Category Archives: game audio

Third-party audio spatialization plugins – future of the 3D audio in games?

With the upcoming release of the Oculus Rift and overall increased interest in virtual reality (VR) in gaming came also the development of 3D game audio. Finally, sound starts to be recognized as a vital part of the immersion in games, especially those using virtual reality technology. Still, major focus is being put on graphics – this is where 95% of the VR development is happening but at the same time there is an avalanche of free and commercial spatialization engine plugins/libraries that implement 3d (HRTF) panning supported by real-time reverberation with simple room modelling. Examples are: 3Dception by Two Big Ears, Oculus Audio SDK by Oculus VR, Phonom by Impulsonic…you can find many more but all are very similar when it comes to features. The details lay in sound quality, performance and price. Almost all of them allow integration with major game/audio engines: Unity, Unreal (only recently), Wwise, Fmod, which brings me to the topic of this post: are such 3rd-party plugins the future of 3D audio in games?

Currently, there are two dominant game engines on the market: Unity and Unreal Engine 4. Both have very basic built-in audio engines and offer no built-in 3D audio/spatialization (note that stereo panning and distance attenuation is not 3d audio). Neither does any of the two most popular audio middleware: Wwise and Fmod (Both offer 3D audio only via paid plugins). The only free solution are the libraries/plugins i mentioned above.

Let’s look at Unity. The way all spatialization plugins for Unity work is simple: they grab audio samples in OnAudioFilterRead method in a script attached to the sound source to spatialize,  process it on the native (C++) side via .dll that resides in the Plugins folder and return it back to Unity (managed code) to mix. This, however is not ideal and induces a significant overhead. However, the guys behind Unity seem to have recognized the need for 3D audio and the problem with current approach and included the Audio Spatialization SDK on their recently announced roadmap (full link here):


The feature, however, went from “on track” to “at risk”. Nevertheless it clearly means that Unity is developing a way to support those spatialization plugins instead of working on expanding their own audio engine capabilities in that area. Seems like a smart move. Why invent the wheel again? Let’s see how it looks in the case of Unreal Engine.

While Unity almost from it’s inception provides an easy way to access raw samples, Unreal didn’t offer any way to do it up until few months ago other than modifying the engine itself (it’s open source). In their release that came out few months ago they integrated the Oculus Audio SDK into the engine itself (available as a plugin) although only in the lower quality version and only on Windows 64-bit. What’s important is that while doing that, they created a way to get to raw audio samples by implementing your own audio spatialization plugin. This, however, is no where documented. It basically comes down to implementing the IAudioSpatializationPlugin and IAudioSpatializationAlgorithm interfaces, the latter one being where raw audio samples can be accessed. This is what the original source code comment says about it:

* IAudioSpatializationAlgorithm
* This class represents instances of a plugin that will process spatialization for a stream of audio.
* Currently used to process a mono-stream through an HRTF spatialization algorithm into a stereo stream.
* This algorithm contains an audio effect assigned to every VoiceId (playing sound instance). It assumes
* the effect is updated in the audio engine update loop with new position information.

While implementing that it’s also necessary to implement own XAPO (XAudio2 custom effect). Other than that it’s an ordinary Unreal plugin (module) so it’s possible to load own .dll and process the audio there, just like in case of Unity plugin. However, the whole process seem hacky and is full of pitfails and the lack of documentation doesn’t help. Most importantly, it’s Windows 64-bit only. It seems like it’s just a byproduct of adding support for Oculus Audio library that is yet to be fully implemented and officially released, but it’s there. Also, Unreal 4 audio side is undergoing heavy redesign at this moment because of the fact that audio in the engine is implemented differently for every platform to the point where they admitted that “every platform has almost it’s own audio engine”. After they sort that out it seems very likely they will provide a way to create custom spatialization effects in a cross-platform manner the way Unity plans to and the aforementioned interfaces are a big hint.

Since Unity and Unreal are the two giants in the game industry and most of the games in the near future will be created with their use, it seems like the future of 3D audio depends on those specialized in spatialization libraries/plugins/SDKs. Hopefully, this time, the audio development won’t get halted by some artificial patents and copyrights and we won’t end up stuck with the 3D counterpart of the Dolby Digital. Most importantly, there is a chance that due to the availability of good 3d audio solutions we will finally start catching up to graphics.


