By Ric Viers
A few months ago, I was watching an episode of Family Guy. Peter Griffin was up to his usual antics and during one of the scenes, he was crushed by a falling piano. BAM! I scratched my head and hit rewind on the DVR. Sure enough, the piano smash they used was a sound effect that I created for a commercial library. It’s always fun to randomly hear your work.
Looking back on when I created that sound, I’m actually a little surprised at how haphazardly I recorded back then. When I first started, I didn’t have very good monitors. In fact, all I had was a pair of high end computer speakers and a good pair of headphones. I recorded on DAT recorders which are extremely noisy compared to today’s low-end handheld recorders. Thankfully, I had really good microphones. I created several libraries for major companies using this set up and grew my studio as the work increased.
The piano crash was a combination of a couple of random keys slammed on a grand piano. The recorder was a Sony TCD-8 Walkman DAT recorder. The microphone was the cheap one that came with the unit. The wood smashes and splinters came out of a recording session on a stage. Those elements were recorded with a MKH-416 on a Sony TCD-10 DAT recorder. I mixed the elements together and designed several effects that ended up in a sound library. Nobody knew how the sounds were recorded. They heard the sounds for what they were. Years later, the sounds I created with my beginner package are still being used by professionals.
The point is you don’t need a million dollar studio to achieve million dollar sound!
Mark Mangini told me a story about how he needed a simple sound at the last minute during a mix session at Todd AO for a major film. I don’t recall exactly what the sound was – a pen being set down or something like that. He giggled and told me he whipped out his Zoom recorder and recorded the sound right there on the mix desk. So, in a facility with millions of dollars worth or recorders, mixers and microphones, he used a recorder that could fit in his pocket.
It’s easy to get hung up on gear. But don’t confuse gear with quality. Techniques will always trump the technology. Always.
Gear is a money pit. It’s a trap. It’s fool’s gold. You can sit and stare at catalogs all day and drool over a certain piece of gear, convincing yourself that if you only had this one piece of gear your sound would be amazing. Then, you save up and buy it. It sounds great. Then, a month later, you see something else in the catalog and convince yourself that if you only had this one more piece of gear…
Stop! Put your hands in the air and step away from the catalog. You’re chasing your tail and you’ll never catch it.
You are an artist. The artist paints the picture, not the brushes. Brushes are important, but a true artist knows that he could use his fingers to create art if he didn’t have brushes. The bottom line: don’t wait for that dream studio before you start your career. Press the red button and get started now!
Record, record, record! Edit, design, mix, rinse and repeat.
The White Album by the Beatles is one of the greatest albums of all time. What’s funny is that for less than $2,000, you can go to Guitar Center and by software, mics and even monitors that would probably surpass the quality of the equipment the Beatles used to record that album. This is unbelievable, but true. Digital technology has leveled the playing field. A laptop rig can produce higher quality recordings than what the Fab Four used to record legendary songs.
Don’t let the size of your mic cabinet determine whether or not you are a professional. Start developing your craft now. As the paying gigs come, you can always upgrade. But, don’t wait for the upgrade to get started.
Here are a few tips to help you achieve that “million dollar” sound:
1. Where you position the mic is far more important than which mic you use. This one should be a no-brainer. Mic placement is everything when it comes to recording. A bad mic in a good place will sound better than a good mic in a bad place. Find the sound source and choose an optimal position to capture that sound. If you aren’t using all of the tracks on your recorder, try experimenting by putting additional mics in different places. You can mix them together or choose your favorite position in the edit. A nice trick, if you are recording in mono is to set up a second mic with a level that’s 6-12dB lower than your primary mic. This will give you a back up track, just in case the first track clips, peaks or if something bumps the stand during the take.
2. Recording with good levels on a cheap recorder will give you better quality than recording with poor levels on a great recorder. Preamps are the most important feature I look for in a recorder. A recorder with poor preamps is nothing more than a high tech paper weight. But even with quality preamps, if your signal is too low you will get noise when you amplify the sound in post. Always record at the hottest level possible. You can always back it down later, but you can’t increase poor levels without introducing noise. Quick side note: If you are recording something that is super quiet, for example a grasshopper shaving his beard, you aren’t going to get ‘great’ levels. Don’t turn the mic preamps too far past unity, or you could introduce system noise. Most nature ambiences are the same way.
