A Conversation with Hexany Audio's Richard Ludlow on Spatial Audio

If you have made it to Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) expo today, chances are you may run into this audio professional: Richard Ludlow. He founded Hexany Audio and has worked on such well-known franchises such as the King’s Quest series, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (trailer campaign), and Disney Infinity.

Ludlow leads the project development and management at Hexany Audio, and we're more than appreciative of his time. Earlier this week, we had a chance to have a conversation with him.

OSSIC: What do you focus on at Hexany Audio?

Richard Ludlow:  That’s a great question! We’re very focused on interactive projects - both in the music and sound spaces. We have two great composers and a stellar sound team focusing on games, interactive VR, and also interactive theme park work. We don't really work as much with linear media or 360 videos nowadays.

What are some of the projects you are working on now?

There are seven of us here, so we can tackle a pretty broad range of things, and our work ends up falling into longer term projects that take a few years, projects that last maybe six months to a year and smaller things that we’ll contribute additional support too.

We’ve just finished up work on the "VR Showdown In Ghost Town,” which actually opens at Knott's Berry Farm in April. We worked with Chanel Summers, who I’ll be on a panel with, over at Syndicate 17 for this one. Chanel was great! She worked as Audio Director and brought us on to handle music composition, sound design, and implementation in Wwise.

Nice! I just spoke with Chanel the other day, and she was talking about how they used 3D audio.  One interesting thing she brought up was the balance of using 2D and 3D audio.

Correct. Obviously some things need to be spatialized (3D) and others work better not spatialized (2D). Something we chose to keep entirely 2D in Showdown was the music. Sometimes in our VR projects we will use spatialized 3D stingers to draw the player’s attention to where it needs to be, but for the most part we keep music 2D. For this experience it just worked best.

Why is that?

We’ve found it can be a bit distracting to have the music be 3D. While testing we’ve found it can sometimes take focus away from the gameplay and bring the attention to the music, which is really not where it should be. Music is there to support the player, and as soon as spatialization becomes a gimmick, I think we’ve not done our jobs correctly.

What are some the other things you picked up on this project?

We’ve been working in VR for a bit now, and with each new project we evolve our process. The first time we worked on a VR game we put most of our 3D sounds into one of the specialized spatial audio plugins that emulate a more binaural experience using HRTF processing functions; immediately we said “wow, this is awesome- everything is so much more localized!”

But on the next game, we actually pulled a lot of elements out of the spatial audio software as we were losing some of the fuller rich sound that traditional 3D sounds offered when not run through the HRTF processing.

By our 3rd game we realized that the best solution seemed to be a combination of both. For example: if there is a thunder clap in the distance, we will take the core crack of the sound and put it in the spatial audio plugin. On top of that though we would layer in a more frequency-rich 3D sound that is spatialized in the same location but isn’t run through the HRTF processing; and then finally we’d sweeten it with a 2D or quad element to give it more impact. This creates a more rich sonic experience, while still allowing the player to localize the sound quickly. Having these 2 or 3 levels of spatialization improve the soundscape dramatically.

You will be on a panel with Sally and Chanel about to spatialize or not to spatialize. What is your take on spatial audio?

Right now, VR players aren’t used to looking around and seeing everything they need to. Players haven’t been conditioned to turn around every few second and see what’s behind them.  And since our view is limited in VR, players need audio to give them spatial cues to what’s around them. Though the experience is similar in a traditional non-VR first person game, the experience is significantly more jarring when you turn around in VR and an enemy or NPC has come up behind you and you had no idea because you didn’t hear it.

Do you think spatial audio will help people learn how to work with VR?

Absolutely. When I watch people going through their first VR experiences, they don’t usually move around too much; it’s a new medium and people are sometimes uncertain of the what they can and should do. Audio can really help to guide the players in a very functional way. It can get them to turn around and look or go where they need to in a way that visuals just often cannot.

Lastly, what do you looking forward to at SVVR?

It’s going to be very interesting to see where VR goes in the next few years. At SVVR I’m definitely looking forward to connecting with the community and other folks working in audio for VR. We’re all figuring this out together and no one quite knows the best way to work with VR, so it’s always exciting to compare notes. And things are moving at such a fast pace; a year ago the best tech for spatial audio is not even available on the market anymore today- so we are always on the lookout for new techniques and new tech.

Thanks again to Richard for his time!

Hexany Audio Twitter: @hexanyaudio

Richard’s Twitter: @rkludlow