Heard And Good Video Lately?

Have you ever really listened to a powerful soundtrack from a major motion picture? If not, rent a blockbuster movie and sit down with a pair of headphones. Close your eyes and engage your ears-there’s a whole world of sound effects in there.

Movies, especially science fiction, use sound to convince your mind that what you’re seeing is real. Since assuring a viewer that all those expensive props, painted backgrounds and miniatures are in fact real, sound effects play a crucial role in the production of a film. Without them, a movie compromises credibility as well as watchability.

You can give your videos the aural impact of a major movie-all it takes is a little creativity and ingenuity. In fact, even the most sophisticated Hollywood productions rely as much on elbow grease and creativity as they do hi-tech audio toys. You can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars making great sound effects, but you don’t need to. Here’s how.


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A Brief History

Before the dawn of television, families gathered around AM radios to catch their favorite radio dramas. These dramas revealed their stories strictly through sound. Voices and sound effects carried the whole narrative, and carried it well-many people insist that the images they created in thcir minds proved far more vivid than any seen on television or film.

These shows were live, meaning what went out over the transmitter occurred that instant in a studio. The voice talent circled a microphone, delivering their lines as they read them from a script. In another room, sound effects artists manipulated a vast assortment of objects, creating a tapestry of sound in time with the script readers. In the control room, an audio engineer combined and balanced the elements of the show with a simple audio mixer.

Today’s visual productions use techniques similar to the old radio days-with an added dash of high-tech. In-stead of going directly onto the airwaves, the work of modern sound effects artists ends up on multitrack audio recorders, digital audio tapes and computer hard drives.

The actual job of making sound effects split into two different disciplines some years back. The “foley” special effects artist follows in the tradition of the early radio sound wizards.

Foley artists add common but very important sounds to films-footfalls, clothing rustling, doors opening and shutting.

All these sounds are crucial to convincing an audience that what they see on the screen is real. Thus the foley artist restores the realism to scenes with unsuitable or non-existent ambient sound. Some directors shoot films without any ambient sound at all, relying entirely on the skill of foley artists to restore aural realism.

Foley artists rely on dexterity and timing to make their magic, as did the pioneers of radio effects. Only now they do it by watching a big-screen TV or film projector instead of listening with headphones.

They scramble around a special stage covered with different surfaces, matching the action on the screen. Expensive microphones pick up the resulting sound.

A typical foley stage may have a few square feet of linoleum, brick, hardwood, carpet, even gravel; free standing doors-complete with knobs and latches-are common. Sometimes, male foley artists don high heels when a scene requires. Other times, they may wheeze and pant in time with actions of a tired runner. Being a sound “chameleon” is the key to the foley artist’s success.

The other type of sound effects artist is the sound designer. Sound designers take ingenuity to a higher level, trying literally anything: breaking, tapping, dropping, crushing, even submerging objects to achieve the desired effect. To the sound designer, the end justifies the means.

Armed with a microphone, headphones and portable DAT recorder, the sound designer also ventures into the real world to capture sounds that naturally occur. Depending on the production, this “real world” could be a rain forest, sporting event or busy Chicago street.

Designing Sound

When you make sound effects for your video, you’re donning the hat of sound designer. You decide what type of sound effects you need, and you experiment with objects, materials and locations to capture those sounds.

Now this is where the fun begins-getting high-quality sound effects on tape can be one of the most rewarding parts of videomaking.

It all starts with the sounds. Being able to hear a sound effect in your head before you start recording provides much-needed direction for your search. If you know you need a short, metallic “bong,” it’s obvious that metal objects should top your list. A low, mechanical hum suggests machinery or electrical devices. In time, you’ll know just where to look for a given sound effect.

Once you pinpoint the object or event that will give you the sound you need, it’s time to experiment. Try to keep your original idea intact as you experiment-it’s easy to lose sight of your goal when bombarded with different sounds.

