Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Surround Sound Problems

Bioshock is an eerily atmospheric game. To get the most out of the game I dug out my four channel surround sound speakers that had been out of commission for a couple of months. My five year old Soundblaster Audigy and Cambridge Soundworks FPS2000 quadrophonic speakers are not exactly state of the art but they can produce some sweet surround sound when they are used properly. Unfortunately I noticed some bizarre problems with the spatial audio in Bioshock. Even though I was definitely getting sound out of all four speakers the sounds didn't seem to be coming from the right direction. In particular there was a distracting "deaf spot" when a sound was directly behind me. Time to do some trouble shooting.

I double checked my wiring and it was OK so I decided to try updating my sound card drivers. I have had some unpleasant experiences with Creative's driver install procedure in the past but I am happy to report that things are much improved if not yet perfect. On the plus side it was easy enough to find the right driver and software through the downloads section of this page. Also the installer did a good job of detecting the previous driver and un-installing it. My biggest gripe is that I was unable to install the updated Soundblaster application software because it refuses to install unless it finds a previous installation. It looks like I would have to find my five year old install CD and start with that in order to get the update. Why are Creative so protective about their application software? I can't imagine that Creative application software is likely to be pirated - it's not much use to someone who didn't buy the hardware in the first place.

Without application software I had no easy way of testing my speaker set-up. Free surround sound software seems to be thin on the ground. Maven-Wizard looks like the perfect solution but the program doesn't seem to work on Windows XP. The install directory does have some useful multichannel sound samples though so I was able to verify that all my speakers are working. By the way I was unable to find a download link on Maven3Ds own site so I got the program here.

The good news is that the new driver fixed most of my sound issues in Bio-shock and I now have four channel surround sound. I find it greatly improves the immersion of the game when you can locate enemies by the direction their sound is coming from. It is still not perfect. The sound is really only 2D not 3D. There are no speakers above your head or beneath your chair. Also some sound effects within the game seem to be ambient rather than fixed to an object. Nevertheless I am delighted to be able to get such good use out of a five year old sound system. Pity I can't say the same about a five year old graphics card! Sadly some new games have stopped supporting quadrophonic surround sound and I may be forced to upgrade to 5.1 or 7.1 speakers. I shudder to think what I would need to spend to get equivalent quality in a new set of speakers though.

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