I cannot tell a lie; the Forza Motorsport series is my favorite sounding game series. Therefore, the FM team holds a special idol-esque place in my heart. Ever since I started TTA I’ve wanted to interview the Forza audio team, but getting a hold of any of them is tough. So imagine my surprise, when checking my email and seeing a LinkedIn response from Mike some 7 months after I sent it, when he said he’d be willing to do an interview!
TTA: First things first, How did you get into the video game industry? How did you get into recording cars?
Well, I got into the video game industry a bit by accident. I graduated college with a music & audio science degree, and then immediately started paying back my student loans by working for virtually NO money while engineering & producing low-budget rock records in the Seattle area. I was also juggling a bunch of audio gigs at that time to make ends meet – live sound, remote recording, post-production, sound effects recording… you name it, I was trying to work it. One day I got a call from an old high school friend who was working as a sound guy at a local game company, asking me if I could help out on a few games he was working on. While freelancing for him, I discovered that I dug working on games (as well as making some decent cash!), and started to chase down as much freelance game work as I could. I ended up doing a ton of freelance work for Sierra Entertainment, and after a few years, they brought me on full-time. After a few years of working for Sierra, the parent company shut that office down, but luckily there was a contract gig open for working on the original Forza Motorsport. I took that gig, and I’ve been working on Forza ever since! I’ve been working full-time for Turn10 from 2005 up to this year – Starting this year, I’ve actually accepted another sound gig as the Audio Production Director for Microsoft Game Studios, which means I’m working on a bunch of different games right now, but I’m still helping out with Forza, as I really love that franchise and that team (Nick Wiswell, Adam Wilson, Chase Combs, etc…).
I got into recording cars as one of my side gigs back in the salad days of multiple audio gigs – I recorded & produced both the Wheels 2 set for Sound Ideas, as well as the Car Chase Elements set for the Hollywood Edge. Those were fun days – blasting around Pacific Raceways in Seattle while holding onto a multitrack rig in the back of a bunch of exotic cars. We’d wire the whole car up with mics, put the engineer in the back with the rig, and then have our stunt driver beat us up with hot laps, skids & 180′s. Good times. I think that’s also where I started to develop motion sickness for the first time
TTA: how do you juggle time between your work with Microsoft and playing in your band? Do you feel one benefits the other?
I’ll always make time in my life for writing, playing & recording music, whether it’s my own musical project or someone else’s. Some guys play golf to keep them sane, I make music & collect gear! And yeah, everything I do as a music engineer helps me at the day job as well. A good example of this is my initial approach of recording a car much like you would a drum kit – lots of separate kit pieces that need to function & sound like one instrument.
TTA: FM3 has a huge body of cars to choose from, and all of them retain the character of the real cars, sonically. Did your studio really record each and every one, or are some of the capturings outsourced? If outsourced, how did you maintain consistency among all the cars?
For Forza, yeah, we really do record all those cars. Or more appropriately, all those engines. Whenever a car gets added to Forza, we immediately start researching what kind of engine is in that car, and we start gathering reference for what that engine sounds like. If we don’t have anything that sounds like that engine in our sound library (which is HUGE now), then we’ll go out and record that engine. There’s not too much re-use of recordings though, as we like to capture as many unique recordings as we can. Sometimes we find source locally, sometimes we have to travel. We do try to record everything ourselves whenever possible, but sometimes if the logistics of a far-flung session are working against us, we’ll partner up with people to help us record cars. We’ve got a set mic setup & input list that we work with, and we’ve trained all of our partners really well in how we like to record cars for Forza, so consistency really isn’t too much of an issue.
TTA: Did you come across any cars that were particularly difficult to record? Particularly easy?
There’s definitely cars that are tough to record. For instance, if you’ve got a super high-horsepower car, you have to have a dyno that can handle it, otherwise you won’t be able to record the car at full throttle. Honestly, one of our trickiest cars was the Bugatti Veyron, as it’s an ultra-boosted, ultra-horsepower car, which means that as soon as you get on the throttle, the wheels don’t want to hook up with the dyno, and also the sound of the car turns into total turbo hiss when you step on it! But there is this super cool, way deep exhaust note that you can get out of it if you’re careful about mic placement and throttle control. The easiest cars are usually naturally aspirated cars with modded exhausts – I love recording tuned muscle cars in particular. Just put up the right mics, make sure nothing’s clipping, hit record, and chances are you’ll be successful. Again, it’s like music recording – if you’ve got a great sounding instrument, chances are you can make a great sounding recording fairly easily.