Creating binaural sound: Head Related Transfer Functions

Have You ever heard about the Virtual Barber Shop?  If not, then listen to this (use headphones!):

Sounds amazing, right? Well, the recording is almost 20 years old. The technique itself is more than two times older. Yet, there are hardly any games that make use of that and if they are, they are not AAA titles…which is strange because (as You could hear) the effect is incomparable with the stereo we’re used to and the method itself (as You’ll read later on) is very easy to implement. Actually, the only downside is that it works only on headphones.

But what is this magic actually?

It’s called…

Binaural Recording

The idea is to record..what our ears really hear. How do You do that? Well, you simply put the microphones in the…ears.That’s it. As for binaural recordings, there isn’t really much more to it. The effect is similar to what You can hear in the video above – You feel like you’re really there.And that is because of the obvious fact that microphones placed in your ears record sound waves almost the same as those that would normally hit your inner ear. As a consequence, such a recording already contains all the positional cues that our brain uses to localize the source of sound and other techniques try to reproduce. Moreover, it includes all the effects like scattering and diffraction of the sound wave on the head, pinna and other parts of the body that are inseparable from the sounds that we hear everyday and are very hard, if not impossible to reproduce.

A dummy head used to create a binaural recording of the sound of sea on the beach.

There is one catch though : Everybody is different. The size and shape of the head, dimensions of the pinna and other parts like torso are naturally different for each person, causing slightly different effects for different wave lenghts – therefore recording made inside one person’s ears may sound unnatural for the other. If you would examine a head as a filter then every person’s would have his own, unique filter characteristic that ultimately shapes the final sound that the brain analyses. This leads us to…

Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF)

If our head (mainly, but other parts of the body too) acts as a filter, then HRTF is nothing more than that filter’s transfer function. HRTF is an information on how your head, including the pinna acts on different frequencies of the incoming sound. That information is crucial to our brain and one of the main mechanism of determining the direction of the incoming sound: it is, most importantly, used to determine the location of sound source lying on the cone of confusion (where the Interaural Time Difference and Interaural Level Difference are the same). HRTF is a rather complicated function of frequency and direction. For every direction, the phase and frequency response “of our filter” is different.

A plot of an example HRTF frequency response for a sound source directly ahead of a listener.

A plot of an example HRTF frequency response for a sound source directly ahead of a listener.

For a sound source directly ahead, HRTF is roughly similar for both the left and right ear because of the symmetry of our body. You can see peaks and notches on the plot which are caused by various wave effects, such as reflection of the pinna, diffraction on the head, etc…

The same person as above, but this time sound source is to the left.

The same person as above, but this time sound source is to the left.

Sound source to the right.

Sound source to the right.

For the sound source not on the axis of symmetry the biggest difference is in attenuation – You can see on the plots above that for the sound source to the one side, the ear on the opposite side of the head receives much less acoustic energy (that is intuitive). Generally, the higher the frequency, the higher the attenuation.

There are many detailed papers on the subject of HRTF – the topic was studied extensively and many measurements were done. I’ve skipped a lot of details because i want to focus on the most interesting use of HRTFs from the game audio point of view, which is…

Using HRTF to create virtual surround sound

Let’s say You have a HRTF for some direction V. What would happen if You filtered a raw (mono) signal with that HRTF for of the ears? You get a signal picked by that ear like it would come from the direction V. Apply this logic for the other ear and You have a stereo sound that is almost exactly the same like it would be a binaural recording. See where this is going? It is possible to position a sound source in any point in 3D space, given only the HRTF corresponding to that point. This is one of the most popular use of HRTF – positioning sound sources in a virtual space: a 3D panning. Note, that with standard panning techniques it is possible to position a sound source only in front, in a 2D plane (no elevation). There is no way to position a sound source behind, above or below. It is possible using HRTF.

Because of that, there exists entire databases of HRTF. CIPIC is probably the most popular one. HRTFs are recorded for a set of points that form a grid around the listener.

Measuring HRTFs in an anechoic chamber. Each speaker corresponds to different sound source direction (angle). Microphones are inside person’s ears.

In practice, HRIR (Head Related Impulse Response) are measured. HRIR is nothing more than an Inverse Fourier Transform of the HRTF. It is the impulse response of “our head”. Since filtering is the process of convolution of the input with filter’s impulse response, the process can be easily reversed and that’s called deconvolution. In this case the filtered sound is recorded by microphones in the ears and the raw signal is used to find the unknown: the impulse response.

HRTF filtering effect.

To sum up, the process of positioning a sound source using HRIR (HRTF) is very easy: It is simply a convolution of the mono signal with HRIR for left and right ear. With this simple process, You can achieve the same effect that You heard in “Virtual Barber Shop”.
However, there is one obvious problem: You would need an infinite number of HRIRs to cover every possible angle. If You want to be able to position a source in ANY position, some kind of interpolation is needed. I’ll talk about this problem and possible solution in the next post, where I will also show how to program a 3D panner using HRIRs. Thank You for reading.

