Xbox One X - A Personal Review in 4K HDR

I do like knowing about new technology, but don't really always keep up with it: For instance, until last Monday, my main TV was a 1080i Sony 40" KDL-40V2000 - one of the first "HD" TVs on sale in the UK, bought more than 12 years ago.

I also have an original Xbox One, bought a few months after release and against my better judgement, as I disagreed with much of Matrick's vision for that console. I was rather unimpressed with the original Xbone inn comparison to my 360; with it's long loading times, sluggish interface and limited performance and resolution - it really didn't seem like a large jump over the 360 at all.

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Perhaps the new Xbox One X was designed just for me, since I felt I would notice the uplifted performance. It was well beyond time to upgrade my TV too, from 1080i to the 4k, OLED, 55" HDR set I picked up for this console. I also had not played some of the 4K and HDR games refreshed for the "X", like Gears 4 and Rise Of The Tomb Rider - and these are available real cheap on Amazon and add the needed "new" (to me) content that showcases this console.

The upgrade process was so simple - a preparation tool automated much of any work associated with the switch-over before the One X arrived, so it was almost just a button press and a swap-over of my USB drive between consoles. I still did have to upload some patches to games afterwards, but I guess this was down to their release timing.

Oh my - the difference is stunning. This, to me, is the generational leap from the 360 I was expecting. The HDR enabled visuals are so detailed and dynamically lit - it just makes me want to stop playing and gorp at the screen. Many games have been made platform compatible with resolution that scales automatically with frame-rate and these games all look better and seem to run faster without any dev patches at launch.

It seems across the board, games run smoother, load quicker (the internal HD is faster and is an upgrade on my OG xbone's 500GB) and overall, the general feeling is one of "butteriness". The future looks bright for me on this console, based on what is available for it right now and coming soon.

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The 4K and HDR patched games I already play (Ghost Recon, Elite Dangerous) look like different games in 4K. I swear I'm getting 4K HDR visuals over huge distances with extra frames over my launch xbone in Ghost Recon. After playing through the first levels in Tomb Raider and GOW4, I can now see what I've been missing: Sharp detail, eye-popping colours and smooth frame-rates - it's glorious.

I was rather worried that the new console might be loud, since the original huge box seemed to be designed around an over-specified cooling system and was always whisper quiet as a result. The new box is similarly silent, although it is far smaller and has it's power supply inside of it.

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I'm not sure why it's been designed to look so much like a PS2, but the XoneX is very compact. I do also have a PC with a modest card, but I don't have a 4K set-up for it and prefer XBL over Steam and sofa to desk for games.

To me, it is obvious who the market is for this console - and I can't see why the gaming press don't all seem to get it: Although the market is limited, my imagined venn-diagram has much overlap between specialist gaming press and "hardcore" (for want of a better term) gamers, especially disgruntled xboners.

I got a very nice thank-you letter from Microsoft the day after I bought the console. I feel like sending them one back with a personal congratulation to Phil Spencer!

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Audio clipping, Electrovoice EV20, Variable D, and "Working the Mic"

I was wondering why I'm often bristling at some of the audio I hear from the internet. I guess it's not easy to get audio as good as video - is the easy answer: People generally don't want to turn down settings if they get a peak, because when there are no peaks, the sound is too low. A more correct answer is that I'm a bit of an audio Nazi and am used to traditional broadcast quality. Some of my fanaticism extends to Giantbomb and seems to afflict the East more than the West (ironically). As much as I love watching every GB video regardless of region, I'm often waiting for the inevitable distortion peaks and general "close mic hot" sound from GBeast.

The mics used are excellent (if they are the Elecrovoice EV20 - about GBP 500 a pop!) and posses an interesting feature called "Variable D". It is designed to give the microphone a more useful dynamic range while retaining a neutral tone (i.e. not sounding bassier as you get close to the mic). It's also why these mics have an unusual slotted grille running down their length.

I think perhaps this may be causing problems in the GB East studio. Rick Bell, the "EV mic guy", has made a video about this feature and demonstrates the principles of cardoid patterns, what Variable D does, and how axis and proximity affect the sound for various mics in the range that either have, or don't have "Variable D". It is well worth a watch to see how moving about in front of a mic affects how it sounds:

Rick mentions "working the mic" many times during the video, which suggests control over the sound is most affected by distance and axis to it, as he demonstrates. I remember being previously impressed with Austin Walker's vocal performance on GiantBomb, and his natural ability in "working the mic", since he rocked away from the mic when yelling and closer for more hushed voices, as most professional singers would control their instrument. It seems the practice with the current crew is to get as on axis and as near to the front of the mic as possible - something not really necessary in a studio, unless you wish to block out a lot of background noises, while recording your mouth noises.

