3D audio has been one of the main features of the PlayStation 5 since the console was announced last year. Much like the system’s super-fast SSD and DualSense wireless controller, the custom 3D audioTech Tempest has been designed to make your video game experience as immersive as possible in games that support it.
On PS5, gamers can enjoy 3D audio with the stereo headphones many already own, either through a USB dongle, USB wired headset, or wired headphones connected to the 3.5mm jack of the DualSense wireless controller. But you can fine-tune the experience further: go to the 3D audio section in the Sound menu of your PS5 settings and choose one of the five 3D audio profiles that works best for you.
“We spent a lot of time deciding on the five audio profile settings for PS5,” says Kenichi Imai, deputy director of the SIE software engineering group, which helped build the Tempest engine. “Everyone hears 3D audio differently, so these settings allow players to adjust the sound to a level closest to their ear.”
3D audio has enticing applications for all genres. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen how this benefits the action and horror with Returnal and Resident Evil Village. To learn more about how technology pushes the limits of immersion for these two titles, we went straight to the source: the sound teams at Housemarque and Capcom.
Wataru Hachisako, audio director of Resident Evil Village, believes 3D audio can add something new to the iconic survival horror series. “It’s very important in the horror genre to apply fear to the imagination of the player through elements that they cannot see,” he explains. “I want players to be able to enjoy the experience of meeting a new enemy, even before they’re visually by chance. I think 3D audio has the spec to really amplify what we’re aiming for, not only before players have a chance to see an opponent, but also when they come in direct contact with an opponent. The sounds emitted by an opponent are more fleshed out and fill the space in a 3D environment, which helps amplify the immersion that a player can feel. An additional level of knowledge that will only add to the tension as you are hunted down by growling Lycans or harassed by Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters.
This perception is just as crucial if you prefer wrestling to flying. In Housemarque’s Returnal, you make your way through a hostile alien planet. The aggressive fauna of Atropos is diverse and militarized. You are still outnumbered and surrounded. In such circumstances, 3D audio is an important part in helping you stay alive.
“[It] gives you full, real-time knowledge of the battlefield, ”explains Loic Couthier. Returnal’s audio manager describes how Tempest technology communicates essential information to the player. Whether it’s dictating enemy positions (“it tells you what’s above, below, behind you”) or where sounds are layered in the audio mix (“enemies you can’t see have higher priority than you can ”).
One aspect of 3D audio is the ability to emphasize depth in 3D space through noise. Returnal is a great showcase for this, with each weapon discharge sounding distinctly, depending on your position and the 3D space around you.
Couthier details the technical science behind magic. When you press the R2 trigger on the DualSense controller, the game shoots three-dimensional sound rays from your weapon. When these rays hit an obstacle, be it a wall or other physical form, a unique sound of reflection is played back to you. As an example, take off in a tunnel that opens into a larger chamber, and you will hear that echo continue to cascade around that larger space. These position sounds are generated in real time, all in the fraction of a second you need to shoot. It’s a lot of work, and it’s all because of the 3D audio. “It wouldn’t be worth it without it,” he concludes.
Returnal’s audio mix intelligently resequences this “ ear candy ” (as Couthier calls it), depending on the situation. In battle, they’re relegated to the background, allowing you to focus your ears (as well as your eyes) on the immediate threat: the enemies around you.
“Obviously, there is a visual user interface that helps you determine which direction an attack or an enemy is coming from. But 3D audio tells you the exact position to reach. It is an instant muscle memory action to turn and aim at the enemy. Without 3D audio you will have to navigate the camera until you see where the enemy is, you will likely take damage due to time spent searching. The tactical advantage is huge as you gain reaction time and can plan a strategy based on your awareness of the battlefield. “
It illustrates with an example of gameplay. “Some of the more dangerous attacks can be the melee of the closest enemies. Even with those offscreen, with 3D audio, you can time and dodge their attacks in the right direction, while shooting another. Or decide to dodge and slay that nearby enemy in melee before resuming your fire.
“It’s all subconscious and intuitive. Sometimes you will notice 3D audio in some cool moments, but most of the time you are using it without knowing it. That’s the real strength of it.
And it’s in the interweaving of 3D audio with other sensory inputs that helps elevate the whole gaming experience on PS5.
“By adding 3D audio to the presentation, more detail and depth is added to the graphics, and players will also experience more minor differences in the depth and feel of all the different areas they encounter,” replies Hachisako when asked what 3D audio adds to. The horror vibes of Resident Evil. “Whether it’s a cold winter breeze shaking a roof, the absence of sound that hides the presence of something lurking in the dark, an opponent jumping in front of the player, or from the peaceful melody of the safe, all of these are distinct and deeper with the addition of proper sound and music… 3D audio is really capable of providing the player with a more impactful experience. “