To all who read this,
Please contribute just a few minutes of your time to make a real difference and email LucasArts:
CLICK HERE to request the proper 44kHz *STEREO* music for KotOR2.
Telling LucasArts how you feel about the degraded (MONO 10 kHz muffled) music is arguably the single-most effective way you can contribute to this effort. If continuing feedback shows them that this is a bothersome issue to more than a handful customers, they will do something about it (as history showed with KotOR1).
Please, be proactive -- every voice counts!
Why is the music in KOTOR2 such a muffled, narrow-sounding, low-quality mess?
Because it's all compressed in the lowest bitrate with a 10 kHz-filter, and, to make things even worse, converted to MONO!
Why MONO?! Is this a bad joke?
I was very much looking forward to this new Star Wars-like soundtrack, particularly since LucasArts had created enough buzz about KOTOR2 using a live symphony orchestra this time around to achieve a "big, powerful sound", with legendary Skywalker Sound mixing it.
This game goes back for a refund first thing on Monday. KOTOR 2 is buggy enough, but as a gamer seeking quality entertainment I won't accept such sub-standard audio quality in a 2005 game release that comes on 4 CDs! There is no excuse for that.
I won't take space concerns as a poor excuse: The whole music assets in KOTOR2 take up a measly 24 MB in its current butchered state. There is over 80 MB (!) unused space left on the 4th CD. If the music were encoded in standard 128 kbit/s STEREO, it would just need an extra 41 MB (2.7x more bytes) -- which would have easily fit on the 4 game CDs.
This is preposterous.
Music is *half* the experience for me both in gaming and in movies. It totally creates the atmosphere of the setting, characters and story. Music can generate emotions and feelings and thus pull you into this fictional world -- an effect of immersion that (apart from being there for real and experiencing your own emotions) cannot be achieved by starring at 3D graphics on a flat (2D) 19" monitor alone and listening to some dialogue.
Gaming on a flat screen is like looking through a small window into a larger world. But it's the music which opens it up and enlarges that world for you.
I'm sure many gamers here are with me on this. Music is the most powerful tool any storyteller can have, because it acts like a second narrator, who can comment on things that are too hard or impossible to put into words. As long as game graphics are still so cartoony and artificial-looking, it is the music's job to add proper gravity and seriousness to the fictional world and story.
Ok, enough of this rambling. I'm sure you get my point of how crucial I regard music in this medium (particularly RPG/story-based games).
And LucasArts gives us music in MONO (!) at 10900 Hz (half the frequency) at the lowest bitrate?!
Excuse me? Are they out of their minds?
This ignores and erases more than 10 years of progress in game audio! Music in MIDI at that time was already presented in STEREO. Even games such as Quake (released in 1996) efficiently used pre-recorded STEREO music tracks streamed from the CD (which made a huge difference to the scary atmosphere of the game). LucasArts' own Grim Fandango used a great STEREO soundtrack in 1998 to create an epic experience. That was in the "golden days" of LucasArts of course, when such brilliant minds as Tim Schaffer were still employed there.
The original KOTOR from 2003 supplied Jeremy Soule's epic music in 16-bit 44Khz *STEREO* at 128 kbit/s, which is close to CD quality, and the proper way to present Star Wars-like music. It's a symphonic score for crying out loud!
Do you people know what MONO 10kHz 48 kbit/s does to the music? In case you don't, let me spell it out:
- 10 kHz:
The music files are technically encoded in 32kHz, but the shocking truth was revealed when I analyzed the MP3 file-header (thanks Swaaye!), which stated that the music was encoded with a "Lowpass Filter: 10900 Hz". I couldn't believe that, so I fired up CoolEditPro and did a Spectral Analysis on the music files: There is absolutely nothing above 10900 Hz! That's what a lowpass filter does, it discards all frequencies higher than that. I was sitting there in disgust upon discovery of this fact.
The human ear can hear up to 18-20 kHz. What this practically means is that all the "highs" of the original music were cut out -- half of the frequency range of the music is missing. It will sound muffled and dull because of that. And it does.
- 48 kbit/s MP3 lossy compression:
It is well-known that the MP3 codec utterly fails at lower bitrates (less than 128 Kbit/s). At such a low bitrate as used in KotOR2 the music will be garbled and muddled due to excessive audio artifacting (aliasing) because of running out of bits. This in turn will affect the mid-range and make the music sound "hollow" and "metallic". Symphonic music with its strings and trumpets is particularly prone to this.
Do I have to comment on what MONO does? Come on people, think about it, MONO! Is this the 50s? Playing back a symphonic (!) score in mono will make the whole range of the soundscape collapse. The musical score will not sound wide and epic, but small and narrow, like through a telephone. If you play your games with headphones, mono will give you a very unnatural music-in-your-head experience, which can become quite distressing to your ears after a while (listening fatigue).
