Homemade Sound Effects: You Won't Believe Your Ears

Video is a medium for the ears as well as the eyes. Sound effects bring a greater degree of reality and believability to your pictures. Next time you go to the movies, listen as closely as you watch.


Imagine a scene where a man opens a door and enters a living room. He walks across the living room to the bar, flinging his coat onto a chair on the way. He drops some ice into a glass, opens a bottle and pours himself a drink. Then he settles into his favorite easy chair, swirls the ice in his drink and takes a sip. He reacts to an off screen sound and turns to see his wife enter the room.

That’s what you see, but if you were to close your eyes, you could still get the story from the sounds alone: You’d hear the key in the lock, the door opening, and closing again. You’d hear the man’s footsteps on the floor. You’d hear the coat land in the chair, then the ice bucket opened and the ice scooped up and dropped in the glass. You’d hear the bottle taken down and the cap unscrewed. You’d hear the liquid being poured, the man walking to the chair, the creak of the chair as he sat in it, the clink of the ice in the glass, etc.

It may come as a surprise to you that most of the sound accompanying the movies you see was not recorded on the set with the picture. On the set, the sound person’s job is to get good, clean sound of the dialog. Filmmakers often choose to exclude the background and incidental sounds to maintain quality and continuity. These sounds are added later in a sound effects studio.

Modern sound effects artists (called Foley artists) work in special studios with a variety of surfaces to walk on and huge number of props to handle. It usually takes about three weeks to create the sound effects for a feature film, making at least three distinct tracks for a given segment of film. There is a "Foot" track for footsteps, a "Specifics" track for overall sound effects and a "Moves" track for the sounds of clothing and movement.

You don’t have to be a major studio to give your videos a big budget feel. You can improve the perceived quality of your productions by spending a little extra time on your sound track. Sure, your lavaliere mike may have captured crisp dialogue, but adding footsteps, ambient noise and other sound effects will make your video feel more like a feature film. Creating Foley sound for your videos is easier than you might think. You might have everything you need already. Let’s begin by taking a look at the equipment you need and then breakdown the three tracks and how you create them.


Setting up a Studio

To get started, gather the following equipment in a quiet room:

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  •  A VHS copy of your edited sequence

  •  A VCR and video monitor for playback

  •  A good microphone (preferably a condenser mike)

  •  A recording device (the audio tracks on your camcorder, a tape deck or the sound card on your computer will do). A recorder with manual level control is preferred over one with automatic gain control.

  •  An audio mixer. Though not necessary, the control over mike input level and equalization can be extremely valuable.

  •  Some props to create the sound effects – a good idea is to use the items that were in the original videotaping, but don’t stop there – all is fair in audio. If the sound fits use it (See Sound Tricks sidebar).

  •  Various surfaces appropriate for "walking" on, though they needn’t be large since you won’t actually walk anywhere.

  •  An assistant. You’ll need someone to watch and mimic the action with sound props and someone else to position the mike and ride the levels.


    Pre-planning

    To create your sound effects, you’ll need to use a copy of the final edited video. The quality of the visuals doesn’t need to be great, so long as you can see the action. Since you’ll need to replay this tape many times this copy will save you from wearing out your originals.

    You should watch each scene several times to get thoroughly familiar with the footage. Then start rehearsing the first track. It is best to have one person record the sound and another person make the sounds if possible. After you are familiar with the movements for a scene, start the recorder and make your sound effects as you watch the scene on the screen.

    You would be wise to record several tracks (Foot, Specifics and Moves) for each scene, just as Hollywood engineers do. Your computer-based editing software will likely allow you to layer as many tracks as you’ll need when it’s time to edit.


    Getting on Track

    Foley artists are sometimes called "walkers" because the creation of footsteps is one of their most important contributions to the track. But don’t let the term "walkers" fool you. When you create footsteps, you don’t actually walk anywhere because the mike doesn’t move. That means you have to learn how to step as if you were walking without moving away from the mike. This is not easy, so give yourself plenty of time to practice.

    First, make sure you have a sample of each surface that you will need. Then, place the mike about three feet away from the first surface. Use the same kind of shoes, if not the same ones, which the actors wore. You can wear the shoes on your feet or hold them in your hands, whichever is easier for you.

    Use a heel-toe action to simulate walking. Watch the actor’s shoulders, not his or her feet. This allows you to get in sync with the actor’s movement rather than trying to react to the feet themselves. If possible, create a separate track for each character. This gives you the best control in the final mix.

    After completing the Footsteps track, get your props out for the Specifics track. The Specifics track consists of anything that isn’t clothing or footsteps. Here is where you get to create all the neat sounds: the punches, gurgles, screeches and bangs. This is also where you may want to inject a little humor by using unexpected sounds (if it is that kind of show).

    Once again the first thing to do is assemble your props, remembering that what you use doesn’t necessarily have to look like what is on the screen, just sound like it. Be creative.

    Place the mike about three feet from the action, and away from the face to avoid picking up breathing. You will want to ride the gain during this stage -if you have an audio mixer.

    To add that final layer of reality, many professional Foley artists add a Moves or Clothing track. This consists of the sounds clothing makes as the actors move around. It is a very subtle effect, so you may not want to do it the first time you add Foley to your productions. If you do want to give it a try, here is how the pros do it.

    Do your recording in the quietest location you can to eliminate background noise. Make sure you have gathered the appropriate pieces of material (denim, leather, silk) and place the mike about three feet away from a chair where you can sit comfortably while you make the noises. Hold the material loosely and rub it against itself or your body in sync with the movements on the monitor. If the actors touch each other, mimic that movement. You should end up with a smooth but subtle background of sound that the more obvious sound effects can lay over in the final mix.

    Above everything else, be creative. Foley work will add new dimension and texture to your productions, resulting in a richer, fuller sound track that will impress your audience.

    You can make all three tracks, Footsteps, Specifics and Moves, or just one of them. Either way, your videos will benefit. The best thing about it is that it’s a lot of fun. So watch out, it may end up being one of your favorite steps in the production process.

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