Air apsorption of sound as a digital filter – Part 2: Implementation in Unity (c#)

In the previous post i described the theory on how to design a digital filter that will simulate absorption of sound due to propagation through air, using a standardized acoustic absoprtion model and simple filter design method. In this post i’ll show how to put that theory into practice by writing a script for Unity 3D engine that attached to a sound source will filter audio coming from it, depending on player’s distance from the source. Unity is a very popular, fully-featured game engine and environment – i chose it as an example because it allows for very straight-forward implementation of what we want to achieve here and because the script i’ll write for it (in c-sharp) is simply a set of clsses/methods that can be easily used/rewritten elsewhere.

Unity is a component driven engine, this means that all functionality of a game object is encapsulated in the form of attachable components that have the ability to communicate with each other. This includes all built-in components like transform, mesh, shaders, coliders, audio source etc…and user-written scripts. These scripts are nothing else than custom Components and allow for programmatical way to manipulate objects, control components and the only way to implement game logic, custom behaviour and methods, user input…basically anything essential for more than a simplest game to work.

Scripts for Unity can be written in C#, JavaScript and Boo. I will use C#. Creating a script is very simple. We must provide a definition of a class that inherits from MonoBehaviour, the base class for every script:

using UnityEngine;
using System;

public class SoundAirAbsorption : MonoBehaviour {

	void Start () {

	void Update () {
        // code to be executed every frame

    void OnAudioFilterRead(float[] data, int channels) {
        //filtering here

By default , we only have two methods definitions: Start() and Update(). Start() is called during script initialization, Update() is called every frame. We will fill them later, cause we don’t need them to do actual filtering. Custom filters in Unity are implemented using the OnAudioFilterRead method. It’s called everytime audio data from the audio source component (or previous filter in the chain) is ready to be processed. Parameters: data is an array of floats ranging from -1 to +1 and represents interleaved samples; channels is number of channels (left, right speaker and so on…) in the array – we’ll use that information to deinterleave the data, later.

Ok, first, let’s write our air absorption model. As a reminder we’re using this set of equations: LINK. Example class could look like this (public fields/methods highlighted):

class AirModel

    double Fr_O; //relaxation frequency of oxygen
    double Fr_N; //relaxation frequency of nitrogen

    const float T0 = 293.15f;
    const float T01 = 273.16f;  

    float T;
    public float Temperature
        get { return T; }
            if ((value >= 0) && (value <= 330))
                T = value;

    float hr;
    public float Humidity
        get { return hr; }
            if ((value >= 0) && (value <= 100))
                hr = value;

    float ps;
    public float Pressure
        get { return ps; }
            if ((value >= 0) && (value <= 2))
                ps = value;

    public AirModel(float temp_kelvin, float h_relative, float atm_pressure = 1f)
        T = temp_kelvin;
        hr = h_relative;
        ps = atm_pressure;

    public double getAbsCoeff(float f)
        float F = f/ps;       
        return 20 / Math.Log(10) * F * F * (1.84 * Math.Pow(10,-11) * Math.Sqrt(T/T0) +
            Math.Pow(T/T0,-2.5) * ( 0.01278*Math.Exp(-2239.1/T)/(Fr_O+F*F/Fr_O) + 0.1068*Math.Exp(-3352/T)/(Fr_N+F*F/Fr_N) )) * ps;

    void updateRelaxFs()
        double h = hr * Math.Pow(10, -6.8346 * Math.Pow(T01 / T, 1.261) + 4.6151) / ps;
        Fr_O = 24 + 40400 * h * (0.02 + h) / (0.391 + h) / ps;
        Fr_N = Math.Sqrt(T0 / T) * (9 + 280 * h * Math.Exp(-4.17 * (Math.Pow(T0 / T, 1f / 3) - 1))) / ps;

This is rather self-explanatory. Since this model is only valid for specific conditions, changing temperature, humidity or pressure requires bounds checking. I implemented those members as c# properties because they are more convinient to use than standard “setX” and “getX” in such simple case. The updateRelaxFs() method is called each time one of the air properties is set and it’s job is to recalculate oxygen and nitrogen relaxaion frequencies. The getAbsCoeff() method returns an absorption coefficient for given acoustic frequency (and current atmospheric properties) in dB/m.

