Race Car Sound FX: Capturing Differences Through Sound

2015/12/02

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Earlier this year, I discovered an excellent field recording opportunity: the Montréal Grand Prix and the Toronto Honda Indy car races landed on two consecutive weekends.

The Formula 1 Grand Prix is one of the most popular sports in the world. With 450 million global viewers, it ranks closely with American football, basketball, and baseball. F1 fans can cheer for drivers, root for their home nations, or pledge fealty to teams such as Ferrari or McLaren. North America’s Road to Indy is a loose equivalent. It is a ladder of increasingly demanding races, each with its own drivers, teams, and car specs or “formulas.” The locations were just as rich in detail: Toronto’s fast-paced, no-nonsense lifestyle contrasted with Montréal’s easy-going feel. While both weekends hosted the same sport, the two events could not be more different.

My thought in June, 2015: why not visit both the F1 and the Honda Indy to compare the car sounds, races, locations, and the experience of field recording these powerful machines? And behind this plan was an idea: could I capture those differences in sound?

I packed my gear and travelled to Montréal.

What did I find at those races? Today’s post shares my experiences capturing sound effects at both of these events using the stealth field recording style. I’ll also share how I mastered and prepped the sounds in preparation for publishing a new sound library.

So, grab a coffee and get ready for a deep dive into an experience field recording auto racing sound effects. Next week, I’ll share quick tips for recording your own race car sound effects.

The Concept: Capturing an Elusive Engine Sound

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I had visited the Honda Indy three times before, and recorded each time (here and here and here). While the Indy is undoubtably an impressive event, I was eager to capture sounds of the pinnacle of auto racing: the Formula One Grand Prix. Few recordings of these elite race cars exist.

I had actually attended the F1 a handful of times as well, however my only field recordings of the race were made over a decade ago with a binaural microphone tracked to a DAT machine at 48 kHz. I was eager to capture higher-resolution sounds.

What’s more, the F1 had issued fresh engine specifications in 2014. I loved the sound of the distinctive, whirling new V6 turbo engine. I was determined to capture the whine and screams of those cars. I also had my eye of a few other races that weekend, including the Ferrari Challenge and Formula 1600 races.

The Honda Indy had a similar roster of cars as previous years. I had recently bought better gear, so I wanted to record the engines with higher sound quality. The event had two bonus races I could capture, too: the CTCC and Porsche GT3 Challenge.

In total, there were 9 races on my list.

Research: Creating a Field Recording Strategy

I began to plan my attack.

Exploring the Target

Race Logo Montage - F1 and Indy

I was familiar the Honda Indy, of course. However, I brushed up on the car specs, the races, and the drivers using a mix of Wikipedia, official websites, and fan forums. I studied the new Porsche race, and learned about the custom 911 GT3s.

I invested more time researching the Canadian Grand Prix. The race rules and car specs had changed significantly since my last visit. The new, more efficient V6 turbo engines ran at 12,000 RPM (diminished from the previous 18,000 RPM V8s). They were more environmental, which tempted new sponsors. There was a hidden bonus, too: the engines sounded really cool. Some claimed the move was to help create excitement at the track. And while I salute any appreciation of the power of sound, I learned that the new engines were far quieter.

Breaking Down the Races: Using “Performance Economy”

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Unfortunately, I didn’t have sanctioned access to the tracks. So, I was forced to work stealth. There are advantages and disadvantages to using the stealth field recording technique, as we saw last week. It’s an excellent way to maximize serendipity, inspiration, and freedom. However, I knew I had to relinquish control.

That makes sense. When working stealth, a field recordist has to pick their battles. Performances are limited, and unpredictable. I had no impact on the races. Both events were proceeding whether I was there or not. I couldn’t dictate when the races began, or how the drivers performed.

So, I approached the races with the perspective of performance economy. In other words, I made a list of the absolute minimum fx I needed to capture the race cars:

  • Accelerating.
  • Decelerating.
  • Passing by.

