Black Rock on avoiding the ‘audio overload’ typical of the racing genre
Split/Second is high octane, high stakes and high drama.
This riotous, explosive, adrenaline-pumping racing experience features a game mechanic by which you can tactically deploy so-called powerplays, thereby triggering jaw-droppingly impressive environmental events and effects - whilst knobbling your opponents progress to boot, gaining precious seconds of lap time and even opening up new routes.
All well and good - and clearly rich pickings for an audio team with both excellent pedigree and a hunger to push the envelope. Right from the outset, however, audio director Steve Emney and audio programmer Andy Hutchings knew they faced the ever-present danger of racing game audio overload.
Given the sheer saturation of sound events involved – not to mention numerous car engines and Nimrod’s kick-ass music score – getting the mix right was a big challenge, even for an experienced crew.
Their anti-cacophony strategy entailed a close, harmonious working relationship and shared vision between coding and sound design, the like of which racing game veteran Emney hasn’t previously encountered.
Emney: “We worked in the same room and we found joint solutions throughout the production. With these kind of full-on soundscapes, it can be very difficult to arrive at a decent mix with good separation and dynamics. You want to feed back to the player exactly what you feel they need and want to hear and obviously you’ve got music and engines fighting to occupy the same frequency space - you have to address that somehow.”
Hutchings continues: “That’s right – so we use FFT tech to continually analyse the frequencies coming out from both the music and the player’s engine submix to see where there are competing strong frequencies. We then limit those frequencies in the music, allowing the player to have mix space without decreasing overall volume, using a real-time 356 band in-line equaliser.”
Emney: “Also, Split/Second features absolutely massive explosions and scenery crashing around you – for instance a jumbo jet might land next to you or an entire skyscraper fall straight ahead – all brilliant opportunities for sound drama. We wanted to find ways of using not only sound design but also tech to make this work well – imagine the car you’re driving has a set of ears – we wanted those ears to be what the player would hear – not everything but just the important things to make a coherent, comprehensible listening experience.”
The result is a somewhat self-governing mix methodology with smart embedding of potential mixer events a-plenty throughout the scenery, which will respond based on specific rules – for exmple proximity, line of sight, game state etcetera. Hutchings: “A big win is that we split the entire audio content into sub-mixes enabling fine control of each component.
“For instance you could be close to a big explosion and actually unknowingly trigger mix events that will duck other sounds to make space for an apparently exaggerated explosion sound effect – we change both volume and high/low pass filters by the way; the game knows you are in the right place at the right time and orientated correctly to make that big audio moment happen appropriately.
However, if the same powerplay explosion triggers somewhere down the track, we won’t focus the mix on that – it’s more appropriate to hear the screaming car sounds immediately around you.”
To further enhance this almost story-telling-like approach, differing sets of sounds are deployed for a powerplay event depending on the focus – so for instance, if you are right next to a falling building, ‘hyper-real’ audio embellishment might be liberally introduced including some crazily heavily processed lion roars and the like.
With real-time dsp such as hardcore flanging for good measure, the game delivers an exciting, vibrant, varied and dramatic audio experience. Meanwhile, ‘interactive music’ rules control a stylistically, immediately identifable music score comprised of various long length loops defined to allow a complex playlist approach with cuts on the beat, again triggered by the embedded mixer events as well as other game ‘conditions’.
Also created during the two-year development was a sophisticated granular audio tool TONIC, which analyses rpm sweeps of the engine from min to max and back to idle, to define a database of engine grain cycles which the audio engine stitches together at runtime to match the driving performance – much the same as a sound editor selecting a piece of linear engine audio to match a movie sequence and synchronising it at just the right time – only at a granular level. Its impressive analysis chops also enable mixing and matching between different car recordings harmonising them to create credible hybrids.
Having the systems established and content implemented, Emney and Hutchings worked on tweaking the audio via a bespoke PC app that provides a visual picture and live update in-game of the thousands of ‘nodes’ and ‘sliders’ that represent the mix options, even hooking up the game to a hardware control surface to lovingly handcraft each and every powerplay mini-mix. All members of the audio team contributed their suggestions on the mix underlining the collaborative team effort that has facilitated such a tour-de-force.
Emney: “I really feel we wouldn’t have reached this level of quality, detail and control without the consistent working together of design and coding, sharing ideas to create joint solutions. It’s been a refreshing eye-opener and the resulting soundtrack the most well-rounded, complete package I’ve ever been involved with.”