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Analysis: Assassin’s Creed highlights a very concerning trend regarding how game audio is being poorly handled.

Content of the article: "Analysis: Assassin’s Creed highlights a very concerning trend regarding how game audio is being poorly handled."



Introduction

This started out as a technical analysis of the in-game audio present in Assassin's Creed Valhalla, but it has since evolved into a topic of a wider scope; if you haven't played the past three AC games, Pandemic notwithstanding, let me be the first to tell you that we are in a predicament.

The idea of this thread is to not only educate, but try and prevent a problem before it becomes more of a problem. Since this is a technical subject, there will be references to sample rate, bit rate and codecs, but I feel like it is more common knowledge these days, especially due to the rise of content creators, or anyone who regularly deals with MP3 and video files.



Admittedly, there is much to talk about regarding Assassin's Creed, especially if you're of the opinion that the series died after the 2nd/Brotherhood or 3rd game. Set that conversation aside for a moment, grab a squeezy ball, punch a pillow, and let's talk about how Ubisoft are starting to set a horrible trend for in-game audio.

So I caved in like many others, gleeing at the prospect of virtually visiting my homeland as an axe-wielding maniac, and decided to pre-order Assassin's Creed Valhalla after thoroughly enjoying my time eliminating the cultists from Odyssey. On launch day during my first playthrough I noticed something that sounded eerily familiar.

I game using a pair of Mackie MR624 studio monitors, or if I feel like giving my neighbours a moment's rest, with my Beyerdynamic DT-770 PRO headphones. The audio I was hearing sounded muffled, or in layman's terms, a bit like listening through a pair of tin cans that were accidentally dropped into a cup of earl grey.

Analysis

Enough was enough, I put my investigative cap on and started by first extracting the audio files using Wwise-unpacker, and proceeding to analyse the files using Adobe Audition. I discovered that the SFX is saved at a 24,000 Hz sample rate, with a variable bitrate that peaks at around 70 kbps. Yes, mystery unravelled, it really is that bad. Those of you who do not fully appreciate this technical blunder, might better appreciate it if I put it this way. Visually, it is the equivalent of removing 50% of the colours in a painting, and leaving smears where the details are.

Here is a screenshot of my analysis.

Looking at the Frequency Analysis tab, you can very clearly observe a frequency rolloff at around 11000 Hz. The low bitrate issue is also not just limited to the PC release. It is affecting all platforms.

This is an unusually strict choice of compression considering that the English audio and SFX only take up 4.5 GB of hard disk space. Standard CD audio is at 44,100 Hz (DVD standard is 48,000 Hz), and those are the two sample rates that nearly every streaming service, sound device and operating system are designed to work with.

Now, you may have heard people say "Oh, but your ears cannot hear above 22 kHz, so the missing detail is irrelevant". Unfortunately, there is complexity surrounding this issue that the statement fails to address. Firstly, when you take a 24,000 Hz sound, the highest audible frequency will be 12,000 Hz. This is already 8000 Hz lower than what the human ear can detect. When frequencies are missing from the original sound, it also negatively impacts the entire representation of that sound. The more you remove, the more hollow and less defined it becomes.

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Are you curious to hear the difference?

Side by side audio comparison

This morning I recorded a YouTube video to highlight the differences between 24,000 Hz and 48,000 Hz.

If you'd rather hear a lossless version of the presentation, you can download the audio file here.

Alternatively, you may also download the individual sound files used for the basis of this comparison: ¹sounds_sfx_3369_high_quality & ²sounds_sfx_3369_low_quality

The Nyquist theorem

The Nyquist theorem describes this better. Named after a Swedish-born American electronic engineer who worked on the speed of telegraphs in the 1920s, the Nyquist theorem states that a waveform must be sampled twice in order to get a true representation. The sampling frequency must be at least twice the highest signal frequency recorded in order to be effective. Here is a table showing the Sample rate vs. Highest Frequency.

Sample rate Highest Frequency
22,050 Hz 11,025 Hz
24,000 Hz 12,000 Hz
30,000 Hz 15,000 Hz
44,100 Hz 22,050 Hz
48,000 Hz 24,000 Hz

As a result, if the highest frequency a human can hear is around 22,000 Hz then 44,000 Hz is the lowest sampling rate you can use to accurately represent any sound that a human can hear. If you are listening to a recording of "bad audio", but to you it sounds acceptable, the issues are probably one of the following:

  1. Bad equipment: headphones, speakers or an improper sound configuration.
  2. The highest frequency of the sound in question was one half of the sample rate used.
  3. The highest frequency your ear can hear is lower than the typical norm.

Even though the highest frequency our ears can detect is around 22,000 Hz, the sound frequencies that exists beyond our hearing range (overtones) greatly colour and impact the sound we hear. Therefore when we record digital audio and cut out those frequencies above 22,050 Hz with a high pass filter (we have to use a filter or else they would cause aliasing or noise in the sample), we are actually changing the original sound that we were trying to record. If you raise the sample rate, the recording will be more accurate. The trade-off is that it takes up more storage. Partly sourced from another post. ScienceDirect overview.

This theorem is still used today to digitize analog signals, nearly 100 years after Nyquist was an engineer at Bell Laboratories.

Oi mate! Don't take me for a mug.

This is when I had a revelation, realising that this issue has been slowly getting worse and worse with every new Assassin's Creed title released. The games are getting bigger, and sacrifices are being made as a result. I first noticed it with AC:Origins, but because some sounds are higher quality than others, it masks the issue to an extent.

