Building Your Own SFX Library

Sound effects libraries are useful to have on hand when adding sound to any kind of visual media, such as a films, commercials, television shows, or video games.  While some sound effects are recorded directly in sync with movie (Foley), many pre-recorded sound effects and ambiances are pulled from well-organized libraries.

Building your own Sound Effects library is a great start to working on Audio for Visual Media projects.  First, it helps you understand how to record effects, whether outside with a handheld or field recorder or inside in a controlled environment. You also develop an ear for interesting and creative sounds, because part of the fun is capturing unique sounds that you don’t hear every day.  Finally, practicing editing of the sound effects is very useful to hone your skills at not only mastering your own library, but for the ability to edit them into a final picture as well.

This past fall I took an Audio Engineering 2 class aimed for working with visual media.  For our final projects, we were told to go forth and create our own sound effects libraries with 5 groups of 5 sound effects each, along with two ambiances.  I checked out one of the Sony PCM-M10s handheld recorders we have at school and recorded most of my effects with it.  They turned out pretty good!  (I ended up buying my own handheld recorder, (the Zoom H4N), but by the time it arrived I was on to editing all of my sound effects, and I haven’t had a lot of time to play with it yet.)  I recorded most of the effects at my friend Mike’s house, because he has a ton of tools (one of my groups was just saws), and home-brewing equipment.  Surprisingly, I actually captured some really fun sounds from his baby!  –I haven’t had a chance to get any up my effects on Soundcloud yet, but I will put a few examples up here in a few days.

Handheld recorders are great for beginners, and they are also great to have on hand to capture accidental sounds.  Professionals would use higher-end field recorders such as the Sound Devices field recorder, but they may keep a smaller hand held recorder to carry around to capture any unplanned sounds.  Truly, the best sound is one that you capture, so even if you have to use the voice memo app on your iPhone, that is still better than not capturing the sound at all, it just won’t be as great of quality.

For more information on field recording and building your own library, one blog that I have been enjoying is Creative Field Recording.  The author, Paul Virostek, is a professional field recordist, and he shares a variety of great tips on field recording, as well as resources and some free effects.  It’s definitely worth a look.  One great article for beginners is How to Record Sound Effects on a Budget.  My New Years resolution is to continue building up my sound effects collection, by recording some sound effects every day.*  By the time the year is over, I will have a pretty solid sound effects library!

*He suggests 10 a day, but I will start out with 5 a day and work up to 10 once I graduate from IPR and have a little more free time to devote to the effort.

The Internet! The World Wide Web!

You should be on the internet if you know what’s good for you.  Just ask these kids from 1995!

But in all seriousness, it is amazing that everything the kids talked about – using the internet as our television, workplace, phone, to shop – and more – is now reality.  It is interesting to look back and think about how the internet and the World Wide Web has evolved.  

In class, we have been talking about some of the major players and inventors of the internet.  One person I’m particularly fascinated by is Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, and then basically gave it away for free.  In the 1980s, Berners-Lee worked for Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is a physics laboratory.  While he was working there, he found it frustrating that in order to get information from a computer, you often had to go to that actual computer to look at the information – for example, there was no easy way for the physicists to exchange information with each other without meeting face to face.  So, Berners-Lee developed a way to make the internet more accessible to the public.   He invented HTML, URI, and HTTP, along with the World Wide Web.  Cern made the WWW technology available free to the public in 1993.

Currently, Berners-Lee leads the Worldwide Web Consortium, (, and in the FAQ section, he answers a popular question, if he has “mixed emotions about ‘cashing in’ on the Web”.  He states that he does not:  “It was simply that had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”

Truly, Tim Berners-Lee is an important figure when we think about the internet, because he is the person that helped develop the protocols that made it possible for the public to easily access and exchange data.  (Technology that even allowed children from 1995 to find cat food cupcake recipes on the internet!  Important stuff, there.)

