How to Take Your Sound Effects to the Next Level

2012/07/11

What is the best first step a new sound effects field recordist can take? I’ve written before that getting out and recording anything is a good way to start.

Recording foundation sound effects like traffic, crowds and household sound clips teaches you:

  • How your gear works: nuances of microphone range and frequency response, recorder foibles.
  • How sound moves or works in different environments: reflections, etc.
  • How much intruding noise your recording can tolerate before it is ruined.
  • Subtleties of your subject: when birds are most lively, how crowds react or how machines respond when manipulated.

Well, what’s next? How do you improve your sound effects library to take it from good to great?

Have you exhausted all the cool sound fx around you? Out of ideas? Not sure what to record next? Interested in challenging yourself? Want to record sound clips that involve more than swinging microphone stands and pressing buttons?

I’ve written before that I believe that the best sound effects are meaningful, evocative and powerful. What do I mean? How can you create these sounds?

In this article I’ll suggest some concrete actions you can take to make your sound library better.

The field recording trap

There’s a trap that I believe is common to all field recordists at some point: they become stuck recording only foundation sound effects.

Foundation sound effects are those that immediately surround you. They are the first sounds a recordist captures: door sounds, toilet flushing clips, their dog, their car and so on. A field recordist often records these sounds while discovering capturing sound. I call these foundation sound effects since they often form the base upon which your library is built.

There’s nothing wrong with recording foundation sound effects. I have many myself.

The problem occurs when a field recordist becomes caught recording only foundation sound effects. This happened to me for years, and I didn’t even realize it.

So how do you break out of the foundation field recording trap and take your sound effects to the next level?

Your Substance and Style

It’s easy to get trapped in this stage. It’s usually because we’re in an unconscious rut while field recording. We’re not thinking differently about two things: what we’re recording and how we’re doing it.

A common diversion is upgrading gear. Buying new microphones and recorders help, but they’re only a marginal improvement. Even the most drastic changes in gear will only improve the recordings no more than 20%. They may just allow you to record higher fidelity yet boring sounds. We’re looking for an exponential change that will transform our sound effects recordings and improve our craft.

This comes from you, the field recordist. To record better sound effects you must think differently about how you record (which I call your field recording Style) and what you record (your Substance).

About the word ‘better’

‘Better’ is of course a relative word. What you think is better may not be good for someone else. Just look at how widely musical tastes vary.

Airborne Sound sometimes hires interns to record for the website library. I first started thinking about ‘better’ and the difference between sufficient and exceptional sound effects when working them.

They’re free to record whatever they want. However, since I don’t need more foundation sound effects, I developed a way of thinking about sound effects to make their recordings compelling. It was based on an idea I like to keep in mind during my own recordings:

I think the quality of a sound can be measured in five interconnected ways. The more of these elements the recording possesses, the better it will be.

The idea is that approaching field recording with this in mind helps capture fresh, strong sound effects.

Why bother?

I feel that if a sound effect is compelling and useful it will be more valuable to everyone.

How can we do this?

The sound effects star

Designing a project? Want it fast, good and cheap? Pick two. That’s the most possible. This is known as the quality triangle.

In the spirit of the quality triangle, I have created a ‘sound effects star’ (I know, it needs a better name, suggestions welcome):

Click to enlarge.

These are five ways you can use your own Style and Substance to record better sound effects. The have little to do with buying new gear.

I’ve framed each of them as a question below. These are questions I ask myself when recording sound effects:

  1. Is the sound effect difficult to capture?
  2. These days you can record a sound effect in seconds with your mobile phone. Accessibility is great, but it doesn’t guarantee quality. Using another music analogy, free software like Audacity can allow anyone to record a track. It doesn’t mean the resulting album will be good. Difficult sounds require more skill to capture. This means the end product will be better.

