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Sounds Like…
By Ric Viers

Searching for the right sound effect can be a challenge. But one secret is to play the “sounds like” game. This technique is perhaps the basis for the craft of Foley. When a bullet punches through the chest of an actor, a Foley artist doesn’t actually fire a gun into a stunt double to get the right sound. Instead, they take out their creative frustration on a piece of fruit or a vegetable (however, there have been cases when the sound designer is bent on a bit more realism and will actually fire bullets into the carcass of a dead animal). The goal is to breathe life into a sonically dead track by finding practical sound sources that work.

Of all the sound effects needed for a film, Foley is by far the most lacking type of sounds found in most sound effects libraries. But, if you exercise a little brain power, you can find stock sound effects that might work for your Foley track. For example, a footfall on the right surface could also double for a “set down” of an object. Keep in mind you should consider tweaking whatever sound effect you plan on using so that it fits the project. The sound effect of a car door closing might be the exact make and model of the car in the scene, but if the sound effect was recorded out in a field somewhere, it won’t work for a scene inside of a parking garage. In this case, add some reverb to the sound to help it match the rest of the scene.

When looking for the right ambience, don’t just think about the environment in which the scene takes place, but also think about the mood of the scene. Additionally, you can use a good ambience track as the core sound for a background, but build other sounds into that ambience to make it the perfect track for your scene. Adding dog barks and a distant lawn mower to a bed of bird chirps and then filtering out some of the high frequencies can work great for a scene that takes place inside of a kitchen. This gives the sense of a subdivision outside of the window. For a night scene, replace the birds with crickets, use less dog barks and ditch the lawn mower.

Remember to use your ears and not your eyes when searching for the right sound. Don’t just think of the name of the object listed in the description of the file. Think in terms of the texture that the sound has. Hard, soft, grainy, fluffy, thick, and thin can be useful clues when searching for the right sound.

In one film that I worked on there was a scene that took place in a public bathroom. After a gross, but funny event, the actor places his hand on the stall door to stop himself for stumbling. The chances of having a sound effect called “Hand On Bathroom Stall Door” was a long shot, if not a hopeless cause. What to do? Unfortunately, our prop room didn’t have a stall door and it seemed like a complete waste of time and money to spend a couple of hours going out into the field to record the sound. So, we played the sounds-like-game and found the sound of a plastic tub impact. With a little EQ and a healthy dose of reverb, we were able to blend that sound into the track and add life and desperation to our poor character trying to keep from stumbling.

Sound effects libraries and download sites have far more sounds than you think. This is especially true if you remember that you can layer, blend and cut several sounds together to design a unique sound effect from the elements. You might not have the right creature growl in your library, but combining a horse whiny with a reversed pig screech and sprinkling in a little gargle of mouth wash could help you create a monster that will make your audience jump out of their seats.

You can use sound effects at face value (i.e. this is a sound effect of water splashing on pavement) or you can use the texture of the sound effect as an element or something else altogether (i.e. the water splash becomes blood splattering all over the pavement). You can also use sound effects expressively. A perfect example of this is a bell ring when someone gets an idea. Obviously, thoughts don’t have sound, but you can use a sound effect to express what is happening internally for the character.

A funny example of an expressive use of sound effects is the door bell in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The Griswolds are anxiously awaiting the arrival of family members who will undoubtedly wreak havoc on their Christmas. When they arrive they ring the door bell. The first ring is a practical door bell. The next ring is a lower pitched door bell ring, followed by an even lower pitched door bell ring. The feeling of dread is felt throughout the house as the sound effect indicates how the characters feel about what the door bell sound means to them. While this example is a bit over-the-top and comes across as cartoonish, this technique can be used more subtly to help underscore the emotion of an event. Remember, music (a collection of sound waves put to rhythm) moves us emotionally. Good sound design does the same thing.

Sounds-like is a creative way to get the most out of a sound effect library or download site. Description names are a helpful way to scan through a list of sounds, but don’t forget to focus on the texture that each sound has. You’d be surprised how sounds that have no practical relation can be used together to create the sound you’re looking for.

This article is Copyright 2012 Ric Viers and may not be copied or republished without permission.

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