Driven by sound: How FMOD set the next-gen benchmark in Forza 5

Driven by sound: How FMOD set the next-gen benchmark in Forza 5
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

December 10th 2013 at 10:15AM

Faced with setting an early benchmark for the audio prowess of the Xbox One, Turn 10 picked FMOD Studio for Forza Motorsport 5, a racer reaching for the next level of realism

Long before video games came along, automobiles and sound had a special relationship together.

From the belly laugh of a powerful engine and the shrill cry of tyres on tarmac, to the music inside a car and the sound of the world rushing by, it is through sound that people remember cars; a fact that hasn’t escaped studio Turn 10, which for years has led development of the Forza Motorsport games.

“The sound of a car is so important to the character of the machine,” offers Turn 10’s audio director Nick Wiswell. “It’s such a really big part of everything cars are about, especially when you’re driving them quickly. It’s a huge part of that experience.

“A car can very much mean something to a person. Everybody remembers their first car as they do with their first record or first girlfriend or boyfriend. Cars can be part of very big moments in peoples’ lives, and hopefully people can enjoy better cars as they go through life. And the sound is so evocative of those memories, so we can use that to remind people of times in their lives, or even just a film they enjoy or a race they saw.”

And so it was that the Turn 10 team decided they needed to push the audio in Forza Motorsport 5 like they had never done for the series before. They wanted realism, and they wanted to harness the power of the Xbox One, for which their game was a launch title, but they also wanted to make the next generation Forza’s vehicles more evocative.

That meant looking for the right tool for the job, which turned out to be Firelight Technologies’ increasingly prolific FMOD Studio, the multi-track music and event editor inspired by the digital audio workstations from beyond the realm of games audio.

SOUNDS PHYSICAL

According to Turn 10, FMOD Studio let the team do much more than just evoke a sense of what cars mean too; it enabled them to build a physicality within the game, which is certainly evident when you play the new release. Hurtling around Forza Motorsport 5’s tracks, engine sounds and the rasp of the throttle change as you near walls and pass through tunnels, while it is clear how each tyre behind you is behaving from the distinct noises. Through sound, Forza’s world of light and pixels becomes something that feels solid, and it’s striking as you play.

“There’s been a huge push in graphics to make them feel like they are seated in the world, and for me, what we’ve done with Forza Motorsport 5 is the equivalent of that for sound,” suggests Wiswell. “We’ve made the sound in the game react to the place that the player is in. It’s a realism thing, but it’s also a dynamic thing, in that it allows the sound to be constantly changing as you move through the world.”

Turn 10 audio content lead Chase Combs adds: “Reverb is part of the glue of a game world. Looking at other games, and even some of our past titles, we started to think about how sounds in games without those dynamic, changing reverbs or delays can leave the game feeling a bit flat. Even being in surround or another format, those games can lack depth, and so we really wanted to give that sense of space. We wanted the player’s character – in this case a car – to really feel like it is in a world.”

Certainly, it was something Firelight had hoped developers would turn to FMOD Studio for, and they had put much effort into supporting studios looking to embrace reverb in interesting ways. Still, they weren’t quite prepared for Turn 10’s innovation in that regard.

“We definitely had different approaches to reverb in mind when designing the mixer and made sure we built in the flexibility to cover those,” states FMOD Studio’s senior DSP developer Gino Bollaert. “However, Turn 10 really did go beyond our expectations. It speaks to the strength of the design. Given the right tools and a flexiblity, anything is possible.”

Forza 5

There’s been a huge push in graphics to make them feel like they are seated in the world, and what we’ve done with Forza Motorsport 5 is the equivalent of that for sound

Nick Wiswell, Turn 10

THE DAWS OF PERCEPTION

Of course, for Turn 10 to realise their ambitions with the game’s intended reverb system, the audio team needed to put a huge effort into Forza Motorsport 5’s sound, which began when Forza 4 was still under development. When not travelling the world recording every noise a specific car model puts out, the team were considering how they wanted to build their own mixer, pondering how it should respond, how real time parameters could work, and how sends and returns would function. What started on paper was then built in the ubiquitous Nuendo DAW software.

“Then we were able to take it from Nuendo to the FMOD Studio mixer directly,” explains Combs. “We’d previously been using Designer, so when FMOD Studio was announced, the big promise for us was the sends and returns system; this thing of adding auxiliary sends and returns to the middleware; nobody had done that at that point. That is the lynchpin of our entire reflections system.”

Mocking up the system in the DAW was done by capturing Forza 4 footage before exploring how the physics driven audio for the Xbox One debut of the series might work.

“Because FMOD Studio is designed to work like a DAW, we were immediately able to take those parameters that we’d set up in Nuendo, bring them over into FMOD Studio, and with a little bit of fine tuning, suddenly we had it in the game,” says Wiswell. “That was really quick to get up and running.”

THE PRODUCTION LINE

FMOD Studio also came into its own when Combs lead the work mixing the car models. Having gathered data from the recording of thousands of cars, where microphones took recordings from close to a given car and at distance, the team were faced with a vast library, which needed to be stitched together for each individual vehicle and linked to the game’s intricate physics, meaning the player’s tiniest control intricacies would impact the sound realistically, taking into account the likes of RPM, horsepower and throttle.

“There are many techniques for doing that, but basically they all revolve around chopping it up in to tiny little pieces that can be stitched back together at run-time,” confirms Wiswell. “We record the car accelerating, decelerating and held at steady states, throughout the rev range, and then we take that back, chop it up into those pieces that represent all the phases that a car can go through.

“We build that in FMOD Studio, keeping everything separate. All the different channels that we recorded – the exhaust, engine, intake system and so on – are modelled independently. We stick those back together independently because each one of them reacts differently depending on what the car is doing.”

According to Combs, sound engineers working in games have been clamouring for years for the kind of real-time control FMOD Studio offers, having long yearned for simple elements such as fader.

“The ability to be able to mix a game in real-time with faders is awesome,” says Combs. “A car mix for me is really very much similar to doing a quick drum mix. You start, usually, with everything at low volume and slowly build it back up.”

Listen to Forza 5 in-game, however, and it seems certain Turn 10 has achieved speed and quality with great success. A core factor in that accomplishment appears to be FMOD, and its role in introducing the interface of the pro audio mixer to games sound.

Looking across the audio landscape, it is apparent the tool should be an influential solution for many years to come. And Forza isn’t like to go anywhere anytime soon either, aside from tearing off the starting grid.

FMOD studio

AUDIO TOOLS: THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

Forza Motorsport 5 is an Xbox One launch title, and as such both Firelight Technologies and Turn 10 had quite a challenge on their hands, as well as the opportunity to try out the console’s new SHAPE audio engine.

“With Forza 5 being a launch title for Xbox One, the hardware was still evolving as the game developed,” explains FMOD Studio lead developer Raymond Biggs. “We were often the very first to try out new hardware features like the SHAPE audio processor.

“Turn 10 also had very ambitious goals for Forza 5. They wanted to push at the limits of the new platform and try out things that you just couldn’t do with the previous generation of audio tools. What they’ve achieved really sets a new benchmark. In many ways it has made us re-imagine what’s possible for next generation game audio.”

Nick Wiswell, audio director at Forza Motorsport 5 studio Turn 10, adds: “The power of the Xbox has allowed us to do more things in real-time, and the flexibility of FMOD Studio has allowed our creativity to go wild from a design perspective, and to develop very complex systems in a fairly straightforward way.”

For other studios pondering making an Xbox One game, one things seems clear: that SHAPE gives games audio staff reason to be optimistic.

www.fmod.org/fmod-studio