Exclusive: Benjamin Loomes Talks Syrinscape and How Audio Elevates Tabletop RPGs
The power of imagination cannot be denied. For many, the scariest parts of horror movies are the times where you don’t see what’s happening, where the viewer is left to visualize something on their own without the assistance of the camera’s ever vigilant and unblinking gaze. It is in those times that we come face-to-face with our own interpretations and visions, which can make things all the more terrifying.
I think that’s why some people get such a thrill out of tabletop gaming, a hobby that I never had the time to invest in but one that seems rather fascinating. On top of spending time with friends and learning new ways to communicate with them, you also get to hone and challenge your imagination to take the bare minimum of visuals and create something epic and grandiose in your mind. But what will ultimately be lacking with such a situation is the absence of audio cues and aural stimulation. That is Syrinscape comes in.
Syrinscape is a free app that allows users to load sound designs that relate to the style of game you’re playing. Are you venturing into a mystical and fantastical land? There are packages dedicated to making sure the tavern is raucous, the forests enchanting, and the mines eerie! What if you’re taking on an alien race intent on eradicating your species? You can get access to SoundSets that mimic lightsword fights, space battles, and extraterrestrial worlds.
The app allows you to control multiple elements of a SoundSet, so you’re not just hitting ‘Play’ on one track and then listening to it on loop until you move to the next area. By fading in elements while fading out others, every step of your journey can sound unique and engaging.
Today, we’ve got an interview with Benjamin Loomes, who is the creator of SyrinScape. We spoke about the origins of SyrinScape, the challenges of creating these SoundSets, and a lot more! Check out our interview below!
To learn more about Syrinscape, head on over to their official website. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re interested in checking out a pack, I highly recommend the Cthulhu Rises DoomPack, which is probably for very obvious reasons!
Dread Central: The concept of Syrinscape is so simple and yet so brilliant. Tell me a bit about how Syrinscape came to be and how it’s evolved since its inception?
Benjamin Loomes: While I have always been a gamer, I have also worked my whole life as a composer, singer and pianist, and as a lover or good movies and computer games, I always found it strange that music and sound were missing from my tabletop games. I started using music CDs and computer game soundtracks and things like that to create a bit of ambiance for my players and they loved it. Pretty quickly I was making 15 minute recordings complete with environmental sound design and they were pretty cool. But the problem with these was that they started getting repetitive very quickly, especially in roleplay games where you can stay in a single location for one or two hours. So by the ninth time you hear the same distinctive bird call and market vendor shouting his prices in exactly the same order every time, you start to notice those patterns.
The human brain is designed to notice patterns. We actively seek relationships and causality effects, the ear gets pulled to these and distracted. And suddenly, instead of immersing the players, you are pulling them out of the action. Like the sounds in a movie, tabletop sound should subliminally affect the emotional state of the audience, and give them emotional cues, and this can be a powerful thing.
So I started making longer and longer recordings, but it just wasn’t working right for me. So I thought, surely a computer is good at this sort of thing, at random playing a sound from a pool and then randomly choosing another sample and waiting a randomised amount of time. Doing a whole lot of simultaneous tasks, together and independently. So I wrote a really simple version of Syrinscape in Python, and that work pretty well. I shared that online in 2009, and people just went mental for it. They wanted it on their iPad, or Android, and all sorts of other devices.
About 4 years ago we released a full blown professional version of the Syrinscape Player, just like the original, but super-powered. With the most recent versions of Syrinscape, you can create a set of samples yourself, bring them into the app, control when and where they appear in the aural landscape, set the direction, distance and even apply Doppler effect and reverb, all dynamically and easily. You can even keep the “Wilhelm Scream” close to hand, in case of Character Death, because important things are important.
DC: One would think that traditional compositions would simply be music. However, you’re creating something far more immersive. What are the challenges in creating these sound packs?
