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Sound Design for Motocross Games


On a dry, sunny day just outside of Phoenix, pro motocross drivers speed through the wide-open desert, doing crazy jumps and otherwise kicking up a lot of dust on their tricked-out bikes. They’re going to great lengths to rev their engines and travel at high speeds, even with no first-place prize. They do get credit, though, for accelerating the sonic integrity of games such as Motocross Madness, ATV Offroad Fury, MX Unleashed, MX vs. ATV Unleashed and many other titles developed by THQ subsidiary Rainbow Studios.

The Rainbow Studios crew, L-R: Michel Henein, Karen Muro-Waller, Dave Lowmiller, Tatyana Koziupa

When the company launched in 1992, the concepts of sound design and field recording were virtually unheard of in the game industry. But now, with better technology and bigger budgets, production companies budget for full-scale sound production. “It’s a nice fit for us to be able to develop sound for our games with cutting-edge equipment that’s accessible and really high-quality,” says Michel Henein, sound supervisor on MX vs. ATV. “It is a lot like what they’re doing in the film world.”

For the MX Unleashed title, released in 2004 for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, the Rainbow audio team took to the desert to record motocross bikes ranging from small roadsters to professional two-wheelers for the game’s track competitions, as well as jumps and landings for the freestyle section. They followed a group of trained riders with their mobile rig, which included, at the time, a Dell laptop with a MOTU 896 interface, a parabolic dish outfitted with a microphone, a Tascam DAP1 DAT machine and an assortment of dynamic and condenser mics. “We were presented with a real challenge in recording machines that are amazingly difficult to mike,” says Rainbow Studios composer/sound designer Dave Lowmiller. “The parabolic dish afforded us the ability to record a focused area of the vehicle without being invasive to the rider.”

Rainbow’s field recording rig now includes an Apple G4 Powerbook, a Digi 002 interface, outboard Focusrite preamps and a Galaxy Audio Far Outlet Model 300 S battery. “It has an AC outlet on it,” says Henein of the battery, “so if we’re out in the middle of nowhere with no power, it works really well. It puts out a pure sine wave, a 60Hz/120-volt signal and lasts for about four hours.”

The portable digital setup lets the team record with multiple mics, using a combination of Shure KSM 141s (matched pair), Sennheiser ME 66 shotguns, Neumann KMR81, two AKG D-112s (to capture low-end exhaust sounds, they say) and Audio-Technica AT-4033s for ambient sounds. The Rainbow team can also record to a Marantz PMD 670 (which records at a 48kHz sample rate direct to compact Flash cards) and an M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96.

They also record an array of larger, sometimes hard-to-find, vehicles, such as dune buggies, baja trucks (a raised truck with a NASCAR engine), monster trucks and ATVs, as witnessed on MX vs. ATV Unleashed. These automotive behemoths get placed on a dynamometer, a machine used in the auto world to measure an engine’s horsepower. “The ‘dyno’ simulates the car moving and revving,” says Henein. “We can get really dynamic sounds of the engine, exhaust and the car, but it’s stationary so it’s somewhat of a controlled environment. That way, we can place mics all around the vehicle without it moving.”

With the Digi 002, the sound designers can record all of their engine roars and exhaust fumes to multiple tracks, at 24-bit/96kHz, and generally end up with eight channels of audio to review, modify and mix at Rainbow Studios’ new 1,500-square-foot audio facility, completed last year by Russ Berger Design Group.

Inside the 700-square-foot studio lies a small recording area, iso booth and control room; the latter is equipped with a Pro Tools|HD Accel workstation; Focusrite, Buzz Audio and other preamps; Avalon comps; Dolby professional decoders; a JBL 6300 Series 5.1 system; and a THX-certified screen. Plug-ins (Digidesign EQ III Series, SoundToys Speed, Waves Platinum Bundle and IR-1 Convolution Reverb, and Serato Pitch ‘n Time) come into play during mix mode, while Sony Sound Forge is used to prepare rendered audio for game implementation.

While increased budgets allow for more authentic sounds in better-equipped studios, games are also becoming more intuitive, which presents new and more complex sound design challenges. “Having the ability to create real-world physics in a game, and having the sound respond to it, really immerses the player in the off-road experience,” says Rainbow sound designer Tatyana Koziupa. Considering the power of next-generation consoles such as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Koziupa notes, “This is an exciting time to be working in game audio.”

Heather Johnson is a Mix contributing writer.