Xbox Series X: next-gen sound via dedicated chip and ray-traced audio

Microsoft's Xbox Series X will use a new dedicated audio chip and ray-traced audio to push next-gen sound.

Published Mar 8, 2020 6:15 PM CDT   |   Updated Tue, Nov 3 2020 11:44 AM CST
16 minute read time

Even the Xbox Series X's audio will be next-gen, complete with a special dedicated audio chip that empowers sound designers like never before.

Xbox Series X: next-gen sound via dedicated chip and ray-traced audio 3

We've known for a while the Xbox Series X would have 3D audio acceleration via a dedicated chip, but we didn't know the potential of the tech, and more importantly, what it means for developers. The Xbox SX's new hardware-accelerated audio chip means sound designers no longer have to tie up CPU resources for in-game sound effects and music. In tandem with ray traced audio, which uses bi-drectional sound paths to shift sound profiles in real-time, audio experiences will be incredibly immersive and realistic on the next-gen Xbox.

Ninja Theory in particular is enthusiastic about the chip. This is fitting given the Senua franchise's incredible sound effects and score. "It's extremely exciting. We're going to have a dedicated chip to work with audio, which means we finally won't have to fight with programmers and artists for memory and CPU power," senior sound designer Daniele Galante told Video Game Chronicle.

"We take for granted that graphics are powered by their own video cards. But in audio, we haven't had anything like that. Now we have some power dedicated to us," Ninja Theory's audio lead David Garcia also said.

The chip is a big deal for developers on a whole. Sound designers now get their own resources, freeing up the console's Zen 2 CPU to pelt out games at high-end perf targets like 8K resolution, 120 FPS, and ray-traced environments in 1440p, 1080p, and maybe even 4K.

Xbox Series X: next-gen sound via dedicated chip and ray-traced audio 11

Read Also: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X ray tracing is easily scalable for devs

Another nifty trick devs can use is audio ray tracing. So what exactly is audio ray tracing? We've heard a lot about how ray tracing can revolutionize visuals of a game. Even AMD has talked up the new DXR 1.1 ray tracing API that powers the Xbox Series X via its new RDNA 2 architecture.

Basically it's a new way to simulate audio via bi-directional audio paths. The idea is that the game will automatically shift audio paths in real-time and adjust effects like echoes, acoustics, and even pitch and tone to make sound more reactive to where you are and what you do in a game.

The path-traced 3D audio will track your location and adjust itself depending on where you are; gunshots will sound different in a cave, for example, than they will in an open free-range environment.

"We believe that this kind of technology can help improve the immersion of games specifically in scenarios like a cave where the player's voice can help inform the player to the geometry of the environment," NVIDIA said in a 2017 audio ray tracing demo.

AMD's ray tracing solution is different though.

"We have developed all-new hardware-accelerated ray tracing as part of RDNA 2. It is a common architecture used in next-generation game consoles. With that, you will greatly simplify the content development. Developers can develop for one platform and easily port it to the other," AMD's vice president of engineer David Wang said in a recent company presentation.

Microsoft's senior director of program management Jason Ronald also talked about ray-traced audio:

"With the introduction of hardware accelerated ray tracing with the Xbox series X, we're actually able to enable a whole new set of scenarios, whether that's more realistic lighting, better reflections, we can even use it for things like spatial audio and have ray traced audio," Ronald said in a recent interview with Major Nelson.

So not only visuals will be ray-traced, but audio will be too. Variable Rate Shading will be an asset in this regard.

The Xbox Series X's new Variable Rate Shading techniques will also help mitigate the frame drops accompanied by ray-traced visuals and environments. VRS is a new rendering technique boosts FPS by reducing quality of specific small parts of a scene. Essentially it drops visual quality of stuff you won't even notice in order to raise frame rates--which is tremendously important now the Xbox Series X is targeting a huge spectrum of resolutions from 1080p all the way to 8K.

Everything about this console from the APIs, the engines, the toolsets, and the hardware, has been customized and synergized on an incredible level. Developers will have tons of new tricks to best optimize their games.

Remember the Xbox Series X will enhance and upgrade current-gen games, so there's a chance games like Halo 5 could use ray-traced audio to breathe new life into the interactive experience.

Xbox Series X is due out by Holiday 2020. No pricing has been announced.

Check below for confirmed specs and details, and a huge content listing of everything we've heard about Xbox Series X so far:

Xbox Series X confirmed details (Formerly Project Scarlett):

  • 8-core, 16-thread Zen 2 CPU
  • 12 TFLOP Navi GPU on RDNA 2 architecture
  • Highly customized 7nm SoC from AMD
  • GDDR6 memory
  • 2x Xbox One X's 6TFLOPs of GPU perf
  • 4x CPU power of Xbox One generation
  • Can deliver up to 40x more performance than Xbox One in specific use cases
  • Adaptive sync supported
  • Super-fast SSD that can be used as VRAM
  • Supports 8K resolution (likely media playback)
  • 120FPS gaming
  • Variable refresh rate (adaptive sync/FreeSync)
  • Variable Rate Shading
  • Raytracing confirmed with dedicated raytracing cores
  • Backward compatible with thousands of Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games
  • New controller with a dedicated share button
  • Compatible with Xbox One accessories

Lockhart (Unconfirmed lower-end Xbox Series hardware)

  • 1440p 60FPS
  • No disc drive
  • Super-fast SSD that can be used as VRAM
  • 7nm AMD SoC w/ scaled-down 8-core, 16 thread Zen 2 CPU at 3.5GHZ and Navi GPU
  • Lower GDDR6 memory pool (Possibly 12GB)
  • 4 TFLOPs of power?
  • Aims to rival PS4 Pro/Replace Xbox One S
  • Full backward compatibility with all Xbox One games
  • Cheaper MSRP

Anaconda/Xbox Series X/Project Scarlett

  • 4K 60FPS
  • Disc drive with 4K UHD playback
  • Super-fast SSD that can be used as VRAM
  • 7nm AMD SoC with 8-core, 16 thread Zen 2 CPU at 3.5GHz and 12TFLOP RDNA 2 Navi GPU
  • 16GB GDDR6 RAM
  • 12 TFLOPs of power
  • 2x GPU power as Xbox One X/aims to replace Xbox One X
  • Full backward compatibility with all Xbox One games
  • More expensive MSRP

Xbox Series X coverage:

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Derek joined the TweakTown team in 2015 and has since reviewed and played 1000s of hours of new games. Derek is absorbed with the intersection of technology and gaming, and is always looking forward to new advancements. With over six years in games journalism under his belt, Derek aims to further engage the gaming sector while taking a peek under the tech that powers it. He hopes to one day explore the stars in No Man's Sky with the magic of VR.

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