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Capturing Engine Sounds for Games

Just as a videogame should have mesmerizing graphics, so should it have realistic sounds to draw the gamer into the game environment. Whereas, graphics can be created from the eye, mind, and hand of an artist, sounds must be captured.

The approach to sound in a video game should be no different then the approach to graphics or any other simulated sensory element. Just as a video game should have mesmerizing graphics, so should it have realistic sounds to draw the gamer into the game environment. Whereas, graphics can be created from the eye, mind, and hand of an artist, sounds must be captured. In order to mimic reality, I apply considerable commitment to three important steps: capturing the source; processing, editing, and sculpting the sound into the essential sonic elements; reassembling the elements so they can be run within a game in real-time.

Overall success is gauged by how well these three things are accomplished. The following section will focus on the first of these steps, utilizing a typical recording session of a racecar in preparation for modeling an engine set for a cross-faded sound system.

Preparation

In order to get the specific vehicle I want to record, I always have to establish some contacts. I start with car associations and auto clubs, and from there I eventually (after running into many dead-ends) find the vehicle I want. This stage of the game can be a wearing exercise in itself, especially knowing that you've committed yourself to a contract and that 'giving up' is not an option. The upside is that I've had the pleasure of meeting some fascinating people and occasionally I get a ride in their cars.

Before I head out on the open road with a couple of DAT machines and a case full of microphones in hand, I usually have the recording session worked out on paper first. This usually eliminates the forgetfulness caused by typical early morning starts at the racetracks.


Greg Hill

It is an advantage to know how the game's sound system works and the platform to which the sound will be implemented. For example, most console boxes have memory constraints so that the samples have to be short and this can be quite tricky for cross-faded engine sets. If the game has a larger memory budget that can accommodate separate in-car and exterior engine sets, and allows for stereo samples, then I go with stereo in-car samples so that the ambient qualities of the cockpit and chassis are captured.


Setting up

On location, there are many setup variables to consider: Is it around the local streets, on a racetrack or on a dynamometer? Is the car a Tin Top or an Open Wheeler? How much space and/or weight are allowed for the gear? Will I have to fit in with the race team's busy schedule and quickly load the recording gear and hope for the best or can I acquire some quality time and control the whole session? Is it going to rain?

These are just a few of the questions that can pose big changes to microphone selection and recording setups. In any case, the microphones are going to cop a walloping from huge sound pressure levels and wind buffeting, so tough mics and windjammers are essential. Large diaphragm studio quality condenser microphones have no place here unless you are wealthy enough not to care. If it is a cramped situation or the team is concerned with weight, then a small DAT machine like a Sony D8 and some miniature DPA microphones come in very handy. This raises another issue though…how do I run two balanced XLR mics to one stereo mini phono jack input? That is why I have a whole swag of leads and connectors that get thrown into the kit. I also have lots of gaffer tape, cable ties, drum kit clamps (the ones used on the steel tube cages) and condoms…yep, that's right…condoms are excellent for covering mics that might get wet or muddied.

I always record at 48kHz 16bit and only use DAT as a recording medium; nothing else that I know of can handle the mechanical vibration as well. Minidisc is the worst; I learned this the hard way!

When rigging up the car I usually place mics near the exhaust, induction and in the cockpit. These positions should provide me with enough to play with once it all gets uploaded into the audio editor. At this stage, it is worth mentioning that most fully worked racing machines get hot and I mean really, really hot and I've burnt a few windjammers and even melted some gear. So it's important to avoid very close microphone positioning to exhaust outlets and manifolds.


When rigging up the car I usually place mics near the exhaust, induction and in the cockpit.

If it's a dynamometer session you have no choice but to risk close microphone placement otherwise be prepared to mess up the recording with room sound and the whine of the dyno itself. I tend to use DynaPack dynamometers as they are hydraulic with no rollers and are very quiet, but the trade-off is they can't decelerate.

 


Dyno Session

 

The recording session

In order to capture the majority of the sonic characteristics of engines at various RPMs, a thorough understanding of the way different engine loads produce different sounds is required. This can be narrowed down to on-load, off-load and steady loads. Most of the cross-faded engine sounds in games today have on-load and off-load looped samples and the steady loads are usually a subtle blend of the two.

My controlled recording sessions are usually quite disappointing for a driver as it is usually a very clinical procedure. For on-load sounds, I get the driver to do ramp runs from low to high rpm and vice versa for off-load and deceleration sounds. There's nothing very exacting about any of these load runs, I just monitor it as I go and do as many runs as I can without annoying the driver too much.

If I can't be in the car instructing the driver, I usually have a set of easy to follow instructions boldly typed on a page that can be stuck on the console. If possible, I go over the session with the driver beforehand and I take a laptop computer to show them an engine sound tool in action so they can see how cross-fading works. At the moment, the only cross-fade tool that is freely available to developers is the SMartAnimator that comes with the Analog Devices SoundMAX SMartTools SDK…well worth checking out at www.audioforgames.com Take a look at my Porsche 944 Turbo SMartAnimator file; for those without the SmartTools SDK, here's the Twin Cam Turbo Ingame mp3.

I applaud the developers who are taking audio seriously and who are allowing professional sound designers to express and pursue their art form beyond traditional forms of media (i.e. film, radio and TV). It is frustrating to see so much attention being given to eye candy when sound has the potential to provide the gamer just the same amount of sensory cues. The sound of a real fully worked race engine is an incredible adrenaline pumping experience that racing games need to deliver to the gamer. Unfortunately, most racing games I've experienced have had poor sound resulting in an immediate uninstall and product return.

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