3. Spend your money on gear that will make a difference, but save on the things that really don’t. Gold plated, super high-end microphone cables that were manufactured by angels up in heaven will not sound better than a cable that costs a third of the price. You have better things to spend your money on. Don’t fall into the trap that a single cable will increase the quality of your work. Buy good cables so that they will last longer and handle the rigors of the field, not because they were hand crafted by pixies. I’ve put a $60 cable next to a $15 cable and ran tests with no noticeable difference to the ears. Perhaps, if we put them both on scopes we could see unique signatures that would prove that one was better than the other, but the audience won’t do that. Remember, consumers think MP3s sound better than CDs.
4. Where you record is one of the most important ingredients for recording good sound effects. I would rather record in a quiet location with a $2,000 gear package than in a noisy, reverberant location with a $20,000 gear package. Unless you are going for a specific effect, try to record your material dry. You can always add effects later, but you can’t take the effect out once it’s been recorded. That said, if something spontaneous comes up, but the location is not optimal, record anyways. You never know when you’ll hit pay dirt. However, if you’re lining up a location to record footsteps, avoid setting up in a building next door to the airport.
5. Avoid over-processing your sounds. Compressors, equalizers, noise reducers and reverbs are all very useful tools. But, like salt, can spoil the taste if overused. When building your sound libraries, go with the less is more approach. Your goal is to create sound effects that can be tweaked and processed later. If you go too heavy on compression when you master the file, you’ll be stuck with those dynamics. However, if you leave the original dynamics in the file, the file becomes more versatile later. The same goes with reverbs and equalization. There are times when you’ll want to over process and go nuts with creativity. That’s great if you end up there. But, if you start there with a processed file, you’ll have nowhere else to go.
6. Monitor at consistent levels. Switching back and forth between loud and soft levels can be deceptive to your ears and lead to poor decision making. This is true for headphones and for studio monitors. Find that happy spot where it sounds “just right” and stay there. Don’t touch that dial! Occasionally, you’ll need to crank up your levels to check for noise or other background problems, but be sure to return the knob to the same level. If not, you’ll end up with weird and inconsistent levels in your mixes throughout the day. Never work at levels that leave your ears sore at the end of the day. When in doubt, work at a lower level and stay there.
7. Your creativity. If you’re not a song writer, a $10,000 limited edition Les Paul will not do you any good. Conversely, if you’re not creative, a $10,000 studio is not going to be of much use to you either. Don’t get hung up on what you see outside of yourself – gear, projects, other sound designer’s techniques and work. Focus on what you see inside of yourself. I might have a bigger recording studio than you, but you might have better ideas than me. Therefore, your work might sound far better than anything I could produce. Remember Mr. Miyaga from the Karate Kid? He told Danielson that Karate is not in his head it’s in his heart. Sound design is not in your rack, it’s inside you.
I have a tattoo on my right arm that my wife designed for me. It’s a deck of cards with the Ace of Spades sticking out from the bottom. It’s there to remind me that life is five card stud, not five card draw. You can’t ask for different cards. You have to play the cards you’re dealt. You can sit and complain about your parents, your city, and even your economic status all of your life and nothing will change. Or, you can sit up at the table and play the game with what you were dealt. But, don’t worry – you can still win a round of poker with a crappy hand as long as you play your cards right.
The whole point I’m trying to make is don’t waste your time waiting for something to come along to make you a better sound designer (school, projects, money, gear, a different city or country). Look around at what you do have and start there.
Avoid getting blinded by the flashing LEDs on that new piece of gear and save your money for the things that really matter. Remember, even though the Imperial Army had more advanced weapons, they were defeated by Ewoks using only sticks and stones.
This article is Copyright 2012 Ric Viers and may not be copied or republished without permission
It was the summer of 1990. I had just finished filming an Indiana Jones spoof with some friends on my home video camera – the old ones that rested on your shoulders and only came with a black and white viewfinder. After editing the footage I finalized the laughable, low-budget production with the Raiders Of The Lost Ark score. I had also added a couple of sound effects for certain scenes. The audience, made up of family and friends, enjoyed the modest four minute film.
