In Action – Codemasters F1 Audio Team (Interview)

Note: This article was originally published on both the Sound Devices and SoundWorks Collection websites, August 2017

Codemasters’ audio team revs up the realism with Sound Devices MixPre-6 trackside while capturing the incredible sounds of Formula One racing for their award-winning videogame franchise.

Birmingham, UK – For three decades, Codemasters® has been one of the United Kingdom’s leading videogame developers with such classics like the TOCA series of touring car games, as well as Dizzy, DiRT, GRID Autosport, and the official games of FORMULA ONE™. The F1 racing series is created by a team of professional artists and sound designers headquartered at the company’s Birmingham studio.

Image from F1 2017 Videogame

Image from the F1 2017 videogame

The Audio Lead on F1 is Brad Porter, who worked his way up to that position after landing a job as a quality assurance tester in the competitive gaming industry. “I’ve always been a gamer since I was about 6, so (eventually) I started looking into game audio, and I tailored my third year projects at university toward game audio.”

Rounding out the F1 team is the Senior Audio Designer, James Kneen, who got his start burning games onto CDs. He has been with “Codies”, as the company is affectionately known, for about nine years, while the Junior Audio Designer on F1, David Gurney, joined the team in early 2016, just before completing a research degree in game audio.

The trio has worked exclusively on F1 2017 in recent months, and they always take audio very seriously.

Codemasters' F1 Audio Team

Codemasters’ F1 Audio Team: (L-R) James Kneen, Brad Porter, and David Gurney

“Racing is sort of a niche genre, especially something like F1,” Brad says. “Obviously with racing games, they’re not really one of those games you can play with the volume on mute. We have quite a lot of fan feedback if we get anything wrong. Fans like to hear the engine tone, and they like to know, based on the engine tone, when to shift gears and all that. So we work really hard to try and get that right, and get our vehicles sounding as authentic as possible.”

Over the years, the company’s audio teams have used a range of audio gear, including a Sound Devices 788T-SSD, which was used on projects like the DiRT franchise and GRID Autosport, where the 12-track recorder was onboard the vehicles with the sound designer adjusting levels on the fly. But when it came to capturing the high-octane sounds of Formula 1 racing, Brad says they needed something different.

“We’ve still got the 788T-SDD, and that still gets used. Although it doesn’t really get used for F1 because of its size. We’d never get that in an F1 car. We have to go with smaller devices.”

That meant turning to other smaller, prosumer audio recorders, but using them has posed some issues.

“One problem we have with some of our other non-Sound Devices recorders is the gain controls can get knocked quite easily,” Brad says, “so you’ll set the gain and want it to remain at that level all the time, but quite often on our other recorders, that gets knocked, and it’s actually ruined takes for us before. You know the levels have been way too hot or we’ve recorded nothing at all on occasions. One thing we were looking for when we were looking at other devices to replace some of our other (recorders) was the ability to lock out the gain controls so you can now use the rotaries as just volume faders.”

They found that ability when two team members purchased MixPre-6 audio recorders from Sound Devices for personal use.

“I’d never really used a Sound Devices piece of gear before,” admits James. “I knew of Sound Devices, I know (the company) has a really good reputation. The MixPre-6 in particular—the specs were what I was looking at—4 XLR inputs. I’ve been thinking about using it with the Sennheiser Ambeo mic, so it was important to have those inputs. I just thought the form-factor of the thing was very attractive. It’s a nice little, buff, compact unit.”

Other features attracted David. “Preamp quality was one thing that really drew me to the MixPre-6 over some of the others,” he says. “When you’re out in the field, having clear access to all of the interface, it’s not feeling small, and everything is tactile. You can record very easily with it and get good results out of it, and I saw that potential when I was looking at the videos online.”

David Gurney trackside at F1 race

David Gurney is trackside at an F1 race.

Brad adds, “All three of us were watching some video reviews while we were comparing the Sound Devices MixPre-6 to some of the competitors, and they were preamp tests, and Sound Devices on every video was coming up with the cleanest sounding preamp.”