With care, these three performances can be edited to recreate almost any other race car maneuver. Of course, I would capture every additional performance I could. However, these three sound fx were the bare minimum I needed. If I could capture them at various speeds, the mission would be a success. Anything else would be a bonus.

With this in mind, I plotted my target recording locations on the race maps of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montréal and Exhibition Place in Toronto.

I made a rough list of performances I wanted. With a total of 9 races, three race types (practice, qualifying, race), speed variations, densities, and track conditions, I outlined a daunting 800 clips to capture across the two weekends.

It was trickier than you’d expect to find race schedules. The times often change only hours before the track opens. By a stroke of luck, I stumbled across a new tool: race timing websites. These sites shared precise details of what was happening on the track, and when – down to the second – all visible on my iPhone. They relayed live leaderboard lap times, vehicle performance, positional location, and more for every car in the race. Those sites proved to be the most valuable tool.

Access & Scouting: Adaptation

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I had visited both circuits in the past. I was familiar with the track layout. However, new seating areas, relocated food stalls, or safety fence alterations can create even small changes that drastically affect capturing field recordings. So, scouting the locations remained vital.

Unfortunately, auto racing tracks are off-limits weeks or months before the events. Scouting the locations was impossible. The next best option was to arrive early and take time before the races to review locations.

I had my best stealth kit prepared for the F1. I needn’t have worried. The event staff couldn’t’ve cared less. They didn’t check bags. I could have wheeled a Pro Tools road case into the track if I had wanted.

That was offset by every other aspect of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The track was huge, and larger than I remembered. At 4.3 km (2.7 miles), it was 1.5 km (~1 mile) longer than the Indy circuit. The winding pedestrian paths made it difficult to get around. It took half an hour to walk from one end of the track to the other. That meant less time to capture races in each location.

What’s more, environmental noise was discouraging. The track is actually in a park on an island a short distance from Montréal. Given this, you’d think that problem sounds wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately, a music festival in the centre of the track produced pounding bass. There was a helipad next to the circuit. PA blanketed the event. The F1 is extremely popular, and fans arrived in swarms. The few places without crowds were heavily restricted. There was very little access to the trackside.

How did that experience contrast with the Indy? After the F1, the Indy felt like a gift. While gear was not allowed inside, the track was tighter. It was easy to march between broad trackside locations in mere minutes. Also, Toronto didn’t have many race fans, and the track was essentially empty on the first days of the race.

Recording: Using an Unexpected Technique

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If I was to suggest a tip for recording auto races, it wouldn’t have anything to do with gear selection or even technique. After all, challenges such as circuit length, twittering birds, or thumping bass aren’t fixed by swapping a handheld recorder for a $2k microphone. What helped me, then?

Patience.

I know. That’s not the most bankable tip, is it? How can patience help capture better sound effects? Surely there’s a time-tested field recording technique or some microphone wizardry that helped me document the race cars?

Yes, those things do help. However, they will not solve every problem. Imagine recording 6–8 hours a day three days straight with the searing sun beating down on you. Then, every time you begin to record, an airplane or drunk voice or burst of birdsong kills the recording only a few seconds into each take.

An earlier article had mentioned patience as one of the 4 Ps that help you capture sound effects that are beyond your control. Never was I was more aware of its importance than during those two races. How did patience help?

Well, I knew the cars would perform multiple times over three days. This schedule was vital to gathering enough material. It created many chances to get the takes I needed. After all, a single run-and-gun recordist can’t be everywhere at once. Three days provided many opportunities to revisit locations and retry recordings to capture the coverage I needed.

So, while patience may seem like a less “actionable” tip than wisely selecting microphones, aiming them properly, or constructing elaborate sound baffles, it was invaluable nonetheless. It illustrated the value of perspective and strategy.

Perspective helped me realize that the race could be approached differently than standard field recording. It wasn’t a one-shot opportunity such as frantically trying to capture a sudden, passing siren. The shoot was forgiving. It created multiple chances. That’s a gift, and an important aspect to remember when planning a field recording shoot.