Hell Sauce: A Mashup

Yes, this is a weird name for a blog post.  But it’s the title of my mashup that I did for my Desktop Production 2 midterm last spring.  Basically, a mashup is taking one or more songs and literally mashing them together (for additional reference, mashups are popular on TV show “Glee”).

For this project, we were given a list of songs to choose from, and the two songs I picked to mash together were “Hot Sauce” by Thomas Dolby and “Gonna Raise Hell” by Cheap Trick along with some instrumental loops that were provided for us.  I picked “Hot Sauce” for the fun spaghetti western intro, and I wanted it to combine it with “Gonna Raise Hell” because, well, hell is hot.

I used ProTools to create the mashup . I synced both songs to 120 beats per minute using Elastic Audio and the TCE tool, then I chopped them both up into usable chunks, and chose parts that I found interesting, arranged them into a pop song format, then automized the volume.  I found that the best way to mash up the songs were to use an instrumental part of one (or both) songs and then overlay vocal parts.  I kept the drums from “Gonna Raise Hell” going pretty much throughout the song; I wanted the whole song to be cohesive, to make it difficult to tell which song was which, and I believe this came across in the final product.

The Sound of City Lights


My Charlie Chaplin “hand turkey”.

As  I have mentioned, Kyle and I like to watch old movies, and we are working through the AFI top 100.  A few weeks ago, “City Lights” finally came in from the library.   We had been on the waiting list for – I kid you not – a whole year.  I didn’t realize it would be that popular!  Let me tell you, it was hilarious and well worth the wait.

In City Lights, Charlie Chaplin plays his famous character, “The Tramp”.  In this film, the Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a millionaire.  Throughout the course of the film he tries to find ways to make money in order to woo her and help her pay for a surgery to repair her sight.  He also befriends an actual millionaire, who only recalls that they are pals when he is drunk.  Basically the people that he befriends and loves cannot see him for who he truly is.  Chaplin often uses the Tramp to explore somewhat dark or political themes in a lighthearted way with lots of slapstick comedy, and City Lights was no exception.

Before I dig into the sound of City Lights, I should probably mention the transition from silent films to “talkies”.  The first film with sound was “The Jazz Singer”, which premiered in 1927.  The Jazz Singer did not have talking throughout, rather, mainly just the singing was synced to the actors.  Otherwise, they still used title cards for most of the dialog.  After The Jazz Singer was released, talkies became instantly popular, and silent films declined rapidly.

Chaplin had built his fame around silent films, and pantomime in particular.  Through this medium, he could reach international audiences.  Because he did not use spoken dialog, he was not limited by the English language.  (In fact, the first time you hear the Tramp’s voice is in Chaplin’s next film, “Modern Times” – the Tramp sings a tune which is entirely gibberish.  So funny and fitting for the Tramp!)  He worried about what would happen if he gave the Tramp a voice.  Would it make the character less funny?  Would it change the audience’s opinion of the films, who are used to Charlie Chaplin’s miming?  Or would it alienate his international fans?

City Lights was his last “silent” film, but he did take advantage of the synchronization technologies by putting in his own musical score and sound effects – and even poked fun at the popular talkies.  City Lights was Chaplin’s first film after The Jazz Singer was released, so I think it probably gave him anxiety to try and captivate audiences that desired to see those talking films.  So he was very careful and clever with how he treated the sound in City Lights.  First, the music which was composed to fit the action of the film, as well as introduce musical themes for each of the characters, so it took on the very important roll of helping move the story along.  Having music that fits the action of the film was still new with talkies – it was all synchronized to the film (just as the dialog would be).   There are not a lot of sound effects in the film, but when Chaplin uses them, he uses them deliberately.

Here is a funny clip, which shows how Chaplin decided to treat dialog for this film:

This scene in the beginning of the film where rich and important people are dedicating a statue and making political speeches.  Instead of dialog, Chaplin used a kazoo sound effect for the speeches making the scene humorous, and poking fun at the popularity of talkies.  Another fun sound effect was the in the boxing scene, where the Tramp tries to win money by boxing.  The music again is playing with the action, but in addition, there is a boxing bell which really gives the scene life.  I’m not embedding the video because it’s so fun to see in context, but if you can’t resist, you can see the scene here.

