Sound and Fury: The creator of Syrinscape talks to us about the importance of tabletop audio

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Late last year at PAX Australia, we sat down with Benjamin Loomes, the man behind Syrinscape — a custom-built audio engine that cranks up the atmosphere of your tabletop game with fully customisable soundscapes. 

Ten Copper: Let’s talk a little bit about sound at the roleplaying table, and why you felt it was a little bit of a — well, a completely! — under-represented niche.

Benjamin: Well, music gives emotional cues. So when you’re looking at the shower scene in Psycho with lovely happy tweeting birdies for example, it’s just someone having a shower in the bathroom. But when you’ve got that emotional cue of that terrible sounding music–

Ten Copper: And the stabbing.

Benjamin: (laughing) Right, yes, and the stabbing obviously, it emotionally cues you up to be ready for disaster. People don’t consciously know, they don’t sort of hear “Oh! The horns are playing a diminished chord. Something terrible is going to happen!” but we understand all those musical references anyway. So with music you’re able to activate all those sorts of cultural references and all those emotional references and things like that.

Obviously just dissonance in itself, close clusters of chords, is going to affect tension, which is then resolved heroically or resolved romantically with chords that open up, all different harmonies are all sort of referenced as being part of different emotional states. So if you don’t have music at the table then you’re missing basically a whole layer of meaning and immersion. And that’s a layer we’ve come to expect in movies, and in computer games. It’s vital.

psycho_shower_scene

Ten Copper: Most of our soundtracks for tabletop gaming are computer game soundtracks.

Benjamin: Well that’s right! And I mean on top of that, that background sort of ambience which helps us to become immersed in the scene and feel like we’re actually there. Not in order to actually be paid attention to by the players, or to distract the players, but to subconsciously give them the same cues. The same sense of where they are. So if it’s a sort of uncomfortable skittering behind them, under their feet somewhere, that once again activates all sort of gut reactions and the standard sort of human responses. Which creates fear, or happiness, or stress (laughs).

Ten Copper: What about things like lighting and other visual aids?

Benjamin: Yeah, lighting is something we’ve done as well!

Ten Copper: How do you control that?

Benjamin: I bought myself a set of colour-controllable LED lighting-strip things which is very cool.

Ten Copper: You control them from your laptop?

Benjamin: Yeah! It also can plug into your iPod and I can sort of dial it up from that. So, though of course with tabletop roleplaying games you do actually need to be able to read the character sheet. Though certainly with games like Cthulhu getting candlelight is perfect, that limited sense of security, that bubble, not knowing what’s behind you.

call of cthulhu

Ten Copper: Obviously you’re speaking in musical terminology, so you clearly have some sort of background in music — may I ask what your background is?

Benjamin: Sure! So I was a pianist and a singer, and I did a bachelor degree/honours thingy in composition. So I’m a composer who was a pianist and a singer, and I just happen to be a gamer at the same time. So adding music was the most logical thing to do for me. And like most gamers nowdays I was using movie soundtracks, computer game soundtracks, and then I started thinking “Oh, I could get into environmental music!” so I started mixing together 15-minute tracks of, you know, town sounds, dog woofing etc.

That seemed to work pretty well, but the problem is that even at 15 minutes you end up with repetition pretty quickly, and in roleplaying games you are in the same location for extended periods of time. And the human brain picks up on those patterns really, really quickly. So when you go “Woof woof! Three for a dollar!”, you know, I actually had the situation where I had my players go “Stop! Stop! (pauses) Woof woof! Three for a dollar!” in time with the sounds and I’m like “Aaaaa really?”

So what’s meant to be a background ambience is coming to the foreground and distracting people! So I started making longer and longer tracks, put in elements that all sort of ran in intervals and stuff, and eventually I thought… this is crazy. This is the stuff computers are meant to be good at! Having code that picks a random time, waits for three, four minutes, whatever and plays a sound. So I just started hacking together with computer programming and eventually came up with a software solution to do that, to avoid that repetition.

Ten Copper: We talked earlier about how Syrinscape ran like a dog on my awful, awful laptop, which I suspect is a RAM issue. Now I’m not asking you to troubleshoot my laptop, but can we talk a bit about the system requirements?