What does strategy add to a field recording shoot, then? It increases the odds with planning and tactics you control. Strategy allowed me to map recording locations and times to take advantage of track logistics over the three-day schedule.

Recording: Using Conventional Tips

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Adopting a zen-like mentality allowed me to withstand hovering helicopters, race delays, and shrieking kids. To patience, perspective, and strategy, I added more conventional tricks. Strategically narrowing microphone patterns helped isolate cars and reduce off-stage problem sounds. A light, portable kit allowed me to creep to new positions when chatty crowds camped near me. (Learn how to use these tricks in an earlier article.)

The challenges at the F1 track were initially incredibly discouraging. With time, though, I found some holes. Since stealth wasn’t required, I began to record openly. Race officials were fascinated, and actually helped me capture some great tracks. The other fans were friendly and the event changed from a disaster into a success.

While recording at the Indy wasn’t as free as at the F1, a major benefit was the lack of fans. At one point, I was the only spectator at all of my locations and had complete flexibility to capture long, clean takes.

I hustled from straightaway to curve and back throughout 8 hour days capturing each car performing and every race type. I walked away from both events with my data cards filled but the question remained: how many takes would survive the challenges of the track?

Mastering

I returned to the studio with 8 hours of field recordings. I spent the next three weeks mastering the sound fx, spreading out the work to give my ears a break from the loud, intense sounds.

Organizing the mastering sessions was crucial. I arranged the sessions by car and race type. This was helpful to find approaches or departures from similar cars and steal them to replace troublesome heads and tails of sounds elsewhere in the track.

Markers were essential to sorting out the scores of tracks in the sessions. I transferred the slates to Pro Tools markers so I could keep my place even after the tracks were trimmed.

I used a three-pass clip selection mastering technique when editing. I cut the tracks as ambiences first. I pulled out clean single passes by as I mastered the atmospheres, then cut those next. I viciously deleted any take with voices, PA, helicopter, distant bass, or gusts of wind. A few single passes had problems with their heads or tails. They wouldn’t be sufficient alone. However, I was reluctant to delete such characteristic takes. So, I trimmed them tightly, and saved them as sweeteners to enhance other tracks.

iZotope’s RX was indispensable. I used spectral repair to attenuate small problem sounds or replace them by copying and pasting slivers of the spectrum from elsewhere. Bird chirps were easy to spot and fix. Voices and PA were trickier, and in most cases, impossible to remove.

I have mentioned the importance of keeping only your very best field recordings for your sound library. I invested a reasonable amount of time attempting to repair troublesome files, then viciously sliced away any clips that didn’t completely impress me.

The result? My raw 16 gigabytes were slashed by 65% to 325 mastered files in 5.7 gigabytes.

Curation

The chief challenge during the curation stage was sorting the races, performances, cars, and locations. There was a massive variety of clips. Since stealth recording doesn’t allow vocal slating, my slates, notes, and Pro Tools markers were essential not only when mastering, but when naming the sounds during curation, later.

After all, how would a sound pro unfamiliar with motorsports know the difference between a Pro Mazda and an IndyLights car? Could they tell the difference between driving during practice or qualifying? I wanted to give pros the tools they needed to distinguish and sort the cars.

I was armed with my knowledge from my research, earlier. I baked my notes into ~20 Soundminer metadata fields.

Metadata fields

Metadata fields

I added a technical name as well as a readable “friendly name” so pros could search and sort the 325 files as they preferred. (Learn more about the tricks I use to name sound effects.)

Dual names in metadata

Dual names in metadata

To add context, I also created a spec sheet that explained each of the races, how they differed, car specifications, field recording maps, and more. That would help curious pros dig deeper.

Race car sound library "spec sheet"

Race car sound library “spec sheet”

Beyond providing sound searching and info tools for pros, the curation step was essential to help dig out the differences I was attempting to find across the two weekends.

After all, I had finished with almost 6 gigabytes of audio. How is it possible to pull out unique, distinctive sounds from so much material? The raw tracks were overwhelmingly loud, and seemingly repetitive – at least at first listen.

