Cars, Cars, Cars

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After just having wrapped up Ramin Bahrani’s upcoming At Any Price, which had two dramatic car races in it, and having recently worked on John Hyam’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which had an extensive and brash car chase, we thought we’d take the opportunity to have a brief discussion on the art of car chase sound in film. There are a few rules of thumb we bring to any car scene that, when applied, keep the scene consistent, kinetic, and always dramatic.

1) Choose your car sound wisely.  When working on a car chase or race, chances are there’s going to be a “hero” car – one car that we follow throughout the scene.  On higher-budget films, the sound crew can actually go out and mic the car they want from every angle and at every speed*, and make their own library for use in the film. For lower-budget films we don’t have that luxury, and have to rely on pre-existing audio libraries.  Before you begin editing a car scene, take a long time to find a car that’s been recorded in every way that will be represented in the scene. If you find a car engine sound that works great when the car is shot from the side moving really fast, but has no corresponding recordings for when the car is shot from the interior, or is stopping, or is moving more slowly, you’re going to have a very hard time making a consistent edit where it sounds like the same car from every angle. Some of the best car recordings will have the car simultaneously miked from a few different angles over the course of a single take – so there will be three or four tracks of the car, for instance, starting up and driving away – one track of the car’s interior, one of its tires, one of its muffler, one of its engine, all recorded at the same time. The brilliance of this is that you can have a continuous take of a car in action – the same car in action – as you cut from angle to angle in the scene. It sounds seamless. 

2) Diagram the scene by car angle. When we build out a car chase, we’ll frequently cut all the angles of the car in parallel and build out the scene matching the car’s speed and maneuvers, then go in after the fact and checkerboard between the car’s different angles to match shot by shot.  There are many benefits to this method: for instance, you may discover that a little muffler is needed in the interior shots to make the car sound more growly, and you’ll find that by cutting everything simultaneously, you’ll have already cut in muffler from the car from the same exact moment as its interior – you can craft each shot with a cocktail of the car’s different angles, and the angles will always be in sync with one another. Another benefit of this method is that when the shot cuts from interior to exterior, or front to back, you’ll have a continuous moment created between all those angles so the car sounds completely consistent.

3) Watch out for Level Creep. Level Creep is the tendency for everything to get so loud that there’s no way to make the big moments feel loud enough. In a car chase or race, one’s instinct is inevitably to make things loud.  And they should be! But you’ll need to create peaks and valleys in the dynamic range of the scene so that the moments which need to feel the biggest have a place to sit above other, less important moments. A great example of this can be found in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning: there are several collisions and side-swipes throughout the extensive chase scene; at first we were having trouble getting these moments to have the impact necessary. But the meters were peaking on each hit – they were certainly big, as big as we would be able to make them. What we needed to do was lower the moments before and after the hits, to carve a space for the collisions so that they would be perceivedas larger. The best way to avoid level creep is to start with the most important moments in a chase scene – any action scene, really – and make those as loud as they can be, then work around them, making sure the other moments in the scene are eased off a bit.  This not only makes the key moments feel huge, it also gives some relief to the listener, avoiding ear fatigue.

4) Inject variety wherever possible.  Choose places for the car to slow down, so that it has somewhere to go when it has to speed up. A car driving at max speed the whole time starts to sound as boring as a car driving on cruise control.  A great example of this is the ARCA racing scene in At Any Price, when Zac Efron’s character Dean Whipple is racing a pro-stock car for the first time.  During the edit process a temp sound effects pass was done to this scene by the picture editing crew, and though a great choice was made in the quality of the engine representing Dean’s car, the audio that was cut in for all the interior shots was the same moment of the engine at full rev, repeated again and again.  When the time came for Dean to try to speed upin the scene, there was nowhere to go! It sounded like the car had already been going as fast as it could since the scene began.  When we were able to start our sound edit and re-worked the scene, we kept the same engine choice for Dean’s car, but we varied its speed as much as possible so that when he needed to speed up, there was room to go full-throttle.  This is really the same strategy as rule #3/Level Creep – create peaks and valleys so the most important moments can stand out. In this case, it’s by choosing the right time for the car to speed up and slow down, as opposed to carving out terrain with volume automation.

When it comes to the mix there are a few things that can really help. Take down the level of any ambience tracks that are not going to really be heard above the roar of the engine sounds. If they are not going to punch through, then chances are they are just mucking up the mix and taking valuable space. You may find an opportunity to lift them in certain areas where they can help after you have built up the scene. Use the biggest baddest engine FX as the framework for the scene.  Set those levels first and then think about the icing like tire squeals and rocks flying. Keep the panning as dynamic as possible. Look for opportunities to move sounds around and to split certain sounds off left or right.  If you have two cars battling it out side by side it will really help to jeep them panned a bit off center when picture allows it. Don’t be afraid to boost the dialog lines above the roar. Often in an action scene with loud cars there will be a bit of dialog.  It can really kill the energy of the scene if you dip the effects way down to hear the dialog.  Try pushing the dialog way up to get over the car volume.  It not uncommon to have dialog in critical action moments 10 or 12 db hotter than you normally would.  Trust your ears.  The scene has to feel exciting, so keep working the elements so that the flow and punch of the effects is right.  Remember to look for something to pull down in level as well as looking for things to turn up.  You want to feature key sounds in key moments and not end up with sonic mush.

Sound designing and mixing car scenes can really be a ton of fun.  They generally take a lot of time, and the sheer amount of sounds that can end up on the tracks can be a bit mind boggling, but if you can keep the design, levels and panning changing in dynamic ways they can really shine.    


*For more information on miking a car for recording, check out “Rob Nokes Special: Guide to Recording Cars” on

Thomas Efinger