Project CARS, iRacing, and so much more – Greg Hill

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Soundwave ConceptsIt’s an honor to have Greg Hill back again! He might be the busiest man in car audio still, if you didn’t already catch that from his first interview. This time, we got to catch up on the improvements to iRacing, the upcoming Project CARS, and something new you’re going to want to check out.

GH: Hey thanks for having me back David.

TTA: It’s always an honor to chat with you, Greg. The first thing I’m wondering, is how do you manage to keep all of your projects separated and sounding both unique and exciting?

GH: Yeah, it’s far from easy! The expectation is to make each title have its own unique voice – and – include unique innovations to the tech. I guess you just have to keep pushing for new ground, don’t ever get complacent and keep developing the craft. Whatever the platform, whether it’s a kid’s toy, game, smart phone, OBD2 based device for your car or a high end simulator you have to stand back and have a good look at the limitations and hatch a plan to extract the best you can from it. You use everything possible at your disposal and push your skill-set every time you sit in front of the monitors. It helps to also hound the developers to improve the connection between the physics and the audio because we all know this has a profound effect on the sonic experience. You’re constantly looking for an end result that may just happen to come out a little different and unique enough for each client.

TTA: Let’s start with Project CARS. Following the PC demos that have been released via Youtube has been great fun, as the iterative improvements have been noticeable. How much feedback do you get from the public builds, and how has that changed the course of its development?

GH: I’ve only been back with the talent team at Slightly Mad Studios for a few months now and I’m glad to be part of the momentum, especially the strides we are now taking with the sounds. I got a call from Dr. Stephen Baysted (Audio Director & Composer) and we talked about a roadmap to improve the vehicular sounds and now we are working through it.

Ah YouTube, hehe. Yes a kind of video chronology on pCars is being kept on YouTube by the members. I have to get used to the fact I don’t have control of that. Every single daily update gets posted up there. Even if the audio is in transition and not sounding the best – well bad luck buddy – there it is for all to hear!

You have to develop an empathetic ear and grow a very thick skin working on any title in any department. But when the members are also part of the development process and calling you to account on everything you do you have to realign your position. Most people know a thing or two about audio and the way cars sound, but many don’t understand what ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’ possible and how things translate from the initial stage of setting up a recording session to the final stage of implementation into a racing title. So this can be a delicate setting, but we’ve had some brilliant suggestions and I’m meeting some good people along the way.

TTA: Are there any systemic improvements we can look forward to in the near future?

GH: pCars audio has improved in the last few months and this will continue. Not only are the engines becoming more detailed but also more specific sounding for the given setting and camera view. There are improvements in the external sounds and I love tweaking around with the new trajectory model. Trajectory is a positional and distance-based event that mimics the direction of a sound emitter much like a 3d sound cone. It works in conjunction with Doppler, so the sound transforms as the vehicle passes at speed, the focus being on the loudest resonator (i.e. the exhaust or intake).

There are many improvements to come but the most pressing ones are for tire/surface sounds (for the new tire model), improved suspension compression noises, exhaust resonations, chassis flex, environmentals, logics for forced induction and an overall sound mix.

I think game audio in general has a long way to go in replicating sound within a physical environment with all its complexity. The challenge is to model how sound emitters move through space and react to trackside objects and surfaces; this along with distance based events (air density based occlusion, speed of sound) and all somehow getting parameterized and sounding natural. We are seriously looking into this now and the standard we’re after is pretty high so it’s not something that’s going to be fully implemented into a build tomorrow, but small advances in this direction are coming.

TTA: All of the demos we’ve seen so far have been on PC builds, but the game is slated to be multi-platform on current-gen consoles. Do you foresee needing to scale back the audio system to run on the less-powerful consoles? Does being multi-platform create any additional technical or artistic challenges?

GH: Good question. It would be great to have this title go multi-platform and if this eventuates (and I’m not saying it is or isn’t) I see no need to scale the audio back, probably only the audio format so it fits on the darn DVD or a form of compression that extracts uncompressed into memory. If it ends up on some smartphone/tablet/PDA OS then there will be a scrap for resources!

TTA: To my ears, it sounds like pCars is using a granular-style audio system, at very least for transmissions. Is this true, and if so does this mean pCars is using a bespoke audio engine or do you have a middleware solution?

GH: It’s mostly FMOD, but we have some extra bits that plug in. Fmod does granular and I use granular editing tools from time to time, but the transmission is an old loop system and is actually in review. It still works well; maybe we just need to rework the actual sounds as the modeling of drivetrain flex is now being considered.

TTA: What do you think is the most difficult sound or sonic aspect of a car to reproduce in a believable way?

