This article covers my experience adding Syrinscape to my online D&D gaming and whether it is worth the subscription cost. First up, just to call out that I do not have an affiliation to Syrinscape and received no free account or other benefits to write this article; this is an independent review based on long-term use. Read on to find out my take on Syrinscape after a few years on the platform, "warts 'n all"!
If you have not yet added sounds to your game you may also want to check out my other article on whether it is right for you and your table (regardless of which tool you use) - you can find that here.
If you are looking for an RPG soundboard/soundscape tool then Syrinscape is a no-brainer if:
- Your table is willing to pay (playing most weeks, the full-fat version I use works out around $3 / session which we share between 6 of us at 50 cents each per week), and,
- You mostly play official published D&D or Pathfinder campaigns and so can leverage their premade sound sets.
If you don't want to pay a penny then look elsewhere, the free version is very limited - but be prepared to sink time in place of money. If however, your answer to both of the above is yes, then there is no match for Syrinscape for immersive sound theatre and it will be a game-changer.
If you are homebrew only it is not as clear-cut. Although it is still an amazing and huge library of very professional soundscapes and sound effects, you will want to weigh up the subscription cost vs the effort to create your custom soundboards since this can be quite time-consuming.
OK short version over, the full long-term review is below!
Scope of this review
I run my games mostly on Roll20 and predominantly play D&D 5E, so this article is based on my experience working with Syrinscape in this context. I have also played on Fantasy Grounds and Foundry, but that is for another article! I should also add that there are two versions of Syrinscape: the old desktop version and the new “master interface” online version. This article touches on both app versions but from a long-term perspective is focused on the Online Player (and the new Web player as of August 2022). Finally, from a subscription perspective, we touch on all levels, but the majority of my use has been on the top-tier SuperSyrin subscription.
Life before Syrinscape
Soon after starting to play D&D online on Roll20, I decided that sound effects would be a cool addition to level up the immersion, and something that online play is well suited for. So I began hand-cranking my own sound effects and uploading them to the Roll20 jukebox. This worked to a point, but as I got more ambitious, it took almost as much time as my actual DM prep, and I reluctantly went looking for a better solution.
Roll20 has Battlebards and a couple of other sound providers pre-integrated into their Jukebox feature, and so initially I tried these out. I am not going to lay into any particular platform but suffice to say I ended up searching on the forums for other solutions where it seemed Syrinscape was a very popular option.
Syrinscape First Impressions - a Game of two Halves
First half kicks off
I headed over to Syrinscape.com and set myself up with a free account. I had expected a web app with a simple register and login, but instead found a desktop install at the end of the process so was a little wary (and suspect this may have changed to their online player now). However, after my previous experience with some of their competitors, I was pleased with what I found. It was easy to install and set up, well organised, and intuitive to use.
The free subscription only included a few soundsets but this was enough to play with and I quickly concluded that this app was head and shoulders over the competition. After a little more research I found the list of D&D campaigns Syrinscape has premade content for, and let’s just say I let out a little whimper of joy. After many hours of hand-cranking sounds and then fighting with awful platforms claiming to make soundscaping easy, Syrinscape came along and slapped an entire catalog of complete campaigns ready to go, organised using the official campaign books map areas for ease of use. Yay! You can see their full catalog for D&D here, it is seriously impressive - just a section of their library is shown below:
Second half kicks off
So, I had found the panacea to my D&D soundscaping pains, and it didn’t take me long to set up a paid subscription. Obviously, as a D&D guy, I went straight in on their “DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Subscription” which included all those juicy soundsets I had been drooling over. I launched the Desktop player, and they were available to download and use to my heart's content. Happy days!
… you are right, you can feel a “but” coming …
The problems with the mid-tier subscription: in-person only and no customisation!
I quickly hit the limitations of this mid-tier subscription. The first is that it only gives you the desktop player which is fine for in-person games but as I found out, had no feature to enable me to pipe the lovely sounds to my players over t’interweb.
So I ended up back in the forums and found various “solutions”, each of which required more desktop installs and faff (virtual cables, discord bots, etc) and some fiddly set-up on my PC to pipe the Syrinscape desktop player into my online audio. My experience with these “solutions” was not great; often things sounded great to me but my players reported issues at their end, some games were really badly impacted and the best I ended up with was reduced quality sound being piped through with no stereo, even after a lot of faff on my side.