So, James and David placed orders as soon as the new audio recorder, with its ultra-low-noise, Class-A Kashmir™ preamps, was available in the UK. Once the team had the MixPre-6 recorders in hand, they put them through their own trial runs.

“The first thing that strikes you is the build quality and form factor. It’s really beautifully engineered. It’s quite gorgeous. The preamps are amazing quality. They’re really focused, warm and smooth, and lovely,” says James, adding, “We did some internal tests between the MixPre-6 and a competitor’s recorder. We found that—we don’t do a lot of dialog ourselves—but the actual quality of the dialog on the MixPre was more intimate and warmer. It doesn’t sound as harsh…. It’s an amazing product.”

“Yeah, (the sound) is more like you hear it,” David says, “and with the projects that we work on, it needs to be accurate, and these recorders seem like they do that.

“For personal use, I’ve got a few recorders, but the MixPre-6 is my only Sound Devices, and it’s my recorder of choice,” David says, then laughs, adding, “when the application requires something that’s decent. There are others to use if you’ve got to be discrete, but this is the recorder I take with me to do almost anything.”

Although purchased for personal use, it didn’t take long for the lightweight MixPre-6s to find a way into the team’s professional gear bags and on location trackside for race day.

“Obviously, with our job, we’re trackside quite often,” Brad says. “We’ve recently been to Budapest, and it was really hot and sunny. There’s not much shade around, and again… I had one of our other recorders, and I was struggling to see the display on mine in the sunlight, but Dave had no problems—”

David jokingly chimes in, “I had to turn the backlight down on the Sound Devices, because it was burning my eyes.”

“Some of the takes I was doing,” Brad continues, “Because I couldn’t see my display properly on the device I was using, sometimes the levels were too hot. I had to keep shielding the screen so I could see what the levels were peaking at, but we don’t have that problem anymore…using (the MixPre-6s) trackside, and that’s been real useful for us.”

Brad Porter trackside

Brad Porter’s ready to capture sounds at an F1 racing event

So useful, the company now plans to invest in Sound Devices gear for future projects.

“We’ll be buying at least one MixPre-6 for the company in the next few months, followed by another one a year later,” Brad discloses. “Now that the MixPre-6 is here, they’re at an affordable price-point now, which is why I think (Sound Devices) has found a bit of a niche in the market. You’re competing with some of the recorders we would’ve bought in the past, but you’re offering amazing quality for that price.”

For the most accurate sound effects possible, the team does on-board recordings during test laps at the tracks and records externals on race day using K-tek boom poles with Rycote windshields. They pair their audio recorders with a wide variety of microphones, including miniature DPA 4061s and 4062s, shotgun mics like the Sennheiser MKH 60 or Rode NTG3, and stereo mics like the Rode NT4.

Being able to handle an assortment of microphones is one requirement the team considers vital in an audio recorder, but another feature that has proven beneficial during long sessions at the track is powering. The MixPre-6 offers several powering options from USB-C to AA batteries or L-mount Lithium-Ion batteries. For portability and longevity, the F1 audio team prefers to use the optional accessory called the MX-LMount battery sled.

James Kneen at F1 racing event

James Kneen in pit area at F1 racing event

“The L-mount batteries are awesome,” James says. “The Orca bag that I’ve got gives me access to the two sides of the L-mount sled. I found I can put one battery in, and when that’s getting low, I can put another battery on and unplug the other one, and you can constantly hotswap them. That is really useful track-side…. The L-mount accessory is great.”

When not recording the hum of powerful racing engines, the audio team has found other on-the-job uses for the MixPre-6 in the studio, such as when called upon to record team member interviews for the company’s Marketing Department.

Brad adds, “It’s great for that because it’s such a small form factor as well. You don’t have to carry a bunch of gear around with you. We can go anywhere. We can just take a MixPre-6 with us and a microphone, and we’re good to go.”

Size, inputs, and preamps are all qualities that make the MixPre-6 a “go-to” recorder for Codies’ F1 audio team, but sometimes it’s what a device doesn’t have that’s just as impressive.

David says, “While the MixPre-6 has loads of features, it doesn’t have loads of stuff that we don’t need, because what we do is different—”

“It’s not cluttered,” Brad interjects.

