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A Deep Dive Into Need for Speed Unbound's Sound Design

Audio Director Nathaniel Daw has told us about the peculiarities of creating sounds for Need for Speed Unbound, explained how the team achieved responsiveness, and talked about how the game's visual style affected the sound design.


I'm Nathaniel Daw, although everyone calls me Nat. I'm from Australia originally, and I've been living in the UK for the past decade. I originally started my career as an Audio Programmer, then Technical Audio Designer, and finally Audio Director. I spent a lot of time at Criterion Games as part of EA, where I worked on games like Star Wars Battlefront 1 & 2, Need for Speed (Most Wanted, Rivals, & Unbound), Battlefield (V, 1, & 2042), and also was involved in both the recent Jedi games. I've recently taken on a new position as Audio Director at Fuse Games, an exciting new studio based in Guildford, UK.

Need for Speed Unbound's Sound Design Team

For Need for Speed Unbound, we had four pillars that guided us:

  • Visceral and Responsive - Help the player feel the thrill and intensity of illegal street racing.
  • Hyperreal Sound Design - Deliver a cinematic, expanded style with a focus on the emotional experience, rather than pure realism.
  • Playful & Fresh - Let the world feel alive and characterful.
  • Sonic Signature - Provide significant audio customization, and respond to the way the player plays the game.

The Criterion audio team was a core part of the wider game team, and for production there were 10 Designers, 3 Programmers, and 1 QA specialist. We had a fairly flat hierarchy where everyone's voice was important and we always tried to be helping each other out as much as we could, and avoid siloed working wherever possible. Having a team that was always looking to help each other out was very important. From a tools perspective, the game was built in Frostbite, which is an EA game engine, and pretty much all of the audio development was done in Reaper.

Achieving Responsiveness

It was very important that the audio felt tightly responsive to the gameplay, so our vehicle sounds were tightly married to the vehicle handling and physics. There are many things that contribute to the feeling of speed, such as aerodynamics, surface sound, and passbys.

For Unbound, we built a whole new passby system that was much more reliable and involved placing detectors on pretty much every object, bridge, and tunnel in the world (some auto-generated, some by hand). This meant we were able to control exactly where we wanted them to play, and could achieve a wider variation of content. Hearing the world whipping past you as you speed through the city is crucial to delivering the intensity of the experience.

We also spent a lot of time making the various parts of the engine respond in a highly dynamic way to player input, so that the player was always able to have a clear connection between what they were doing and what they were hearing.

Setting Up Car Sounds

Engine fatigue is a big issue for racing games! Cars are exciting to listen to, but after too long, they can really start to be draining, and they will drown out most other sounds. Add 7 other racers also making sound around you (and a soundtrack too) and there's a lot of content competing in the mix. We had a highly dynamic mix that was always looking to make space for what was the most important thing at a given moment. So during acceleration and gear changes, the player's car would be at the forefront. But when driving at high speed then we pulled the sound of the engine right back and made more room for aerodynamics and passbys.

During events, we wanted music to take the focus, so we would pull everything else back in key moments in races. It meant there was a lot going on to manage, but the end result was a highly dynamic mix that wasn't fatiguing or boring. Making sure we were focusing on the right thing at all times and not being beholden to always having to hear one thing was critical in establishing our dynamic mix.

The artistic style of the game gave us a fantastic opportunity to develop a whole new pallette for a racing game. Now we were able to use frequencies and sonic textures that wouldn't fight with the engine content, so it could stand out in the mix, and act as a contrast to the more grounded content. We also expanded on this concept by adding a type of customization called "Samples". This was a layer of sound design effects that would sit on top of the other car content and respond to things like gear changes and speed. Some of it was to add extra texture, and some of them were quite out there – such as Monster, or Mad Scientist. It was a really fun way to get more character and customization into the experience.

Sounds of the World

A lot of care went into creating the sounds of the world. Even if players would largely be zooming around it, we wanted to make sure that any moments of peace would have a feel of a living, breathing city around them. When playing the game I recommend just parking somewhere and listening to the ambience – it's very relaxing! It's a large world, so there was a lot of area to cover, and we also had to respond to different times of day and weather conditions, but the team met the challenge admirably to cover all that content.

We also decided on this game to not have a constantly playing radio, but rather to treat the music for the game more like an open world adventure game, where the music would come in for a bit when you started driving, but then fade away to give the car time to shine on its own. We also had ambient music coming in when you were stopped to achieve a similar effect. This also meant that when we went big with music in events it would feel like a special moment.

Tips for Beginning Sound Designers

Sound is a rich field and there are many areas to specialise in, such as sound designer, recording, dialogue, music, or implementation (my particular passion). Learning about all of them will help make aspiring designers more rounded, but it will also help them get an idea of what sort of sound designer they want to be. Especially important is learning about how to make a good clean mix that brings focus to the right things. It doesn't matter how good your sound design is if the mix isn't clear.

Additionally, developing an idea of what you want to communicate through sound is very important, so that you have a 'voice' to bring to any team you are working with. Of course, the best way to get good at making games is to make some games! Get involved in game jams, or solo projects, or whatever you can find so that you can learn by doing – that's where you'll learn the most.

Nathaniel Daw, Audio Director

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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