Man, I'm really upset about this.
Releasing a full-priced title in such a poor quality is an INSULT to the gamer and also to the composer (Mark Griskey, who btw did an incredible job making this soundtrack much more Star-Wars-sounding than even Jeremy Soule did in KOTOR; Soule used synthesizers, Griskey a live orchestra and a style very similar to John Williams!).
A game company's job is selling an experience to the gamer -- to involve the gamer emotionally. That's the holy grail of game development. LucasArts has just shown me that they don't care about or understand the meaning of gaming "experience", and how that is achieved by a large degree through music. A shame for a company associated with arguably the greatest pioneer in sound-mastering and reproduction in the history of cinema.
Some readers might think I'm silly for missing out on the good things that KOTOR2 has, by returning the game because they bastardized the music. Well, try to see it trough my eyes (or ears): The original KOTOR for me really came to life through the epic music, more than anything else. It made the game for me. I was looking forward to KOTOR2 already after having heard the preview music, simply because the new music captivated me. And now this!
Who made this insane decision to present this beautifully composed symphonic live music in MONO 10kHz at the lowest bitrate? I'm certain that it wasn't Mark Griskey. I would love to find out how he feels about his work being disregarded and mistreated in such a way. He must be in agony as an artist and composer.
What's wrong with LucasArts? Why bother recording with a live Symphony Orchestra (which needs a bigger budget) to achieve a more organic higher musical quality, when you then pervert it by degrading it to near-telephone "quality" for the gamer who pays $50 for the experience? This is utterly pointless.
Let's not forget that LucasArts is under the auspices of George Lucas, the very man who repeatedly stressed the fact that music and sound make up for 50% of the entertainment experience (I couldn't agree more). Are we surrounded by hypocrites here? Is LucasArts still a Lucas company? How come a game from EA like "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" gets THX treatment (!) (and it really made a difference, it sounded incredible), and LucasArts' own games have never received THX treatment since the program was introduced (by Lucasfilm) for games almost 1.5 years ago?
Something is really wrong with this company, and how they treat their own games. Some would call such behaviour schizophrenic.
The final product's quality stands in direct contrast with what they promote in such features as the Designer Diaries. Have you people read the "Designer Diary #5 - Music" where Mark Griskey writes about his work on KOTOR2? If not, go read it! You will be surprised how much care and expertise supposedly went into creating and recording the soundtrack. And then you will ask yourself even more why none of that effort ended up in the final game. I'm totally baffled about this.
Here are some interesting tidbits from that interview:
I was thrilled when recording engineer John Kurlander signed on for the project. John is a veteran film music engineer whose credits include the Grammy Award-winning Lord of the Rings soundtracks. I knew that John would be able to capture the big, powerful sound that I wanted for the score.
Yes, and I as a customer would also be thrilled if what was captured by John Kurlander would actually be reproduced when I play the game.
The score was recorded at the Bastyr University Chapel outside of Seattle. Bastyr is known for its acoustic properties, and John Kurlander took full advantage of the acoustics with some very methodical microphone placement. [...]
We mixed at Skywalker Sound. Mix engineer Dann Michael Thompson and assistant engineer Judy Kirschner provided their exceptional talents, and final mixes were completed after three long but extremely satisfying days. [...]
When all was said and done, we had over an hour of new, fully orchestrated music for The Sith Lords!
As you can see, an incredible effort was undertaken to live-perform, record, and mix the musical soundtrack for KOTOR2. Even Skywalker Sound was involved, the top address for sound recording and mixing in the movie industry. And then some moron in the game design process made the unexplicable decision to degrade it all down to near-telephone quality for the final product.
I truly wonder who made that stupid decision, and I wish the person(s) responsible for this mess will be fired.
To Obsidian: Weren't you able to have some say in this? Why did you let yourself be bullied towards such a questionable decision?
The question still remains why they did that. It's not a space issue (as demonstrated above already). It's certainly not a performance issue either. Decoding and playing MP3 music needs only one decode stream. MP3-decoding is very cheap on today's CPUs, it's a non-issue performance-wise (the bottleneck in the KOTOR engine is your gfx card, not the CPU). It makes no difference to CPU load if the music source is a 128kbps or 48kbps file (original KOTOR had 128kbps music and ran just fine).
To give you an idea of how insignificant MP3 decoding in games is performance-wise, take games like the recent Doom3 which have to decode OGG streams (which need roughly twice the CPU decoding power than MP3). Doom3 uses OGG encoding for almost all sound files, not just for music! At any given moment, Doom3 has to decode 10-20 OGG sounds in realtime (in a fight even more), which is a lot. Still, sound decoding in Doom3 takes up less than 6% of CPU load on a ~1500Mhz minimum spec system (which I confirmed via email with Robert Duffy, lead programmer at id-soft).
