John Broomhall talks with Evolution Studios’ audio manager Alan McDermott about the PS4 racer
The Evolution audio team is highly regarded for its work on MotorStorm, but even for an established crew, PS4 title Driveclub posed an interesting challenge.
Audio manager Alan McDermott describes the game as “a very different animal” to MotorStorm, meaning the team couldn’t use the same creative licence as before.
“A Ferrari has to sound like a Ferrari,” he explains, “but you don’t just want a literal replication that can be sterile and underwhelming. You can’t add turbo sounds to a naturally aspirated engine so the drama has to come elsewhere by simulating the experience, not just the engines.
“When you’re travelling at 197mph, a lot of things race through your mind adding to that visceral experience, but not ‘wow, the resonance when we hit 7500rpm in sixth gear is interesting’. It’s more like ‘there is definitely not enough road left’.”
Evolution knew it had to aim for authenticity but, as McDermott puts it, “turned up to eleven”. Most consumers’ perceptions of the cars featured in Driveclub will be based on how they sound in films,
so the studio used this as a starting point.
“The thing is, movies tend to ‘cheat’ with tricks like ‘infinite gears’, while on YouTube, clips are often awash with distortion,” says McDermott. “For us, simulating the experience, not just the physical engine, was key, so we set out to reflect the feeling – to keep an incredibly authentic sounding engine without compromising on drama.”
TUNED FOR SPEED
That’s all well and good, but what about managing the creative and technical production parameters when specifics of the new platform are not crystallised?
“It’s tricky but we have a team of low-level tech guys who gave us an excellent framework to work within at an early stage,” McDermott says.
“There was a lot of development of our in-house engine and, more importantly, research around our fundamental car engine-building approach. In the early days there’s a lot of rapid prototyping involved while the specifics of the hardware are being ironed out. You might not know the fine details, but you have to use the time early on to best advantage, defining creative goals and paving the way forward in readiness.
“We discussed ambitious plans at length, during which our senior sound designer Tim Shepherd revealed he’d been experimenting with a new concept for engine audio, something new and potentially groundbreaking – and it clearly had legs. Driveclub was the best possible motivation to redefine not only how we implemented engine audio, but also how we recorded it.”
Shepherd’s method was to use at least 16 discreet channels of on-board audio recording using high quality, high SPL microphones in precise positions around each vehicle. Internal audio was captured with a surround microphone, and two sets of stereo shotguns handled trackside recordings.
McDermott says: “We pushed the cars pretty hard on the track and, where possible, mounted them on a dynamometer; going to town capturing extremely high quality audio with second, third and fourth gear sweeps. The car manufacturers have been very impressed with the quality and level of detail – BMW even requested a copy of the relevant recordings to replace their existing libraries.
“And we brought the exact same passion to the soundtrack with an original score from Hybrid, also re-imagined by remix royalty like DJ Shadow, Noisia, Chris Clark and Photek.
Of course, you have to be continually mindful of the potential for cacophony in a driving game but we avoided this by always mixing the game throughout development rather than throwing it all together and sitting down to mix two weeks from the end – we constantly kept an eye on how new elements affected existing elements.”
Looking back at the experience, McDermott describes managing communications with the various car manufacturers as “a full-time job in itself”, but the benefits of the sound team interacting directly with these firms was vital to the development of Driveclub.
“The car makers were very impressed to see the commitment and enthusiasm we put into making their vehicles sound as good as possible,” he says. “Overall, I guess the thing I’m most pleased about is how readily our small audio team stood up to a mighty challenge, injecting ingenuity at every turn to deliver a driving game audio presentation which, I believe, is truly world-class.”