Friday, August 5, 2011

The Uncertain Art of Creating Sound Effects

Directors are good at having a vision…but they're not always good at explaining them. So when I get a list of sound effects to work on for an upcoming video, there is often a lot of room for interpretation. Sometimes I have no idea what he actually wants. Typically they read something like this:

"SFX List:
-generator activating
-camera start-up noise thing
-something that sounds like an energetic teleportation…thing. ?
-atmospheric sounds,"

To which I must ask multiple questions to figure out the scene or what he actually means (Where is the sound relative to the viewer? What kind of environment is it in? WTF are you talking about?!?!?). Sometimes it just has to be something that sounds cool and works with the action. Other times there is a more specific vision of his that I am after.

For example, for the 'generator activating' effect listed above that was used in Diaries Part 4, I figured, alright, I know what a generator kicking on sounds like. Boom, done. Well…not quite. Turns out my standard diesel-powered back-up generator idea was not what James envisioned. After several attempts and rejections I finally had to just ask what the heck he was going for…he says, "Okay, um, like this: BEEEEOOOooooooowwwwwww…wwoooOOOOEEEE. You know, like Star Wars."

Ohhhh. Right.

Usually, though, things go pretty smoothly, and I'm offered a lot of creative freedom (either that or James just doesn't care what I do haha). I create many of my effects from scratch, however I also use some from the Action Essentials pack, as well as some free sound effect libraries online. I currently use Garageband for my mixing, though I plan on upgrading to Logic Pro when I can. GB works well enough and can actually be quite powerful when you learn how to utilize both included and third-party Audio Unit (AU) plugins. Anyway, I thought I'd walk you through a couple effects from our DragonBall Z video…and sorry if they don't sound true to the legacy, I was never a DBZ kid. haha.

The first sound I'll take you through is the energy waves coming off James as he begins to go Super Saiyan. This effect consists of eight different tracks total, including the startup sounds and the constant energy waves.

I began by creating a base: the lower-register "flub" of the energy that I want to give weight and power to the effect. This was done using a software instrument to create a few solid bass notes that repeat until the end of the scene; I then put on some automatic filters (a frequency filter that cycles at determined rate) and flangers to give it a cyclical, energy-field-y feel. Next I layered in some static from a guitar amp to further the electricity feel and add mid-range sound.

I also want to the sounds to build in overall intensity as the scene progresses and energy is built. To do this I used Dronemaker, one of a cool set of of AU plugins from Michael Norris, to work its magic on an explosion sound effect, which I then looped and extended for the length of the shot and steadily raised the volume until it ends. No one will notice this in the final video, but it adds to the intensity build the viewer expects from the visuals.

For the top end, I emulated the Super Saiyan energy field with a higher-pitched analog mono note, automatic filter, and what Garageband calls the 'vocal transformer.' This is supposed to be a pitch and tone modification tool for vocals, but can have interesting effects when used...irresponsibly. In this case it gives the energy field an odd juicy-yet-empty aura.

The "start-up" sound consists of a short, low-pitched software instrument flub, an extremely flanged gunshot, and a sped-up, flanged jet flyby. For the energy pellets flying off into space, I tweaked the crap out of bullet ricochets, then added delay, another AU plugin called Spectral Emergence, and some automatic sound panning.

That's it for that effect. Next I'll take you through the energy blast (or the kamehameha, as I think you DBZ nerds call it ;) ) This one is a bit simpler—only four tracks—as it's really just a bunch of noise. But making that noise believable is just as important.

I imagined there being some whirring as energy and atmosphere coalesced, so I created a couple 'digital mono' software instrument tracks (if you cant tell, synth tracks are great for weird energy effects) and added to each a bitcrusher and distortion to give it that overcranked, blowing-the-mic-out kind of sound, as well as a flanger. I chose two different pitches to simulate the difference in position relative to the camera for the two angles.

The next two tracks that make up the effect are a reverb-ed explosion and a flanged jet fly-by. The explosion adds that punch of explosive energy in the low and mid ranges, and the jet sound represents the massive amount of atmosphere that is being evaporated and pushed out of the way.

All of this is happening on top of the previously described sounds, as well as many other layers that I haven't talked about. This kind of scene is one that requires a lot going on in order to convince the viewer of what is happening…sort of a controlled cacophony of craziness. Yeah. To be honest, some of the sounds I used aren't exactly necessary, but one thing I've found to be true when no one really knows how something is supposed to sound: less is not more. The more dynamic, expressive, and detailed you can make a sound (within reason), the more believable it will be.

The hardest part of making effects for things that don't exist is figuring out what raw materials to start with, how to layer these components to get the product you want, all while making them not sound like what they actually are. I'll have more on this in an upcoming post explaining important steps to take when building sound effects.

In the meantime, I'll be waiting to interpret our director's next vision


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