GH: That’s got to be a physical presence and power. There are many other difficult sonic aspects and events like tyre grip thresholds, turbo and backfire logics but I think the feeling of brutal power at 130dB or a chest thumping proximity effect can be difficult to reproduce in a believable way especially on your average home sound system!

I can’t mention ‘power’ without also mentioning ‘dynamics’ as they go hand in hand. A commanding dynamic with realistic variations to amplitude and engine load i.e. super quiet at idle and then tears your head off when you punch the gas. For example, most of us have been to the track and up close to a race car, many of us have been next to the exhaust pipe whilst the car is idling with its lumpy bobbles, clatter and crackles and then all of a sudden without any warning the driver decides to stab the throttle and you nearly jump out of your skin! It’s this physical representation of power and dynamics that is lacking in many racing games because the headroom required is not always practical. So a compromise has to be reached without destroying the dynamics. Some racing titles have the idle volume nearly as loud as full throttle. The music industry is being ruined by this silly loudness war and I hate seeing it in video game audio. It’s extremely cool to have calm quiet cruising volumes, tempered decelerations and ramping accelerations because that’s what 99.9% of racing cars actually sound like. So maintaining some semblance of a real world dynamic is a good thing towards generating a greater sense of power and it also allows some sonic space to hear other cool sounds going on in the background.

Apart from power and dynamics it’s a challenge to reproduce the sonic complexities of a vehicle moving at high speed through a virtual space – as I mentioned before.

TTA: With the announced Oculus Rift support on PC, do you have plans to support surround sound headphones, and will TrackIR functionality be acoustically represented as well?

GH: I haven’t tried Oculus Rift yet. It looks like huge fun! A lot of the Devs are diligently gearing up for it. If the sound is 3d positional or head-relative and the gamer doesn’t dance around the room like a mad bunny, the sound array should move as a halo around your head as you turn. The same should be true with surround headphones and TrackIR. I think it would be great if the game could offer optimal modes for each of these devices in the audio menu of the title. It would be very cool to work on this adding filters (for yaw, roll and pitch) and alternative surround arrays to get it sounding perfect for each of these devices; incremental sliders would be best so people could tailor it to their needs.

TTA: Let’s talk a bit about iRacing. iRacing has added quite a number of cars since we last talked, and some are quite rare and interesting sounding, including the Lotus Type 49 as well as the PWC Kia Optima. How difficult is it to find cars to record for this, and what is that process like? Do classic F1 cars present more challenges compared to newer cars?

GH: There are some great sounding machines I’ve managed to get into my libraries, including many classic Grand Prix cars. Getting to racetracks and team workshops for many years has provided great recording opportunities. In fact the recording I have of the James Hunt M26 was used as FX stems in the movie trailer for the Ron Howard movie Rush. Some of my modern F1 recordings were used for Cars 2.

To find the cars I go through motoring clubs and governing bodies. It’s great when you find an owner-driver who’s a genuine enthusiast because they love anything new they can experience with their vehicle. Mostly they just can’t wait to get a CD of the recording and will do anything to make the right noises.

TTA: With the upcoming addition of dynamic weather, do you have to make drastic changes to the environmental and surface sounds to change dynamically?

GH: No, this hasn’t happened yet. But you’re absolutely right when you suggest changes to the surface sounds for weather. iRacing are almost at the point where they can invest more time working with me on the tire/surface sounds. We are specifically interested in modeling grip levels as the surface patch reacts to forces. Temperature will command different tire sounds too.

TTA: iRacing is currently the most popular, and certainly the most-often touted as “most realistic,” simulator. Do you find this status intimidating when designing sounds for the game? Does the emphasis on realism present any technical or creative challenges?

GH: iRacing is has some pretty hardcore online racers but most racing sims do. The passion and expectations are high; nonetheless, I’m probably the toughest critic of them all and constantly push for innovations. Any sonic event other than practical could be seen as useless garnish within iRacing and this can cause contention amongst members. Lately some updates to the physics have really improved the sounds. I always say physics and sound go hand in hand. Drivetrain flex was at the very top of my wish list and engineering implemented this a few months ago and it has truly exceeded all expectations. It has created a heightened sense of connection with the physical events that pass through the drivetrain; the loads have sprung to life (pun intended). The transmission whine now sounds very realistic especially when it lashes in 1st gear at low speed…I love it!

The engine sonic models in iRacing are more complex than perhaps people realize. There are now 3 engine sets per vehicle, so I can now produce In-car, On-boards and Exteriors. The engine loads are divided into on-loads, steady-loads and off-loads (also expressed as acceleration, cruising and deceleration), these have to be harmonically aligned with zero phase issues. The On-boards and Exteriors have an overlap region which is handy for gradual increases in distance. This also allows me to craft the exteriors with a lot of residual reflections so they sound very close to how you hear them from trackside as they pass.