Curation solves this problem. It separates, sorts, and distinguishes each sound effect to give each clip its own personality. Unfortunately, curation has an often overlooked role in the arc of field recording sound effects. In fact, it’s a vital step. It forces a thoughtful consideration of the sound effects you record, and applies those differences to the tracks for others.

Results

Researching, recording, mastering, and curating 9 races across two consecutive weekends was a larger task than I had expected. But was it worth it? Did I capture the differences of the cars, the events, and the cities in sound?

Listen to these samples and decide:

Formula One Event

First, let’s see if I was able to capture the new Formula One engines.

The first take is of an F1 race with the cars passing by very fast on a straight. Notice the whine combined with a whiffling aspect and the trim pass by. All those features point to highly-sophisticated engine design:

This take is a sound effect of the Formula One cars decelerating. Notice the groan, cough, and whine as the cars pass. The gargling sound at around 0:11 is a Red Bull car (if I recall correctly).

The character of those engines are not matched by any other race car. Let’s see how they compare to the other cars at the Montréal event.

Here is the sound of the Formula 1600 cars racing. Notice the deep, buzzing aspect of a less advanced engine. The cars are slower, contributing to the dense, swarming aspect of the passes by.

The final Canadian Grand Prix race was the Ferrari Challenge. These Ferrari F430s are revamped versions of the street models. The first take is of the cars accelerating impatiently by. Notice the tight yet coarse aspect of the engines.

Surprisingly, the Ferraris contributed a highly unusual sound when decelerating. This take features a distinctive wail with pumping revs unmatched by any other race car:

Honda Indy Event

The F1 sound samples represented high to low engine sophistication. The Honda Indy event included more cars with a finer gradation of engine styles. Let’s look at them from least- to most- sophisticated.

The CTCC auto race features re-tooled street car engines. Because of this, the cars presented a wide variety of engine tones at a slower, ambling speed. Here’s a track of the CTCC cars decelerating into a turn. The CTCC cars have a coarse, nasal buzz with a whirling aspect towards the end of the take.

The USF2000 cars are a step up. Their engines added a lot of character.

Here the USF2000 cars are approaching and passing at high speed. Notice the coarseness of the buzzing engine:

That buzz really sticks out while the cars decelerate into a turn:

Here’s a track of the USF2000 cars passing by. Listen for the cool, shuddering aspect at 0:09:

Compare the buzz of the USF2000 motor to the next race car on the Road to Indy ladder: the Pro Mazda. Here the Pro Mazda cars race by in a sprint. The buzz is higher and tighter, indicating an engine with superior engineering.

The Pro Mazdas add a whiffling and popping aspect when they decelerate, reminiscent of the F1 cars:

This Pro Mazda clip features a difference in the Exhibition Place circuit: the cars pass by amongst tall buildings, giving the passes by a reverberant aspect, as if they are in a tunnel:

The Indy Lights race cars follow the Pro Mazdas. Here’s a clip of the Indy Lights passing by quickly. While the engine sound isn’t as trim as the Pro Mazdas, the speed is higher, and the cool, rippling backfire is quicker and tighter as the cars whiz and skip by.

Here the Indy Lights decelerate into a turn. Notice the rippling aspect of the backfire and a slight whining aspect.

For comparison with the Pro Mazda, here are the Indy Lights passing by in the same tunnel-like area:

The summit of the Road to Indy is the IndyCar motor race. They approach the similar engine power as the Formula One. Let’s see how the IndyCars compare as they race at top speed on a straight:

Here the IndyCars decelerate into a turn with choppy backfire. Notice how the deceleration is more controlled than other Indy race models:

Read More

What conclusions did I draw from recording the two events? Stay tuned: the next post will share those ideas in tips and tricks you can use to record your own race car events.

Note: I will be releasing a sound library of these field recordings next week on Airborne Sound. Join the free Airborne Sound newsletter, follow the store on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS feed. I’ll let you know when the sound library is live.

Mercedes engine courtesy Mercedes. Raw map file courtesy of Will Pittenger.





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