Let me clarify further. Both Origins and Odyssey have high quality stereo ambient background sounds that are bounced to 44,100 Hz with an average variable bitrate of 241 kbps, but then you have all of the mono UI, voice, interaction, footstep and fighting sounds that are bounced to 24,000 Hz, all lacking any convincing spatialization, unceremoniously resulting in a bubbling cauldron that is extremely disconcerting to the trained ear. I say trained, but if you take a minute to search online you will discover that gamers, including some gamers with hearing impairments, picked up on this very quickly and early on. Why? We care about sound.



To summarise how Origins and Odyssey attempts to mask the issue: Even though certain frequencies are missing from non-ambient sounds, the detailed ambience and music in the background compensates psychoacoustically for what is missing. Valhalla sounds worse because it sacrificed more, and it does not have any high quality ambient sounds.

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There are far too many links to post, so here's only a small subset of threads that I hand picked, all complaining about the same thing. First up, Origins. ¹Really poor audio quality for voices ²I can't get into origins because of the bad audio quality ³What's up with Assassins Creed Origins audio? ⁴Audio quality is so bad for AC Origins ⁵Terrible Audio Quality Origins

Does it get better with Odyssey? Not exactly. ¹Terrible audio ²Audio quality for Odyssey ³Anyone experience poor audio quality with Odyssey? ⁴Audio quality is so bad ⁵Does the audio sound weird for anyone else?

Aaaaannndd Valhalla. ¹Why have no critics mentioned the terrible audio? ²Has anyone notice the weird audio quality in the recent AC games? ³Assassin's Creed Valhalla audio is the worst of any game I've played Audio is terrible in AC valhalla ⁴Bad audio in the game ⁵Assassin's Creed Valhalla audio is still bad and horrid ⁶Terrible sound on PC.

The Why?

My first question was: is the sacrifice of quality an attempt to try and cram as much in to meet a specific distribution criteria? I've spoken to a few people within the gaming industry personally about this, and the general consensus seems to be: Yes. Please pitch in here if you've had any first hand experience dealing with this. Realistically, it should only affect products within the physical realm, such as trying to compress the game in order to fit it onto a 50 GB (dual-layer) Blu-ray disc. Digital media does not suffer from this limitation, can be downloaded at our convenience and is much cheaper to distribute.

If they provided the sound at 44,100 Hz (CD Quality) with an average variable bitrate of 128-192 kbps, as an example, similar to the quality you would expect from streaming a song on Spotify, you would likely see the total size of the in-game audio increase from its heavily compressed 4.5 GB to approximately 7-12 GB. Still not very large, but it would be a light and day difference for sound quality.

Final thoughts

Is it acceptable to allow such a fundamental aspect of a game to suffer a significant loss of frequencies in order to meet that distribution criteria? Absolutely not. This sets a neglectful precedent and one that not only severely destroys immersion, but attempts to normalize poor quality sound to the masses. Here's another question for you. If you bought a Blu-ray box set of your favourite show or movie trilogy, would you be satisified knowing that they replaced the lossless DTS-HD 5.1 audio with muddy, tinny, anti-climatic explosions worthy of being peer-traded on KaZaA and Limewire? (I was born in the 80's so please excuse the reference).

Consumer expectations compared to the film and gaming industry aren't that different, VR is evolving and the lines are blurring with every new AAA title. We are starting to expect the same kind of treatment: Detailed facial micro expressions, lip syncing, motion capture, in-game characters based on the likeness of real world actors and actresses, quality voice acting, and dare I say it, high quality sound effects, more commonly referred to as Foley within the film industry.

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I do not game in one room with a sub-par home media center, and watch films in another where my favourite monolith shaped speakers sit in each corner. If they were sentient and had a mouth and a stomach, I would expect vomit on the floor every time I embark on my journey with Odin. Instead, I have to deal with my audio producer brain punching my cochlea from the inside.

Final, final thoughts

Oddly many of the official reviews of AC:Valhalla I have read so far completely fail to mention the audio issues, and this is concerning. The issues are so obvious that they must have either purposefully omitted the critique, have sub-par sound systems, or couldn't care less. I remember back in the day when video games magazine reviewers took pride in providing a detailed opinion of sound effects and music. Fond memories of reading Zzap!64, Amiga Power and GamesMaster back in the day.

How do you guys feel about it? To me, the $60 price tag is a bit of a kick in the teeth, and I feel that Ubisoft should really have audio technicalities down to a T. Is this what we are meant to expect for a title with a AAA budget? Am I crazy for writing or caring this much?

Ubisoft could learn a thing or two from the guys and gals responsible for Middle-earth: Shadow of War. They released 4K cinematics for free, along with higher quality in-game assets. We deserve to optionally download HD quality assets for Assassin's Creed, especially since there are many gamers among us that invest a great deal of time and money into our home cinema set-ups.

Here is a current thread following this topic on the Ubisoft Player Support Forum:

Audio Issues: Bitrate / Dynamics & Balance / Muffled Sounds / Stuttering / Volume etc. | POST HERE

If you read this all the way to the end, thank you. Let's hope that the trend of heavily compressed audio dies hard.

On a side note, since I've had a few people ask: I'm a music producer and songwriter on the side. Software dev by trade. You can find my music here https://www.filiposcar.com

Source: reddit.com

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