Relatively few privileged sound designers ever get up close and personal with a Formula 1 racing car.
Even fewer get to satisfy their own particular quest for the holy grail of motorsport audio – a decent onboard F1 engine recording.
Having worked on Geoff Crammonds’ Grand Prix sims back in the day, this month’s feature proved something of a nostalgia trip revealing that whilst the recording challenges I faced then haven’t eased, the technology to manipulate F1 audio in production and at run-time has blossomed beautifully.
“You can never have enough access but opportunities are few,” says Codemasters audio director Stephen Root.
“The Force India team let us record their Mercedes engine and McLaren gearbox combination during shakedown testing at Silverstone before the 2010 season start.
“Later, Brawn GP – subsequently Mercedes GP – provided us another outing during testing in Jerez, Spain. Both were really helpful working with us the night before to position DPA lavs on the chassis before the car was put together – even building us custom suspension mounts to augment the bespoke cradles and windjammers we’d already created.”
Nothing, however, could have prepared Root and his team for the astonishing heat and vibration generated as the car flies around the track at up to 200mph. Most of the solid state recorders tried were shaken to bits, but surprisingly the relatively cheap and cheerful Zoom H4 got the job done.
The team also recorded in test cells at Ferrari HQ in Maranello, Italy where engines on test beds are computer-operated within a controlled environment – although they found their otherwise flawless recordings were somewhat marred by inherent room reverberation, impossible to totally eradicate despite portable acoustic damping.
Whilst useful, the onboard recordings were far from a ready-made solution. They had to be painstakingly stitched into a patchwork of recorded assets including audio captured trackside on both corners and straights – all at different RPMs and physical perspectives.
“We use a fundamentally granular approach, analysing the constant pitch change of a rev sweep, and depending on how many cylinders in the engine work out how many cycles there are – with a cycle being an individual ‘grain’,” explains Codemasters lead audio designer Mark Knight. “If you need to play the sweep faster, you’re cutting out cylinders and if slower, you’re adding them.
“Plus, we have a system to deal with timbral shift – a bit like those plugins that can shift a formant without changing the pitch and shift the pitch without changing the format. It’s a mixture of tech all in one package.”
Meanwhile, the audio for further AI-controlled cars employs the same system but ‘quite cut down’ due to the CPU challenges.
“Using newly created technology, we carefully marked every part of every track with ‘reflection markers’ to get the correct echo and reverb from all parts of the scenery,” adds Root. “Then it really started to sound like F1.”
Crackling and backfire for those ferocious F1 sonics created as the car brakes heavily into tough corners is then added. Knight expalins:
“I recorded these on a nasty corner at Jerez, having tried a different section of track where I was accused of spying by one team convinced I’d been hired by a competitor to record their launch control.”
Though working from a solid, mature code-base, F1 2010 nevertheless entailed tech extensions to cope with a car that idles at 5k and revs to 18k. Throughout the
project real life F1 test driver Anthony Davidson consulted to the team on car handling with the audio team tweaking the sound accordingly.
“When you see behind the scenes of Formula 1 and appreciate the engineering prowess for yourself you’re hooked,” admits Knight. “For a petrolhead like me to build recording systems into F1 cars – to have my arms stuck up nosecones and all sorts was a massive thrill.
“I feel we’ve produced the best sounding F1 game so far – and we have everything in place to improve and improve and improve as we move forward with the franchise.”