Since the main reason for using Syrinscape is its divine, high-quality, stereo soundscapes, this loss of quality was a dealbreaker. There may be better techies than me who can get it working more smoothly (lots of talk on the forums) but after quite a few hours of tinkering, I concluded I was beaten and there must be a better way.
I had also hit another limitation in parallel - the desktop player had no customisation options. For example, if I wanted to upload a sound effect of my own creation or from some other source, or if I wanted to reorganise the “off the shelf” soundboards, there was no way to do this in the desktop player.
My initial happy delirium officially over, I quickly found out that to be able to customise the soundsets and also play them online I would need to stump up the cash for the next level up in subscription, the “SuperSyrin” account. This felt quite painful since it is not cheap and it bundles in some stuff that I did not want such as Sci-fi soundsets (although since then I have used these a little).
To me, it looks like there is a subscription level missing for people who want to play online with D&D/fantasy sounds only (or the equivalent for Sci-fi for that matter).
However, I was in for a penny by then and so I went ahead and upgraded. Although that was painful at the time, for what it’s worth, I have not looked back on that decision!
The online version of Syrinscape comes with a whole new user interface for the DM to use to control and customise the sounds. This is rather grandly called the “Master Interface”. My first impressions of this were not great. It is not the most intuitive to use, especially when compared to the simplicity of the desktop player (which admittedly is doing a lot less!).
In this new set-up, the DM uses the Master Interface to control everything (centre below), the players install a little app on their mobile or PC called the Online Player (right below), and there is also a control panel (left below) used by the DM to manage user access to their game (left below). A good bit more complex than the desktop player, but that said I am now fairly fluent in using the Master Interface and can navigate around easily. So if you have this same experience, hang on in there - it gets much easier after a few weeks of using it.
EDIT - new Web Player: In August 2022, Syrinscape released the new Web Player that kiboshes both the control panel and the online player and levels the playing field. Sweet!
I've now had a chance to test this in anger and have been super impressed. Players do not even need an account and there is nothing to download or install - whoop! This is a huge benefit if you have any technophobes at the table or like me are trying to manage a table with every make and model of laptop available.
The new Web Player seems to "just work" - all that is needed is to share a link and that's it! The Control panel is gone, the Online Player is gone... But the best thing... The sound actually seems higher fidelity! I have no idea how or why, but everyone at my table reported the same thing, and not just a bit better but deeper and richer. Anyway, this has taken one of the big shortcomings that I touch on below off the table, no more installs required for anyone using Syrinscape. Sweet!
Syrinscape long-term review: pros and cons
I have been using Syrinscape Online for a few years now (EDIT: and recently the new Web Player) and like any platform, it has its pros and cons which I’ve summarised below:
Let’s start with the cons since there are a few, but in my view, (other than cost!) they are mainly niggles rather than major issues and for the most part relate to the tech:
- It is expensive: now I actually think this product is very good, and at the end of the day you get what you pay for. However, you are forced to the most expensive subscription if you want customisation and/or online play which feels quite harsh. It would be great if they offered another subscription that only included D&D sounds but had the Online player and customisation of the SuperSyrin account. All that said, at around 50 cents per person per session (6 of us playing most weeks) it works for my table, just!
- Not the most intuitive: The Master Interface is super powerful, especially when you start creating sounds, but as a result, it is not very intuitive for first-time users. Search in particular is a fairly blunt tool and needs to be improved. EDIT: since I first drafted this article, Syrinscape released their new Google-like search tool which is excellent and sooooo much better than the old search. Problem solved, thank you Syrinscape :)
- Occasional crashes: The Master Interface seems a little browser hungry and I have had it hang various times. This can be sorted with a browser refresh but is frustrating if it happens at a key point in the game flow. I recently moved to a brand new, high-spec gaming laptop running Chrome and still find it does this now and then. The Online Player app also very occasionally crashes and closes. Easy to restart and has no impact on other players but looking forward to the developers getting these crash-free. EDIT: Since this article was drafted, Syrinscape released their new Web Player to replace the online player which is fab, and no crashes so far, fingers crossed!
- Players have to install the software: EDIT - fixed - this is no longer the case and so have left this here as reference only for anyone who is still using the old "Online Player" and has not yet moved to the new browser-based Web Player (you should if you have not already!).