Benjamin: (laughs) Yes! The reason for that is that we’re using Unity, which we developed in in order to develop cross-platform in one go, which means we can release on iPad, Android, Mac, PC. And the reason is that it’s using FMOD which does 3D positioning and surround sound, it does a reverb individual to each sound, it even does doppler effect. So we have birds that fly past and actually doppler effect on you. So that’s an incredibly powerful audio engine, and it’s not just playing one mp3, it’s playing 10 or 20 different streams of audio simultaneously. You do need a bit of power. And what’s incredible actually is that these handheld devices can do it without breaking a sweat! Which is really amazing.

Ten Copper: Yeah, I think my Android tablet is actually more powerful than my laptop.

Benjamin: (laughs) Probably! We’ve also done a lot of work in the last nine months trimming down the memory requirements of the app and also the processing time. So it’s really a lot lower which is really helpful.

pathfinder

Ten Copper: Your official partnership with Paizo for Pathfinder — how did that come about?

Benjamin: Oh that’s so cool. We had an app that was, early on, working really really nicely, we got it sort of finished and running and I literally went to PaizoCon in Seattle, unannounced, and sent lots of emails saying “Hey, do you want to meet with me? I’ve got something to show you!” They must get hundreds of those emails. I turned up at PaizoCon, eventually grabbed two of the staff guys and got them in a room and just handed it to them. And to watch their faces just go “Oh, no way! Cool! This is amazing!” And a lot of people approach companies like that with lots of ideas, especially things that aren’t actually functioning yet. So to be able to hand them a finished product which was (almost!) completely seamlessly working, and for them to get to play with it, was very exciting for them. So yeah, straight away, they wanted to talk about it. And we managed to sign with them to product content for their games.

Ten Copper: Has that increased the amount of people coming in and checking out Syrinscape?

Benjamin: Absolutely! Every time Paizo says something about Syrinscape we get a massive flood on our website. What’s great about them is they’re really heavily involved with the reviewing process and with the quality of what gets made for them. So they’re really super critical when it comes to workshopping. Exactly how big is a skaveling? wings? When I submitted the first version they were like “This sounds like a medium sized bat! Skavelings are eight feed wide and should have a much slower wing flap.” They even pointed to samples they found on the web and would say “Use that one, or buy something similar,” you know, so that was really cool. And so they’re really really critical but then in public they say these fantastic things! Which is really really great. Because I guess they have passion for making really high quality products.

Ten Copper: Can you explain a bit more for our readers about how the subscription works?

Benjamin: Sure, so by far the cheapest way to get all the stuff in the Fantasy Player is with the subscription. $6.50 per month, and everything that comes out while you’re a subscriber, you own permanently. So you’re essentially just paying for the stuff that comes out, at a heavy discount. Plus, the entire backlog lights up as long as you remain a subscriber. So if you stop being a subscriber, that goes dark, and you keep everything that came out while you were a subscriber, you keep forever.

Syrinscape

Ten Copper: Does that require you to be constantly connected to the internet?

Benjamin: No, every time you start the program it checks to see if the internet is there, and if it is it looks to see what you own currently and updates the app to reflect that. So I guess theoretically if you connected to the internet while you were a subscriber and then never, ever reconnected, you could keep everything forever (laughs)! Seems a little inconvenient though.

Ten Copper: Have you been able to quit your day job?

Benjamin: Yes! I just recently gave up my day job, my last lot of teaching. I used to do a lot of vocal teaching, which I have a great passion for and I really love, and I find the human voice generally fascinating. And I just gave my last notice that I won’t be teaching anymore, at all, which is really really sad and also really really exciting! What’s bizarre actually is that I’m a composer who is earning money from composition! There’s hundreds of my pieces in Syrinscape, and people all over the world are listening to them and enjoying them, which is, uh… really bizarre. But really really cool.

Ten Copper: Did you expect to just get your composition degree and walk out on the street straight into a job at McDonalds?

Benjamin: (laughing) That’s right! Well I’m not saying that about Sydney Uni, but, pretty much, you know. If you do composition, to actually work in the field as a creative is a rare, rare achievement. And I got to write the Paizo Goblin song, which was just incredible. Mainly bashing on things and singing extremely badly, very fun to record.

Thanks to Benjamin for taking the time to chat with us!

You can — and should! — check out Syrinscape here.

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