2012 – Track Time Audio – An Interview with Mark Knight
It’s my honor to bring you the thoughts of Chiptunes extrordinaire and maddest of the mad fiddlers, Mark Knight. He’s been the champion of audio direction in racing games at Codemasters of late. But I’ll let him tell you more about that.
MK: Well I started off in the Amiga demo scene in around 1989 and got into the games industry in 1992 when I re-created the PC Wing Commander music for the Commodore Amiga/CD32 version of the game. I remained a composer/sound designer until 2000, having written the music for games such as Duke Nukem Total Meltdown, Dungeon Keeper 2, and Populous The Beginning, when there was a move at EA from using bespoke internally composed music to either licensing music, or outsourcing it. From then, I took over the Lead Sound Designer position on EA’s F1 franchise.
A number of studio closures later I joined Codemasters in 2008 to lead the audio design on their Racing Titles, and am currently responsible for the audio on the DiRT, GRID and F1 franchises.
TTA: I want to start off with your F1 track. You’ve been with the F1 series since 2000 when EA owned the series rights. What was it that brought you to the F1 series? Were you a fan of F1 prior to working in the series?
MK: I’ve been a massive F1 fan, and general petrol head, from as far back as I can remember so it was an exciting prospect to work on a motorsport related game. IF truth be told however, it was a simple choice of either F1 or Harry Potter, and F1 was much more my bag so to speak. I never really achieved what I wanted on those original F1 games though. I guess I was still growing and developing as a sound designer, having primarily been a composer who “did a bit of sound design”, so coming back to the franchise 6 years later (I worked on the 2001, 2002 and 2003 games) with all of that additional experience means I’m getting much closer to what I think a title like this should sound like. It’s a much bigger game now too, and we have a team of designers working on the project, each with their own particular skill set beneficial to the product. Of course, the capabilities of the technology is much greater now too.
TTA: F1 provides I imagine one of the toughest challenges in terms of access to the cars. How do you get around the limited access? Do you get dyno access, or is everything recorded trackside?
MK: Indeed, this is extremely tough. Codemasters have built up the relationship with the various teams over time, to get access to cars. We have gone through the process of releasing a high quality product over a number of years and we have gained more respect from the teams and they are open to dialogue with us concerning the audio. There’s also a trust element involved, which is highly important. This is a competitive sport, and it’s rare for access to be given to multiple teams on multiple days at a test session, so we’ve been quite lucky with this aspect that we’re trusted to get on with our job and not get in the way of theirs, and keep ourselves to ourselves as much as possible. I do what I need to do, as quickly and as professionally as I can, causing the least amount of disruption that I can, but get the best results at the same time. I’m a big F1 fan, and sometimes it kills me not to be able to offer my hand to shake with one of my preferred drivers – but you simply cannot, and must not do that.
We started off with the 2009 game, with very limited resources frankly, which has built over time include test sessions in Jerez and ultimately Barcelona, where we spent those 4 days with 4 different teams. Their willingness to help us has been nothing short of incredible. Next, we’d like to build recording systems into the unbuilt chassis of a car – perhaps we can do that with some 2012 cars for the 2013 season. We then have the ‘slight’ issue of a complete engine and aspiration change for the 2014 season with the move to V6 turbocharged engines. Our existing library is then completely redundant, and we start all over again, but hopefully this time working with more teams early on.
We’re still under very tight constraints with what we do. We record only on track – I’ve never heard of an F1 car being put on a dyno (as has been question on our community forum), although the engine manufacturers have something similar to test their engines. There are weight considerations of any equipment we want to install. All equipment needs to be delicately secured within areas of the car with nothing, not even a cable, external to the bodywork. Safety is understandably the prime concern.
We did actually try a test cell engine recording, but unfortunately because we record sweeps and not revbands, the acoustics of the cell couldn’t be tamed enough to remove the reverberation issues from the final recording. These engines are simply so loud, a few acoustic deflectors are going to make frig all difference and there isn’t a lot of space for anything more.