Next, let’s create a filter class, which we will use in our script to do actual audio filtering. What methods and members should this class have? Starting with the most important ones: an array of impulse response (preferably a private field) and a method (preferably public) that will create/update that impulse response. Such method must take two parameters: the distance to the sound source and desired filter length. In the code below I use an alogirthm from the previous post:

class AirAbsorbFilter
    public readonly AirModel m_AirModel;
    Complex[] m_ImpulseResponse;
    int m_SamplingRate;

    public void updateImpulseResponse(float distance, int N)
        // design filter based on distance and current atmospheric properties
        // 'Frequency sampling' method

        Complex[] H = new Complex[N];
        float df = m_SamplingRate / N;

        // sample in (0,fs/2) range
        for (int i = 0; i < H.Length / 2 + 1; ++i)
            float a = (float)m_AirModel.getAbsCoeff(df * i);
            H[i].Re = Mathf.Pow(10, -a * distance / 20);

        //mirror DFT with respect to N/2+1 sample
        for (int i = H.Length / 2 + 1; i < H.Length; ++i)
            H[i] = H[N - i];

        //do IFFT to get impulse response
        FourierTransform.FFT(H, FourierTransform.Direction.Backward);

        //Aforge's FFT/IFFT is not normalized, divide by N
        for (int i = 0; i < H.Length; ++i)
            H[i] /= N;

        //impulse response
        m_ImpulseResponse = H;
        //shift by N/2
        Util.shiftArray<Complex>(m_ImpulseResponse, N / 2);

        //blackman window
        float[] blackman = Util.blackmanWindow(m_ImpulseResponse.Length);
        for (int i = 0; i < m_ImpulseResponse.Length; ++i)
            m_ImpulseResponse[i] *= blackman[i];


This method designs a filter, create an impulse response and multiplies it by a blackman window. Parameter N is the filter’s length (filter’s order plus one). Impulse response is stored as m_ImpulseResponse member. The Complex data type and FourierTransform are part of the Aforge.NET library (link at the end). H is the array of sampled (desired) frequency response. At line 18, we get an absorption coefficient for the next sampled frequency and in the next line convert it to a linear scale. We sample only the real part of the spectrum! Parameter FourierTransform.Direction.Backward (line 27) means we perform the inverse Fourier Transform. Dividing the product of the ifft by N (line 31) is necessary if we want it to be consentient with the definition of normalized IDFT. To shift an array in place and apply a window i wrote functions that i put in a class called Util:

class Util
    public static void shiftArray<T>(T[] array, int N)
        T[] temp = new T[array.Length];
        System.Array.Copy(array, temp, array.Length);
        for (int i = 0; i < array.Length; ++i)
            array[(i + N) % array.Length] = temp[i];

    public static float[] blackmanWindow(int N)

        int M = (N % 2 == 0) ? N / 2 : (N + 1) / 2;

        float[] win = new float[N];
        win[0] = win[N - 1] = 0f;
        for (int i = 1; i < M; ++i)
            win[i] = win[N - 1 - i] = 0.42f - 0.5f * Mathf.Cos(2 * Mathf.PI * i / (N - 1)) + 0.08f * Mathf.Cos(4 * Mathf.PI * i / (N - 1));

        return win;

To generate a Blackman window i use this formula (the same one Matlab uses):
blackmanwhere N is the length of a window and M is equal to N/2 for N even and (N+1)/2 for N odd.

All right, so now that we have code that creates our filter’s impulse response based on a distance, let’s write the code that does the filtering (at last!) Impulse response is all we need to filter any signal. The equation for a FIR filter is:
firwhere y is the output (filtered) signal, x is the input signal, h is an impulse response and N is length of the impulse response (filter’s order plus one). We can see that “filtering” with a FIR filter is basically multiplying delayed samples of the input with filter coefficients (impulse response) and summing them. This equation is very similar to the equation defining a linear discrete convolution. Indeed, FIR filtering means to convolute an input with filter’s impulse response.

Convolution is a costly operation and in the form above its complexity is O(N*M) where N and M are lengths of x and h. This however can be very much reduced using the fact that the Fourier transform of convolution of two signals in time-domain is equal to multiplication of Fourier Transforms of those signals. To be more precise, convolution of x and h is equal to IDFT( DFT(x)*DFT(h) ) [1]. Using FFT/IFFT to compute DFT/IDFT the complexity is reduced to O( M*log(M) + N*log(N) + (M+N)*log(M+N) ). However, there are is an issue with with this approach: the result of [1] is a circular convolution, not linear. Circular convolution is a slightly different operation and simply using [1] would yield erroneous result (if used for filtering) , but there is a condition under circular and linear convolutions are equal and the solution is rather simple one:

Let Nx = length(x) and Nh = length(h). If we zero-pad both x and h to the length of at least Nx+Nh-1 and then perform circular convolution, the result will be equal to the linear convolution for the first Nx+Nh-1 elements.