Maybe the "problem" with variable D is it attempts to preserve the tonal qualities of the mic until it overloads, while a cardoid without this feature would start to get overblown in the bass, as a "warning" that the capsule was becoming overloaded. Therefore a skilled broadcaster would back off naturally (through monitoring output) before their audio went into distortion, or an engineer would intervene at a more energetic bass overload. The alternative for these EV20 mics is they harden up near their limit, especially with voices like Alex and Dan, (whose voices are at the mid-range end of the spectrum). In this way, Variable D might be analogous to going straight into a skid without first getting any sign of over-steer in a fast car. Just owning expensive microphones might not be enough for great sound, in a similar way.

It is also a human temptation, with a mic in front of you, to move closer until you kiss it (especially when you are not monitoring your voice). Carefully positioned pop shields can act as a good barrier against this, but do clutter the screen. I always thought the choice of this large type of mic for broadcast was an odd one, because of the tendency of presenters to constantly fondle it, the extra technique required for head placement (especially in a very close-mic'd set-up), and also because it's imposing bulk tends to obscure most of the broadcasters' faces as it constrains them. This seems rather counter-productive for a video format, especially when headphones are incorporated into the picture too.

Old-style TV studio broadcasting has never done this for good reason: Lavalier style mics are often better for broadcast because the performer forgets they are there, they require no "technique", they are off-axis to breath and mouth noise and they are discreet for an audience. They are also capable of excellent full range vocal audio. The GB West videos with such mics are far more pleasant to listen to for me (except for their removal and fitting noises) and there isn't the "hot" close mic sound, as if they're licking your ears: The close mic emphasis on "peh", "beh" and "teh" sounds can be fatiguing to hear and are more products of breath (put your hand 1" in front of your mouth, talk and feel your breath on it) and therefore unheard in normal conversation distances, but picked up on a close mic capsule.

The other human condition is of reticence at a sound-check, so the volume levels of any subsequent mindless japery and tomfoolery are not tested. The art here is for the sound engineer to coax each broadcaster into a re-birth regression scenareo, so that unrestrained screams of new consciousness remembered can be used as a useful guide to setting maximum levels conservatively.This is where the job of the GiantBomb engineer is hard, because a singer or broadcaster typically have a defined range, whereas reaction style content demands capture of a broader range of speech.

It's unlikely that broadcasters will wish to change their own style to sound great, so we need technical preparation instead: Pop shields can enforce a minimum distance. Reducing the microphone's height (with lower mic stands) may work too in requiring performers to go slightly off-axis, as might setting them further back on the desk (unless presenters stoop down towards them). Although audio levels would have to increase with distance from mic, the range of acceptable gain bandwidth would more than compensate.

Lavalier mics would be much better for video and audio stability and fixed distance and axis, but would create more of an issue with studio noise and audio bleed-though of games played, unless headphones are worn, or studio sounds kept low. The ear mounted mics used in E3 presentations were sometimes capable of good quality, but presenters seemed really conscious of wearing them and they often fiddled and moved the capsules closer to the paths of their breath.

Perhaps adding suitable compression, or changing existing compression settings might work, if the distortion peaks aren't from mic capsules getting overloaded. Then, the distortion is in the pre-amp circuitry and created by excessive voltages from the microphone. There are some rather clever compression tools around these days that can auto-adjust for this sort of thing. They exist both as parts of hardware audio interfaces and as software tools.

But this still means the "close mic" sound will remain unless a few inches can go between mouths and mics, and off-axis helps too. This, in turn means upping audio levels to get the same gain, allowing for a greater overload potential if the same sound levels come into close proximity the mics, but a wider loudness range before distortion. These audio problems should disappear in a steady-state studio environment, once a "butter zone" is found. Everything, from a sigh to a scream, will be preserved in all it's audio glory, with no overloading at all, for my listening pleasure.

I only write this because I love GB content so much and think I'd be able to love it even more if the audio was consistently as brilliant as their video quality and content ideas. Big props to all the work the GiantBomb staff do for us viewers! I mean this with the best of intentions and knowing I've got into trouble for writing about these audio problems before.

