Sound Advice: Make Your Own Sound Effects

You hear sound effects all the time in movies and on TV. And this time of year, as Halloween approaches, there are lots of creepy sound effects to go around. While certain effects are easy to pick out, others are subtler. In any case, sound effects are a fundamental part of the media we watch. Why not make them a part of the media we create? Sure, you can buy sound-effects libraries and even download effects from the Internet, but what fun is that? Using production tools you already own, you can record your own sound effects, edit them and drop them into your next video masterpiece.

Pick Your Poison

Sound effects come in three basic flavors. Each has its own place in your video production, and some projects require a combination of all three.

The first type is called “a hit” or “one-shot.” This is the type of effect you expect to hear when something happens – a gunshot, a car door slamming, a telephone ring – simple, obvious sound effects. The second category is called “ambient” or “natural” sound. These are audio environments rather than single effects. Ocean waves, restaurant sounds and casino noises are common examples. The third type is the Foley, named after Jack Foley, a sound-effects wizard for Universal Studios in the early days of movie sound. Foley covers the entire range of sound effects, but typically refers to human sounds – footsteps, clothing rustles and other noises people make.

Why bother recording sound effects at all? Can’t we just pick them up during the shoot and include them in the finished product? It’s possible, but most dramatic shoots concentrate the microphones on the actors’ dialog, not the sound effects. By recording and editing the sound effects independently of the shoot, you’ll gain full control of when the effect occurs, as well as the ability to increase the subjective impact of the sound. Another benefit is the power to substitute recorded sounds for those in the video. With some imagination and the right effects, a simple scene will transform into a crowded beach or frantic game show.

Now Hear This

There are many excellent ways to record sound effects. Under controlled circumstances, you can even record them directly into your computer. Of course, most of the really interesting sounds occur in places where it’s difficult to carry a computer. This means you need a portable recorder. Many videographers love the MiniDisc (MD) format for its small size, excellent (but compressed) sound quality and low cost. Professionals often use digital audio tape (DAT) recorders for the highest quality. If you don’t have access to one of these recorders (or the budget to purchase one), you can easily substitute your digital camcorder.

Whether Digital8 or Mini DV, your camcorder has a better-than-CD-quality audio recorder. Many offer the ability to record up to four audio tracks in the field, so what are you waiting for? As with your video recording, you’ll need an external microphone and a pair of headphones for monitoring. If you have microphone options, use a directional microphone for one-shots and use non-directional mikes for any ambient sounds.

What’s That Sound?

Gathering sound effects is fun and challenging. You may already have a shopping list of the effects required for your upcoming production. You can record realistic one-shots by simply placing the microphone where you normally listen to the sound. There is a huge difference in the sound of a telephone recorded at six inches away versus six feet away. The same rule applies for most sounds, but record both if you like – audio tape is cheap.

Ambient soundscapes present more of a challenge. It is difficult to record a pure sound anymore. Even out in the country, there are distant traffic noises, farm machinery and even jet engines overhead. Maybe these are the sounds you want to record, but more often, you want to avoid them. Let the scene dictate the ambient sound. If you’re showing a sidewalk caf, some traffic noise is in order. A race scene calls for revving engines and the roar of a crowd. If the required sounds are available at the shoot location, record them. Make sure you have several uninterrupted minutes of each soundscape, the longer the better. Don’t forget real sound effects like lightning and thunder. It can be difficult, due to radical dynamic changes, but not impossible to get a really good storm on tape.

Foley sounds are even more fun because they allow you to show your creativity. Don’t have a foghorn? Try blowing across the top of an empty two-liter bottle. While your lungs are still full, an earthquake sound is available by blowing on a microphone. Leave the windscreen off your lapel mike and try a few gusts from several inches away. The sound possibilities are endless.

Slice and Dice

Once your sound effects are recorded, it’s time to dump them into your computer for some serious editing. Although you can record from the audio output of your camcorder into your computer sound card, the easiest way to capture the audio from DV tape is through the FireWire connection. If your video capture program doesn’t record audio separately, just capture the whole clip with both video and sound. Group all the clips together on the timeline, and then export an audio-only version for editing. Open the resulting audio file in your favorite audio editing program.

For Windows computers, there are several audio-editing applications – some are even free. Two popular options on Windows machines are Sound Forge and Cool Edit or if you are a Mac fan, you could try Peak or sonicWORX. All of these programs offer similar features, but approach editing in different ways. If you don’t already have one of these programs, get a copy. You won’t regret it.

Now that your sound effects are open, the entire world of digital manipulation is at your fingertips. Some simple trimming is first, isolating the individual sounds and minimizing leading and trailing background noise. As you edit, it’s simple to save each sound effect as a different file. Make sure you save the original in the highest quality possible (48kHz at 16 bit for DV), and the edited versions with different file names (thunder01, thunder02, etc.). This makes it easy to go back to the original source for every variation.

If you are editing realistic sound effects, that may be the end of your session. But if you want to have some fun, explore all the options provided by your audio editing software. A little reverb can add a sense of space to a sound. Try the Reverse and Time Stretching functions. Try them together. Use the tone controls to morph your sounds into completely new versions. Add some echo or flanging to spice things up a bit. Add effects to other effects for some bizarre combinations. And you can always go back to the original sound and start over as many times as you like.

Collect your best sound effects and create your own library. Who knows? Maybe George Lucas will call you for Episode III instead of Ben Burtt.

[Sidebar: Sound Tricks]

Here are some techniques for making common sound effects:

  • Cornstarch in a leather pouch makes a good snow crunch.
  • An old chair can produce very controllable squeaking sounds.
  • A heavy staple gun makes the sound of gunshots. Warning! Do not use a real gun for gunshots. The concussive sound can destroy your mike. It is even worse when you point the shotgun right at the mike.
  • Crumpling cellophane makes a crackling fire.
  • A large sheet of sheet metal suspended and shaken produces thunder.
  • Coconut shells, cut in half and stuffed with padding, will make the sound of horse hooves.
  • Use a heavy rolled up and taped phone book or hit a raw chicken or turkey for punching sounds.
  • Break celery to create the sound of breaking bones.
  • Step on tape from an unraveled audio cassette to make a convincing substitute for walking in grass.
    • [Sidebar: Squeaky Doors Make Great Sounds]

      My wife was after me for weeks to oil the hinges on our front door. She didn’t understand that I was waiting for the squeak to season to perfection. The day it was just right, I set up my equipment and recorded the ultimate door creak – perfect for a horror piece or maybe a radio commercial. Interesting sounds are everywhere. If possible, capture and edit them for later. You never know when you or a friend will need a unique sound effect that isn’t in your library. After capturing the creak for posterity on tape, I gladly lubricated the hinges.

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

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