Our engine sounds in F1 have been met with very split opinions by our customers. What we’ve not achieved until now is the traditional pass-by ‘scream’ that you associate with F1. Because we can only (very) close mic from inside the bodywork, we will always get a sound akin to what you hear with the tv broadcast. The impact the exhaust system makes on the sound is simply not captured, nor was the blown diffuser in 2011 (which we did manage to re-create, but too late in the development cycle). On a title like this, with a yearly release, you are looking for iterative progression with each game, and whilst we had an idea for how we could do the ‘chase camera’ sound, it did sort of work, but the “purists” still didn’t like it. I’d get comments like “sounds like barking dogs”, “why don’t you use Pro-Tools” and much worse which can be a little disheartening, but anyone who knows me and has worked with me knows that I’m always pushing to improve what we’re doing, aiming to make our games the best, with the most accurate audio experience there is, and ever will be. People will just have to accept that there are limitations with which we have to work under.
TTA: And on that note, what does your typical F1 recording setup look like? Do you have to take special precautions from the high SPL?
MK: Well, our priority for a sound recorder is 1)Size 2)Reliability and 3)Audio Quality. This may sound shocking, but if it’s not going to fit into whatever tiny space we can find inside the bodywork, we’re not going to get a recording. If it breaks down, due to the extreme vibration and/or heat, we’re not going to get a recording. After trying a few units out, we settled on the Zoom H4 and then the H4n. The only big issue with the unit is the lack of locking XLR sockets, so we simply created a harness out of cable ties to lock the L/R cables in place.
As with all vehicle recordings, we have to use in-line attenuators to reduce the output from the microphones, which in the case of F1 are solely DPA 4062’s and even with their high SPL rating, we tend to go through those quite regularly. The Zooms have been absolutely faultless though, which is amazing considering their extremely low price point.
Most recently I ran a recording session with Sound Devices 788SSD built in to the nosecone of a 2011 car, utilising all 8 channels of the unit, but sadly this placement isn’t an option anymore with the design changes that happened for the 2012 season.
TTA: What’s your favorite sounding F1 car? (The more historic, the better!)
MK: Oh now there’s a question. Not really historic I’m afraid, not yet… I miss the total high pitched scream of the V10’s, BMW would have to be my favourite there I think partly as they were the ones pushing the RPM limits, but I also love the tonality of the V12’s with the brutality of the gear changes on up/shift – I guess Ferrari. I’ve also got to mention the sheer madness of HRT’s over-run in 2011. Awesome.
TTA: F1 2011 saw some significant aural improvement over 2010 both in terms of engine tone and also in tires. Can you talk a bit about what changed between the two titles, and what we can look forward to in 2012?
MK: For sure, we have that recent vehicle recording where we were able to experienment with some different microphone placements, including gearbox and induction and the session worked very well for us. The engines are now also subtly in stereo, so listening with headphones won’t completely do your head in 😉 We’ve made a big push on giving the player more feedback as to how close to the edge they were with the grip of the tyre – same with the braking mechanic. We have a lot more control this year within the audio system to take more of the physics data and use that to modulate various areas of the sound. With this sort of game, sound is paramount to feedback to the player what is going on with the car, how much harder they can push etc.
A lot of people will be happy to know that we’ve made a good step towards recreating the sound of the vehicles from a 3rd person chase, AI, and replay perspective. This has been missing up until now, due to a mix a of lack of time vs our priorities, and memory, but now we have our first proper pass at this and managed to move our memory map around to free up some space to fit it in. The technology behind it has great potential to improve as we move forwards with the title.
TTA: How are you dealing with sound across the huge RPM range and the speed of RPM change on the F1 cars? For reference, most road and race cars have a max RPM of about 7,000, but F1 cars are all the way up to 18,000. On top of that, F1 cars can rev from 0-redline as fast or faster than most road cars. This must be a huge technical challenge to avoid the “stairstep” sound moving up through samples.
MK: Yes, we’re dealing with around 4,900 all the way up to the 18,000 limit. We had a stepping issue in the first F1 release, but it was important to us to reduce this as much as possible. We had the same sort of issue with the gear change timing (from an audio point of view) which we’ve worked hard with the Ego and handling teams to optimize areas of this for the sound playback. Internally, for audio we’re running at 60fps which really does help with these issues, and then it’s simply a case of more techy tweaking and tuning.
TTA: Let’s talk about some Dirt action now, which is completely different from F1. How do you keep the titles fresh but still consistent?