Simple, isn’t it? To implement very efficient filtering we just need to add zeros to both audio signal and impulse response so that they have length of L >= Nx+Nh-1 , perform FFT on both , multiply, take IFFT and take only first L samples. Preferably, L should be equal to 2^p so that we take advantage of the fastest version of FFT. Many libraries can only perform FFT of length that is a power of 2 and Aforge.NET is one of them. The overhead caused by L being bigger that it’s necessary is negligible when compared with reduction in numbers of computations gained by Radix-2 FFT.

To implement the filter in our case there’s one last thing that needs to be done. We need to know how to filter in real-time, when the input signal is splitted into blocks/chunks. That is how the audio data that is being routed through OnAudioFilterRead function: basically, it is invoked (called) everytime a next chunk of audio is ready to be filtered and that chunk is passed as the data parameter. It’s not guranteed to be the same length everytime but it should consist of samples that come immediately after the previous samples in the audio file (otherwise there would be audible distortions) We can’t just filter every chunk independently: sum of convolutions is not equal to the convolution of the sum (sum in the sense of array merge). The problem is so called edge effect of convolution: there is a start-up transient of length Nh – 1 samples (Nh – length of impulse response) due to the lattency of the filter. If we were to simply perform a convolution in every call then this effect would occur for every chunk, resulting in a distortion in a continous output.

Eliminating this edge effect is possible by overlapping edge samples from each block, either input or output samples. Two , very well-known algorithms exist , named: overlap-save and overlap-add, that overlap input samples and output samples, respectively. In our case, we need to use the overlap-add method: for every block we need to store last K – Nx samples from output (result of the convolution) and add them to the output of the next block.

The code for our filter class with added methods and array that will store the samples between calls to the filter function:

class AirAbsorbFilter
    public readonly AirModel m_AirModel;
    public Complex[] m_ImpulseResponse;
    int m_SamplingRate;
    // two channels - stereo 
    float[][] m_buffers = new float[2][];

    public AirAbsorbFilter(int sampling_rate)
        m_SamplingRate = sampling_rate;
        m_AirModel = new AirModel(293.15f, 50);
        for (int i = 0; i < m_buffers.Length; ++i)
            m_buffers[i] = new float[0];

    public void updateImpulseResponse(float distance, int N)
       // ...

    public void filter(float[] data, int num_ch)
        //deinterleave data for filtering
        float[][] channels = Util.deinterleaveData<float>(data, num_ch);
        //filter every channel
        for (int ch = 0; ch < channels.Length; ++ch)
            filterChannel(channels[ch], ch);
        //interleave and copy back
        Util.interleaveData<float>(channels, data);

    void filterChannel(float[] data, int channel)
        //convolution using OVERLAP-ADD

        // get length that arrays will be zero-padded to
        int K = Mathf.NextPowerOfTwo(data.Length + m_ImpulseResponse.Length - 1);

        //create temporary (zero padded to K) arrays
        Complex[] ir_pad = new Complex[K];
        System.Array.Copy(m_ImpulseResponse, ir_pad, m_ImpulseResponse.Length);
        Complex[] data_pad = new Complex[K];
        for (int i = 0; i < data.Length; ++i)
            data_pad[i].Re = data[i];

        FourierTransform.FFT(data_pad, FourierTransform.Direction.Forward);
        FourierTransform.FFT(ir_pad, FourierTransform.Direction.Forward);
        Complex[] ifft = new Complex[K];
        for (int i = 0; i < ifft.Length; ++i)
            ifft[i] = data_pad[i] * ir_pad[i] * K;
        FourierTransform.FFT(ifft, FourierTransform.Direction.Backward);
        //add from buffer 
        for (int i = 0; i < data.Length; ++i)
            data[i] = (float)ifft[i].Re;
            if (i < m_buffers[channel].Length)
                data[i] += m_buffers[channel][i];
        //buffer last (K - data.length) samples
        m_buffers[channel] = new float[K - data.Length];
        for (int i = 0; i < m_buffers[channel].Length; ++i)
            m_buffers[channel][i] = (float)ifft[i + data.Length].Re;

