underway. Seamus Blackley, Microsoft’s director of advanced technology, will only say, “We will be very serious about sound standards. I think your readers will be pleased.”
Microsoft isn’t just planning a fancy chip, it is going to support its third parties with a variety of proprietary Microsoft audio tools. Summers explains, “The primary audio APIs on X-Box will be DirectMusic and DirectSound. And that again is value that other consoles can’t provide. With DirectMusic, you’ll be able to have interactive music and sound, with a lot of console and PC games the music is just wallpaper — it plays in the background. You can either stream it or play Redbook audio. But now we can have an immersive environment where the music plays a role in the experience and isn’t just something that kind of hangs out.”
Hopefully the company will reveal the manufacturer during E3, as well as other specifics of their new machine. Stay tuned to X-Box Radar for complete coverage.