I was surprised to find that the biggest laugh came when Indy swung his whip. They knew that we weren’t stunt actors and that the whip wasn’t the real thing, but when they heard the sound effect of a huge lion tamer’s whip, they erupted with laughter.
Do I really need sound effects in my productions? Yes!
Sound effects are the unsung heroes of most productions.
Sound effects are pre-recorded sound cues that help us tell a story. Their use dates as far back as the 1700s when theatres would incorporate sound making devices such as thunder sheets. The funny thing about sound effects is that they’re not really noticed unless their missing. Then, the silence or absence of a certain sound seems to become a loud ringing vacancy in the audience’s ears. This is because our ears are used to hearing the world around us. Not only does sound give us a sense of direction, but it also gives us a sort of equilibrium and depth to our environment. Even in a quiet room there is still some sound – be it distant traffic, an air conditioning unit or the refrigerator. We always expect to hear something.
This expectation for sound has been further fed over the years by Hollywood films that seemingly put a sound to every action on screen. Sound designers are often told by directors that if we see a dog, we should hear a dog; if we see a snake it should rattle – even if it’s not a rattlesnake! Cartoons are the most guilty when it comes to over-dramatizing sound. A sound is heard for nearly everything from eye blinks to gun ricochets when a character takes off running. In the past decade or so, it has become common practice to have titles and transitional effects accompanied by science fiction sounding whooshes, metal impacts, digital data sound effects and the like. Audience’s ears are becoming more accustomed to the sonic equilibrium of a production’s soundtrack. Therefore, when there is no sound or the sound heard in a scene does not live up to our expectations, we are taken out of the viewing experience and subconsciously asking ourselves “why doesn’t this sound right?”
The mistake many beginning filmmakers make is that they assume the microphone used on the set to record the dialog will automatically pick up the other sounds heard on set. It’s not until they get to the editing stage that they realize how wrong they were. The microphones used on sets are primarily focused on the mouth of the person speaking. This reduces the amount of natural sound that occurs around the actor during the shot, such as footsteps and other movements. The effect is clean dialogue but, the side effect is a virtual sonic vacuum where all other sounds are faint or silent altogether.
It’s no big secret that sound is always the after thought in most productions. The affect that sound has psychologically and emotionally is often taken for granted. More often than not, the only time that sound is really noticed is when there is no sound at all or the sound that is heard seems to be lacking or inappropriate. This is common with lower budget productions like independent feature films or corporate productions that can’t afford to hire a sound designer to craft the appropriate sounds and mix the tracks together. Smaller budget projects have a lot to live up to and have to figure out a way to do that without exceeding their budget. For this reason, professional stock sound effects libraries and on-line sound effects shops that offer individual sound effects for just a few bucks each become invaluable resources.
Sound effects fall into five main categories: Hard Effects, Foley Effects, Background Effects, Electronic Effects (also called Production Elements) and Sound Design Effects. Here are some definitions of each:
Hard effects are sounds that are associated with an action or event but are not dependent on the performance of the sound such as car horns, gunshots and punches.
Foley effects are sounds that are performed by a Foley artist, typically in sync with the action on screen. These actions would include footsteps, clothes movements and prop movements.
These are ambiences that give an immediate ‘sound picture’ to the location of a scene. For example, crickets chirping can instantly give an interior shot the perception of nighttime. In the same respect, cheerful bird chirps can also indicate morning. When layered under a dialog track, these sounds can help fill in dead spots that can occur when cutting different takes together.
These are synthetic sounds, like those produced by a keyboard or sounds that are heavily processed with audio plug-ins. They can be abstract or literal and can be used to give sonic character to titles and graphics. Laser blasts, spaceship hums and other science fiction sound effects would also fall in to this category.
Sound Design Effects
Sound design effects are sounds that are artificially created, typically by a sound designer. They help give sound to unreal objects, such as werewolves or electrical bolts shooting out of the hand of an evil sorcerer. They are often used to give a heightened sense of realism to a sound. These effects can also be necessary to create when the real sound is unavailable or too difficult to record, such as the sound of the Titanic sinking.
Some productions may require only one type of sound effect. Others may have need of all five types of sound effects. But one thing is certain: every production needs some form of sound effects. Granted, not all productions need over-the-top sound design. A sound designer might not even be needed for smaller productions. In some cases a production’s soundtrack may only need some background effects to help round out the dialog.