And no wonder-sound effects vary as much as the objects that produce them. Early radio shows devoted whole rooms to noisemakers-most of which looked like common junk to the untrained eye. Professional sound designers still consider a scrap yard a veritable supermarket of sound effects. When you’re searching for that perfect sound, it pays to leave no junk heap unturned.

Technology Meets Creativity

Finding the best possible sound effect is just the first part of your mission as sound designer-you also need to capture that sound on tape. And to record a sound with as much clarity and realism as possible, you must understand the basics of microphone selection and placement, monitoring and acoustics.

All of these factors affect your effect, so to speak, almost as much as the sound itself.

When recording sound effects, headphones are a must. The best type seals tightly around your ears, blocking out extraneous sounds. So you can tell exactly what the microphone records, as opposed to what your ears pick up. It’s important to remember that these are usually two very different sounds. Because of its mechanical design, no mike will capture sounds the way your ears do.

Whether you record sound effects with a camcorder, tape deck or DAT recorder, the microphone you use makes a big difference. If your camcorder has a ho-hum built-in mike, you’ll never capture anything but ho-hum sound effects. The same applies even to a high-priced DAT deck-your sound effects will prove only as good as the mike that captures them.

An external mike will almost always provide the best results. Not only are they of higher quality than most built-in mikes, they’re much easier to position.

For well under $100, you can purchase a battery-powered condenser mike that will do a great job capturing sound effects.

External or handheld mikes come with a number of different pickup patterns. The pickup pattern describes how well the mike rejects sounds not coming from directly in front of it. The amount of rejection increases from the omnidirectional mike, which picks up sound equally from all directions, to the shotgun mike, which offers a narrow pickup pattern. Between these extremes fall the cardioid, supercardioid and hypercardioid.

Off-axis rejection of sound is important if you have to record in a noisy environment. Place a directional mike close to your sound source, and you may avoid enough noise to get a clean recording. If you’re in a highly reverberant room, a directional mike will also pick up less of the echo.

Directional mikes color the sound somewhat, making it less than natural. Directional mikes also pick up more bass when placed closed to a sound source. This can be good, especially when trying to add warmth to an otherwise thin sound.

But if your sound is too dark to begin with, poking a cardioid mike close to it will only make it worse.

An omnidirectional mike doesn’t care where the sound comes from. It picks up sounds from all directions-an advantage when trying to capture a large soundscape. An omni does well at sporting events, as it pick up fans, announcers and athletes with equal aplomb. Nature sounds and outdoor sound effects also come across well with this type of mike.

Acoustic Placement

Say you’re putting the finishing touches on your latest sci-fi thriller. You need an abrasive, whirring motor sound to match the actions of a particularly run-down robot. You’ve discovered that your old food processor, grinding away on its slowest setting, has just the sound you’re looking for.

You’ve opted to use your hi-fi camcorder as the recorder, so the sound effect will be on videotape for easy editing. You plug in your external condenser microphone, load a tape and you’re ready to record.
But now you must make some decisions. The first one involves location. Where will you record your sound? This really depends on where the viewers think the sound is coming from in the finished production. Here’s why.

Every mike picks up some of the “acoustic signature” of its environment. This signature consists of echoes and reverb if the source is in an enclosed space, or an absence of ambience if the sound is outdoors.

Our ears decode these cues, subconsciously figuring out the sound’s origin. Keep this in mind when recording and processing your sound effects-your viewers expect to hear sounds that match the location of the action.

Your tired robot appears in the metallic hold of a small spaceship. This environment is reverberant, but the echoes would prove very short. Recording the sound effect outdoors won’t cut it, due to the absence of sound reflections. You need a room with hard, reflective walls. Your living room won’t qualify; it’s too large, and furniture tends to dampen ambience.

The perfect solution: the bathroom. Tile and mirrors bounce sound around like crazy, much like the metals walls of a spaceship would. Record the sound in the bathroom, and you’ll add believable ambience behind your sound effect. Decision number one, made.

