How a car looks, and what it feels like to drive, are crucial parts of what defines the essence of any vehicle. No argument. What a car sounds like, however, is an equally important characteristic of its personality.
To people who classify their car as a four-wheeled appliance designed purely for ferrying their children to football practice and migrating groceries from the supermarket to their pantry, cars only come in two volumes: “Eh, what sound?’ and ‘Well, that’s just too loud.’ To car enthusiasts, however, it’s the growl of a car that truly stokes their passion. It’s not just a noise, it’s a voice. And it’s one that can reverberate deep within the loins of any revhead, whether you prefer the guttural warble of a rotary Mazda or the refined snarl of a V8 Vantage.
When it comes to racing games the visual arms race has somewhat obscured the massive upgrade in audio that has occurred over the past several years. The sound in the Forza series has been steadily improving since Forza Motorsport 3 and Forza Motorsport 4, and elsewhere fellow British-based devs Slightly Mad Studios and Evolution Studios are currently doubling-down with some exceedingly impressive audio of their own for the likes of Project CARS and Driveclub respectively.
Simply put, there’s no excuse anymore for a racing game not to sound as good as it looks. Playground Games knows this.
“We need to record a car from all sorts of different perspectives,” says Forza Horizon 2 audio designer Douglas Watson. We’re tucked away inside one of Playground’s two new sound studios, built just a few months ago. Watson is thrashing about in Horizon 2’s new Lamborghini Huracán and playing us back various snippets and samples of its hot-blooded V10. It’s loud in here. Too loud to speak over. It’s the perfect volume for a racing game.
We need to record a car from all sorts of different perspectives.
For anyone without kids or neighbours.
Predictably the process starts with putting microphones on the car they’re seeking to capture sound from. Many microphones. Allover the car.
“From a perspective point of view we usually position four to five mics around the exhaust system, depending whether there’s two exhausts, one exhaust, or where it is,” says Watson. “It also depends where we can actually get mics on the car.”
“And then same again usually in the engine bay. With a V10 we usually try to mic up both sides. We usually try to get a mic inside the airbox if we can. With engines like [the Lamborghini Huracán’s] there’s a crazy amount of roar that comes through the intake and that’s where a lot of that woody sound comes from that we expect from these kinds of engines.
“Not so much in this car, but in other cars, we’ll hunt out superchargers and turbos and go track them down and get mics in and around there.
“We actually build custom microphones to go inside cars. We wrap fur around them and just get them as small as possible ’cause there’s not a lot of room in these modern engines to sneak mics around and we’re just looking for anything we can cable tie a mic to or get in there.”
The results are many layers of sounds the team can work with to build a working reproduction. They also sync this onboard audio with trackside mics that capture additional sound cues, like squeaky brakes and such. Watson plays us various loops captured from the Huracán separately; the Lambo’s exhaust note and engine sound are two distinctively different rackets.
Unsurprisingly, of course, these sound recordings can’t just be dropped into the game as is.
“As good as it would be just to push play on that in the game, unfortunately it’s not quite that easy,” grins Watson. “We’ve got the raw source but it’s then what we do with it later that really counts.”
[W]e can go and harmonically track every single engine rotation that’s in there, then chop it up into tiny pieces and then pitch those individual pieces.
“So with a recording like that one we can go and harmonically track every single engine rotation that’s in there, then chop it up into tiny pieces and then pitch those individual pieces to actually create rev band loops of different revs, and then that’s the starting point to build the audio simulation.
“So we do that with every individual mic; so intake, some of the ones in the engine separately, exhaust. Anything that’s got a unique character to it, that’s what we’re interested in; we really want to bring that out. So when you’re playing the Huracán in game you’re always hearing multiple sounds; you’re never just hearing one sound. You’re hearing multiple layers of engine and exhaust and then, depending on what view you’re in, you’re hearing different blends of those aspects.
“We go to great detail to model the sounds of any inconsistencies that are in there as well, which is really important, especially in the decel[eration] as well, with exhaust pops and stuff.”
The increased scope more potent hardware gives sound designers allows them to not only increase the amount of sounds they can play back, but also increase the overall quality of those sounds.
[W]e’ve got loads more memory to play with now, so we can put in really high quality assets and longer loops, and then play back more of them.
