I’ve finally had the honor of chatting with racing audio hero, Nick Wiswell. For those who don’t know, Nick was the aural mastermind (masterears?) behind the Project Gotham Racing series, a sonic hit in the Xbox 360’s early years. Almost a year before the collapse of PGR producer Bizarre Creations in 2011, Nick found himself moving to the US to partner up with Turn 10 Studios as Creative Audio Director of Forza Motorsport 4, taking over from Mike Caviezel and Greg Shaw as they both have moved into broader positions within Microsoft Studios. I’ve been logging quite a few hours in FM4 and I’ve got to say, there’s a lot to love about the sound.
TTA: First off, how are you liking living in the ‘States and working at Turn 10?
NW: I moved out to the Redmond area with my family and started working at Turn 10 in July 2010 and since then, things have been going really well. It was a big decision to make, but I had always enjoyed my time working with Microsoft during the seven years we were making the PGR games together and loved the Puget Sound region from business and personal trips I had made to the area, so I was fairly confident my family would be happy here.
I had also worked with several people at Turn 10 before, as they helped out with various PGR games, or we had shared knowledge on the audio systems used in both games, so that helped a lot too.
TTA: FM3 had quite a few sound controls in the pause menu, but for FM4 that has been reduced to a “Tire” and “Engine” focused choice, with the option for game music. What was the decision process like for this?
NW: In Forza 3 all the volume levels in the game are static, so these are set by the game (or player) and stay fixed throughout the game.
For Forza 4, we took a very different approach and, behind the scenes, many of the game’s sounds are being mixed dynamically based on what is happening in the race, as we really wanted to focus the player’s attention on certain sounds at certain times. Opening up all the mix controls to the player means it would be possible to make this system appear broken, as the sound that would usually fill up the sonic space would not be mixed in at the right level. For that reason, we chose to make three pre-determined mixes for the player to choose from.
TTA: How closely do you work with your programming team?
NW: Very closely, the audio team at Turn 10 has one dedicated audio programmer who we work with on building and integrating the audio systems into the game.
Audio is also one of the few disciplines that touches almost every other area of game development, so we have lots of meetings to ensure that all the other teams (UI, track art, car art, design, physics etc.) are aware of our audio needs, and we are aware of what they are trying to achieve so the audio matches their goals as well as ours.
TTA: The biggest sonic difference in FM4 is by far the introduction of distortion on the audio tracks. I’ve got to say, the visceral feel is significantly improved on cars like the Zonda R with this addition. Could you talk a little bit about how this feature was introduced and implemented? Where did the idea come from?
NW: The idea of using a distortion effect to enhance car audio has been around for a long time (I had first used it on Project Gotham Racing 2 for example), and when I joined Turn 10 they were already looking at implementing this feature for Forza 4, which made me very happy.
The algorithm we chose to use was iZotope Trash. The team at iZotope worked with us closely to get us the sound properties we were looking for, whilst meeting our CPU and memory targets, which were much lower that they were used to in the PC DAW version of this effect.
After several rounds of iteration we managed to achieve everything we wanted from the effect within our budgets and set to work tuning these new parameters on all the cars in the game.
(The real deal, thanks to Autocar UK)
(FM4 footage, thanks to GT AthenatosSA)
(By comparison, FM3 cinematic footage, thanks to forza3fan)
TTA: How many cars had to be sourced for fresh sound for FM4? (Not including DLC, since those obviously are new)
NW: The biggest set of recordings we had to make for Forza 4 was for Autovista, as this mode required lots of new recordings we didn’t have in our library.
After several iterations we settled on recording all the startup sequences for the cars using a combination of a 5.1 microphone positioned where the driver’s head would be, plus additional microphones outside the car recording the engine and exhaust.
This setup allows us to create the in-cockpit start-up sounds you hear using the 5.1 recording, whilst using the exterior recording to drive the reverb that makes the car feel like it is in the room. You can also hear some of the exterior recording if you have the doors or roof open when you start the engine or hear it idling.
TTA: Of all the awesome things in FM4, what are you most proud of?
NW: I’m actually proudest of the overall package we shipped. Our studio’s goal for Forza 4 was to create an entirely new automotive experience and that goal encompassed every aspect of the game, including audio. Just about every system in the game was heavily edited or recreated from scratch, including cars, tires, collisions, environments, and the new sense of speed effects.
The entire audio team worked really hard and came together to deliver a great-sounding game.
TTA: What are you looking forward to improving on in future versions of Forza?
NW: I have lots of new ideas, but that’s a question for another time…
TTA: Were there any techniques or ideas that you were able to carry over from your PGR days?