TTA: How much time and research did you get to do learning about tire & traction sounds?
This is a very important part of the game for us, as it’s a main source of feedback for the player while racing. Real-life drivers can feel G forces to know when things are about to get loose, and we use audio & rumble to help communicate that information in Forza. We’ve done numerous tire recording sessions, on numerous different surface types, to try and cover the full range of grip & traction sounds that you need to really get around a circuit quickly. Our tire audio implementation in Forza is one of the most complicated audio systems in the game, actually.
TTA: How early into the creative process does the audio team go to work with the developers?
We’re in the development process from Day One. Every edition of Forza is a learning experience, and we go into each new version with a list of improvements and new features we’d like to add. But ultimately, we’re there to serve the game, so we like to work with the game designers & other disciplines early on, making prototypes & mock-ups of of how we’d like things to sound once the game starts to become real. We’ve even influenced the visuals though audio prototyping as well – it’s a very collaborative process.
TTA: How did you (or your team) go about making the design choices for the UI menus? How early did your composer get in on the action? How much interaction do you have between the game audio and the composer?
For Forza 3, the main design directive for the menus, both audio & visual, was to seem as much like an “upscale, clean, vaguely European online car brochure” as we could. The Audi website (at the time) in particular was a good stylistic barometer for us. The whole “lightly-techy” vibe seemed to work well for a sonic palette, so we played around a lot with synthetic tones until we found sounds that fit the visual feel. The same directives were given to our composer, Lance Hayes, and he hit a vibe that worked really well for the visual feel as well. We actually pulled a lot of UI elements from his music tracks directly – we’d have Lance bounce out certain bits & tones from all his music tracks, and then we’d manipulate those to fit the UI. This really helped to ensure that our UI sounds would play well with the background music.
TTA: Roughly how much of your time was spent programming in FMod? Did you come up with a “template” on which most cars were based, or was every car custom in coding?
We work off of a basic template – we use FMOD designer for everything in the game EXCEPT for the car audio….for that we use the FMOD API, but we expose controls that we can access in-game through various debug menus. This way, we can make real-time changes to the car audio using the Xbox controller, which is a really fast way for us to work. Each car starts as a very basic in-game template, but then is hand-tuned to sound like its real life counterpart. The in-game implementation is really where the art of Forza’s car audio lies. We’ve got volumes, panning, EQ’s, compressors, distortion…all kinds of FX are running at once, each effect manipulated differently by different car physics parameters. This is where we turn our car audio from a collection of wav files into an instrument, and really make that stuff sound like a car, rather than just a collection of car recordings. There’s a big difference there. Keep in mind that none of this is possible without killer code support – Forza has really talented audio programmers on the team that we work very closely with to make sure the audio and the game physics fit together like a glove.
TTA: What’s your favorite sounding car?
2 answers here – my favorite recording session was recording a Porsche GT3 cup car with the exhaust removed, which is probably the single loudest thing I’ve ever been around in my life. It’s the only car that got the cops called on us, because it was so loud. As far as my favorite cars in FM3 go, I really dig our Ferrari FXX, Our NASCAR and Aussie V8 stuff, and our DLC Lambo Murcielago LP670 sounds pretty killer as well. And I LOVE racing the old-school Porsche 917 racecar around the Nurburgring.
TTA: Are you planning on attending GDC or similar conferences in the next year?
Yeah, I usually go to one conference a year. I’ll probably be at GDC in 2012. I alternate between GDC and other audio-specific events like AES or NAMM.
TTA: What’s the funniest/scariest thing that’s happened to you during a recording session?
Probably getting hit with a huge electrical shock at a session recording Supercharger sounds! We were spinning a supercharger with a big electrical motor, and while the motor was running, I went to adjust one of the mics, and got BLASTED with a bunch of current as soon as I touched the mic. Turns out, a big electrical motor induces ambient current in any metal object within a couple of feet! Who knew? Didn’t tell my wife about that one until WAY later. Either that session, or recording the door latch on a Lamborghini Reventon at Lamborghini, and having the whole door handle come off in my hand….I thought the guy from Lambo was going to pass out.
TTA: And finally, where should I direct readers who want to get in touch with you?
My email is probably the best way: email@example.com. You can also check out some of my various musical projects such as 99 Men and Fall From Grace at the usual places – iTunes, youTube, myspace, etc..