“Right, I mean we don’t use timecode and all that sort of stuff,” David continues, “So we don’t need a timecode generator built into the device, and it just makes it far simpler.”

“Every function feels important,” James finishes. “It’s perfect.”

“Trackside – Goodwood Circuit” was recorded by Codemasters Junior Sound Designer David Gurney. These sounds were recorded trackside at Goodwood Circuit in the UK in 2017. It features a flyover of Hawk T1s by the Royal Air Force Red Arrows aerobatic team followed by passing race cars on the track. To make the recording, he used the MixPre-6 in an Orca bag with a Superlux S502 stereo mic and Rycote baby ball gags.

Brad Porter at Drift Championship 2012Brad capturing audio trackside at a Drift Championship race a few years ago.

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Founded in 1986, Codemasters is one of the UK’s most successful games developers. Based outside of Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, the Southern campus is the global headquarters for Codemasters Software Company Limited and houses teams that create titles including the DiRT franchise. Other locations include studios in Birmingham where the Formula One series is developed and Runcorn, Cheshire which houses the Evolutions Studios success with Driveclub and Motorstorm. The company also has supporting teams in Malaysia and India. For more information, visit Codies’ website at: www.codemasters.com.

F1 Artwork with Logo

F1 2017 – Available Worldwide on Friday, August 25, 2017
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Saturday Spotlight: Sounding Out F1 2017’s Audio (Interview)

Note: This article was originally published on the Codies Blog, June 2017

When you’re driving F1 cars in-game, both classic or modern, what they sound like really makes the difference – from hearing the 2017 Scuderia Ferrari overtake you around Spa, or hearing the charm of those screaming V10s or V8s. As there’s nothing that puts a smile on our face more here at Codemasters than the sound of an F1 car driven around a circuit in anger, we sat down with F1 2017’s Audio Lead Brad Porter and Audio Designer David Gurney to sound them out about F1 2017’s audio.

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What’s new for F1 2017?

Brad: As an audio team F1 2016 was our maiden voyage, taking over from the previous audio designers. As a team we decided that an important part of our job going forward was to communicate with and take feedback from the community. So going into F1 2017 we’ve listened and we’ve made improvements as well as added many new features. As always we’re very active on the forum, on social media and on YouTube so feel free to continue sending in comments, feedback and letting us know about any issues you find. We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved as an audio team for F1 2017 and we can’t wait for you to hear the results!

David: For 2017, we’ve made a host of improvements, but the two biggest ones have been around how sound propagates through the virtual world. These are occlusion and convolution reverb. Previously, when a car disappeared behind something, like through the tunnel at Monaco, you might have been able to hear it through the wall. If a car drives behind a building or something now, the audio should change according to what is in the way. The second one is quite nerdy, but it sounds super cool. We previously used algorithmic reverb, but now we use convolution reverb. What this allows us to do is to take an ‘impulse’ of a real world location, for example a real tunnel, and apply that effect to our Monaco tunnel. We have a bunch of different impulses that are used in different environments, so each one has more character and sounds more accurate.

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How have you recorded the sound for F1 2017?

David: We attend events (with the cars) and organise our own. We take a bunch of microphones and stands, memory cards, and batteries on trips. Almost all of our recording trips take place ‘in the field’, so we have to be prepared for bad weather – like the rain at the British Grand Prix in 2016 – and good weather – like the second stage of the 2017 pre-season testing in Barcelona, where one side of my body was burnt from being stood trackside pointing a microphone all day! Recording trips are a huge amount of fun, especially when they involve my favourite sport, but they are tiring and sometimes challenging.

When it comes to recording the cars themselves, we grab as much trackside reference as we can, from as many different angles as we can, and we work alongside teams to record their cars. As you may know, car engines and exhausts are very hot to the touch – especially on high performance cars like these – so we have to be very careful with microphone placement and preparation, since we don’t want any melted cables or the microphones themselves being damaged. We generally give the equipment to the teams’ engineers who will mic the car up, according to our guidance, as they know how to balance the weight of the equipment to maintain performance.

