Interview: Max Lachmann – Co-Founder of Pole Position Production

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field_sunsetYou may have never heard of Pole Position Production, but if you're even slightly immersed in the world of video games, you've heard their work. The list of AAA franchises they've been involved with¨ can be made long. Wolfenstein, Medal Of Honor, Battlefield, Borderlands, Need For Speed, Just Cause, Forza Horizon, Twisted Metal, Batman - you get the point. These Swedish audio aficionados have been in the business of providing audio assets for the gaming industry for 10 years, as well as composing soundtracks for titles like the Mad Max video game. In addition they've become known for hi-res sample libraries that cater to the entertainment industry's various audio needs, from vehicle FX to gun sounds.

With some help from my friends at DICE, I was able to have a sit down with one of the founders of the company, Max Lachmann, and chatted about the work that his company is engaged in, from recording vehicles to releasing sample packs.

Hi Max. Thanks for sitting down to talk to me about the work Pole has been doing. Can you give me the story of how the company came to be and what you guys worked with in its early stages?

Bernard Löhr was one of my mentors whilst he was working at Polar Studios. He founded the company in the year 2000 with one of his colleagues, and asked me to join them. At that time, Pole was primarily a music production company. So we wrote and produced songs in our attempt to be a part of the Swedish music industry boom that was happening at that time period. Around 2006, the music industry started to lose a lot of money, and we struggled as a result. Around that same time, however, we were asked to do sound design for a motorsport game. Bernard was a race driver, and one of his competitors, who was also a game developer, approached us about doing sound for his game, and that's how we were able to get started in the game industry.

Did you feel that the music production work you did in the early 2000s was able to sustain the company until you got involved in video game audio?

Yes, it was. Mats Lundgren, our 3rd partner, is still producing music for the company, and all of us are involved in music in some way or another. It's just not the main focus of the company anymore.

It says on Pole's website that you do work with "platinum selling artists" and "Hollywood films". Can you talk about some of these projects?

Bernard is a legendary engineer who's mixed songs by Westlife, Celine Dion and Backstreet Boys. He also manages Benny Andersson's studio, Mono Music Studio, and also worked on the Mama Mia soundtrack for the 2008 movie. So that kind of stuff reflects well on Pole as a company.

We garnered a reputation in the game business after working in it for a number of years, but we realized that film was a big market and changed some of our techniques in order to adapt to that.

It's been 10 years since Pole started creating vehicle audio assets for games. Why have you allowed that reputation to remain so dominant over the years, instead of branching out to other aspects of audio services that you could provide for the media world?

We were so heavily involved with vehicles that it kind of stuck in the early stages. It's only in the last couple of years that we felt that we should let people know of our other abilities. Mats does music composition for AAA games like "Just Cause 2" and "Mad Max". He's been doing music full time for Pole for over 10 years.

When we started recording vehicles in 2006, we had no clue of how to go about things. We didn't know any other people who worked in this field, so we started from scratch and developed our own methods. It wasn't until 2011 when we met Ben Minto, the Senior Audio Director at DICE, that we realized that there were other people who did the same thing. Aside from that, Ben opened up many doors for us and that we have a lot to thank him for.

I also saw on your website that you offer consultation for certain media projects. Such services include 3D animation and editing. How does an audio company manage to offer those services?

We work with the Blom Brothers on those jobs. They cover anything that has with cinema to do, from scripts to film music to directing and visual effects. So since we can handle the audio aspect, we figured that we could work closely with them on an increased range of projects.

I see. Well, let's talk about vehicle recording. What's the danger level associated with this kind of work, particularly with recording military vehicles and high-speed racing cars?

In our line of work the dangers can present themselves in different ways, though it usually comes down to sitting in very fast-moving vehicles with drivers whose capabilities you don't know that well. In terms of damaged vehicles, we did once rigged a car that didn't come back in one piece, but thankfully no-one was in it, haha.

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Have you ever had  to blow up a car and record the explosion?

No, but we did blow an engine in a Lamborghini once, though that's not as interesting as you might imagine.

I've heard that in the early days of Pole's vehicle recordings, you only placed microphones on the exterior of the cars, but as you ventured into producing audio for film, you had to place mics in the interior also. Is that true

We've always used mics both inside the vehicle and on aboard the exterior, even during the game recordings. You need that in order to create realistic audio for both 1st and 3rd person views in the game. For film, however, you need to produce the sound of a car approach an object, driving away from an object, pulling to a stop and opening the door, a car chase, etc. That was what we didn't have initially, but we do those now.

