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Sound Effects In Movies: Production & Technology

The Definition Of a Sound Effect

Sound effects or audio effects are artificially created or enhanced sounds, or sound processes used to emphasize artistic or other content of films. In movie production, a sound effect is a sound recorded and presented to make a specific storytelling or creative point without the use of dialogue or music. The term often refers to a process applied to a recording, without necessarily referring to the recording itself. In professional movie production, dialogue, music, and sound effects recordings are treated as separate elements. Dialogue and music recordings are never referred to as sound effects, even though the processes applied to them, such as reverberation or flanging effects, often are called "sound effects"

Movie Sound Effect Categories

In the context with movies, sound effects refer to an entire system of sound elements, whose production includes many different disciplines, including: Hard sound effects are common sounds that appear on screen, such as door slams, weapons firing, and cars driving by. Background (or BG) sound effects are sounds that do not explicitly synchronize with the picture, but show setting to the audience, such as forest sounds, the buzzing of fluorescent lights, and car interiors. The sound of people talking in the background is also considered a "BG," but only if you cant hear the speaker and the language is unrecognizable (this is known as walla). These background noises are also called ambience or atmos ("atmosphere"). Foley sound effects are sounds that synchronize on screen, and require the expertise of a Foley artist to record properly. Footsteps, the movement of hand props (e.g., a tea cup and saucer), and the rustling of cloth are normal foley units. Design sound effects are sounds that dont normally occur in nature, or are impossible to record in nature. These sounds are used to suggest futuristic technology in a science fiction film, or are used in a musical fashion to create an emotional mood.

Each of these sound effect categories are specialized, with sound editors known as experts in an area of sound effects (e.g. a "Car cutter" or "Guns cutter"). The process can be separated into two steps: the recording of the effects, and the processing. Sound effects are often custom recorded for each project. However if time and budget do not allow, the recording step can be replaced by using large libraries of pre-recorded commercial sound effects or stock sound effects (such as the famous Wilhelm scream). Although effects libraries may contain every effect a producer requires, for timing and aesthetic reasons custom recorded sound effects are often preferred. Foley is another method of adding sound effects. Foley is more of a technique for creating sound effects than a type of sound effect, but it is often used for creating the incidental real world sounds that are very specific to what is going on onscreen, such as footsteps. With this technique the action onscreen is essentially recreated in order to try and match it as closely as possible. If done correctly it is very hard for audiences to tell what sounds were added and what sounds were originally recorded (location sound).

The Recording the Sound Effects

The most realistic sound effects originate from original sources; the closest sound to machine-gun fire that we can replay is an original recording of actual machine guns. Less realistic sound effects are digitally synthesized or sampled and sequenced (the same recording played repeatedly using a sequencer). When the producer demands high-quality sound effects, the sound editor usually must increase his available library with new sound effects recorded in the field. When the required sound effect is of a small subject, such as scissors cutting, cloth ripping, or footsteps, the sound effect is best recorded in a studio, under controlled conditions. Such small sounds are often given to a foley artist and foley editor. A lot of sound effects cannot be recorded in a studio, such as explosions, gunfire, and automobile or aircraft maneuvers. These effects must be recorded by a sound effects editor or a professional sound effects recordist. When such "big" sounds are needed, the recordist will begin contacting professionals or technicians. If the recordist needs an explosion, he may contact a demolition company to see if any buildings are scheduled to be destroyed with explosives in the near future. If the recordist requires a volley of cannon fire, he may contact historical re-enactors or gun enthusiasts Depending on the effect, recordists may use several DAT, hard disk, or Nagra recorders and a large number of microphones.