Array m_buffers[][] stores the samples to overlap for each channel. I assume 2 channels, for stereo, because that’s what unity uses for 3D audio sources. I also added the constructor which initializes inner buffer arrays. The necessary thing to do before filtering is to deinterleave audio data and filter each channel separately (it’s impossible to filter deinterleaved samples using fast convolution method based on DFT). I wrote two helper functions for interleaving and deinterleaving for the Util class:

public static T[][] deinterleaveData<T>(T[] data, int num_ch)
    T[][] deinterleaved = new T[num_ch][];
    int channel_length = data.Length / num_ch;
    for (int ch = 0; ch < num_ch; ++ch)
        deinterleaved[ch] = new T[channel_length];
        for (int i = 0; i < channel_length; ++i)
            deinterleaved[ch][i] = data[i * num_ch];

    return deinterleaved;

public static void interleaveData<T>(T[][] data_in, T[] data_out)
    int num_ch = data_in.Length;
    for (int i = 0; i < data_in[0].Length; ++i)
        for (int ch = 0; ch < num_ch; ++ch)
            data_out[i * num_ch + ch] = data_in[ch][i];

That would be all for the DSP part! (uff?) The only thing left to do is to integrate our filter class into the script in Unity:

using UnityEngine;
using System;
using AForge.Math;

public class SoundAirAbsorption : MonoBehaviour {

    public GameObject AudioListener;

    [Range(0, 50)]
    public float Temperature = 20f;
    [Range(0, 100)]
    public float Humidity = 50f;
    [Range(0, 2)]
    public float Pressure = 1f;
    AirAbsorbFilter air_filter;
    const float update_rate = 0.05f;
    const int filter_length = 2048;

	void Start () {
        air_filter = new AirAbsorbFilter(audio.clip.frequency);
        InvokeRepeating("updateFilter", 0, update_rate);
	void Update () {


    void OnAudioFilterRead(float[] data, int channels)
        if (!ReferenceEquals(air_filter, null))
            air_filter.filter(data, channels);

    void updateFilter()
        float distance_to_source = UnityEngine.Vector3.Distance(AudioListener.transform.position, transform.position);
        air_filter.m_AirModel.Temperature = Temperature + 273.15f; //Celcius to Kelvin
        air_filter.m_AirModel.Humidity = Humidity;
        air_filter.m_AirModel.Pressure = Pressure;
        air_filter.updateImpulseResponse(distance_to_source, filter_length);


The AudioListener member (line 8) stores the reference to the game object that will receive the sound: there is only one in a scene and that’s usually a main camera. We need that reference to calculate the distance between sound source and receiver. Fields Temperature, Humidity and Pressure are public so they can be directly manipulated from the Unity editor (Every public member of the class that inherits from MonoBehaviour can be controlled/assigned within the Unity editor). [Range()] is an attribute that is used for numeric fields and determines the range for the slider in Unity editor that is used to change the value of that field. update_rate (in seconds) determines how often distance to audio listener is updated and new impulse response calculated. We pass that value to InvokeRepeating function, which is a Unity-built way to repeatedly call some function in a given time interval. In this case, it’s the updateFilter function.

This is how our script looks inside the Unity editor:

This ends a two-part entry about implementing a digital filter simulating air absorption of sound. Hopefully , any of this will be of some help to somebody, cause i’ve sure had fun writing this. Thanks for reading!


Aforge.NET library:

Fast convolution (overlap-add & save):

A good entry on wiki about circular convolution (look the example):

Air absorption of sound as a digital filter – Part 1: Theory

There is a very important future of sounds coming from a distance besides their obvious decrease in loudness: they sound muffled. Thunderstrike is the best example: when striking close to us, we hear an ear-piercing, high-pitched crack, but when afar, we hear a low-pitched, thumping, growl. This is an effect of sound absorption by the atmoshphere. The air acts as a low-pass filter, and this filtering is the “stronger”, the bigger the distance and higher the frequency. It is also dependent on the air’s temperature, humidity and pressure.

This future is one of the properties crucial for the brain to estimate the distance to the sound source (the other being level of the sound). Since it’s fundamental to how we perceive sound , it cannot be ignored in a realistic auralization. Sound coming from a distance that is rich in high frequencies , sounds unnatural. This is a well known fact and must be accounted for if one wants to achieve audio immersion. Most common and also simplest way to do that is to apply a LP filter on the sound source, with cutoff frequency changing according to the distance. More time-consuming way would be to record the sound from the distance it is meant to be played. Although this gives probably the most realistic effect (because it also includes attenuation over ground and reflections from it), it is also very unpractical. What if there is a sample that will be played from various distances in regard to a player (i.e. gunshots) ? Or the weather (in the game) changes? One could obviously record all the samples in all possible conditions…but this is nowhere near universal.