Decision number two involves where to put the mike relative to the sound source. This can also dramatically affect the amount of ambience you capture with your sound. Put the mike close to the source, a foot away or less, and the ambience will be quiet relative to the sound. Pull the mike away eight or ten feet, and you’ll have as much ambience as direct sound. Remember: the more directional a mike you use, the less ambience you pick up.

Monitoring with headphones, move the mike to different locations in the room. When you find the sound you’re after; throw the mike on a stand and record away.

If you don’t know whether you’d like an up-close sound or one with more ambience, record some of each.

You can capitalize on this changing mix of direct sound and ambience. If your robot rolls towards the camera and you pan to follow it, you can simulate the way this would sound. Simply hold the mike, moving it toward and away from the sound source while recording. To the viewers’ ears, this won’t come across as a moving mike-it’ll be a very convincing moving sound source.

Though an external mike is preferable, you can use your camcorder’s built-in mike for capturing sound effects. Your camcorder may do a fine job, depending on the quality of its microphone.

It’s really a convenient package-condenser mike, tape recorder and headphone amp all in one.

All the same rules of miking apply-set the distance from your camcorder to the sound source based on how much ambience you want. Leave your lens on its widest setting and enable autofocus. This will provide visual clues as to what’s going on tape, making finding and editing your sound effects that much easier.

Syncing Sounds

Once your sound effects are on tape, you need to sync them with your images. There are a number of different approaches.

The simplest involves laying your sound effects onto your master tape with audio dub. This takes coordination and timing, because you have to press play on your tape deck or camcorder at just the right instant.

For environmental sounds that don’t match a specific event, this works fine. But try and sync up a gunshot or explosion this way, and you’ll pull your hair out for sure.

With a reasonably accurate edit controller and VHS-family decks, you can achieve a much more accurate audio dub. Transfer your sound effects to videotape if not already there, and place this tape in your source deck. Select the beginning of your sound effect as the in point. Cue up your record deck where the sound effect should fall.

Put your record deck in audio dub mode, and perform the edit. This should move you within a half-second or so of your target, depending on the accuracy of your edit controller and decks.

8mm machines offer fewer options, since these decks have no audio dub feature.

If you don’t want to lose a generation, add sound effects to your scenes while you edit. Cue up the sounds for a given scene, and trigger them while performing the edit. Once again, timing is everything.

Plan on making a few practice runs before you get it down.

If you don’t mind losing some visual quality, edit all your visuals first. Then make a copy and mix your sound effects in with your edited master.

With this system, you control accuracy. How’s that for pressure?

Other Sound Options

If you decide against capturing your own sound effects, you can still spice up your soundtrack. Not only can you buy quality sound effects on LP and compact disc, you can try high-tech solutions as well.

The simplest if often most expenesive approach: buy a sound effects library. Recorded by professional sound engineeres with high-quality equipment, these discs usually offer a great selection of pristine sound effects. The diversity of sounds available is incredible-you can find anything from a turn-of-the-century steam locomotive to lush jungle ambience. Some sound effects libraries are buyout, setting you back a one-time fee. After the initial investment, you can use the sounds as often as you like.

Digital samplers, commonly used by electronic musicians, work well for sound effects.

These units store and play back sounds digitally, allowing you to trigger the sound at a wide range of different pitches. Many samplers have extensive libraries of sound effects ready to go, or you can sample your own and store them on disk. If you buy a sampler for sound effects work, you also have a great musical tool at your disposal.

Videonics took a different approach to sound effects with its unique Boing Box. This product offers 60 different sound effects, from crashes to footsteps to common animal sounds. The unit stores sounds in digital form in memory; you simply select the desired sound with a numeric keypad and push the play button.

Sound Off

No matter what method you use to put sound effects in your productions, you’ll find them well worth the effort. Recording them yourself is a fun and inexpensive way to add realism to your video.

Using one of the high-tech approaches will offer you excellent sound quality and almost unlimited variety.

The bottom line: sound effects tickle the ears of your viewers, encouraging them to lose themselves in your video.

Take ’em by the ears!

Loren Alldrin is Videomaker‘s technical editor.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.