We live in great times for storytellers. It’s a fact!
The boundaries between physical and digital are closing by the minute and the end user is the one who gets the benefits with modern transmedia storytelling technologies. I remember when we had to make sound effects with our voice in order to tell stories, but now we have so many great tools to add to our storytelling arsenal.
In the sound sector, we have elegant solutions like Syrinscape, SoundPad, BattleBards, Ambient-Mixer, Softrope and of course our own DMDJ. All those apps or webapps rule!
There are even playlists in Youtube, SoundCloud and other places for ambient noise or music soundtracks to accompany your pen & paper sessions.
We understand that the main benefit of introducing sound in your tabletop sessions, is to immerse the players into the story location. Transfer their minds to a place of fantasy, entertain them by making them be more “there”, provide them with an unforgettable experience.
That is why we created DMDJ after all, based in decades of research in order to create a real-time ambient/soundtrack/sfx generator, featuring randomization and real time algorithms, that produce an ever-changing soundscape that never repeats and immerses the minds of the listeners to the complete experience.
In this guide, you will learn how to create a room speaker configuration, that will inspire you and your players to live your adventures with unparalleled realism in sound.
So let’s get to it and piece by piece, complete the picture of an ideal audio setup for immersive storytelling in a domestic scenario.
The idea behind providing a new audio setup recommendation, comes from the fact that many households have their audio system setup in a way that supports music reproduction or movie watching and not the augmentation of the acoustic environment. The differences are specific:
In music we need the speakers to be placed in very specific points in space (called stereophonic positioning) to create a listening sweet-spot for the audience to receive the best possible experience, as the artist and the music producer intended them to.
Even in home cinemas there is the need of a sweet-spot and while we call it a “surround” setup, the setup is directed in a way to point to a screen, with a center speaker playing the dialog of the movie/game and the back speakers carrying most of the time, the less significant audio content that defines the space. In fact all action that comes from the screen, must be mostly rendered through the front speakers because if done differently the audience loses the immersion from the experience.
In augmented audio we need to have sound come from all around the listeners, a suitable environment with minimized noises to host the virtual audio content and no sweet-spot at all, as the listeners should be able to enjoy the sound anywhere they seat.
In this article we will examine a more elaborate setup, according to the needs of an “immersive audio experience” that we can achieve by augmenting the sound of a room in an additive way. Also, we will create the solution with a very low budget in mind, as we are talking about a simple use for entertainment purposes, in which we need the parts to be reusable, easy (and cheap) to get and not permanent (fast to setup and store away). We also need the solution to be affordable by a team of 4-5 people, so the hardware should be the best it can be with the specific use in mind.
Let’s first look to the general idea!
So we start by defining the general idea, which is based on the common scenario of the tabletop round-ish table setup.
Some general rules to follow are:
- Everybody should be seated comfortably in a round fashion, so that all enjoy the game, the company and the sound the same.
- The sound speakers should be evenly distributed behind and around the players, not to close to them, just enough distance to allow for the sound to spread before arriving to the listeners.
- It’s better to use many speakers of little strength, than huge ones and one or two. That’s a big difference from the music or movies scenarios we talked about earlier. This rule derives from speaker placement for spaces of public access, like bars or cafes, in which is better to have an evenly distributed sound level all around and enjoy music and be able to blend in conversation.
- The controls for the content and playback should be placed near the storyteller or an assistant, in order to be able to control volume level, extras and mute the audio if necessary.
- Speakers should be evenly distributed between two or more axes, depending on the channel count of the playback medium. That provides localization of sound cues to give enough realism to the experience.
Splitting the Signal
The first thing to do when you want to create your setup, is to decide on the way that you will split the signal to accommodate multiple speakers. Usually, commercial applications will provide a stereo playback, which means 2 dedicated channels for audio. Therefore, in order to use this for more than 2 speakers we need to split it and create duplicates.
There are two ways to do that, either by using audio cable splitters or by utilizing signal distribution amplifiers.
Audio Cable Splitters
The cheapest solution is to use (or make one of your own, if you’re up to it) an audio cable splitter, which is a very simple way to create duplicates of an audio signal. In this solution, you should be careful, as by using many different speakers or other devices to hookup the duplicates, it can produce bad results. But, with most setups you should be fine.
Signal Distribution Amplifiers
A more “professional” way of splitting a signal is the distribution amplifiers, which do just that, they split the signal and distribute copies of it on their outputs. As an added bonus, those nifty little gadgets are called amplifiers, as they also use power to amplify the signal, so it can cope with different devices and longer distances of cables. An artifact that I found while searching online, is that it’s actually cheaper to buy an A/V (audio and video) signal amp than an only audio one. Probably because they sell more of those to people with home-cinema needs and because some of them support older video formats and not HDMI. So if you are interested only on the audio function of the device, you can find some very nice deals around now that the video tech is a step up.
Next are the sound speakers. This is pretty easy as we can use some restrictions to narrow our search:
- Cheap so we can buy many.
- Easy to setup and put away.
- Active type (the ones that don’t need an amplifier as they include their own in the enclosure), so less cabling and easier setup.