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Wilko Johnson in Game of Thrones

"They said they wanted somebody really sinister who went around looking daggers at people before killing them. That made it easy. Looking daggers at people is what I do all the time." - Wilko Johnson

I've only just started watching "Game of Thrones" and could not believe seeing a familiar face in S1E2 tonight; that of "Ilyn Payne" - the mute executioner. I knew Wilko Johnson not as an actor, but as one of my favourite musicians. I was so surprised that I googled to make sure and found out that Game of Thrones was his first acting role!

Ex blockheads Wilko Johnson (right) and Norman Watt-Roy (centre)
Ex blockheads Wilko Johnson (right) and Norman Watt-Roy (centre)

I first head Wilko play guitar with his distinctive style in Dr Feelgood. I then heard him play with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. I became a big fan of his own Wilko Johnson band, since it also had my favourite bass player (I play the bass too); fellow ex-blockhead Norman Watt-Roy. Norman and Wilko had enough talent and musical ability to carry off a three-piece act perfectly. I saw them many times in and around London in some fairly small venues. They had a "Canvey Island R&B" sound with harsh, choppy riffs and drew a following of punks, musos, and blues lovers. My own blues band even supported them once at "the Cricketers" pub in Kennington, South London.

“Man, there's nothing like being told you're dying to make you feel alive.” - Wilko Johnson
“Man, there's nothing like being told you're dying to make you feel alive.” - Wilko Johnson

I was saddened to hear at the beginning of last year that Wilko had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and it was incurable. Rather than languish in despair, he arranged a "farewell tour" and has been playing extensively with other artists (like "Madness" and Roger Daltrey from "The Who") and is still booking dates.

Wilko was one of my heroes and it was bizarre, yet gratifying to see him in such an acclaimed TV drama. His musical career has had some high points (here in the UK at least) but he remains relatively unknown to many. I agree with Paul Weller (ex Jam and Style Council), who said of Johnson: "Wilko may not be as famous as some other guitarists, but he's right up there. And there are a lot of people who'll say the same. I can hear Wilko in lots of places. It's some legacy.

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Queen - Don't Stop Me Now - Music Stems Available

I've just been reading about a competition to remix the song "Don't Stop Me Now", by Queen. I'm not particularly interested in the competition, although the prizes might interest any budding musos out there.

The competition has original 9 stub tracks from the final mix of the song available for download (for a limited time). These WAV file tracks can be imported into many types of recording software, such as Pro-Tools, or Cubase and then played together to reproduce the final mix of the song.

The competition is available on the link below (until December 13), and you can download the 9 WAVs, or hear them individually if you click on the "Participate" tab in this site:

http://www.talenthouse.com/queen-remix-dont-stop-me-now

For me, it is really interesting hearing this classic song broken down into it's individual elements. Although it feels wrong somehow, It's quite tempting now to start bastardising it - perhaps a bit of wobble-bass wouldn't hurt, would it? Good luck if you decide to have a go.

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It really is not hard to get the sound levels correct...

Why don't Giantbomb use some audio quality standards in their recordings? 
 
Practically every video, especially the live ones have distortion on the vocals. These horrible sounding vocal spikes could be easily solved if the people at GB paid as much attention to the audio quality of their output - especially in knowing that digitial signals can not go over 0db AT ALL!  
 
A really simple solution would be to get a vocal preamp with a compressor, or a separate compressor for voice.
 
I wonder what monitoring and audio engineering goes on here - I suspect there is poor real-time monitoring, or some sort of problem here. It is enough to make me stop paying subs. 

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the - "difficult" - first blog post

Well, I've had a good look around the site and can say I'm amazed at the potential here. I have been looking forward to this site launching for a long time. Very well done to all concerned.

I used to post in Gamespot quite frequenly, up until Jeff mysteriously left. He had always been a strong influence in Gamespot and contributed hugely to the site. I particularly enjoyed "On the Spot" with Jeff, Ryan and Rich Gallup. I also liked Alex Navaro, although his brief appearance on a recent bombcast touting rockband shows him as coming across quite awkwardly. I liked reading all of their reviews and opinions on games.

Post Jeff, gamespot went into serious decline. I stopped posting there about games and used the forums instead to spead my own atheist agenda. I went to other, previously unexplored, gaming sites to get my gaming fix and deliberatley avoided Gamespot. I thought the CNET decision to get rid of Jeff was totally stupid and I think Gamespot will feel the ill-effects of their decision even more now this site is up.

I used to read Jeff's blogs while he was "resting". For a while, I read about his quests to get a seriously high GamerScore, then the first fragments of Giant Bomb together. It has been fascinating to watch up to now and I will be interested to see how the new team cope with the huge success this site will inevitably get.

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