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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
"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."
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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.