We can instead hit somewhere in between, which is to create a filter that will be basing on the mathematical model of the sound absorption by air. Such a model exists, moreover, it is an ISO standard. Given all the equations needed, we can get the set of absorption coefficients that we will use as our filter. This approach brings a very big benefit: since all it requires is an absorption model and a distance the sound traveled, it can be reused everywhere where custom DSP is possible, own sound engine being the best example.

So, let’s get to it. In the rest of the post i will talk about the model and filter design in this particular case. This will be rather some basic DSP. No coding though, actual implementation will be covered in the next post.
Be wary! Altough i’ll try to explain most of the stuff, signal processing is not something one can learn in a day. It would be impossible to explain all the technicalities, how and why they work, in this post. If You have some basics in filter design, there will be nothing new for You. If You don’t, then I strongly suggest checking out the links on the bottom, first.

1. The model
A set of equations that i’m going to use can be found here: LINK.Those are equations that can be found in ISO 9613-1 “Attenuation of sound during propagation outdoors”. I won’t rewrite them here, just briefly go through them. The most important formula for us is an analytical way to calculate the absorption coefficient, a, measured in dB/m. As we can see, it’s a function of sound frequency, temperature, pressure and two frequencies, called “relaxation frequencies” of molecular oxygen and nitrogen (don’t ask, don’t know) that are also functions of temperature, pressure and humidity. So we need only three things to calculate an absorption coefficient for a given frequency: temperature, humidity and pressure. To calculate the attenuation over the distance, we simply multiply the absorption coeffient by that distance: A (r) = a*r [dB]. The result is the decrease in sound’s pressure level, in dB.
Here are some plots of change in level (attenuation*-1) for frequency range 0-2kHz and different distances (0dB is sound (pressure) level of the source):

2. Designing the filter

Ok, so now that we are able to calculate air absorption coefficient for any frequency we desire, let’s move to designing our digital filter. I will be using a method called “Frequency sampling” (details below) and our filter will be of FIR (Finite Impulse Response) type. This is the simplest, yet, a very popular way to design digital filters mainly because of how easy it is to implement. Basically, we are creating samples of the desired frequency response and then, using inverse discrete fourier transform (IDFT) on those samples we obtain filter’s coefficients ( it’s impulse response). FIR filter comes with several benefits: they require no feedback and therefore are always stable, introduce smaller rounding errors and can be “coded” to be very efficient using FFT (more on that later). They also have a very neat future: they can be easily designed to have a linear phase. Linear phase means that every frequency component passing through a filter will be shifted (delayed) by the same amount – consequently there will be no phase distortions. Whether such phase distortions are audible is a very controversial topic, with many claiming that they aren’t audible in most cases. Nonetheless, the conclusion from many conducted experiments is that linear phase should be desired, where possible, especially in the audio domain. Since it is so easy to achieve in case of FIR filters, why not take the opportunity? (For those interested about the audibilty of phase distortions, I posted few links that elaborate on the subject).

Ok, after that little explanation of my choices, let me now lay the steps of our algorithm of designing our filter and then walk you through the details on each one.

1. Get the distance that the sound wave travelled.
2. Choose the length of the filter. This must be a power of 2 (to take advantage of very fast FFT).
3. Calculate air absorption coefficient for every required frequency in the [0 , sampling_rate/2 ] range.
4. Multiply array of absorption coefficients by the distance. This, multiplied by -1 is our ideal filter amplitude response.
5. Convert the response from the decibel scale to linear one.
6. Mirror the array with respect to the N/2 sample. This is required if we want the result of the IDFT to be real-valued, not complex.
7. Perform a N-point IDFT (using FFT) on the array. The result is an array of filter’s coefficients/impulse response.
8. Shift the impulse response by N/2.
9. Optionally, multiply by a window function.

Ad 1. We will be creating a new filter everytime the distance changes.

Ad 2. The longer the impulse response, the more our filter will resemble the ideal we design (it’s actuall frequency response will be closer to the designed one) …obviously at the cost of computational power. Since we will be taking an advantage of FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) in it’s fastest implementation (Radix-2) to perform IDFT on our designed frequency response array, it must be of length N = 2^p, for example N = 256 or 512.

