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Sound Effects Sound Design

By: David Mann

In this article I will talk about the basic tools and techniques for sound design. First of all, what is sound design?

Sound design is the process of manipulating recorded audio or generating audio elements. For example, I used to do a tremendous amount of sound design when working on a TV show called Xena, The Warrior Princess. In this show, the producer asked us to have a sound every time a Greek God appeared out of thin air. Those appearances were always involved--visual effects like lightning sparks, smoke, light flashes, etc., and I had to find sounds that would match what was seen on the screen.

The best place to start is to begin putting the sounds in for what you see, like the sparks and lightning. Then comes the tricky part, which are elements that make no sound in real life, like light flashes, smoke, and so on. For those sounds, you have two options. Use an organic sound (a real recording) or use a synthesized sound. Synthesized sounds almost never work for me. They are simply not rich enough as they are normally made from simple waveform like sinus and square as opposed to an organic sound recording, which is tremendously complex and more natural for our ears.

So, what can we use for a flash of light? For me, it's usually trial and error. I usually begin by looking into swishes and whooshes that are recordings of fast-moving objects like sticks, cars, airplanes, trains, etc. Then, I would look into explosions, fire, screams, animal roars, etc. The problem with all these sounds is that they often sound like what they are and, here comes the manipulation part (which is the fun part).

First tool is not really manipulation but it's very important. We call it layering, which means playing two or more sounds at the same time. Layering by itself can take you very far with respect to hiding the original sound. For example, sometimes when you mix the sound of a car driving by with the sound of jets flying by and you add fire and explosions, it doesn't sound like a car and the jets anymore, layering can creates a completely unrecognizable new sound. When sound designing I am almost always layering things.

Other basic tools that I use are pitch shift, reverse, reverb, filters, and a pre-made sound design elements library:

1) Pitch Shift - This is probably the most useful sound design tool there is. Pitch shifting will help a lot with making recognizable sounds less recognizable. It will also make a lot of small things sound much bigger. For example, I recorded my 14 year old son one day screaming. After pitch shifting the sound, it sounded like a huge monster--check out Monster Scream (search for 1293) on my sound effect library web site.

However, there is a limit to how much you can pitch shift before you start hearing side effects so you need to be careful. Also, it helps a lot if you record the sound in high sample rate, 96khz or 192khz (if you have the equipment to do that).

Another secret you probably wouldn't hear anywhere else and I'm not sure how many sound effects editors actually knows this is that you should pitch down in small amounts. For example, if you want a pitch something two octaves down, you better go 8 times 3 semitones as opposed to one time 24 semitones all at once. Another great use for pitch shift is when you need the sound to be longer or shorter.

2) Reverse – This is a tremendously useful tool when sound designing and is very helpful to create a surreal sound. When you use reverse you don't lose the quality of the original sound but you make it less recognizable and weird. For example, if you take a sword hit and reverse it you get a nice element to put before the sound which can make an exciting buildup. I almost always use reverse on some of layers of my design. May times I also use reverse on reverb, which helped create a nice buildup to the main sound.

3) Reverb – A great tool to make sound bigger than life and change the surroundings of where the sound was recorded. For example, once I recorded drips of water in a small room, put reverb on it and it sounded like drips of water in a huge cave. (Search for 1232 on my sound effect library web site to see what I'm talking about.)
4) Filters - High pass, low pass, and band pass are great tools to get only part of the recorded sound. For example, if you need a rumble for an earthquake, you can record traffic, run it through a low pass filter and you'll get pretty good earthquake rumble (of course you can add some additional layers to improve on it, like avalanche and explosions to make it more interesting). I usually use high pass and low pass filters only on some of the elements--and not to aggressively. Overdoing it can cause the end result to sound unnatural and unpleasant to the ear.

5) Pre-Made sound design elements library - If you need to do lot of sound design and your time is limited, you better have a great pre-made sound design elements library. Of course, we highly recommend our sound design elements that you can find on our sound design category. It has taken years to create this type of elements collection from scratch. Once you have those elements, you can sometimes finish in five minutes what would have taken a full day.

There are other tools (plug-ins) that involve more sophisticated sound processing but when you "look under the hood", they almost always use the same things which are Pitch shift, reverse, reverb, filters, modulation and delays. The good thing about those processors is that they're doing a lot of work for you, like slicing and dicing the sound into hundreds or thousands of pieces and applying effects to each piece, dynamically shifting the pitch, etc. If you try to do that yourself it will take you tremendous amount of time. The trade-off is that you have a lot less control of what the end result is going to be; sometimes they are great and sometimes they are a waste of time. I personally use these tools about 20% of the time and usually more for sci-fi projects and less for organic real-world projects, One more great tool that less and less people are using is samplers, it is a shame, samplers are great tools for designing sound, I will write about that in another article.

One thing I can say about sound design is that it takes time to get to great a result. You simply need to work hard and be patient until your design sounds beautiful.

Have fun sound designing.
David Mann