A microphone used for recording

The Processing of Sound Effects

A Nagra Recorder

The ability to make multiple recordings of the same subject at the same time (through the use of several DAT or multitrack recorders) has made sound recording into a complicated craft. The sound effect can be shaped by the sound editor or sound designer, not just for realism, but for emotional effect. Once the sound effects are recorded or captured, they are usually loaded into a computer integrated with an audio non-linear editing system. This allows a sound editor or sound designer to heavily manipulate a sound to meet his or her needs. The most common sound design tool is the use of layering to create a new, interesting sound out of two or three old, average sounds

In movie production, typical effects used in recording and amplified performances are: Echo - to simulate the effect of reverberation in a large hall or cavern, one or several delayed signals are added to the original signal. To be perceived as echo, the delay has to be of order 50 milliseconds or above. Short of actually playing a sound in the desired environment, the effect of echo can be implemented using either digital or analog methods. Analog echo effects are implemented using tape delays and/or spring reverbs. When large numbers of delayed signals are mixed over several seconds, the resulting sound has the effect of being presented in a large room, and it is more commonly called reverberation or reverb for short. Flanger - to create an unusual sound, a delayed signal is added to the original signal with a continuously-variable delay (usually smaller than 10 ms). This effect is now done electronically using DSP, but originally the effect was created by playing the same recording on two synchronized tape players, and then mixing the signals together. As long as the machines were synchronized, the mix would sound more-or-less normal, but if the operator placed his finger on the flange of one of the players (hence "flanger"), that machine would slow down and its signal would fall out-of-phase with its partner, producing a phasing effect. Once the operator took his finger off, the player would speed up until its tachometer was back in phase with the master, and as this happened, the phasing effect would appear to slide up the frequency spectrum. This phasing up-and-down the register can be performed rhythmically. Phaser - another way of creating an unusual sound; the signal is split, a portion is filtered with an allpass filter to produce a phase-shift, and then the unfiltered and filtered signals are mixed. The phaser effect was originally a simpler implementation of the flanger effect since delays were difficult to implement with analog equipment. Phasers are often used to give a "synthesized" or electronic effect to natural sounds, such as human speech. Chorus - a delayed signal is added to the original signal with a constant delay. The delay has to be short in order not to be perceived as echo, but above 5 ms to be audible. If the delay is too short, it will destructively interfere with the un-delayed signal and create a flanging effect. Often, the delayed signals will be slightly pitch shifted to more realistically convey the effect of multiple voices. Equalization - different frequency bands are attenuated or boosted to produce desired spectral characteristics. Moderate use of equalization (often abbreviated as "EQ") can be used to "fine-tune" the tone quality of a recording; extreme use of equalization, such as heavily cutting a certain frequency can create more unusual effects. Filtering - Equalization is a form of filtering. In the general sense, frequency ranges can be emphasized or attenuated using low-pass, high-pass, band-pass or band-stop filters. Band-pass filtering of voice can simulate the effect of a telephone because telephones use band-pass filters. Overdrive - effects such as the use of a fuzz box can be used to produce distorted sounds, such as for imitating robotic voices or to simulate distorted radiotelephone traffic. The most basic overdrive effect involves clipping the signal when its absolute value exceeds a certain threshold.

A Mixing Desk

Pitch shift - similar to pitch correction, this effect shifts a signal up or down in pitch. For example, a signal may be shifted an octave up or down. This is usually applied to the entire signal and not to each note separately. One application of pitch shifting is pitch correction. Here a musical signal is tuned to the correct pitch using digital signal processing techniques. This effect is ubiquitous in karaoke machines and is often used to assist pop singers who sing out of tune. Time stretching - the opposite of pitch shift, that is, the process of changing the speed of an audio signal without affecting its pitch. Resonators - emphasize harmonic frequency content on specified frequencies. Robotic voice effects - are used to make an actor's voice sound like a synthesized human voice. Synthesizer - generate artificially almost any sound by either imitating natural sounds or creating completely new sounds. Modulation - to change the frequency or amplitude of a carrier signal in relation to a predefined signal. Compression - the reduction of the dynamic range of a sound to avoid unintentional fluctuation in the dynamics. Level compression is not to be confused with audio data compression, where the amount of data is reduced without affecting the amplitude of the sound it represents. 3D audio effects - place sounds outside the stereo basis Reverse echo - a swelling effect created by reversing an audio signal and recording echo and/or delay whilst the signal runs in reverse. When played back forward the last echoes are heard before the effected sound creating a rush like swell preceding and during playback.