BL: Always in our mind when we are mixing audio is immersion. Getting players to forget they are in the real world and become entranced by the story that is being told is all about making the as natural, normal and real as possible, which is particularly fun, when that ‘real’ sound it the sounds of a Goblin being eaten by a Dragon! I am frequently impressed with just how ‘wrong’ audio sounds until you get it just right, and then all the distractions slip away and everything sounds natural. Yes, there really is an uncanny valley for audio mixing as well.
Whether we are building the sound of a 7 foot tall ooze who wants to dissolve your brain or actual Cthulhu coming out of the sea, there’s always a way to do it. We spend our days trolling books and Youtube and friend’s brains for ideas about how to create this stuff. A pretty fun job actually.
What is great, is once you’ve got the source material, then you just hand it to the Syrinscape machine and it takes care of everything else, of mixing the sounds together, of positioning them spatially and ‘immersing’ the disparate elements in the acoustic, so everything blends together just perfectly, as long as your set the parameters just right, that is!
DC: How do you strike a balance between “that’s too little to convey the right atmosphere” and “that’s too much and will overwhelm players”?
BL: Tabletop Roleplaying is most importantly a social game. I want more people to play the Social Games I enjoy. I want people to enjoy these games more, be immersed more, moved more, thrilled more. I want to make Social Gaming a better experience for all those who are brave enough to play. That’s actually specifically why I created Syrinscape. Using Syrinscape to manage the sounds and music at my table allows me to keep my attention focused on my players, while keeping the attention of the players well and truly focused on the game. Game Masters already operate on overload and anything that makes their job easier is good. That’s why so many people streaming live games on Twitch and YouTube are using Syrinscape now: Matt Mercer of Critical Role and the lovely people from the Glass Cannon Podcast to name just two great shows.
As for the sounds themselves, we just make a movie soundtrack. Movie music has a few peculiar traits that make them perfect for movies and not so good at actually attracting and holding your attention. Movie music has no lyrics, this is really important, and I’m sure I don’t need to go into that one too much, but you’ll also notice that movie music lacks any kind of very dominant foreground element. So there’s not a lead singer, but there’s also not a virtuoso, attention seeking violinist either. Movie music and sounds servers the image and story. It focuses the viewer’s attention on the drama, so for us at Syrinscape it’s the same. As we are creating sound, anything that draws the players into the game stays, and anything else falls to the cutting room floor, no matter how fun it is… well except for the “Sad Trombone” sound… sometimes Players roll 1s, don’t they?
DC: For each genre of tabletop RPGs, there needs to be the right kind of atmosphere. After all, a fantasy pack probably won’t work in a horror session. How do you get in the right mindset to compose for the various genres out there?
BL: I am very cued by visual art. And we at Syrinscape have been very lucky to have access to some of the greatest Fantasy and Sci-Fi Artists in the world. When we are building official Pathfinder content I read the adventure text (which often specifically mentions what the characters hear), but I also simply look at the art. That get’s my imagination going. When we are building our own, non licenced content we use our fantastic local artist Arianne Elliott and she inspires without fail, and recently I’ve been getting to immerse myself in the amazing art of Remko Troost as we build the fantastic audio content for the launch of Starfinder! People are going to love the game and our sounds are going to blow people away!
DC: What are some of your favorite sound pack/game combinations?
BL: This is like being asked to pick my favorite child! Let’s see… I am particularly proud of “Red Dragon City Raid” because the dragon sounds so huge and mean (and I know that his growl is sourced originally from my lovely tenor voice). We built that Dragon for “Rise of the Runelords”, the very first piece of licenced content we made with Paizo. I love Gil Luna’s work in the “Car Chase 1920” because it sounds just exactly like an old fashioned movie, and I love the big Starships in the Sci-Fi Player because their guns sound epic. We played a game of Numenera the other night and it was fun combining SoundSets from both the Sci-Fi Player and Fantasy Player to create the weird, spooky blend of Fantasy Horrors and tech that make up that atmospheric world. I could go on… but suffice to say the stuff I’m most excited about right now are the amazing sounding Starfinder Starships and all of their epic sounding weapons. They go BOOOOOM!