And that is in Doom3. MP3 decoding in KOTOR1 or 2 is a cakewalk compared to that, especially when we're talking about only 2-3 streams that need realtime decoding, i.e. the music stream, ambient stream and speech. Other sound effects are in WAV. So, that is not the reason why LucasArts/Obsidian decided to butcher the music files.
Do you know what I suspect? It just dawned on me: Maybe they supplied the music in such a low quality so they could later sell a potential Soundtrack Audio CD to the public, and make some extra profit from that. Then customers would have a reason to purchase the high-quality CD, since the in-game music was so crappy. But that ploy won't work with me. I want to experience the full-quality music while playing the game, not while driving in my car.
If I'm wrong, LucasArts/Obsidian, then prove me wrong: Release the proper 44kHz *STEREO* music for KotOR2 as a separate download (patch) to the public, so that we PC gamers can enjoy the music as it was meant to be. Then I will again consider buying the game.
Because, the other possibility is that this audio blunder was a big slip-up. After all, why are the music files encoded in the exact same format they used for their voiceover files? 48 kbit/s in MONO is sufficient for speech (I can accept that), but no sane person would encode music in that same quality. Maybe in the rush to release the game, they accidentally batch-encoded all the files in the same format they configured for speech.
Another fact substantiating this is the inclusion of a music track player (!) within the game, as a menu option feature (similar to the cutscenes player). This is pure irony: Who in their right mind would include a music track player so that you can listen to the great music in pure form (without sound effects) if the whole soundtrack is reduced to this sad telephone-quality state? This shows me that the music was always planned to be of CD-quality. If not, why code a CD-Player-like feature then?
Also, the splash screen (game launcher) on the Windows desktop features the music in CD-quality STEREO. This is the only time you'll ever hear the epic soundtrack (a short segment) in the proper way -- in the launcher window! How ironic. Once you hit the game's main menu, it's all muffled & narrow mono.
If they offered us the proper 44kHz STEREO music in a patch, it would only be a 60 MB download for the music, according to my estimates. That's not too big, considering that many game-patches these days have similar (and even bigger) sizes: Rome Total War - 60MB, Armies of Exigo - 50MB, Star Wars Battlefront - 173MB.
In the meantime, I urge the fan community to come up with our own solution to this. Maybe someone can somehow gain access to the higher quality stereo music files and then we could create a MOD to fix this mess ourselves. At least we would make enough noise about it to get noticed.
I think if enough of us push in the right direction and let them know what we think about this blunder, they will eventually do something about it. This is unacceptable. Nobody who bought the game should accept this. If you go to a multiplex theater and pay 13 bucks to watch a new movie, would you just accept watching it in analog MONO? Would you allow them to rob you of the full experience (Digital Surround) if you know better?
Go email LucasArts!
CLICK HERE to request the proper 44kHz *STEREO* music for KotOR2. Telling LucasArts how you feel about the degraded music is the single-most effective way you can make this happen. If they receive continuing feedback on this issue, the chances are good they will do something about it.
If you just sit here idly, nothing will come of it. We need to make noise about this -- and act NOW, before the first patches are coming out, because now is the time when Obsidian is still funded by LucasArts to implement any such changes. Later it will be in vain.
Also, it might help to add your comment to this thread and thereby let Obsidian know what you think about this blunder. It'll ensure that this thread stays a hot topic. But don't forget: It's LucasArts who needs to get the feedback from you... *they* need to be convinced in order to make the decision to fix this.
The music playback in KOTOR2 is below standards -- more than 10 years backwards. We consumers need to speak up about this to let game companies know that we don't accept sub-standard audio! Otherwise they will increasingly treat us like gullible pushovers, who shell out the money and won't know the difference. If we stay passive and don't demand quality, more and more developers will adopt the habit of only doing as much as they can get away with in order to ensure sales. Their marketing team will do the rest.
Quality and artistic vision will then begin to erode. Do you want this to happen?
It's in your hands. Vote with your gaming dollar and make your voice heard. Small steps can make a difference.
And yes, there are always more important things to worry about in life. I can imagine some readers thinking "geez, this guy is extreme, is that all he worries about? I can't even run the game properly!" etc. etc... It's all a matter of perspective. There are many other things in life I worry about, too. But that doesn't mean we have to ridicule things we deem less of a priority. We all have our own convictions and priorities. Right now, I have set my focus on this issue, and it's important to me. And that's really all there is to say.
I wrote this big post to inform and to make a difference.
Help to make this effort not be in vain...
Also, check out Kiwegapa's useful KOTOR 2 Game Issues Guide. It is a comprehensive guide to the game's Issues & Bugs, and a central collection of Feature Requests & Performance Tips.