Get headphones to represent typical computer speakers for mastering?
June 20, 2021 1:30 PM   Subscribe

For the task of mastering audio on a video game, I'd like my headphones to more closely represent what a typical computer speaker sounds like. Do you have any advice for this?

The headphones I have let me hear the sound better, but the equalization between my iMac's computer speakers and the headphones is vastly different. For example, the midrange is greatly boosted on the iMac making vocals much louder. I probably have at least two problems to solve here:

1. how to figure out a "typical" set of speaker sound to target across multiple computers for the people playing the game. (Maybe my iMac's speakers are very atypical and shouldn't be a reference point)
2. getting my headphones to represent that sound so that I can continue using them without biasing my master in a way that will sound bad to players of the game.

Or maybe one of my premises is bad. I don't mind backing up to the more general question, "what is a good strategy for mastering audio for video games?"
posted by ErikH2000 to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if this exists for headphones, but here's a studio monitor speaker designed specifically to give you a reference for speakers such as those in computers, TVs, docking stations, etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:47 PM on June 20, 2021

FWIW, as a lowest-level solder monkey in sound studios making big-name records in Southern California in 1997, having shitty free-with-computer Dell speakers on the table to see what the mix sounded like for typical listeners was standard. I don't know what the equivalent would be today. Maybe a 200-4kHz band pass and some white noise through headphones? In a crowded bar?
posted by eotvos at 1:57 PM on June 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'd back up even further than that. How critical is sound to your game? If your game relies on players to be able to identify and distinguish between sounds, then yes it would make sense to make sure the sounds don't rely on accurate bass reproduction, in case they choose to play the game without headphones. But also, by making the game rely on sound, you've also limited the audience that can play your game to those with good hearing, which means you may be excluding Deaf players as well as people with less severe hearing loss. Can you also provide a visual cue to back up the game-critical sounds?

If all you care about is it sounding good, I'd honestly worry mostly about making it sound good using headphones or monitors and then put up a 'best experienced with headphones' notice at the front of your game like I see on almost every other game I see these days. If people care about the sound, they won't be listening with the built-in speakers. If they don't, they're not going to be impressed by your efforts to master for bass-limited speakers either I'd wager.
posted by Aleyn at 2:03 PM on June 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For the task of mastering audio on a video game, I'd like my headphones to more closely represent what a typical computer speaker sounds like. Do you have any advice for this?

As eotvos alludes to, the time-honored method for mixing and mastering audio and seeing how it sounds on different sources is to listen to it on different sources. Even home studios usually have 2 or 3 different sets of speakers, and headphones, and back in the day we used to record a cassette and go listen to the mix in the car of whichever band member had the crappiest stereo.

The Yamaha NS10 was a studio staple precisely because it was kind of a crappy speaker - if you could make your mix sound good on those it would sound good anywhere.

Go to Goodwill, buy some random computer speakers, listen to your audio on those, rather than burn time and effort trying to tweak a nice-sounding set of headphones.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:09 PM on June 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

I don't think I've seen a "computer speaker" in like a decade? For PC gaming specifically there's two cases I would look at: Laptop speakers, which are awful, are how a lot of highschool/college age kids will listen to your audio. The directional issues on laptop speakers mean stereo is pretty much pointless, and they'll be weirdly muffled. I can't think of a great way to emulate that with separate speakers, so I would borrow a laptop occasionally. The other common case is going to be bad (maybe wireless) headphones. Just buy a random $15 pair from Best Buy. On top of those two cases, you would have the various TV-based audio solutions which would be shared with a console setup. These usually sound way better than either laptop speakers or bad headphones
posted by JZig at 4:03 PM on June 20, 2021

I recommend not trying to master solely with headphones because we tend to mentally process audio differently with headphones. As soundguy99 recommended, you can get some low end computer speakers for next to nothing at most thrift stores these days.

If you want to invest in a pair of decent studio monitors, the JBL 305P MK2 can often be found on sale for $99 each and are a great bang for the buck at that price.
posted by Candleman at 4:21 PM on June 20, 2021

A good master is a good master is a good master. If it sounds good in your cans but bad on the iMac speaker, you probably missed something. One thing to try is taking your headphones off and sticking them on the desk. How does that sound? It’ll often reveal things that poke out too much.

Also it won’t work live, but something like Monitoring can give you a better sense of what your mix might sound like on speakers rather than your headphones.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:17 PM on June 20, 2021

Response by poster: @Aleyn asked "How critical is sound to your game?"

"Critical" isn't the right word, because it implies the game wouldn't work without sound. But let's say "very valuable". There are people singing in the game itself, with a dozen full-vocal songs, and about 2 hours of voice acting dialogue. If I listen to a song over computer speakers, I'll want to reduce the volume of the vocalist or it sounds obnoxious. But on headphones, with that same chosen volume, the vocalist is unreasonably quiet. As to your thoughts on accessibility, these are addressed with subtitles.
posted by ErikH2000 at 6:26 PM on June 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

I suggest mastering on a pair of studio monitors. A good pair can cost less than $500. Most consumer devices are designed to sound "better" (boosted bass and treble).

If it sounds good on a neutral monitor, it will be ok on almost anything else. After mastering, test it on various consumer earphones, phone speakers, car speakers etc to see if further tweaks are required.
posted by ianK at 7:19 PM on June 20, 2021

Headphones are great for editing and fixes, but mixes and mastering are almost always done on speakers. Usually the main mix speakers are top quality so that you can hear detail and balance, then the mix is checked on speakers closer to the end-user's typical speaker setup.

What percentage of game players use headphones these days? That might be a factor too.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:31 PM on June 20, 2021

... also, maybe your current headphones have a hyped response. Try using some professional headphones that have a reputation for neutrality.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:34 PM on June 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

What soundguy99 said. Very few of your users are going to be using headphones tweaked to resemble computer speakers. Even if you get the equalization right, there's no way you'll even come close to reproducing the speaker spacings or the way speakers don't track your head movements.
posted by flabdablet at 8:30 PM on June 20, 2021

Best answer: Headphone responses can be all over the map. It helps to EQ them to the Harman target curve which is somewhat arbitrary but intended to solve exactly the problem you’re describing.Fortunately, there’s a guy on Reddit who actually goes and calculates an EQ to map a lot of market headphones to the Harman curve; if you’ve got decent headphones as-is it’s probably all you need. On a Mac, Soundsource can be used to implement the EQ pretty easily; on Windows, typically Equalizer-APO is used.
posted by doomsey at 6:00 AM on June 21, 2021

I would like to volunteer the ThinkPad P50 as having exquisitely terrible laptop speakers - I suspect that whole product line places audio quality very low down on the list of important things.
posted by Dmenet at 10:09 AM on June 21, 2021

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