- Not all speakers need to playback the full range of frequencies so we can use what in home-cinema is called a satellite speaker or a multimedia speaker as we know it from the desktop gamers.
That kind of speakers has also great value of re-usability, when you don’t need them for a tabletop session, you can use them to give all your computer stations and multimedia points in your home a better sound.
Based on the logic that we need as many speakers as possible and not all speakers need to be full range, we can easily create a setup with many multimedia stereo sets. One or two of those can also be what we call a 2.1 system, which means that it features to front speakers and one subwoofer.
A great solution would be to buy two simple stereo sets and two 2.1 sets, in order to create an 8.2 speaker setup. 8 speakers surrounding the players and 2 subwoofers on opposite sides of the separating axis.
Have in mind, that this is not a discreet channel setup and there is no 8 point surround here, but this is by design as we need to comply to the idea of having a setup that is cheap, immersive with no sweet-spot and features more speakers with less power.
Of course anyone can create a full 32 speakers dome with 8 subwoofers and a earthquake machine together with a smell-o-tron, a sound emitting floor and hyper-focusing speakers with face recognition which follow each player and deliver player specific sounds. Maybe those technologies will be made commercial in the future, but not yet. In fact, here at Blueface Games, we look into such research to make DMDJ as future proof as possible regarding the immersive sound experiences.
An interesting thought, is that depending on the speakers type, you can actually connect one speaker set after the other, deriving the signal for the next speaker set, from the headphones output of the previous one, if it features one. That kind of chaining is called a “daisy-chain” and saves you from the expense of buying a splitter or distribution amp. It has a cost in quality but it’s not in a concerning level. As we mentioned earlier, there is a danger of having some kind of distortion in the signal, depending on the types of equipment you connect in such a way, but again, in most scenarios you should be fine. If you decide to connect your speaker’s with a splitter or distribution amp, you are creating what is called a “star-network” and the splitter way is called “passive”, while the distribution amp way is called “active”, because the later actively amplifies the signal before distributing it.
Cables and Connectors
Not much to say here, as cabling can vary in quality and construction. One of the main concerns is to think about your own space and room usage and decide if the installation should be permanent or easy to put away.
For a room of normal size, cheap cables should provide enough quality over distance, so you will be happy with most low priced products.
A great tip is to first setup all your speakers and equipment in position, try them if they feel comfortable and easy to access and handle, and then measure the distances and take notes of the connector types that you need.
Don’t forget to calculate the distance each cable needs to reach from the equipment to the floor or ceiling, depending on the setup you planned. Also, leave around 1-1,5m extra length per cable-side, to accommodate small changes in equipment location in space.
If you go for a more permanent setup, it’s a good idea to get cables with better connector quality, as they degrade easily if you leave them plugged for many months/years. You can also find some cable concealer or on-wall cord cover to create a better setup that bonds with the room.
Control and Summing
A final checkpoint but not necessary, as we covered the basic needs on the previous parts of the article. Control of the signal and how to accommodate signals from different sources.
It’s great to have a general control of at least the volume of the sound, because:
- It helps with your storytelling as you can control the volume of the sound in harmony with your voice, gameplay and the player’s voices.
- You can cut sound fast if you need to pause your session. That can happen for a phone call or because you pause to get the pizza delivery, yummy! A good tip is that when pausing your session, you don’t completely cut sound, but you lower the volume a lot. That keeps the atmosphere in character and doesn’t interrupt the experience for your players.
- In case something goes wrong with sound, you can easily cut the signal to avoid equipment (or ear) damage!
There are many controllers on the market and some of those also feature bass control so you can boost or cut the bass frequencies for added effect.
Features to search in a volume controller:
- Volume (duh!).
- Mute switch.
- Dim switch (lowers the volume a lot without cutting it).
- Bass control.
- Easy to keep steady on the table (some kind of rubber bottom).
Summing or mixing as it’s called, will be needed if you like to get various sources from your mobile, tablet, laptop, etc., and want to mix them in a way that the final result is consistent and blends together well.
Mixers are a huge equipment category on the market and you can find from very cheap to really expensive professional ones. Again, you should research depending on your needs and try to think about re-usability.
Many mixers feature a Bluetooth input, while other are also suitable for karaoke. Some can be used as portable if you double as a filmmaker, while others have a USB and can be also used as a semi-pro computer sound card.
Again, if there is enough space near you, you should place the mixer in an easily accessible location. If the space doesn’t permit that, you can have the mixer located further, use it in a mix-and-forget way, and complement your setup with a volume control located next to you for the basic controlling of sound as we discussed above.
Aaaand that was it!
This is the end of the article, but not of our adventures on exploring the unknown world of augmented storytelling, especially with audio!
The methodology provided above, will give you an idea on how to think about starting your own research for your own sound setup, that will compliment your storytelling, bring your campaigns to life and grant your players a great experience and lots of fun!
Feel free to share this guide with your friends and share on our social pages your ideas, setup pictures, so we can update this guide in the future and help others have great audio experiences in their tabletop entertainment.
Let the sound go around!
Featured image for post by Diacritica [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
All other product pictures are from the respective company stores or 3rd party retailers.
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