I've looked at your sample library shop, which is quite extensive. How have you gone about amassing all those car models that the average person can't find at a dealership?

Well, we're a company with a big interest in cars and motorsports, so we have a lot of connections in that world, from car clubs to car owners to race events. So we use those connections, and each contact leads to another contact, so it grows steadily over the years.

What about guns and army vehicles? Don't you need a military contact to get access to those kinds of things?

Yes you do. We have that, haha. Military recordings can be tricky. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. It's very hard to control the environment that you record in. Sometimes you might get invited to attend a military event, but that doesn't mean that you can request to record just anything, like recording a 21-gun salute. We've been invited to events when military personnel were being trained to drive tanks, but you can't do much more that place your mics in the best available locations and hope the recordings come out the way you want.

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Vintage recording gear has a special place in the hearts of modern recording enthusiasts, for it's ability to impart unique textures onto music, but that allure seems to be absent in the field recording world. What are your thoughts on that? How does the recording gear in your line of work differentiate from music studio equipment from SSL and Neve? Is it less about character and more about functionality when it comes to field recording?

I don't think so. We're very picky with the microphones and recorders we choose to use. Sure, the mics we pick have to firstly be reliable in terms of being able to handle loud Sound Pressure Levels (SPL), but it's still not going eliminate the need to have a certain sound and texture to it. You also need to have a reliable recording setup all across the board, since field conditions are unpredictable, especially weather.

The criteria for us starts with microphones that can handle high SPLS and are reliable in bad weather. On the recorder end, we initially started out with recorders that had external hard drives, but they would get shaken up too much because of the vibrations of the moving vehicles they were placed in. So you'd get the sound of a car starting and driving forward, and then silence because the hard drive would shut down from all the shaking. Eventually we found a Zaxcom recorder, which had flash cards in them along with great pre-amps, and is built like a tank. It was great for recording cars, but not so much for guns, because the limiter is too slow to react to gunshots. So these are the kinds of things you take into consideration when picking your gear for field recordings.

You'd mentioned in a past interview that it's preferable to recording car exhausts that aren't muffled, and that modern-day muffles aren't helpful for your recording process. Can you expand on that?

Firstly, a modern car with a muffler won't produce much of a characteristic engine sound. It's designed to make the car as quite as possible. Pretty much what you get is just white noise-like hiss that makes none of us happy. A race car by comparison will have a much louder, grittier engine tone that changes with the RPM, which is what you want to hear in a game from the 3rd-person view. We also need that kind of aggressive tone to make the audio assets work in the game, since the game engine tracks what's called the "fundamental", the lowest tonality of your recording, which is what it uses to pitch the sound up and down.

So when you record modern cars, do you have to remove the muffler?

That's an option. Alternatively, you can try to find a car that is modified with another exhaust system. Sometimes we do record cars with mufflers, but then we have to try to get the tone from the engine itself, and not the exhaust.

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Let me ask about clipping. I've talked to other game audio professionals who have found that clipping and distortion can play a role in enhancing the assets they create by making it more visceral. But doesn't this sacrifice dynamic range? What have you found to be the case?

We have different views on that within the company. I've had an instance where we recorded a truck, but the input levels were set way too high. So we lowered the gain and recorded it "properly". But then when I listened back at home, the initial clipped recording of the car sounded way better to me. The reason having a cranked input worked in this instance was because the car was stationary. If we'd had left the input level cranked even during the driving phase it would have been unbearable to listen to. So you need to find an input level that is consistent across both start-up and driving phases, and not just the first. Ideally, you'd want different setting for different car maneuvers, but it would take several days to record a car if you had manually keep adjusting the input like that.

Why couldn't you make use of multiple recorders, all with appropriate input levels?

Because if you're initially recording 10 channels of audio for one car, and now have to split that among multiple recorders, you'd end up with 50+ tracks, which is unmanageable for just one recording.

What would be your preference: clipping during recording, or using software to clip? One could argue that clipping in post-production using plugins is a more safe bet.

But it's not the same thing. We talk about that in the company as well. I think it sounds much better clipping during the recording phase, so we record with analog limiters, clipping a bit, but not too much.

When you're working on game titles that have similar plot-lines, elements or are set in similar worlds, like Need For Speed and Forza, how do you decide on your recording methods and what gear to use in order to avoid creating assets that sound the same for both games?

Well, those kinds of AAA titles usually have their own in-house sound designers, so we supply them with our recordings. We don't adjust our recordings according to the nuances that will appear through-out the game. We just do the recordings of the objects that the studio requests. It's up to the sound designers to decide how to manipulate it.