I highly recommend seeing this movie, especially with a friend or in a group.  It’s too funny not to share laughs!   It is also a great family film – many children would  find the Tramp’s antics and pantomime fun and understandable.  While you are watching, try to notice the music and sound effects.  Do you think they were effective in this film?  

Desktop Production Final

Last winter at IPR, I took a class called Desktop Production.  For our final project we had to cut a movie trailer down to 30 seconds, remove the audio, then add in all of our own sound.

The Wizard of Oz was one of my favorite movies as a kid, so I couldn’t resist doing Oz The Great and Powerful which had just come out in the theater.  I downloaded four different trailers from Apple’s website, and picked out sections I liked, put them in order and edited it down to 30 seconds in Final Cut Pro 7.  Once that was complete, I dropped it into a ProTools session.  We were given IPR’s sound effects library, so I really wanted to mess around with sound effects for this project.  In the end, it was a little more sound effects heavy than a trailer would normally be, but it was fun to do.   I layered a lot of sounds together to make them sound more appropriate – for example, I did not have an actual tornado sound effect, so I had to layer multiple wind sounds, including sounds like high winds, low winds, some fast winds, whistling winds, moaning winds, winds with debris, along with thunder and some flag flapping sounds for the hot air balloon.  

I learned  some basic automation for this project, which is where you tell ProTools to do things (like turn up the volume, or pan the sound to the left or right) at a certain time, and ProTools will remember to do it every time.  So for instance, in the part where the witch throws a fire ball, I told the computer to pan the sound from the left to the right at this point (so I didn’t literally have to sit there and turn the knob while I recorded the audio).  I automated the volumes of the different sound effects so that they would blend with each other, or become louder and softer.  

For the music I wanted a string section and I wanted it to be simple, but I was having a lot of trouble coming up with something fitting.  I happened to be watcing a lot of Downton Abbey, so the day before I threw the music together and you can kind of hear some similarities in the rhythm.   The challenge was getting to some kind of chord resolution by the end of the 30 seconds, because 1) I was putting the music together at the last minute and 2) the sound effects I found for the light battle had some tones that needed to mesh with the chords.  In the end, I figured out what chord would go with the effect, and then just shifted the key in ProTools so that the music would match.

It’s a little choppy and by no means perfect, but I got an A and a fist bump from my teacher, so I’m happy with it considering it was my first ProTools/Final Cut project.  Let me know what you think!

Cheers to the Weekend!

Hollywood Theater NE Minneapolis

What are you doing this weekend?  Kyle and I are going to take advantage of a free Friday night and watch the Charlie Chaplin film, “City Lights”.   Tomorrow I’m working on some projects at home (including my Sound Effects library – stay tuned!) and then I’m off to the North Star Roller Derby bout!  Here are some fun links for the weekend.  Hope it’s a great one and that you stay warm!

Aningaaq, the 7-minute companion film to Gravity, is very moving and worth the watch.  (Side note, now that it’s freezing out, don’t you want a pair of those fur pants? I know I do!)

Listen to what 100 copies of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ sound like all at once.

Broken Bells has just released part 2 of their short film, ‘After the Disco’ in conjunction with their upcoming album.

Be friends with failure.

This is why you always clean your instrument!

Honeybees may be trained to detect cancer.  Now even more of a reason to protect the bees.

If you really like Christmas (and local artists), you might check out i like you’s annual ornament show tomorrow.

Song for Friday!  Feeling stressed?  Have water on the knee?  Have a cuppa tea.

Gravity in Atmos and 3D

Last month I went to see the movie, Gravity, in Dolby Atmos and 3D.   The TV trailer doesn’t give you many clues or spoilers (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are in space! They run into trouble!)  but I promise you it is worth the watch.