MK: For the racing experience, it’s simply the case that we haven’t done everything that we want to do yet. For sure, a lot of the improvements will be more subtle than before, but as we grow the capabilities of our toolset this really opens up how we can modulate and take control of the audio, we’re looking at how the physics system can allow us to be more accurate from an audio point of view. I’m really excited by what we are planning for future cockpit views as an example, as this is where the sound can really come alive.
We really upped our game in terms of engine audio quality moving from GRID to DiRT2, with a completely new engine playback system complimented by totally new vehicle recordings, and then from DiRT2 to DiRT3 we were able to get a lot more uniquely recorded vehicles in to the game. What needs work now, is not so much the engine audio playback, but the systems which control how the engine audio is being played and modulated. We’d also like to invest more development time in capturing the uniqueness and intricacies of how each vehicle may, as one example, change gear, or how the clutch may slip etc. etc.
TTA: My favorite aspect of Dirt 3’s sound is the detail in the surface model. It’s awesome to hear the little rock tings against the fenders or the slipping of the grass. You captured the gritty feel of rally exceptionally well! How much work did you put into recording the samples for the surface model?
MK: One of my big things with DiRT is to really put across how the car is struggling and fighting against the surface/environment. Whilst we are still using some older legacy surface recordings, one of the audio designers spent a couple of days at a rally school in Wales with a fully mic’d up car, doing all sorts of maneuvers on a large varieties of surface types. We got so much material from that session that quite a lot is still prepped for first time use. We also had a drift recording session for GRID back in 2008 which forms the basis of our tarmac skid/surface system, and we are planning another session using different type of tarmac tyre. There’s even more of this work planned, but probably not before any ‘next-gen’ title we start work on.
TTA: You’ve mentioned to me before that you prefer to not dyno record, but rather on-track record the cars for the Dirt series. Could you explain the difference first in terms of the resulting sound and also in the difference in implementation? I imagine your technique requires quite a bit more precise editing.
MK: It was Charles Deenen at EA, a guy I really respect who worked on the NFS series (and of course you know), who told me he insisted on recording purely on-track. Up until then I had had very hit and miss results with this simply due to wind buffeting issues, and preferred to use a dyno where possible. There are certainly merits to doing this. You are in a much more controlled environment, mic placement is easier, there’s not surface audio to worry about, if you use a dynapak there’s no roller noise either, but looking back now it’s simply too clinical – plus with a dynapak you can’t get accurate realistic decels, so you have to record those on track anyway.
Track recording is more organic. The vehicles are working in the conditions they were ultimately designed for. Sure, it’s a much more difficult process, and knowing it was possible, we put in the time to master the techniques and we’re at a point now where we have virtually eliminated wind buffeting completely. For sure, the car is less controlled, and almost every occasion you’ve to go explain to the driver what needs to be done, which can be time consuming as it goes against every natural feeling when it comes to driving, but for me it sounds right. There often ends up a need for more time to edit your sweep than if you recorded it on a dyno, but it’s definitely worth it. We have two guys here who work with those recordings, they do this all day long. I’m not sure why they haven’t gone mad yet, well one’s almost there I’d say! He did actually try and explode his head a couple of years ago.
F1 is the most time consuming from an edit point of view. We don’t tend to get the opportunity to ask the driver/team to do anything specifically for us, so our sweeps are made from lots of edits of lap by lap recordings.
TTA: As I understand it, Codemasters sends a crew of designers out to the new track locations to gather visual data on the environment so that it can be mimicked in-game. Do you ever go on location to grab the audio ambiance, or is there someone that goes along that is acoustically-minded? If not, what sort of reference material do you use for location sound?
MK: Oh yes, we do quite a bit of location recording but not so much for ambiances as I have to prioritize the importance when spending my budget, and frankly, these are full on racing games not 1st person shooters. We are lucky that a number of our designers have an understanding of audio, and often take an H4n with rycotes’ on their travels to capture ambiance for us. We tend to spend our time and money on the cars and audio relating to the cars and the way the environment reacts to them.
TTA: With Dirt: Showdown on the horizon, it seems to me that CM is focusing more on the online gameplay than the single player mode. Does this shift to online play change your design parameters or challenges?
