Sound Design: Step Three- The Edit

The third step to sound designing a film is creating the edit.  Up to this point, you have met with the director and established the theme, collected your sound effects and are now ready to make some sonic magic.  Here are three things to consider while editing:

1. Sound Basics

Before you begin editing it helps to have a general idea of what “sound” is:

  • Sound wave-  “Sound” is comprised of a series of pressure waves, or soundwaves,that react in the same manner as water.  If you a drop a rock into a pond, ripples will radiate from the center of impact.  The size and frequency of the waves depends on the force behind the rock. The same is true with sound. One complete sound wave cycle, or wavelength, stretches from peak to peak.
  • Frequency- The frequency is the number of  complete wave cycles that occur each second, measured in Hertz (Hz).  Higher frequencies are generally perceived as louder and can travel longer distances but are easily refracted (or soaked up).  Lower frequencies are thicker and can transmit through walls.
  • Amplitude– The amplitude is the overall volume, or amount of energy present in a sound signal.  More energy produces a taller wave-length and a louder sound.
  • Sample Rate- Your audio interface or field recorder coverts acoustic audio into a digital format.  Digital audio serves as a snapshot of the acoustic signal.  The sample rate is the number of snapshots, or samples, taken per second.  A higher sample rate produces a better sound.
  • Bit Depth- This works with the sample rate and measures the amplitude, or distance between the peak and the trough of the sound wave.  The bit depth and sample rate translate the complexion of the sound wave to your editor.

These are important concepts to grasp as many of your editing plug-ins, like equalization and pitch shift, function off of the manipulation of these elements.

2. Equipment

For the underground sound designer you can get by with using any non-linear editing system (Avid, Final Cut Pro 7 or Adobe Premiere) to create your mix.

If you want to get serious, I recommend upgrading to a sound-editing program like Pro Tools or Logic Studio.  This will streamline your workflow and give you more room to edit, not to mention a vast array of audio plug-ins. Rounik Sethi compares Avid Pro Tools 9 (which has since upgraded to v.10) to Sony Logic Studio 9.

Invest in a good set of speakers.  I find it best to mix on external speakers as opposed to using headphones.  Headphones can enhance subtle details in your mix that may be lost in a larger environment (like a movie theatre).

3. The Edit

The edit is where all of your hard work and planning pays off.  Working with a sound-editing program is very similar to the workflow of a standard video editing system.  Keith Freund’s reviews the basics to setting up a Pro Tools session in perpetration for recording a voice over.

As you begin the edit process, start off by evaluating the production sound elements from the original edit.  If you are working with an editor, have them provide their project as an open media framework file or .omf file.  This enables you to manipulate all of the original audio tracks on your edit timeline.

In addition, make sure you are provided with all of the production audio from the set.  You can use elements from alternate takes to cover up mistakes on the edit track.  Mistakes to look for are background noise, audio clips and mic bumps.  Listen for anything that distracts from the action on-screen.

In most cases, the production audio will only serve as a foundation for the mix.  You will need to flesh-out the timeline with your recorded sound effects.  As you import your sound effects think again about breaking down the sound.  Your overall goal is to create a sound space; an interactive environment that carries the audience’s attention.

Below is a clip from Dead Man’s Hand where I had to replace all of the production audio with recreated effects.  The advantage with using your own sounds is that you have complete control over their dynamics, but they require more modification to fit the scene.

Take into consideration which sounds you want to layer.  This will produce a more believable, dramatic element and is a common practice when mixing.  Mark Lampert discusses layering effects based on their frequencies in his edit for the video game The Elder Skrolls V.

For followup commentary on approaching your edit, take a look at these sites:

Don’t forget to check back here for more tips on how to keep your sound design affordable.

-Sound Underground


Sound Design: Step Two – Sound Effects

The second step to sound designing a film is collecting your list of sound effects. This seems simple enough, but this is where the sound designers are separated from the hobbyists. You have to tap into your sonic ethos and test your ability to visualize sound. For the underground sound designer, there are two steps to this process.

1. Sound Effects Library

First, as mentioned before, a good resource is a sound effects library. In the past I have been able to get by with using online libraries, not having to invest serious money in a commercial catalogue. Soundbyter is a new site I found that provides amazing royalty free music loops and sound effects. But, as you become more established, you are going to have to invest in a library; when you get to that point I would recommend looking at SFX source.

Don’t get carried away with canned sound effects (effects from a library) as this can compromise your finished project. Canned effects are important and have a significant presence in the underground sound designer’s arsenal, but should never take the place of recorded, foley effects.

2. Foley

The second step is foley, recording your own sounds.  To do this you are gong to need the right equipment and a basic understanding of how to break down the sound.