Dolby Atmos is a newer type of surround sound where the speakers actually line the theater, and sounds can also go above you, essentially creating a ‘realistic’ soundscape to enhance your experience.  (This is opposed to a setup like 5.1 Surround, where the where there are 6 speakers: center, left, right, left surround, right surround, and a sub woofer.)  Theaters with Atmos capability are starting to pop up, and when I found out that the Showplace Icon in St. Louis Park (just outside of the Twin Cities) now has Atmos, I knew I needed to go see something in Atmos as soon as possible.

I admit I had a few reservations about going to Gravity.  The theater was only offering it in 3D if you wanted to see it in Atmos, and I have never been a huge fan of 3D (especially the kind where you wear the shutter glasses-those give me a headache!).  To me it seemed like a big novel trend, and not really worth my time.  Also, I’m so used to binge-watching entire television series on Netflix that I wondered if an hour and a half was really worth the 14 bucks I would spend; however, my Facebook friends convinced me that it would be.

Of course, the feature I was really interested in exploring was Atmos.  The thing about sound design is that if it’s good, the audience shouldn’t even think about it.  If you do notice the sound it is likely because it is bad or off in some way.  I tried to pay attention to it , and focus in on qualities of Atmos that would sound different from regular 5.1 surround.  Most noticeable was the vocal panning.  In one scene, George Clooney was off the screen to audience right, and you heard his voice come from that direction, but as he floated towards the middle where Sandra Bullock was, you heard his voice move smoothly around from the right to the center when he got on screen.   While it seems obvious, this is actually very different from a normal film sound where the vocals are mainly panned to the center (and maybe slightly to the left or right).  The idea is that you should hear his voice as you would if he really were floating around you.  This was a little distracting but I can’t honestly tell if it was distracting in a bad way.  I think it was distracting because it’s new and different.  In film or television, we are so used to the dialog being panned to the center (or even hearing actors impossibly clearly when they are far away from the camera), so it will be interesting to see if this changes our perception of “normal”; if film dialog techniques change into more realistic panning with Atmos.

The other distraction was Mission Control – it was difficult to say what they were trying to do there.  You heard a sort of radio voice of Mission Control, but it seemed to revolve around my head, and I didn’t really understand where the sound was coming from.  (Was it in the astronaut’s helmets?  Or maybe revolving to represent that they were on earth while the space station was revolving?)  I basically ended up accepting it and ignoring it, but I would have to see it again to figure it out.

Besides Atmos effects, it was interesting what they did with treating the sound in space, since you can’t actually hear sound in space.  The film makers did take some artistic license, because the movie isn’t soundless.  For example, when the astronauts are working outside the space station, you still hear sounds of the tools working on the ship.  They sound very muffled, like they are underwater.  We discussed this in my Sound Engineering class, and one theory was that while you can’t hear the sounds, but you might feel the vibrations in your space suit, so perhaps the sound designer was trying to convey that.   I looked into it, and at least two astronauts have said that you do not hear sounds on your spacewalks, except for what is in your headset, your breathing, and your spacesuit sounds.  While you wouldn’t actually hear sounds in space, this isn’t too distracting, unless you are a killjoy and demand that No Sounds Should Be Heard!  But that would make for a pretty boring movie.

Gravity ended up being one of the most intense hour-and-a-half movie-going experiences I have had, at least in a long time.  The sound design and the 3D made the already intense film more intense.   It wasn’t too long or too short, and it effectually conveyed to me the feelings of what it might be like emotionally (if not factually) to be in such a situation of trying to survive alone in space, with tons of space junk flying past you.  For what it’s worth, the 3D effects surprisingly worked well for me for this film (especially for floating objects in the space stations-it’s like you are there! up in space!), and the RealD glasses didn’t give me a headache. :)

Gravity is still playing around the Twin Cities, although I do not know if the St. Louis Park Icon theater is still showing it in Atmos.  However, here is a list of upcoming (and past films) that are in Atmos.