NW: There were a few small tweaks, but the biggest change I can think of was the tire system.
Forza used a different method of tracking slip values to PGR, but the PGR system had a couple of extra layers related to wheel spin and locked brakes that were not used in Forza before. Combining this with new and improved tire content as well as research data from Pirelli used to update the physics system, Forza now has the most comprehensive on-track tire audio model used in any game on any system.
TTA: What would you say is the most important sound in a racing game?
NW: That depends on the player.
Some people would say it’s the engines and everything else doesn’t really need to be there. Others would say it’s the tires as, without the G-forces and that “seat of the pants” feel you get in a real car, only the tire audio lets you know exactly where the limit of grip is if you don’t have a force feedback wheel.
This is the reason for the car and tire focus mixes in the Forza 4. It allows you to push up the volume of these elements without compromising the overall mix of the game.
TTA: How did you go about sourcing audio for the 787b? It’s a very unique car and sound and is incredible in fm4.
NW: Sourcing the audio for this car was a big thing for us, there was no way we could ship this car without access to it on a dyno.
We were very lucky that Mazda USA has a 787B that they use at various promotional events, and when we contacted them they allowed us to record it in Los Angeles.
(Video thanks to ForzaPlanet.net)
More information on this recording will be made available in the near future.
TTA: Could you talk a bit about the process a vehicle goes through between recording session and finished in-game? I think the work involved after the recordings are made are under appreciated by gamers because they just don’t know how much work goes on.
NW: It’s a long process, so I’ll break it down into stages like a recipe:
To record a car you will need:
* A car and a chassis dyno, or an engine and an engine dyno
* An 8 – 10 channel recording device with multiple microphones to capture the engine, intake system and each exhaust pipe sound independently
* A dyno operator who understands that “full throttle” means all the way to the floor, and a car owner who won’t freak out when you do that
* An hour or two of time
1. First thing to do is set up the car on the dyno (your dyno operator will usually do this for you) and set up all the recording equipment
2. Then run the engine, do a few throttle snaps and a power run or two, and walk around the car trying to find the spots that have the sound you are looking for
3. Then set up close microphones on the engine, intake, turbo (if fitted) and each exhaust pipe plus microphones at points where you found interesting sounds
4. Press “record”, set levels and ask the dyno operator to run through the following sequence:
·Full throttle power pulls in different gears or at different speeds (depending on the type of dyno)
·Held steady RPMS at 500 RPM intervals from close to idle up to close to redline
·Acceleration and deceleration through the gears (if possible on the dyno)
·Simulated track driving (if possible on the dyno)
Once you have everything recorded, it’s back to the studio. Here, we listen to the recording to find out what mix of the channels we recorded will best reproduce the sound we heard for the engine, intake, and exhaust as each component is modeled separately.
We then take all the elements we have recorded, mix them together for each sound source, chop them up into little pieces and then blend them back together to cover the entire RPM range of the car. This is the complicated bit, and while some of it is automated, it requires quite a lot of fine tuning.
Because we now have audio for each of the sources, we then wire them up to the car model for position, and the car physics to control the playback and we start applying DSP effects to alter the sound based on the way the player is driving in the game. These will include the distortion we discussed earlier, plus a selection of EQ’s, filters, and compressors. Each of these effects is dynamic with the parameters changing based on the physics inputs received from the game.
The final stage is to combine and mix the engine recording with the transmission and the tires, plus any forced induction sounds or electric motor sounds that are fitted to the car.
This is then attached to a distance-based audio model and an environmental audio model to create the final car sound you hear in the game.
This overall process will take 1-2 days per car.
TTA: What’s your favorite sounding car? (real world or in game)
NW: The best-sounding car I have ever recorded was the TVR Cerbera Speed 12; I was also lucky enough to be taken out for a few laps of Bruntingthope Proving Ground in the car which is an experience I will never forget. There is a very short recording of this, short because the recorder failed due to the vibration and the G-forces.
TTA: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened during a recording session?
NW: Seeing the look on the watching people’s faces when the Koenigsegg CCX spat out this huge flame was pretty funny:
TTA: The scariest?
NW: Hearing a Ferrari flat 12 engine suddenly start sounding like a flat 11…
TTA: And finally, where should I direct readers who want to get in touch with you? (twitter, fb, etc.)
NW: I regularly read the www.forzamotorsport.net forums (username Swizwell), so that’s probably the best place to find me.
I want to thank Nick for taking the time to chat with me! It’s a bummer he won’t be at GDC this year, but if we run into each other sometime I owe you a beer! Oh, and there’s a good chance that we might have a Part 2 to this interview, so if you have further questions leave a comment below!