One of the most challenging sequences a sound editor can face is a car chase. Vehicles are tough. Even the most experienced designer can hit a wall when trying to make them work. This is by no means a complete guide, however, this primer should prove helpful for those looking to dip their toes into the wild world of vehicle sound editorial.
Note: There’s a particular type of vehicle sequence which focuses on quick cuts. Think Edgar Wright montage moment: door slam - smash cut - key turns engine on - smash cut - foot on pedal to rev engine - smash cut - tires peel out. I love these sequences, but they are relatively easy to cut. Why? Because it’s all hard cuts in and out. Finding natural ways to fade between the all the disparate parts of a car engine’s cadence to create a multi-minute car chase, now that’s a big challenge. It’s the latter that I’ll be focusing on for this post.
STEP 1: GATHER YOUR SOUNDS
It’s exciting to cut cars. You’ll likely want to dive in full force as soon as possible, but that’s a common mistake. Engines are complicated and you’ll need a lot of puzzle pieces to make things work. The best thing you can do for yourself is to find and collect sounds before cutting a single region. If you find a great single sound and dive in, you may spend hours trying to make it work with other sounds. Instead, start by filling the Pro Tools bin with all the essential vehicle elements (see below). Ideally these would be from the same recording/collection but it’s not essential unless you are working on a car commercial or film where a specific vehicle is being featured.
If you can’t find everything you need in one sound collection, don’t sweat it. The viewer isn’t looking at your pro tools timeline. Pick sounds from multiple vehicles. As long as they play like they are the same vehicle with your eyes closed you’re good to go. Your best bet is to try and keep within the same family of vehicles (Italian sports cars, muscle cars, etc). Still having trouble? Purchase a library for the job. You’ll get all the pieces you need to get moving quickly and it’s a great excuse to expand your library for future use.
VEHICLE EDITORIAL CHECKLIST
In general, be sure you have the following essentials ready before editorial starts:
accelerations (accel) both interior and exterior at multiple speeds
decelerations (decel) both interior and exterior at multiple speeds
steady driving both interior and exterior at multiple speeds
revs both interior and exterior
pass bys (camera/mic is stationary)
engine starts (turn on)
engine stops (turn off)
engine idle (be sure this file is of a decent length)
drive aways (camera/mic is stationary)
drive ins/arrives (camera/mic is stationary)
gravel/dirt bys and steadys
Bonus material (on a case by case basis)
suspension rattle steadys
STEP 2: THE NUTS AND BOLTS
The key to great vehicle editorial (and most editorial for that matter) is to make things sound natural. Our eyes and ears will catch on to falsehoods quickly, seeing behind the curtain if not done properly. Start your editorial by keeping in mind and avoiding these common mistakes:
Overt pitching - Pitching engines to create motion can make a real recording sound artificial. Instead, focus on utilizing the natural pitch changes found in your accel and decel sounds. Everything you need should be at your fingertips if you followed step one and gathered a wide variety to work with. Keep in mind, this is only an issue when cutting natural vehicles. Pitching an other-worldly vehicle (like a hoverboard or UFO) can produce great results as our brains will suspend disbelief for the sound of objects not found in our world.
Layering of multiple engine sounds - In the real world, the right engine sound can be powerful and expressive all on its own. Don’t layer multiple engines to get your point across, it will just muddy things up. Instead focus on finding the right sound for the right moment.
Fading in and out for pass bys and aways/ins - The camera is the viewer. If the camera is stationary, it’s necessary to utilize an actual recording of a vehicle passing by or driving in or away rather than simply fading in and out of an on-board recording. Without the true character obtained from these recordings, the edit will sound flat and unnatural.
Similar sounding vehicles - If you have a scene with more than one vehicle, you need to be sure each vehicle stands out from one another. Cutting back and forth to each vehicle should be a stark change. The sound choices you make can set you up for success or failure. Even if in the real world two cars would sound similar, cheat your choices to make it happen. In the end, your scene will sound much more dynamic and be easier for the viewer to follow.
