Sound effects are essential ingredients in video production. You can create an entire audio environment in a production by adding sound effects. The easiest way to add sound effects to your production is to use sound-effects libraries. In most cases, these libraries are on CDs that you load onto your digital audio workstation (DAW).
You can create sound effects for your video productions with a video monitor, a good microphone, ordinary objects and a good imagination. People who do this professionally are called Foley artists.
In more sophisticated environments, these effects reside on hard drives so you can access them more quickly. Most libraries even have online search engines that allow you to find and download sound effects directly from the library’s Web site. There are many different libraries on the market today containing thousands of effects ranging from war sounds like planes, gunfire and marching soldiers, to ambiences like love birds singing, jungle insects and frogs chirping.
Do it yourself
If the sound libraries don’t have what you’re looking for, the other option is to record it yourself. People who do this for a living are called Foley artists. Foley effects play a huge role in movies. Footsteps, door slams and a human skull being crushed by a giant monster are just a few of the sounds Foley artists create. One sound-effects library has released a set of CDs containing nothing but Foley recordings. But you can create a Foley studio yourself with some studio space and some common materials such as metal, wood, leaves, dirt and coconut shells, to name a few. The author recently enjoyed recording Foley effects for a DVD surround project. The video consisted of high-impact X Game sports footage of motocross, surfing, BMX, skateboarding and others. The challenge was to place the viewers on the motorcycle or skateboard, giving them the sensation that they were participating in those sports. This included recreating the sound that a skateboard makes grinding across a handrail and the sound of surfers gasping for air as a wave pummels them to the sea floor — all in the safe confines of a Foley studio.
Designing sounds for documentaries is especially challenging because it is imperative that the sounds be authentic. For instance, when sound designing the battle of Pearl Harbor, you cannot use the sound of a P-38 swooping down on the USS Arizona. Every war historian knows that the Japanese Zeros involved in that attack were powered by Mitsubishi engines. These engines and planes have a distinct sound signature, and it’s a sound designer’s job to recreate that sound. Fortunately, there is a library available that contains the sounds of Japanese Zeros and many other types of war birds.
Henninger Digital Audio recently finished a documentary on NASCAR for the Discovery Channel. During the shooting phase of production, the sound designer brought microphones and a DAT recorder to a NASCAR event to attain a variety of sounds. The sounds ranged from mono engine revs and tire squeals to mid-side (MS) stereo recordings of race cars going down the back stretch at speeds of more than 150 miles per hour. As the race cars travel by, the rush of wind that travels past the microphones creates a dramatic Doppler effect. That particular recording has been used in a variety of ways. In one instance, a portion of it was sent pre-fader to a reverb unit and used for white-flash video transitions. The sound effect supports the video effect, and transports the viewer from one scene to the next.
Another project was a 30-second TV ad for “Washington Week in Review.” The advertising objective was to make the political show sound riveting. The spot opens with a shot of a man sitting on his leather couch eating Chinese food and watching “Washington Week in Review.” The subject’s room is a large studio apartment with hardwood floors, a fish tank and an open window over the man’s shoulder. We started sound designing with broad stokes, creating an ambient base of sound effects and building up the drama as the spot went on. To accompany the fish tank and the open window, our sound-effects library supplied sounds of bubbles and light city traffic. To accompany the television, we recorded the sound track of one of the actual “Washington Week in Review” shows and equalized it. All the sounds were blended with a live hardwood reverb effect to mimic the acoustic properties of the room.
The next phase of the project was to record the Foley sounds. We needed the sound of the man eating his Chinese food and shifting his position in the oversized leather sofa. We also needed footsteps of an intruder climbing through the window and walking across the hardwood floor, the sound of the intruder removing a picture from the wall to reveal a safe, and then opening the safe. For the safe, we used the sound of a Craftsman ratchet wrench turning backwards. Another effect combinded a whoosh, a cymbal played backwards and water from a faucet being turned off. All of these were sampled into a Kurzweil sampler to control the velocity and timbre of the overall effect. Then we bounced that sound from the sampler to our editor to position it to the timing of the video action.
The job of any sound designer is to be creative. You must think outside the box and use many different sounds in combination with each other to create and support the video or film. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Sample sounds into a synthesizer and cross-synthesize, modify, combine and modulate sounds with each other. Did you ever hear the sound of a digital Beta tape machine being rewound in shuttle mode? Add a flanging effect to that rewound sound and you’ve just created a futuristic sound for space travel. A synthesizer is a powerful tool for any sound designer. It gives you the flexibility to change the pitch, invert the sound and morph that sound into a completely different sound. Today, many of the new generation of DAWs have plug-in effects that add even more flexibility for the sound designer. Teams of designers can work on various scenes of the same movie sharing files and sounds and sending them back and forth to each other, giving the designer more time to be creative.
Always be aware of the sounds around you and how you can use those sounds to create even more amazing sounds. One of the most gratifying things a producer can tell you is that audio is his favorite part of the movie-making process.
Robert Fritts is a sound designer/mixer for Henninger Digital Audio.