Choosing the right sound effect is not difficult, provided that you have a sound effects library or can access an on-line sound effects store. After auditioning a few sounds, there is usually a moment where you’ll find the right one and say “that’s it!” Be careful not to limit your choices simply to the literal name of the sound effect. For example, if you need the sound of a witch’s cauldron but can’t find one, try searching for boiling water. You’ll find that many sounds share common characteristics. A dog’s bark doesn’t have to necessarily be from the same breed of dog; however, a Chihuahua’s bark won’t suffice for that of a German shepherd (unless you’re going for funny).
Be creative. You might not find the exact sound effect that you’re looking for, but understand that ears often work in tandem with the eyes – especially when watching a movie. When your eyes see something, your ears expect to hear something as well; however, your ears are far more forgiving than your eyes. If you simply suggest that a sound belongs to an image, more often than not, the ears will buy into the illusion. This is why audience’s ears didn’t question the sound of the laser gunshots when they first watched Star Wars. Even though the sound was simply a guy wire being hit with a hammer, their ears accepted the sound of a fictional weapon. Understanding the acceptance of this sonic illusion is the first step toward becoming a sound designer.
You should also understand other factors such as duration, perspective and pace that can make a sound effect useful or useless. For example, if the scene has a car honking its horn outside of a house, the sound effect of the horn should sound like it would in that environment. In this case, a car horn honking in a parking garage would be inappropriate and sound weird. Reverb plug-ins can be employed to add a room’s reverb traits to sound effects that are dry to help blend the sound effects to the room that the dialog was recorded in. Failure to do this can destroy the illusion that the sound effect is intended to create. Choose the right sound effect with the right perspective and keep them consistent with the rest of the production’s soundtrack.
Some low budget productions use the camera’s microphone to record the sound for the scene. In doing so, sounds that occur in the scene are often picked up by the microphone and seem to naturally blend in with the soundtrack. If this happens, it may be unnecessary to replace those sounds. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! These sounds are picked up because camera’s microphone is meant to capture everything in front of the lens. Unfortunately, the result is often a distant or reverb-heavy sound track with more reflected sound than direct sound. This is more common with consumer cameras, although professional cameras are not much better.
The goal of using sound effects is to help tell the story. Sound effects are not the icing on the cake, but an integral part of the cake’s batter. Allow yourself time in the final edit to finish your project with audio sweetening and sound designing. Using sound effects will add realism to your productions and help give them life. You’ll be amazed at how great an impact a simple sound clip can have.
This article is Copyright 2012 Ric Viers and may not be copied or republished without permission.
Sound effects are pre-recorded or custom-made sound cues that help us tell a story. The mistake many beginning filmmakers make is that they assume the microphone used on the set to record the dialog will automatically pick up the other sounds heard on set. It’s not until they get to the editing stage that they realize how wrong they were. The microphones used on sets are primarily focused on the mouth of the person speaking. This reduces the amount of natural sound that occurs around the actor during the shot, such as footsteps and other movements. The effect is clean dialogue but the side effect is a virtual sonic vacuum where all other sounds are faint or silent altogether.
It is no big secret that sound is always the after thought in most productions. The effect that sound has psychologically and emotionally is often taken for granted. More often than not, the only time that sound is really noticed is when there is no sound at all or the sound that is heard seems to be lacking or inappropriate. This is common with lower budget productions like independent feature films or corporate productions that can’t afford to hire a sound designer to craft the appropriate sounds and mix the tracks together. Smaller budget projects have a lot to live up to and have to figure out a way to do that without exceeding their budget. For this reason, professional stock sound effects libraries and on-line sound effects shops that offer individual sound effects for just a few bucks each become invaluable resources.
The goal of using sound effects is to help tell the story. Sound effects are not the icing on the cake, but an integral part of the cake’s batter. Allow yourself time in the final edit to finish your project with audio sweetening and sound design. Using sound effects will add realism to your productions and help give them life. You’ll be amazed at how great an impact a simple sound clip can have.
By Ric Viers
This article is Copyright 2012 Ric Viers and may not be copied or republished without permission.