Since Pole has done recordings in both Sweden and other places like the US, can you distinguish the difference between those environments, and the factors that come into play, like noise regulations and locations?

There's quite a few differences. Sweden has very strict noise regulations, which makes it difficult to record race cars without a muffler. You often get people coming out of their houses to complain, holding DB meters that prove you were over the noise limit. On the opposite end of the scale, I've recorded at the Isle Of Man, where there's a lot of motorcycle racing, and there people come out cheering when they see what we're doing. Quite a different mindset you could say, haha. We haven't had any issues in the US either. It's easy to access everything there, from cars to planes to guns.

Where in the US do you usually tend to record stuff? I've read somewhere that you've done some work in Nevada.

We worked in Las Vegas, Nevada at one point because the cars we needed were located there. It didn't have that much to do with the terrain of the place.

So the open stretches of desert and unpopulated areas in Nevada don't lend itself to field recording?

Well, a lot of people go there to record guns, because it's quiet out in those kinds of areas. But when it comes to cars, you have to make sure that the road extends on for long stretches, which isn't always the case in Nevada. Sometimes roads are constructed into discrete stretches, with uneven bumps in-between each of them. You don't want the sound of your car driving over those bumps to end up in the recording. Also, you can't do good field recordings on roads with a lot of dirt on them, because that can be heard in the recording.

The best place for me to record cars is on an airstrip or race track. You have no other vehicle traffic and you can avoid animal traffic too. So there's more control over your environment in that situation.

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Do you need to apply for some kind of permit to record on an air-strip?

Depends on the airstrip. Some of them can be rented. We did one recording session at an airstrip where one of the company's staff members stood nearby with a radio, and signaled to us when a plane was incoming, so we could move off the strip until after it had landed. On a different occasion, we were in Canada recording a huge World War II bomber, and there was a regulation that stated that the plane couldn't descend below a certain altitude because it was a commercial airport, which made it hard for us to record pass-overs. So our work-around was that the pilot would radio in false landings to the control tower. He'd make it look like he was coming in for a landing by flying low, then he'd call in to the tower and abort the landing after we'd gotten the recording. Naturally, the control tower would have been pissed if they'd found out.

Have you ever failed to capture a recording because of regulations that got in the way?

No, I don't think we've ever failed completely. We've had vehicles break down on us though.

I was once asked by a client to find am early World War I submarine that could only be manned by one person, and I had to say no to that job. That kind of sub is hard to find, and if something went wrong during the recording of it, I'd be stuck in it on my own underwater, since you can only fit one person in it.

I've had the chance to interview some of your peers in the industry, like Charles Deneen, who do similar things to Pole. It's not uncommon to see people in the same industry compete against one another for work, but I don't get the feeling that the game audio world is like that, and I'm not sure why. Do you look at your peers as healthy competition or rivals that are vying for the same gigs as you?

I've recorded for Charles quite a bit, and he's the type who really knows what he wants and is very straightforward with his feedback. It was a learning experience for me and I have a huge respect for him. I think the whole audio community is like that. Of course we're competitors, but we also help each other out by sharing ideas, techniques and recording sessions. So it's a nice community of competitors, where we expand each other's knowledge.

That's quite different from the pro audio world where many mixers and engineers feel the need to keep their craft secrets to themselves for fear of being displaced by upcoming talent.

I understand what you mean. But the truth is that if you're willing to talk openly about your methods and your work with people in the industry, then the word is going to spread that you're a very competent professional who knows his craft very well, and people will feel more comfortable about hiring you. I got that attitude early on from Bernard, who has always been helpful and sharing in his knowledge. So I think the mentality you're describing is actually counter-productive.

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Let's move on to Pole's sample library. Why would create a sample library of hard-to-find sounds that you could have kept as proprietary material, and caused people to hire you instead?

We heard some murmurings in the industry when we started with it. Some people were mad that we'd deprived them of their work by making the samples available to the public. But we weren't thinking about things like that when we were making the recordings. We were completely isolated in Sweden, doing our work, and agreed amongst ourselves to put them online since we had so many recordings. But now when you look online, you find all kinds of boutique audio libraries that are essentially doing the same thing we are. So I think it's proven to be a natural progression for many audio professionals. Also, if a studio is making a game, there's going to be a fixed budget for audio, and you're always going to need more audio assets than what the budget can pay for. So where a studio might have had to use a big chunk of their budget on recording 3 vehicles, they could instead buy 12 of those recordings from us.

Do you feel like the samples might undercut Pole's demand by not having that same studio hire you for a long-term project?