    Here are a few ways I look at difficulty:

    • Location. Is the sound effect remote (a dogsled race in the Yukon), difficult to reach (Tibetan monastery, interior Pentagon crowd) or risky (Syrian protest crowds)?
    • Is the sound effect technically difficult to record? Capturing onboard biplane recordings is challenging because of wind. Fighter jet sound effects are tough to anticipate because their power risks over-modulation.
    • What about isolation? Are you able to get an energetic nightclub crowd at 1 AM without music?
    • Sometimes the subject is tricky to capture. It’s not so easy to evoke golden performances from babies or animals. Or baby animals, for that matter.

  3. Is the sound effect rare?
  4. Have you tracked down an old, decommissioned trolley? Endangered Amazonian birdsong? Steam engine locomotive? There aren’t many of these things around. Unique sounds always have value.

  5. Is the recording high-quality?
  6. I mean this in a subjective way, regardless of the target sound effect, like how you can appreciate craftsmanship in design. You may not like Apple but you’d have a tough argument saying their industrial design is sloppy. High-quality is usually self-evident and is valuable.

    Good quality sounds can originate from one or all of the following:

    • A skillful recording or artistic input. This comes from the recordist’s experience or inspiration.
    • Cleanly recorded sound effects.
    • Superior or most appropriate microphone selection.
    • High sample- and bit-rate.
    • Diligent editing and mastering.

  7. Is the sound effect recorded differently?
  8. A fresh approach on an old subject can be compelling. When Pablo Picasso and George Braque pioneered Cubism they depicted portraiture in a radically different way. Similarly, sound effects recorded with new methods can be inspiring for later artists. You can do this by:

    • Using unusual microphones: contact microphones, binaural, hydrophone.
    • Recording a different perspective: a train from under the bridge, or a jet in flight from the baggage hold.
    • Sound design: process an old sound in a new way, with creative use of plugins, etc.
    • Coverage: car recordings abound. However if you can capture a complete set of ride, interior, onboard and exterior perspectives the library will be worth more. This also applies to exhaustive recordings of seemingly normal objects like servos or tools. Extra coverage provides valuable flexibility.

  9. Is the sound effect actually usable?
  10. Clothing moves are essential Foley for a film soundtrack. That doesn’t make them particularly prized, however. Yes, this idea is similar to popularity. Some sounds are just more useful to sound creators than others. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t record unpopular sounds. It just means that usable sounds add more worth.

    Here are some perennially-popular and usable sound effects:

    • Elements for sound design: metal, wood, snow, glass, stone, fruit destruction.
    • Thunder.
    • Animals.
    • Guns.

Making sense of the five points

It’s exceptionally difficult for a recording to meet all five points of the star. In fact, I don’t think five are even necessary for a sound effect to improve.

The goal I set for myself is two. I find that it only requires two of these five things to improve a sound effect.

Seem low? Here are some examples:

  • Basic metal scrape? Record differently with a contact mic at sound design-friendly 192 kHz, 24-bit high-quality. Now you have an interesting, fresh library.
  • Whale recordings are so rare and difficult to capture that even with moderate quality the recordings will be prized.
  • Snow and ice aren’t rare, but they are incredibly useful as sound design elements. If you record clean ice breaks with a skillful performance you’ll have a library of great value.

Some examples of sound effects with all points:

  • Days of high-calibre lion pride vocalizations in the wild? High-quality, rare and usable sounds with coverage, from a difficult location.
  • How about full coverage of a Chevrolet Volt or Tesla Roadster? Technically difficult to capture, expensive, rare, useful in sound design and for the fact that you’ll have one of the first recordings of these cars on the planet.

A way of thinking about field recording

I haven’t listed these five points as rigid checklist for recording sound effects. I just think it’s a good way to think about improving field recordings. It will push you out of your comfort zone and help you look at field recording sound effects in new ways. This refreshes creativity.

It’s also great for generating ideas: how can I record a sound effect differently to give it new life? Can I plant another microphone to add a revealing perspective? It can be a cool challenge.

I find it especially helpful when searching for new ways to record old sound effects. Take a mundane door sound effect and add multiple perspectives from both sides with different room sizes. Try a variety of performances with spirited takes. You’re bound to create something new.

It’s also exciting because it emphases the most influential ingredient when capturing remarkable sound effects: the field recordist themselves.





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