MK: It can depend on the style of game. Showdown is meant to be a pick up and play, full on arcade game, definitely to be played with your mates, and the audio reflects that party atmosphere. Honestly, it’s all down to the game design, not whether you can play the game online or not. Multiplayer is actually easier to deal with than split-screen, for example. Arcade, in a lot of ways, is easier to deal with than sim.
TTA: How many new collision sounds did you have to record for Showdown?
MK: Not as much as you would think as we already have a fine library, and I have some big plans for the future so I’m saving my pennies for a new full on collision recording session sometime in the quite near future. We did do a couple of sessions, not specifically for Showdown as we do tend to share assets across projects, with the highlight being a carbon fibre session late last year where we ended up wearing full body armour, smashing things up, dragging race damaged CF parts around car parks etc. It was a lot of fun, not only for us but the company who supplied the parts as we got them involved too – they’re used to making the parts, not breaking them! 🙂
TTA: What’s the best-sounding rally car of all time?
MK: Well, I’m a Subaru nut through and through and have always loved the sound of the 2 litre Boxer, so much so that I drive a 2005 STi myself, HOWEVER…. for me nothing comes close to the 5 cylinder Audi Quattro S1 E2. I had the pleasure of recording Walter Rohrl’s rebuilt car for DiRT3 and it was simply immense! Very unique sound. A turbo which simply smashes you in the face as it spools up.
TTA: GRID had a great focus on drifting, with tons of tire squeal and UI all over the place that sounded like excited chaos at times. Can we expect more of the same flavor from a GRID 2?
MK: Watch this space I think is about the only answer which will be allowed by our Communications Director.
TTA: What does “reticulating splines” mean? (Sim City 2000 was the first game I played more-than-casually!)
MK: It pretty much means the same a ‘calculating a not-a-number’, absolutely nothing, just a bit of fun from the Maxis peeps 😀
TTA: How has your musical background influenced your design work? Do you find a lot of crossover between your music and your design work?
MK: My musical background has certainly given me a really good ear for things. Especially problems! I’d make a great QA sound tester, but they couldn’t afford me 😉 We do try to at least include rhythm in our games, we did that with DiRT2 and the airhorn chants, melodic replies etc. and I do plan to bring more of this back again. You could argue that many race vehicles are indeed quite musical sounding, the Audi being a great example, but I don’t really think about it in that way. I’m really trying to create something which starts off as accurate, and then turn it up to 11 to make a really engaging, involving experience for the player. We’ll be making more use of beat mapping technology for music in the future too. We take a lot of pride from the way we utilise music in the game, in that we make it flow and change as un-noticeable as possible. We’ve not had access to beat mapping until now, and still done a good job of this seamless flow, so it’s exciting how we may be able to blend music and sound design closer together in the future. I can be pretty certain and say my violin hasn’t helped in any shape or form… yet 😉
TTA: What’s your favorite-sounding car of all time?
MK: I can only choose one? From the Mazda Furai, the Aston Martin Zagato, the Ferrari FXX, 360 Challenge Stradale (or basically just about any Ferrari ever build really), and I can’t not mention the 2L Subaru Impreza WRX engine can I. The best sound for those more financially challenged 😉 There’s too many I’m afraid!
TTA: Has there ever been any scary events during a recording session before? What happened?
MK: We’ve had a couple of pretty hairy spinouts whilst on track. We don’t have the luxury of something called the “Sun” here in the UK, so we do end up doing quite a bit of recording on damp or wet tracks. One time, with a rather well known one off prototype car, which left the tarmac, broke the suspension which proceeded through the carbon bodywork. Not a cheap repair for sure. For me, probably more fun than scary too… I see the owner once in a while, and make sure I remind him of it
There are a few more, but in an attempt to remain sounding professional, I’ll keep those to myself.
TTA: How about funny events?
MK: Oh we’re far too professional for that 😉
TTA: And lastly, where can I direct readers who’d like to get in touch with you in the future?
MK: It’s probably best to join the Codemasters Community forum and ask a question there, and get one of the moderators to direct it to me. Depending on the nature of the question, I’d be happy to answer but if I give you my email addy to publish I may well be blitzed by crazy people accusing F1 of sounding like clapping seals or something.
