Let’s talk about Sound Effects

So sound effects. They haven’t been a big deal for very long if we’re talking about the history of film. I mean, check out Charlie Chaplin. Dude didn’t even have to bother with the whole dialogue thing. I watched the 1958 version of “The Blob” with Steve McQueen for Halloween and it was kind of an out of body experience. There were sequences where people would walk without footsteps foleyed in. It felt unnaturally silent. Of course the act of foley has been around since radio plays, so it’s not exactly a new thing either.

Movies are so soundscaped now that it’s become an unbelievably powerful art form. Also on the Halloween weekend I watched “Underworld”. It was like going from one extreme to another. Kate Beckinsale picked a crushed bullet up off of the ground and the resulting sound effect rang for 7 seconds before dwindling to nothing. Every subtle movement that appeared on screen in that movie was issued a sound effect and it was awesome.

Hyper-real, over-the-top soundscaping used to exist strictly in fantasy and sci-fi movies, but not anymore. Any enthusiastic movie-goer in the last fifteen years can tell you that that a dramatic footstep sounds less like a shoe hitting pavement and more like cannon fire. Sound effects have become such a powerhouse department in the industry that you’ll find quite a few action sequences completely forego music in favor of giving the sound editing a place front and center. They’ve really become the punctuation of modern visual storytelling. That’s part of the reason a lot of recent independent films feel like run-on sentences.

In my opinion, if you want your show to look professional, it has to be a well-orchestrated cacophony of sounds. Soundtrack Pro is a part of the Final Cut Studio package and it has a glorious cache of sound effects. And if there isn’t a sound effect specifically made for the sound you’re looking for, you can usually find something that approximates it. For instance, I’ve already soundscaped portions of episode 4 of the Platoon of Power Squadron and so far I’ve used the sound of a record needle landing on a record to be the quiet crackle of a candle being lit, and I’ve used the sound of ambient dinner plate noise to be the creaking of an antique lantern. A professional sound effects editor would probably cringe listening to the array of widely known sound effects being used in the episode, but the average audience member wouldn’t give it another thought.

Also, audiences are used to hearing things sound BIG. So if you drop the sound effect of a handgun over a handgun firing, people will think it sounds wrong. For a movie audience, a handgun should sound like a shotgun, a shotgun should sound like a cannon with a little more treble, and a cannon should render you deaf. Similarly, none of the punch sound effects in Soundtrack Pro seem to have enough PUNCH to them. I always take at least two different punch sound effects and drop them on top of each other. It gives it a little more resonance.

If you don’t have Soundtrack Pro, there are tons of libraries of sound effects that you can get on CD or download. I haven’t used these so I can’t speak to the quality, but I know they exist.

The ideal way to do it would be to go like the pros and create the sounds from scratch, but what no-budget web series creator has that kind of time? That’s hardcore right there.

Next week we’ll talk a little about acting. But if you want to see some sound effects editing at it’s best (in my opinion) watch “Sherlock Holmes” or the final wizard battle at the end of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

until next week, you’ve just been jarvi-ed.

Jarvi out.


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