Brad: We’ve been out and about doing some crowd recording sessions, you may have even seen us next to the podium at the Silverstone 2016 GP! We also recruited some willing Codies staff to perform chants and other crowd noise for us so if you’re lucky there’s now also a chance you’ll hear the crowd chanting driver names. We’ve also made great efforts this year to research the little details that fans may not even realise unless they visit a circuit. We’ve researched pit horns for example and ensure to the best of our knowledge that each track now has authentic pit horns triggering whenever a car enters the pit lane. Where possible we’ve grabbed the actual pit horn used on each track. With the help of some teams we’ve even recorded different types of air blowers.

What should people listen out for in F1 2017, that they might not otherwise notice?

David: One thing that I think is that when audio works well, it doesn’t get noticed.

Brad: Our new occlusion and reverb systems. We’re now using convolution in game so audio with the world now sounds far more like it belongs in that world, while tunnels now sound like tunnels and grandstands now sound like grandstands!

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

David: This job suits me down to the ground, based on my experience and interest in audio, my love for video games, and my passion for all things motorsport. It’s almost like the job was made for me. It’s a joy to work on this project, with this team. And I love Mondays.

Brad: I get to work with two other great audio guys and we’re all on the same page about how we want to drive audio forward for F1 2017 and beyond. We all have our own particular strengths and we gel really well as a team as a result, so in almost a decade of working at Codies I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had here.

What are you playing at the moment?

David: When I was asked this question, I said Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild because it had just been released. I would be lying if I said I had completed it, Hyrule is soooo big. And Mario Kart 8. Both are fantastic games.

Brad: I have a big backlog, including some games of a daunting size like The Witcher 3 but I’m renovating a house and I have a 1 year old son so I’m finding it increasingly difficult to put aside time. Right now I’m playing the odd bit of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and I’ve just started Rise of the Tomb Raider.

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We can’t wait for you to hear what both the modern and classic cars of F1 2017 sounds like, and fortunately we’ve only got until the 25th August to wait! Don’t forget that you can pre-order F1 2017 now on Steam here.

Develop – Get That Job (Interview)

Note: This article was originally published in Develop, June 2017 #183, p.44IMG_8781

This month:Brad Porter, Formula 1 audio lead at racing game developer Codemasters

What qualifications and/or experience do you need?
15 years ago or so, many audio designers were taken on with little-to-no qualifications – but today, setting yourself apart from the rest is more important than ever – so qualifications are a must.

In terms of experience, that really depends on the job role. Experience with common software such as Soundforge, audio middleware like Wise or Fmod and audio library software such as Basehead are also really good to have under your belt, regardless of the job level you are going in at.

In terms of the audio lead role, that’s normally a position you’d work your way up to based on experience, years in the industry, and a vacant position. I started in the industry with a degree in music technology but I had basically no experience with game audio. I worked my way up the ranks at Codemasters, and almost a decade later a lead role opened up. In previous roles (and still today) I was big on organisation, documenting workflow and processes, training new starters and fixing and simplifying audio systems. I think these are good strengths to have in my current job role.

If you were interviewing someone, what do you look for?
It depends on the job role we are looking to fill. Our Junior designer was taken on last year and he had no professional experience – but a general rule of thumb for juniors, I’d be expecting applicants to have a related degree – so something music tech based. With fierce competition about and more applicants than there are jobs, I’m increasingly seeing applicants with a Master’s degrees!  If we were hiring for something like an experienced or senior role, typically I’d be expecting the applicant to have put in several years within the games industry and have credits on at least one or two titles.

What opportunities are there for career progression?
I guess I’m a good example of career progression, as I started at Codies immediately after my degree as a temporary QA technician. I’ve built my way up through audio from an “associate” audio designer to a project lead. It’s taken time and I’ve had a big learning curve, So I’ve had to work closely with my peers to pick up the various skills I’ve needed along the way. There’s certainly a lot of variety in what we do and plenty of opportunities to specialise and diversify, as well as working your way up the ranks.

We’re encouraged to take many opportunities, from recording Hypercars in Italy, to F1 in Bahrain, to learning new tools and software, to interviewing applicants for new roles, to managing your own staff.

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