  • Equipment

Below is a list of the basic equipment you will need.  If you are just starting out this can pose a formidable financial obstacle, so I always recommend looking around your area for rental houses.  This will give you access to top-notch equipment and is a good way to network with the local film community.  Regardless if you are looking to buy or are renting, this is what you need:

    • Field Recorder – Zoom H4n– $251.00
      • The Zoom is a versatile tool that should be in every sound designer’s kit.
      • Take a look at Brad Linder’s article where he compares the Zoom H4, the Fostex FR2-LE and the Sound Devices 702.
    • XLR cable – $20.00
    • Shotgun Microphone – $232.00
    • Boom Pole – $135 or Shotgun Blimp – $299.00
  • Break down the sound

Once you have your equipment in order, look over your sound effects list and consider the dynamics of each sound element you need to capture.  Sounds are composed of a range of frequencies, which can be interpreted as individual sound effects.

Some of your sounds will be simple enough that you can re-enact the action and obtain a believable effect; like walking through dirt or turning a car on.  Other actions are going to require you to fabricate several elements and layer them together to form one effect.

While working with director Tyson Smith on his western short Dead Man’s Hand, I was presented with the challenge of recreating a church door being kicked open.  Tyson wanted this to be a powerful scene that would set the stage for the remainder of the film.  I knew that recording a wooden door opening and closing wasn’t going to produce the impact that he wanted.

I broke the action into several elements asking myself “what would this door sound like?”  I wanted a splintering wood sound, a heavy wood impact from the kick, and a rusty door hinge being forcefully opened.  This is how I obtained each element:

To get the splintering wood sound, I propped a sheet of plywood against a block wall and pointed my microphone directly at the board while Alex, my co-editor, kicked the middle of the plywood.  This gave me a broad range of frequencies and that nice splintering sound.

I recorded this several times and utilized various takes within the same effect to produce a more complex sound.

To get the deep impact sound, I placed the mic behind the wood, to capture just the meaty bass tones (from this angle, the high frequencies would be absorbed by the wood).

I couldn’t find a rusty hinge, or any other object that sounded like a rusty hinge so I pulled this element from a sound effects library.

I layered each individual element in my editor and produced this:

Take a look Andrew Spitz’s interactive sound instillation where he re-creates the experience of a rugby player entering a stadium full of fans.  He employs a similar approach, layering several sounds to produce one element.

Be sure to check back for Sound Design: Step Three – The Edit.  In the mean time, go out and make some noise!

-Sound Underground

Sound Design: Step One – Theme

The first step to sound designing a film is defining the theme of the project.  The theme is the overall mood of the piece; is it an up-beat romance comedy or a dark murder mystery.

A thematically powerful soundtrack embraces the audience and invites them into the story.  Though sound is important, understanding the theme allows the sound designer to become transparent.  An audience doesn’t hear a good sound performance, they feel it.  Listen to Chris Henighan break down the thematic elements of Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller, Black Swan.

Here is a list of three objectives that will help you uncover the theme of your project:

Spotting Session–  A spotting session is a meeting between you and the director.  The director will provide valuable insight over the thematic direction of the film.  Pay special attention to things concerning mood, character mentality and motivation.

If you are the director, it still helps to have your thematic objective written out so you can reference it as you edit.

During the spotting session, make sure you have the “locked edit.”  This means that no more edits will be made to the picture.  There is nothing more painful than laying down sound to a scene that gets cut or changed.

Sound Effects– The next objective is to review each scene and compile a sound effects list determining which elements are concrete and which elements are atmospheric.

  • Concrete Sounds are elements that a member of the audience can easily associate with, a car turning on, a phone ringing or a door opening.  They are directly influenced by the main action on screen.
  • Atmospheric sounds serve as the backdrop to your scene and help the audience acclimate to the environment.  Things to consider are where is the scene taking place?  In a quiet park or under a freeway bypass? What time of day is it?  Is it in the future or is it contemporary?

Sound Design- The final objective to consider is the thematic impact of each sound effect, or the overall “sound design.”  Review your sound effects list and decide which sounds you want to pull from a “sound effects library” and which ones you want to “foley.”  

  • Sound Effects Libraries are collections of generic sound effects based on several themes.  These are best used on concrete elements.  Sound effect libraries are also a useful tool in compiling atmospheric elements.
  • Foley is the process of recreating and capturing sound effects in sync with the picture.  This is reserved for the sounds that carry a thematic significance or are unique to the scene.  If I’m designing a scene where the main actor sets a glass on a table, I will set up a small table in my my walk-in closet sound booth and recreate that action.

Now that you have the mental weaponry to analyze the theme of your project, go out an make some noise!  Check back for “Sound Design: Step Two – Recording Sound Effects.”

-Sound UnderGround