Well, there's no way to know if the people who pay us $200 for a sample pack would have been able to hire us for $5000 on a project anyway. What I do know is that if a studio needs 15 cars, but can only hire us to record 5, we can provide the rest from our library and that way everyone wins.

Do you keep track of how well your sample library does in terms of sales?

We've started doing that recently, because we came to realize how important that was. So we redesigned our website a year ago and have been keeping track of metrics ever since.

I read in a past interview where you said that one of the biggest challenges in your line of work is improving your recording techniques to get better results. But don't you think that we've reached a ceiling for recording techniques, where we've maxed out the different options for how to record a sound?

We never max out. Back in the day, we started out recording in 48Khz. Today we record at least 96Khz, and there are sample libraries that list their sample rate as 192Khz. But there aren't any recorders that handle that, given that they have 8 channels of XLR inputs. So you're always going to be faced with limitations in your equipment. Also, there's other aspects of recording that can be experimented with. For example, if you place your microphone on the ground, recording a car driving by, you'll get a left-to-right pass-by effect. But if the microphone had been positioned above the car as it drove by, you'd get a completely different pass-by recording. That sort of thing might become common now that drone technology is prevalent. I actually have yet to try it though. I'd probably use a boom mic for that instead of a drone, since I wouldn't want to pick up the sound of the motor.

Since you've recorded so many different vehicles, I'm going to be bring up a few and ask you to tell me about what it's like to record them:

Ferrari: It has a loud intake and a strong exhaust, so I'd use a few DPA4062 lavaliers on both of those. I'd add in a ElectroVoice RE50 on the exhaust to capture some more low-end. A AKG D112 would also work, but the RE50 are easier to adjust. On the engine I'd use a Crown PZM with a DPA4061, and some other mic along with those. Something similar to the RE50, like the Senheisser MD421. I'd also put a stereo mic in the cockpit. There's also a nice spot in today's cars called the "firewall", the part of the bodywork that separates the engine from the driver, which lies beneath the carpet. It's usually near the front of the car, though in a Ferrari I think it's near the back. You can catch a lot of nice low-end rumble there.

Racer boat: Those can be hard to record. The water splashing around can be annoying, but wind noise is by far a bigger challenge. There's also the question of where the motor is placed. Is it on the outside of the boat, or covered somewhere on the inside? But the constants to keep in mind are to not get wet and keep the microphones out of the wind. The good thing with recording boats is that you have both the engine and the exhaust in the same small area, whereas cars tend to have the engine in front and the exhaust in the back. Then you have to run cables everywhere, which is a hassle.

Tanks: These are worse than cars, in that the sound sources are all over the place, so you need a lot of mics and cables everywhere. The driver is almost always on the other side from the exhaust. The mic setup isn't that different from a car. It's just harder to get access to different spaces and open them up to place the mics inside.

Bomber plane: Those are big, just like tanks, and mics need to go everywhere, but there are other things to consider here. You might have the machine gun positioned either in the front, back or in a turret, and you'd want to record that. You also want a mic in the cockpit. Also, you can't put too many mics on the outside of a plane when it's flying. You can imagine why; having a mic fly off and hitting someone on the ground, or getting lodged in a propeller engine would be terrible. Having the plane on the ground is a different situation and setup. There we can ask the pilot to remain stationary, but push the throttle as much as possible, which we record. After that we can get the plane in the air and record pass-bys as well as interior sounds.

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Pole seems to have become quite a successful company in it's line of work, with a firm grasp on it's market. What are you guys going to be looking for moving forward? Do you want to be doing the same thing for the next decade?

No. Whilst I'm very proud of our work with vehicle recordings, I'd like to help make the company achieve recognition for other things also, which is why we recently released a gun sample library. I also want to do more work with linear media, like film and game cut-scenes, which we haven't done too much of in the past, though Mats has done some pretty cool work in that area, such as composing for the Mad Max game. I think we'll end up establishing ourselves in the music world because of the great work he's doing.

Will there come a point where you'd think of retiring?

I used to always tell myself that once I'd fulfilled my dream of recording a Formula 1 car that I could retire happily. As you can see, retirement didn't happen even after recording an F1 car. Now that I've gotten a taste of it, I think I'd like to record the entire F1 circus, haha. If that doesn't happen, I wouldn't mind expanding my ambitions to include a space shuttle. After that, I can retire.

For anyone interested in learning more about Pole Position Production, you can check out their Facebook, Twitter and website. Also check out one of their audio work for the Unity's engine's demo short-film, "Adam", below.

SamInterview: Max Lachmann – Co-Founder of Pole Position Production

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