- Players “uninvited” from the game: EDIT - fixed: The recently released Web Player no longer requires players to be invited via the Control Panel or even have an account so this issue is now solved too, hooray! Left this here for anyone not yet moved over. Prior to moving to the Web Player, every few games my players would be kicked and not able to join my game on Syrinscape, and I had to reinvite them at the start of a session.
- Cannot swap between games: There is no simple way to swap between games and the process to do this is very convoluted. E.g. if you DM one game and play at another table you can’t just select game A or game B, you have to go through quite a few clicks and screens to switch over. This is a much-needed feature. I ended up setting up a separate free account for games where I am player since it was easier to log out / in than switching games as the same user. So again not a big issue as an easy workaround but for the cost of the subscription, this seems an overdue feature.
- No native integration with Roll20: I play on Roll20 and I would absolutely love to be able to automate the sounds so that when someone casts Fireball, the swoosh and boom are automatically piped to my table. There are rumours (and hints on the website: "deep integration coming soon") of native integration with a few of the popular VTTs (including Roll20) coming soon, although this is not formally announced at the time of writing so watch this space. In the meantime, I have worked out a neat way to build a Syrinscape soundboard for your players to use from within Roll20, and it even works with a free Roll20 account. If you are interested in how to do this, I have written a handy step-by-step guide here.
OK, we have got the Cons out of the way - let’s look at the Pros:
- The quality of the sound packs is second to none. Whatever issues I have with the usability pale into insignificance when you just take in the sheer amount of work that has gone into the sound recordings. They are fantastic, highly polished and there is a metric sh!t-ton of them.
- Excellent coverage of Official D&D Campaigns brings DM overheads to a minimum. After the overall quality of their sound packs, the D&D-specific coverage is their second USP for me. It is what ultimately got me to spend my hard-earned cash on the subscription. What this translates to is very little preparation required from a sound perspective when running my gaming sessions. I still do a little prep and I will cover that in an upcoming blog to share some of my tricks to make gameplay with sound even smoother.
- The mixing tech is very clever. Although the UI is a bit of a mare to start with, that is partly because it allows a lot of flexibility; the level of splicing available when you are playing a soundset is amazing. You can tweak any element of the soundset on the fly and the changes are reflected in the sound flow seamlessly and smoothly, e.g. make the wind louder, turn on some footsteps, play some thunder.
- Never seems to repeat. Related to the above, it has some clever randomness built in so that the various elements of a soundscape never seem to repeat a pattern and so you do not end up with that “looping” feeling I have had with lesser solutions.
- Amazing customisation options. Once you find your way around the Master Interface, it is really easy to add your own sound creations, and there is a ton of options that can spice up your sounds. For example, you can play with the stereo sound direction so that a sound moves over time, add sound and reverb filters (e.g. “cave”), and much more. You can also create whole new soundsets and “moods” that are playable with a single click, and also available should you need them on the desktop app.
- They’ve built it to allow other apps to plug in easily. Syrinscape has a straightforward API which means in theory the VTT platforms can integrate their sounds easily. I should call out that no VTT that I am aware of has built this integration “off the shelf” (do let me know if that’s changed) although the developer community has tackled this on a couple of them, e.g. Foundry. Notably missing is Roll20, although as per above there are rumours that this integration may be in the pipeline.
The bottom line
If you are looking for immersive sounds that will add theatre to your online RPG game, Syrinscape will be a game-changer. It is not cheap, but the depth of work that has gone into the sound library is second to none. Syrinscape allows me to narrate the physical and emotional quality of the game using soundscapes as my players move through different environments and situations. Whilst the tech is not perfect (see my nit-picking gripes above), the issues I’ve had have been minor and hugely outweighed by the value that the Syrinscape soundsets deliver. Plus the latest release of the Web Player has removed two of my top gripes.
So if you can stomach the cost (ideally sharing across your table), and you are playing official published D&D or Pathfinder campaigns with premade soundsets, Syrinscape is the best solution out there right now. If cost is an issue, there are folk on the forums with a lower-tier subscription that seem to have been successful in piping the audio to their players with some hackery, however, my experience trying to do this was not straightforward and ultimately lost sound quality, so proceed with that warning and perhaps prove it on a free account before you splash the cash!
I will finish by saying that if you play mostly homebrew, it is not clear-cut. Although it is still an amazing and huge library of very professional soundscapes and sound effects, you will want to weigh up the subscription cost vs the effort to create your custom soundboards since this can be quite time-consuming.
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