“The thing about the Xbox One is that it really gives us the flexibility to add on all the extra bits we maybe had our hands tied with before,” says Watson. “So we’d maybe be limited with how many cars we could play back in a race, or we’d maybe be limited with… the emitters, exhaust and engine.”
“Exhaust, engine, intake, turbos, we can model them all completely separately and keep them independent. The fidelity of the assets as well; we’ve got loads more memory to play with now, so we can put in really high quality assets and longer loops, and then play back more of them.
“With weather now we really have the audio fidelity to really capture that stuff whereas before we needed to compress it. We needed to turn down the quality a little bit, and then rain really starts to sound a bit fake. There’s lots of high-end in there that we really want to keep.”
Engine notes, then, are only part of the equation. For Horizon 2 Playground captured a vast amount of new weather and surface sounds as well.
“We got to go to the UK’s leading test track facility, which is just up the road in the West Midlands, and actually take a race car there and do a whole suite of surface record sessions,” says Watson. “Grass, gravel, dirt, different types of dirt, cobbles, cattle grids; you name it, they had it. The reason we picked that test track over any others is they’ve got a small test track which they can completely wet the whole surface of.”
Now we can throw loads more in... [I]t’s quite nice to have the odd skid that sounds a wee bit different from the next one.
“Before we’d be really limited to pick what assets we want and we’d need to pick the best one, and then we’d lose the inconsistencies that we’d want to keep in. Now we can throw loads more in. We can have loads more variety. We can leave the ones that aren’t perfect in, because it’s quite nice to have the odd skid that sounds a wee bit different from the next one.”
“We completely redid all the off-road surfaces for Horizon 2. We did a lot of it on [the Rally expansion] actually, with Horizon 1. We learned loads about how far we could go and what assets we could use, but again it was a hands-tied kind of approach with 360.
“Whereas with Xbox One we went to the test track facility [and] got all these assets; it was a sweet shop of what assets we wanted to use to play back. We also get to add additional systems, like systems that model kick up completely independently of the actual skid sounds. Maybe before we’d have played some of those pings in with the skid, but now that’s completely separate from the skids themselves.”
Watson goes on to explain that they “simulate wet surface completely differently than dry surface” because driving in the wet is “less about squeal more about scrub.”
“[It’s] not just play a layer of fizzy water over the top like a lot of previous games maybe had when they had wet surface in,” says Watson.
Watson flings the bright yellow Lambo about in the rain for a few moments here before stopping to listen to the ambient sounds associated with the downpour. The patter of rain on the roof while in the cabin is markedly different to being outside, as it ought to be. On bonnet cam you can hear the heavier drops impacting against the bonnet with a soft tink. The wipers are subtle and muted from the inside, but spin the camera around to the front of the car in external view and you can hear the mild whir of the wiper motors and the swipe of the blades across the glass.
Watson is aware most gamers won’t hear the game like he does, surrounded by speakers on every wall. He knows most players will hear Horizon 2 via their TV speakers. Like recent games in the Forza series, however, Horizon 2 will again feature bespoke mixes to suit gamers with various audio needs.
“We need set-ups like this to make sure it’s absolutely right and translates onto everybody’s TV,” says Watson. “That’s the important thing. It’s great if somebody at home does have a great set-up, but we spend a lot of time mixing on TV, a lot of time mixing on headphones as well, just to make sure it translates well.”
[I]t’s sound’s job to support the visuals... So if we’re doing our job right, then hopefully nobody noticed in some ways.
“Playground has really heavily invested in audio; these studios are brand new. We’re going to be mixing the game here, so maybe we don’t need to go off site like we maybe would’ve done in the past. And that’s great ’cause the devs are right upstairs if we need a quick tweak to a physics value here, or something there, we can jump upstairs and do that.”
On whether or not more gamers will begin to notice the improved aural offering of Forza Horizon 2, however, Watson is philosophical.
“I hope so,” he says. “But at the same time it’s sound’s job to support the visuals as well. So if we’re doing our job right, then hopefully nobody noticed in some ways. And that’s the kind of downside of sound; it’s there to support the visuals.”
“But if it looks stunning then it should sound stunning as well.”