START THE PUZZLE
We’ve gathered our sounds, now we need to start putting the puzzle together. Consider the following and find a balance between the two:
Reality - Put yourself in the driver’s seat. At any given moment, what is the engine doing?
Story - Are we building tension (accelerating) or releasing it (decelerating)?
BREAK IT DOWN INTO SMALLer CHUNKS
With vehicle editorial, every sequence of shots becomes its own mini build. Start by finding the first and last shot in each sequence. These are your boundaries. Once the camera cuts away entirely from the vehicle, your mini build is complete and you get the opportunity for a full reset (take advantage of it!). For example, if you are building an extreme acceleration to add tension, you only need to get to the end of that last shot before the cut away, at which point you can start your engine back at a lower RPM.
FIND YOUR HOME BASE
I like any vehicle edit to have two standard jumping off points which I call home base. It’s always best to start with relatively long versions of these sounds. Is the car stationary? A steady Idling is your home base. That’s a pretty easy one to find in a length of even a minute or more. Is it driving along at a steady pace? This one is a bit trickier. Ideally a steady for driving shouldn’t poke it’s head out. It’s not an extreme acceleration or deceleration. However, it does need to have some motion. Try and find a build of long slow acceleration, where the car shifts up in gears over time, continuing to sound as though it’s making forward progression. Once you’ve cycled through a few gears, you can use a fast deceleration to go back to first gear and start things all over again. Loop it and that’s your steady driving home base. Tip: What if you have a fast acceleration but no fast deceleration? Try reversing the sound to create a natural sounding progression back to first gear. In fact, reversing engine sounds often works great for many situations, doubling your available material.
CONSIDER THE PERSPECTIVE
Perspective cutting isn’t just for jumping from the interior to exterior. You can get very different expressions from the interior engine compartment (for example, a shot of the front end of a vehicle) and the throaty back end (for example, a shot of the exhaust pipes). The possibilities are only limited to the number of microphone placements you have in your sound library.
Should you have the luxury of simultaneous recordings, the easiest approach to these cuts is to start with all perspectives needed for a shot layered on top of one another. Then you simply edit them as a group, cutting from one perspective to another. This keeps a very natural transition in tact. If you don’t have that luxury, you’ll need to start matching your sound choices as best as possible. The best tool at your disposal is creative cross-fading. At this point, it’s about trusting your ears to ensure these fades make natural transitions between your sounds. Tip: If picture calls for it, you can mask a tough edit with a strong engine rev.
STEP 3: THE FINAL TOUCHES
You’ve got your engine on point! Now it’s time to add all the extras that will bring your vehicle to life:
Layers of dirt and gravel to shots of tires
Suspension rattles to interiors of older cars
These are not only essential elements, but they are also great tools to help you trick the viewer. A properly placed tire skid can mask a so-so edit and often times is the element we want to feature in the mix. A rattly interior can play just as important a role as an engine steady in telling the story of a vehicle and it’s history.
BONUS MATERIAL - DESIGN VEHICLES
All of the above applies to sound editorial for real world vehicles. When working with other-worldly vehicles (like a hoverboard or UFO) or unconventional ones (like a car with a hybrid turbine engine) you can break a lot of rules and get great results as our brains will suspend disbelief for the sound of objects we are not familiar with. Here are a few examples:
Pitching works great on synthesized vehicles. Try it out the next time you need to make a jetpack or laser scooter.
Unusual engine choices can work great with a Mad Max style DIY warrior vehicle. An engine is an engine. Try playing around with outboard boat motors or use throaty Harleys to get your point across.
Take a design approach to engine sweeteners when appropriate. Adding lion roars or guttural screams to engine revs during design focused sequences can be super interesting.
To close out Nickelodeon’s 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, we recorded Executive Producer Ciro Nieli’s 1969 Mustang GT to serve as the entire engine source material for the epic Shellraiser vehicle. Check out this video for some behind the scenes details on how our sound team recorded and edited Ciro’s Mustang to bring this vehicle to life.