This month’s featured soundtrack:
360, PS3 and PC
Flashy cars, high-octane rivalry, death-defying driving, beefy weapons and super-dramatic power-ups. Bizarre’s first racing title since Project Gotham Racing 4 promises an intoxicating offering.
Featuring real cars in real locations, Blur is more about the excitement and intensity of full-on in-yer-face racing competition than its slightly drier, more technical predecessor. For ‘real’, read ‘Hollywood real’, the team’s chosen phrase to express a style fundamental which reaches to the heart of the game’s sound treatment.
The studio’s technical audio guru, Nick Bygrave, is the man to speak to about the technical and creative challenges presented by a more stylised development of the company’s renowned racing genre prowess.
“This is our first racing title since PGR, but our second with the new audio technology we wrote for this hardware generation,” he says. “Having ironed out the kinks, we could focus on audio features specific to the game this time out, and not just the underlying nuts and bolts. The super-realistic approach used for PGR gave us a good starting point, but for this title we could play around a lot more to create a stylised sound in keeping with the title’s look and feel. I guess the whole team felt some pressure to build on previous successes, but in reality, we’re our own harshest critics. We’re constantly striving to improve the audio.”
Blessed with four audio programmers and six sound designers guided by respected audio manager Nick Wiswell, Bizarre Creations has the manpower and talent to keep thinking the unthinkable and then pulling it off. Apart from the audio lead, all audio staff work closely on all projects, explains Bygrave: “Since much of the content and game systems lie somewhere between coding and traditional sound design, there’s overlap between roles – great for communication and the flow of ideas.”
The technical bedrock for Blur’s audio is a modular, data-driven system that gives sound designers control over all aspects of a sound’s behaviour while the programmers focus on game code and new features. The creatives can make audio objects which respond to parameters and events from the game, connecting different components together from a library of basic elements. These can manipulate not just audio but also game parameters and events.
“A simple example would be adding a spring component to smooth a car’s throttle, making it less ‘digital’ sounding. At the other end of the scale, one of our sound designers has built a complete interactive music system using it, with virtually no programmer support,” says Bygrave.
As ever, real-time DSP is being used for both ‘literal’ sound simulation and pure creative effect. Explains Bygrave: “We use quite a few DSP effects (at last count, a 20-car race will use well over 350 individual effects); there are 15 different DSP types in the game from basic filters and compression, through to flangers, bit-crushers and ring-modulators. We use plenty of filters for distance and 3D effects, and even run signal analysis effects, harnessed by the graphics guys for eye-candy. Visually, the power-ups add a neon layer of effects over the entire game world so we follow suit audio-wise, with bold DSP treatments across the whole mix.
“To make the car sound part of the world we have two systems. Firstly, we ray-trace into the world to obtain location and material properties, playing an appropriately delayed and filtered version of the car from the reflected image position. This is then mixed with a frequency domain verb for late reverberation – there are zones on the track tagged for different presets. This creates a simple but effective model of the changing environment, and gives the player useful game-play feedback.
“There are also run-time mastering effects like EQ, and basic compression presets which facilitate different dynamic ranges for different listening environments and set-ups. Because there’s so much sound going on, we’ve used more compressors than in our previous titles to keep levels in check before the final mix-down.”
Add a kicking soundtrack of custom music mixes courtesy of Ninja Tune to the soundscape, and surely you have a recipe for mix cacophony? “The game has a lot of big sounds fighting for attention, and we really want the player to hear what’s relevant to their situation at any given moment. With 20 cars on track, all using power-ups on each other, things can easily get out of hand, so to keep the mix from becoming a wall of noise, we use channel compressors as well as RMS level monitoring to automate ducking. We also use filters to make space in the mix without having to continually turn things down. I think we’ve hit a balance of managing the intensity and chaos while always delivering an interesting mix. Maintaining clarity when things get hectic was a challenge, but I think we nailed it.”