Is FMOD the key to moving X-Plane from simulation to reality?

May 27, 2018
Scott Havener
nobody, apparently.

In a university focused on arts, I’ve seen more than my fair share of student films. Some are great, most are average, and some are terrible. However, there has always been a constant that keeps the gate to the land of good films: good sound. I’ve realized that in order to be immersed in any form of media, the sound needs to be high-quality and as organic as possible.

When it comes to X-Plane though, sound has never really been something that I thought about. Of course BlueSkyStar has been making quality sound packs for aircraft for years now, but sound has never really been a top priority to most addon developers, and it probably wasn’t much of a concern for the X-Plane community. After all, we have had much larger fish to fry, and arguably still do, but with the introduction of FMOD in X-Plane 11, the soundscape of X-Plane has the possibility to become several times better.

Just like I said about student films, and even multi-million dollar productions, having good sound is what really immerses me into the world that a given director is trying to create. And now, with the introduction of FMOD, X-Plane has reached a similar point. Sound designers the ability to remove the screen between the person in front of it and the flight deck they are looking at. Even in VR, if the sound doesn’t move according to the positioning of your head, the idea of being in a reality is completely ruined. This is why, in November 2016, I was so thrilled when Laminar uploaded a video detailing the FMOD sounds that would be coming with the Cessna 172. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything special, I had never heard of FMOD, and I assumed that it was just some proprietary sound engine that consisted if little more than a name Laminar developed in order to slightly enhance the hype over the incoming update of X-Plane.

Though many were underwhelmed, and somehow still are, I was absolutely blown away. The possibility of being in a three-dimensional sonic environment was something I had not considered. For those of you who may not know much about FMOD or how it works, here’s a brief rundown. Sounds inserted into FMOD interact with provided parameters, which reference certain datarefs provided by X-Plane. All of these, of course, are determined by the sound designer. For instance, the engine sound in the Cessna 172 changes when the door opens not because there is a separate sound that is supposed to play when this happens, but because FMOD understands that the door is opening and that it needs to adjust the amount of engine noise present in the flight deck accordingly. It knows where you are, and moves with you to give you the as-realistic-as-possible sound. The more parameters that the sound designer defines within FMOD, the more fine-tuned and precise the changes in sound can be in X-Plane.

There are some caveats, however. Though FMOD is considered by many to be the standard of X-Plane sound, it is currently only available for use in aircraft. Though it is Laminar’s intention to integrate FMOD with scenery and plugins, no additional information has been offered about this since the initial FMOD documentation was published in May 2017. This is relatively minor though, compared to the lackluster speed with which certain developers have adopted FMOD in their aircraft. I must say that I have a propensity to pay more attention to tubeliners, so that is what this discussion will be centered on (and, actually, most of the GA developers have been doing much better than those for tubeliners). I couldn’t really believe it when FlightFactor released the A320 without FMOD sounds. It may be fair to say that having the best possible sounds doesn’t need to be at the top of their priority list, but as one of the top, if not the top, developers I believe that they can do much better. The sounds in the A320 are good, but they don’t place me in the fight deck. The case here is perhaps worse for JARDesign. I have no credibility if I level less severe criticisms against them than FlightFactor. Their products, in their current state, are essentially reliant on the BlueSkyStar sound packs to create any sort of an interesting sonic environment. Even still, with supposed massive updates on the horizon for the A330, it appears unlikely that they consider doing any work the sound. Compounding on this, the BSS packs are getting ripe in age, and they have not been updated to FMOD, which should be considered the standard for X-Plane 11.

Meanwhile, others have done far more with far less. Even the famed freeware (donationware) developer AudiobirdXP was able to release an FMOD sound set by late December for the 737-800. As a result of this, to me, It’s more fun to fly than the recently released FF A320, and it sounds incredible. I am immediately drawn into the aircraft the second I load it. So, no matter their original intention with the A320, there’s no excuse for a $90 price point without superior-quality built-in sound. This is a much smaller part of a larger systemic issue within the X-Plane addon landscape. Far too many incomplete products are released. This is a grievance, and a legitimate one, that many of us have had for years. I must digress though, as this issue deserves a separate conversation in an article of its own. Now, the issue with FMOD is not to bash all payware developers. Actually, many GA developers such as Aerobask, vFlyteAir, and vskylabs have been releasing incredible products steadily over the past six months, all of them with FMOD, which represents an incredible leap in quality overall in the suite of payware products available for X-Plane.

What does this mean and why is it important? Let’s think about what makes a scary movie truly terrifying. If you can close your eyes and not be scared, the sound designer of the film has not done their job. Sound design is what inserts us into a world. FMOD is a huge step in taking us there. If hearing the world just as it is in real life is the ultimate goal, in terms of sound, for X-Plane, we are still a ways away. However, we are certainly closer than we were a year, even six months ago. It’s indisputable that this improvement in X-Plane only contributes to the consensus that our chosen sim is finally coming into its own. If good sound can trick me into thinking that a bad student film is good, then it should definitely be able to convince me that a great sim is the best.

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