Ad 3. Domain of a product of Discrete Fourier Transform is a vector of complex spectrum values that correspond to frequencies spaced in interval equal to fs / N, where fs is the sampling rate and N is the length of signal. For example: if we performed DFT on a signal of length N = 6 and with fs = 10, the result would be a vector of values corresponding to: 0, 10/6, 2*10/6, 3*10/6, 4*10/6, 5*10/6 [Hz]. We can see that the Nyquist frequency (fs/2, in this case 3*10/6 = 5Hz) is the (N/2 + 1)’th sample.
In order to obtain a real-valued impulse response, we need to make our vector symmetrical. Therefore we are sampling values only in the [0, Nyquist] range, that is for first N/2+1 samples -> we calculate absorption coefficients only for f = 0, fs/N, 2*fs/N…fs/2 Hz.

Ad 4-5. Since the attenuation over the distance r is equal to absorption_coefficient*r , we need to multiply every coefficient by the current distance in meters. If we then multiply by -1, we actually get our ideal filter’s amplitude response (in the 0…fs/2 range). Here is why: Filter amplitude/magnitude response (often denoted by A(f) ) is an information of how much the given frequency component will be changed in amplitude. It is an absolute value of a product of DFT done on the filter’s impulse response (magnitude of a complex number, hence “filter’s magnitude plot”). It is a function of frequency with values >= 0. Those values basically are the ratio between magnitude of a frequency component (sinusoid) at the output, to it’s magnitude at the input. Therefore a value of 1 means no change in amplitude, 0-1 means attenuation and a value > 1 means that the filter will amplify this frequency.
In a logarithmic (sometimes called decibels) scale, this is given by:

L(f) = 20*log10( A(f) ) [dB]

where log10 is a base-10 logarithm. L = 0 dB means no change in amplitude (20*log10(1) = 0), L = -Inf means total attenuation (logarithm goes to -infinity for x->0) and L > 0dB means amplification. How is this all related? If we multiply our vector of absorption coefficients from step 3 by the distance r, we get a result in dB, which is a vector of attenuations for each frequency -> Att(f) = 20*log10( p(0) / p(r) ), where p(r) is the sound pressure at distance r and p(0) is the initial pressure. Since amplitude response is a ratio of output/input, and our input is p(0) and output is p(r), our L(f) should be 20*log10( p(r) / p(0) ) which is equal to -20*log10( p(0) / p(r) ) = -Att(f)! Now, we only need to convert Att(f) to linear scale so we can perform IDFT on it. Conversion back from decibel scale is given by: A(f) = 10^( – Att(f)/20 )

Ad 6. This is a very important property of the Discrete Fourier Transform and the essence of the method we use to design our filter. If an impulse response caluclated with IDFT is not to be complex we must assure that: A(n) = A(N-n), where n = 1…N/2 if zero-indexed. Obviously we don’t want the impulse response to be complex, because then the filtered audio signal would be complex too. And how would that sound? :)

Ad 7. Since length of our vector is the power of 2, we can use a Radix-2 FFT (or rather Inverse-FFT) algorithm to calculate our filter’s impulse response.

Ad 8. If the impulse response is symmetrical: h(n) = h(N-n) or assymetrical: h(n) = -h(N-n) the filter has a linear phase (phase is a linear function of frequency). However, in our case it’s not quite the case: you may noticed that after shifting by N/2 the impulse response is symmetrical except the rightmost sample. That is the downside of this method of designing filter. We have two choices: we can either accept the fact that for lower order of the filter (order = length – 1) the phase will be a “little” non-linear or we can discard the rightmost sample which will guarantee linear phase although the resulting frequency response won’t be interpolated through the points we designed. However, for higher filter lengths, like 128 or more, phase will be very close to linear if we choose to leave it as it is anyway and that still can be improved by multiplying by a window (proof on the graphs below)

Ad 9. That is an optional step , but highly recommended since multiplying our impulse response by a smooth window function (i.e. Blackman window) comes with big benefits. Main one is better interpolation of frequency response between the points we sampled, since by default it is interpolated with a sinc function (since that is the fourier transform of a rectangular window and that’s what every discrete signal is multiplayed with, being of finite length). Another benefit is the more linear phase. To visualize those benefits i created two filters of different lengths using our algorithm with impulse response multiplied by a blackman window and not (click to enlarge):

N = 64:
N = 64

N = 128:
N = 128

Both benefits, frequency response more similar to our design and linear phase are clearly visible.

Now, we have all that is required to…filter any type of sound data with our air-absorption-filter :) Filtering itself with an example of implementation, in the Unity engine, in the next post!


Audibility of phase distortion:

A very good paper on DFT for everyone:

Frequency sampling method:

Wiki has a great article on window functions: