Auto racing sound fx are some of the most difficult clips to capture. Last week’s post shared my experiences capturing field recordings at the Honda Indy and the Canadian Grand Prix.
Are you interested in recording sounds at a sporting event? Wondering how to work in a challenging environment? Want to inject personality into sound subjects you don’t control?
Today’s post shares tips for recording your own motorsports sound fx.
Stealth Field Recording Tips
A few weeks ago, I wrote about four field recording styles. The tips I’ll include this post are designed specifically for the stealth field recording style.
Why describe tips only for stealth field recording? Well, the truth is that not many people have sanctioned access to events like this. After all, how many of us are able to reserve a track for ourselves? It does happen, but rarely. We won’t let that stop us, though.
So, I thought about sharing tips using a different approach. Why not describe a way to record motorsports events with suggestions that many recordists could easily use: with a single recordist using the stealth style? My hope is that a field recording fan of any skill level can put these tips in action.
I’ve organized the tips in five sections:
- Recording: tech specs.
- Recording: capturing sound.
Have a plan. It is vital to have a plan before attending an auto racing event. It may be tempting to merely show up and scoop up any and all recordings that pass by your microphone. Yes, that will capture many field recordings, it’s true. However, more so than most other field recording trips, auto racing sessions are tactical. They require delicate planning and execution. Why?
Session effort has an inverse relationship with control. Field recordings require more tactics the farther they are beyond your control. Cars, scheduling, and positioning are examples. Tactics and planning are a way of brining these elements into a sphere of control so that you can capture sound effect more wisely with less stress. Planning ensures you’ll have the best odds finding more about what cars are racing, why they’re cool, when they’re on the circuit, and where you should be to capture the best clips.
Pick your battles. Most races are three or four day events. Which day should you attend to capture the best field recordings?
Not every race event day is the same. Often the earliest days are more casual. That includes not only the driving but also the atmosphere on the track and with the staff. Most events begin with amateur races. The first days are practices. Some qualifying heats may be sprinkled in amongst them, leading to a dedicated day of qualifying the day before the final race day.
Above all, avoid race day. Expect helicopters, blaring PA, and mobs of crowds to interfere with your field recordings. It’s dispiriting, and, frankly, a waste of time. Instead, focus on the first days of the event. Fewer people will be there. Security will be relaxed and inattentive. You’ll have more flexibility to move around.
Plan your schedule to attend more than one day. Why? Well, a single field recordist can’t be everywhere at once. Some practice events are only twenty minutes long. That may give you only enough time to capture sounds at the straightaway. Return another day to record the same cars passing on a hairpin turn.
Nail down scheduling. Race schedules change frequently, often only hours before the event. It’s not uncommon for races to be swapped for others on the schedule, particularly on the practice and qualifying days. Of course, it’s vital to know what race you’re recording. It’s also important to know the breaks between the races so you can reposition yourself, swap batteries, or check the takes you’ve captured. Where do you find this info?
Unfortunately, official race websites are notoriously bad. They’re long on marketing and short on facts. Schedules posted on official websites are unreliable. Finding a simple, reliable timetable isn’t easy. What about spotting cars by sight? Judging a race by eye is tricky since many cars look similar.
Find more accurate info at the event’s info booth at the beginning of each day. I know, that’s old school, but info on the ground works best, in my experience. Official Twitter accounts often post news about upcoming races, but unfortunately they’re often announced only minutes before the race itself. So, they’re useful for verifying what race is about to start, but little else.
The best bet is to consult live race timing websites. Those sites show a leaderboard of drivers, their times, positions, and race stats. Search the Web for “[event] live timing”. Here’s the Formula One live timing site.
Access. Some of our lucky field recording brothers and sisters may have sanctioned access to a track. That’s not our case. So, the only way you’ll get into a racing event is like the rest of planet: by buying a ticket.
Buy a ticket near the finish line. Of course, there’s no sense recording sitting in the stands by the pole position. That will be buried in crowd chatter and event PA. Instead, these tickets grant access. A gold ticket holder will have their run of the entire event. In general, they’ll be allowed everywhere, to wander in the silver grandstands, or mingle with the general admission ticket holders. The opposite won’t be true, of course. Purchasing the cheapest ticket will allow access only to general admission areas that will be swarmed with chatty crowds. Yes, gold tickets are expensive. However, they will save you pain and give you access to capture better sound fx.
Scout early. Race tracks restrict access weeks and sometimes months before an event. While it’s certainly possible to discover the general circuit layout from official websites and Google Maps, those tools aren’t a perfect substitution for the reality of the conditions on the day of the event.
Track conditions may change from year to year. New food stalls may appear, radiating compressor chatter, chugging generator noise, or bass in an area that was silent before. Grandstands and event fencing may be shfit to new areas, severing access to a golden field recording nook. What helps?
Go to the event early. Show up as soon as the event gates open. Give yourself two hours to scout the event from end to end before it begins.
Work in unattractive places. Did your scouting reveal a grandstand in the shade right next to a hairpin turn? The cars there will downshift frantically then pull slowly out of the turn. Sounds great, right?
Wrong. While it’s a great spot for field recording, you can expect spectators will love it, too. Unfortunately, the best spots for field recording will not be the same ones for enjoying the race.
Instead, a field recordist’s job is to pick the best location for sound, not necessarily for vision or comfort. I specifically set up my equipment in unattractive locations. That ensures no other chatty spectators will come near. Remember, a field recordist needs only to hear the sound properly, not see it. Use this advantage to find nooks between security fencing, locations in the blazing sun (bring an umbrella), behind grandstands, or other desolate places.
Recording: Tech Specs
Avoid Limiters. Limiters on audio recorders work similar to compressors: when the source signal exceeds a specified amount, the limiter engages and automatically diminishes the loud sound. This will protect the sound, which would otherwise be damaged. So why would I suggest avoiding limiters? Won’t they save a sound that would be ruined, otherwise?
Yes, that’s true. However, the fact is that by their very nature, limiters affect shape of the sound. It won’t be a completely representative reflection of the environment. It’s far better to set your levels a bit more conservatively so that peaks will be avoided entirely.
Please note this is a “purist” perspective. Many field recordists use limiters with great success, especially when they expect clips to be treated further with sound design.
Set sample rate and bit-depth. Set a sample rate of at least 96 kHz. That allows intrepid designers to pitch and warp the sounds without creating artifacts within the file. If you expect your audience to be processing the clips, 192 kHz wouldn’t be a bad idea, if you have the drive space.
What about bit-depth? Set the bit-depth to 24-bit. That will accommodate 144.49 decibels of sound (as compared to the 96.33 dB at 16-bit). The most advanced race cars top out at around 134 decibels, so you’ll need the extra bits to capture them properly. (The previous F1 engines were 145 dB.)
Prepare for loud sounds. Of course, stealth field recordists can’t command race car drivers to perform a test pass by for them. So, how can you prepare your equipment for these extremely loud sounds?
One trick is to test levels on a different subject that is similarly loud. A jackhammer is slightly quieter (around 130 dB). Some home alarms can also provide a good test.
The truth is that your first recordings will likely be distorted. That’s OK, though. The cars will be passing many times. Just the same, many race first laps feature characteristic “formation” or “parade” laps. The cars shimmy and swerve to warm up their tires with pumping revs. You won’t want to miss these passes. So, set your levels a bit conservatively. Expect that passes during the actual race will be significantly louder.
You researched the cars during the “Have a plan” tip earlier, right? Remove the guesswork by consulting your notes. You can estimate the levels you’ll need by comparing the engine power of the cars. An IndyCar will be much louder than an Indy Lights car, for example.
Recording: Capturing Sound
Use articulation. What sound effects should you record? I described field recording articulation in an earlier post.
The good news is that race cars and motorsports provides hundreds of different sound fx, all of which can be captured relatively easily. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Race car types: Formula One, IndyCar, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, etc.
- Speeds: the very fast passes will be the easiest to capture. Slower passes are not common and are valuable. The best bets are to capitalize on red flag situations or move to pit stop entrances.
- Car performance: start, stop, pass, approach, away, accelerate, decelerate.
- Race type: practice, qualifying, race.
- Track conditions: standard, red flag, yellow flag.
- Density: packs, stream, singles, waves.
- Race performance: parade lap, formation lap, first lap, final lap, celebration lap.
- Circuit areas: pit stop, paddock, start/finish line, tunnel, chicane.
As you can see, there’s almost an endless way to articulate a race through sound effects.
Use performance economy. The list above is quite ambitious. The truth is that capturing everything is exceptionally difficult when using the stealth field recording technique. After all, stealth recordists have little control over the cars, schedule, or performances.
In this case, a field recordist must use performance economy. Performance economy asks the question: “what are the minimum types of takes needed to capture a sound effect successfully?” It recognizes that in challenging field recording conditions, a recordist has a limited ability to capture the clips they want. They must “take what they can get.” They need to focus on the bare minimum of performances needed. How does this apply to auto racing?
Motorsports (the event, not the cars themselves) can be sufficiently captured with three types of performances:
- Decelerating into a turn.
- Accelerating out of a turn.
- Pass by on a straightaway.
With care, those three performances can be edited to recreate any track maneuver.
It’s important to make the distinction between racing events, as opposed to the cars themselves. The performance economy for a single car is far larger. However, since field recording auto racing intends to capture the environment, those three performances will do the trick.
Surely, there are more locations on a track? Yes, of course. If you have complete control of a race you can set up microphones in the pits, at the start/finish line, at chicanes, and so on. It would be good to add starting and stopping, however, since this only happens rarely during a race under very controlled conditions, it’s not really reasonable to expect to capture them.
Other tips: expect that practice races will have intensity and race-like action, but may not have the highest speeds. Qualifying is more measured. Cars will be spread out, so you’ll have the best opportunity to record single, isolated passes by.
Adapt to subjects you don’t control. One of the most difficult tasks when recording motorsports is the challenge of capturing a sound you don’t control. I suggested tips for this earlier. Use the “4 Ps” of patience, perspective, pick-up pattern, and position to record character from sound fx subjects you don’t control.
Slate. It’s easy to become caught up in the energy of the cars roaring by. Remember to slate. Of course, slating helps identify where you are and what you’re recording. That’s vital for races that sound similar and start only minutes apart. Slating also forces you to distinguish the differences in the cars and move to capture them.
Races are so loud that you may find yourself shouting slates into a microphone. Use an app to slate instead. Note differences in the car maneuvers, when the races change to yellow or red flag conditions. Consulting the race timing app mentioned in “Scheduling,” above for finer details about the race, and add those to your notes.
Move quickly. Limit how long you record at one location. Often practice or qualifying events are no longer than twenty minutes. When you calculate travel time, you’ll discover you have only a few minutes to record in each location. Aim for three minutes, then hustle to the next area.
Isn’t that a short time? In this instance, it’s fine. After a point, the cars adopt the same speed and performance in one area. So, recording ten minutes of a straightaway will be redundant, anyway.
Organize your session. It may be tempting to simply dump all your recordings into a single stereo track and begin editing. Instead, expand the number of tracks to make the long task of mastering easier.
Give each race its own stereo track. So, if you’re recording 9 races, create 9 stereo pairs. Move your clips from each race into the proper stereo pair. That helps you jump throughout that track’s timeline to compare clips, or grab snippets from similar clips.
Are you recording only one race? Create additional tracks for positions: a track for the straightaway, for decelerating into a turn, and leaving a curve.
Transfer your slates. Create markers in the timeline with your notes. You’ll have many takes from a full day of race recording. The visual markers help identify your takes after you’ve trimmed out the slates. They also help you jump around along timelines that can be hours long.
Use three-pass editing. A motorsports even has endless amounts of voices. A single field recording can provide dozens of cool sound effects. Highlight this by using three pass editing:
- Cut an ambience. Edit the track as a long atmosphere.
- Cut specifics. Pull out individual passes from the longer, cleaned ambience. Ensure the cars have long heads and tails, and proper fades.
- Cut sweeteners. Not every pass by will have a clean beginning or ending. Don’t give up on them just yet. Extract characteristic maneuvers from the ambience, and label them as “sweeteners.” While they may not be able to be used in isolation, these takes can support other fx.
Delete tracks. Getting clean race car recordings is not easy. PA, aircraft, and crowds all compete with even the loudest passes by. It may be possible to use surgical editing skill to slice these problems away. When in doubt, delete the track. It’s better to have fewer completely pure tracks.
Provide variety. One of the trickiest aspects of motorsports curation is to provide variety. Often the passes by can seem similar or repetitive.
Combat this by labelling your mastered clips distinctively. Find unique aspects of every sound. Many race cars sound like insects or animal voices. Onomatopoeias (e.g., whizz, buzz, etc.) add colour. Work these ideas into your sound file name along with the practical information such as race type and maneuver (e.g., practice, qualifying, speed, corner, etc.).
Add metadata. Racing field recordings include specific and technical info such as race type, speed, position, and so on. Fitting all this information into a single file name results in excessive names.
Shift some of this info to metadata. Begin by populating a description and keywords. Category, subcategory, and location are helpful, too. See a guideline of which metadata to use.
Package in folders. Most often a sound pro will want to edit similar cars together. So, gather similar sound effects in distinct folder. You don’t want to force a pro to hunt for an F1 pass by amongst the Pro Mazda takes. You may also want to gather your takes in sub-folders, labelled by position.
To contrast the tips in this post, here are some great resources to learn about recording race cars in the controlled field recording style.
- René Coronado described recording a 911 GT3 race car on a Tonebenders podcast episode.
- Charles Deenan wrote a step-by-step guide for recording race cars on Designing Sound.
- The Speedhunters website described a professional driver’s perspective on recording cars for the Need for Speed franchise.
This week I released a sound library of race car sounds on my Web shop, Airborne Sound. Please feel free to check them out, if you like.