TTA: I also have a quick question about rFactor 2. rFactor as a whole has an emphasis on community-generated modifications, including cars and car sounds. What do you think about the quality of the mods overall? Do any stick out as interesting or well-done to you? Does having a moddable system make your creation process any easier or harder?

GH: I think this is a great platform for people to have a go at racing game audio. Whether it’s only tweaking the parameters of the existing sounds or digging deeper into implementing your own sounds, this sim will allow all this in spades. Some mods I’ve heard are very low quality, so I would like to see more people recording their own source and experiencing every stage of recording, editing and implementation.

There are a number of great new audio features in rF2, one being increased polyphony of engine samples per view. The attenuation curves are more realistic and the new chassis rattles and dirty tire logics are great fun to play with. When you go off track and drive back on you can hear the tires cleaning up.

TTA: Let’s talk about the SoundRacer for a bit. Who came up with the idea, and how does it work? Which sample is your favorite?

GH: Kenneth Palmestål is an awesome guy to work with. He came up with the whole idea. For those who don’t know what it is, it’s a device you plug into your car 12V power, it picks up signals from your alternator and reads that as engine loads and RPM and these are the basic parameters for creating a sonic model. The sounds are then broadcast out of the device as an FM signal to your car audio system. I like the V12 engine the best but it makes me drive too (darn) fast.

Kenneth is now expanding the SoundRacer tech to be an ODB2 Android app and also to sounds for electric vehicles. Check out his site at http://www.soundracer.se

TTA: In most industries, you can ask a person “what’s a normal day in the life like” – but I think for you I should ask what’s a normal week in the life like?

GH: Working from my home studio can be a trap but it has its benefits and some level of flexibility, but I do tend to work long hours and suffer cabin fever from time to time. I set daily and weekly goals and try not to fall behind. The reality is I have clients that are in some cases competitors, so I can’t be seen to be spreading myself too thin and failing to deliver quality assets consistently.

I can’t listen to car engines all day; luckily other components of my work are emails, quoting, evaluation demos, research, development, recording, implementation and administrative stuff. I really should spend more time updating my clunky old website :)

TTA: Most of the titles you work on are from studios based everywhere but Australia. Do you find being out-of-house challenging in any way?

GH: Not so much these days, because the concept of a virtual office is commonplace. My clients understand this situation and if there are any distance related stumbling blocks we work through them. The great thing is I wake up to work related emails and my clients wake up to those tasks being addressed whilst they were sleeping.

TTA: What do you think a new generation of console hardware will mean to the racing genre? Do you think it will have any effect on the PC-based simulator market as well?

GH: A little bit yes, and many hard core sim-racers will get a console to run Forza 5 because they love cars and it looks awesome! Sadly driving games will only represent 3% of the next-gen market so I don’t think it’ll have a profound effect on the PC-based simulation market. From a marketing view some PC sim developers are looking at the consoles as a way to expand their brand. So it could be more accurate to claim that the current PC-based simulation market may have a greater effect on consoles rather than the other way around. I think it will be a long time before the peripheral makers of high end simulation gear would consider turning their attention away from PC-based simulations. The consoles certainly have the power of the current gamer PC but due to the massive rate at which PC hardware moves forward it’s usually a short time in the next-gen spotlight for consoles. I can’t see a flight simulator at Lockheed Martin running on a network of Xbox One’s, nor an F1 team running test data through a PS4 even though the consoles have impressive computing power.

TTA: I’m really interested in the Revheadz thing you’ve mentioned to me – tell us more!

GH: This app is for the motoring enthusiasts really. Surprisingly not many of them actually play or even like racing games – they’d rather something historic, celebratory and realistic with a simple focus like “engine noise”. What’s more appealing is interactive simplicity – where there is next to no challenge – other than feeling connected to some of the best sounding machines ever produced. It’s a great conversation piece you can show your buddies “Hey listen to this sound of an old Grand Prix car…” they rev the rings off it and have a good laugh and continue to natter about cars, bikes, their motoring experiences, history and the virtues of a good sounding engine. That’s it, simple!
It’s not unlike showing snapshots and funnily enough some onlookers won’t even realise it’s an interactive experience (rather than passive) where the sounds are not merely playback recordings but actual sonic models you control so you can modulate through all the sonic characteristics at will.
The sound quality will be very high so plugging this into a car/home sound system will make the scenery shake!

Anyway, the Facebook page is here for a look and listen to a few sound clips and videos.

As you can see, Greg is a very busy man. I’m glad he found time to chat with us on the new goings on! If you hadn’t already, be sure to check out the first interview we did with Greg.

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