As a bit of personal advertising, anyone there interested in 8bit chip music, should definitely keep an eye on my site as I’ll be releasing an album soon!
Photographs used with kind permission of Syd Wall or rallygallery.com.
It’s been an absolute blast picking Mark’s brain and I can’t wait to enjoy hearing his and Codemasters’work in F1 2012! Here’s a tasty preview from E3, brought to you by insidesimracing.tv!
2011 – Develop Magazine – August – Heard About: DiRT 3
Creating best-of-breed racing game audio requires serious commitment, and Codemasters’ dedicated team, headed by Stephen Root, have continually raised the bar.
With Dirt 3 offering a mature, stable technology base and crack audio development tools prototyped and proven on their last F1 title – the opportunity to improve Dirt’s sound even further was there for the taking.
However, the quest for authenticity for Root and Mark Knight, racing audio group lead, would entail many hours’ car recording around the globe.
“Dirt 3 is the culmination of a three-year plan to completely revamp the audio in our racing titles,” explains Mark Knight.
“We got a granular system into Dirt 2 but it was a prototype, not intended for inclusion in the final game.
We had a bit of a mad rush thinking, ‘we’ve got the system, now we need the actual audio recordings’.
“Our new reflections system was proven on the last F1 title and so we’d arrived at a point where we had a solid foundation and we’d gotten familiar enough with our tech to start using it really very effectively.
But of course we needed the right audio recordings for Dirt 3’s specific vehicles. It was a case of ‘going to town’ and searching out the right cars – the old Group B rally vehicles are famous for the way they sounded; for example the Audi Quattro.”
BACK IN THE DAY
“The original was written off in its first race but it was the development platform for the S-tronic double clutch system so Audi re-built the car and would take it around the shows to say, ‘this is what we were able to do back in those glory days’,” adds Knight.
“Getting hold of such unique-sounding vehicles to explore the potential of what they can do – for a whole day’s recording at a remote airstrip – has taken us to a new level of authenticity.”
What must be the zenith of this petrol-headed quest came when Knight found himself being driven around a Scottish circuit by Jimmy McCrae, father of sadly-departed rally driving legend, Colin.
“It was an amazing privilege – and really exciting,” admits Knight.
“We recorded the champ’s Sierra RS Cosworth and his Escort Mexico MkII. But the big coup was something called the R4, based on a Ford Ka – a rally vehicle Colin McCrae was actually designing himself having become somewhat disenchanted with manufacturers’ offerings.
Apparently, he said ‘I’ll just go and produce my own car’. We got to go out in it. It’s a sublime car – an absolutely awesome piece of machinery.”
The team predominantly uses DPA 4011 and 4062 microphones with the recorder of choice being an 8-channel Sound Device’s 788T. When it comes to capturing the sound of ‘kick-up’ – for instance, gravel shooting up into and out of the wheel arches – the team’s attention to detail is just as enthusiastic, so no surprise that Codemasters’ audio gear gets seriously splattered.
“Our mics get absolutely covered in mud when we’re recording surface audio and different skidding variations,” says Knight.
“We spent a day at Phil Price’s rally school in Wales recording on as many surfaces as possible because this was another sonic area where we felt the tech was very much in place, but not necessarily the right audio assets to back it up. So we did multi-perspective recordings using a Subaru – not the quietest car unfortunately, but it had to be able to handle the abuse we would give it on gravels, tarmac, dirt, mud and anything else we could find.”
Accordingly, they’ve become somewhat adept at creating their own little Rycote-style fluffies and all manner of other hairy protection for their baby mics.
“We generally have time to make all the recordings we want and can have the car driven to the specification we need, to help make our subsequent implementation job as easy as possible,” concludes Knight.
“For instance, we do a lot of recorded sweeps – idle to red line and back again in ‘x’ number of seconds. Sometimes the biggest problem is teaching the driver exactly what we want them to do.
“I often take them out in my own Subaru and show them – a technique that also helps when there’s a language barrier. Not being very good with languages, we make sure we spend time with Google Translate to create a crib sheet of commands we can give the driver. Obviously, what they should do is just give me the car to drive myself. But for some reason beyond me, I haven’t managed to convince them of that yet.”