How To Achieve “Million Dollar” Sound Without A Million Dollars

A few months ago, I was watching an episode of Family Guy.

Peter Griffin was up to his usual antics and during one of the scenes, he was crushed by a falling piano. BAM! I scratched my head and hit rewind on the DVR. Sure enough, the piano smash they used was a sound effect that I created for a commercial library. It’s always fun to randomly hear your work.

Looking back on when I created that sound, I’m actually a little surprised at how haphazardly I recorded back then. When I first started, I didn’t have very good monitors. In fact, all I had was a pair of high end computer speakers and a good pair of headphones. I recorded on DAT recorders which are extremely noisy compared to today’s low-end handheld recorders. Thankfully, I had really good microphones. I created several libraries for major companies using this set up and grew my studio as the work increased.

The piano crash was a combination of a couple of random keys slammed on a grand piano. The recorder was a Sony TCD-8 Walkman DAT recorder. The microphone was the cheap one that came with the unit. The wood smashes and splinters came out of a recording session on a stage. Those elements were recorded with a MKH-416 on a Sony TCD-10 DAT recorder. I mixed the elements together and designed several effects that ended up in a sound library. Nobody knew how the sounds were recorded. They heard the sounds for what they were. Years later, the sounds I created with my beginner package are still being used by professionals.

The point is you don’t need a million dollar studio to achieve million dollar sound!Viers05

Mark Mangini told me a story about how he needed a simple sound at the last minute during a mix session at Todd AO for a major film. I don’t recall exactly what the sound was – a pen being set down or something like that. He giggled and told me he whipped out his Zoom recorder and recorded the sound right there on the mix desk. So, in a facility with millions of dollars worth or recorders, mixers and microphones, he used a recorder that could fit in his pocket.

It’s easy to get hung up on gear. But don’t confuse gear with quality. Techniques will always trump the technology. Always.

Gear is a money pit. It’s a trap. It’s fool’s gold. You can sit and stare at catalogs all day and drool over a certain piece of gear, convincing yourself that if you only had this one piece of gear your sound would be amazing. Then, you save up and buy it. It sounds great. Then, a month later, you see something else in the catalog and convince yourself that if you only had this one more piece of gear…

Stop! Put your hands in the air and step away from the catalog. You’re chasing your tail and you’ll never catch it.

You are an artist. The artist paints the picture, not the brushes. Brushes are important, but a true artist knows that he could use his fingers to create art if he didn’t have brushes. The bottom line: don’t wait for that dream studio before you start your career. Press the red button and get started now!

Record, record, record! Edit, design, mix, rinse and repeat.

The White Album by the Beatles is one of the greatest albums of all time. What’s funny is that for less than $2,000, you can go to Guitar Center and by software, mics and even monitors that would probably surpass the quality of the equipment the Beatles used to record that album. This is unbelievable, but true. Digital technology has leveled the playing field. A laptop rig can produce higher quality recordings than what the Fab Four used to record legendary songs.

Don’t let the size of your mic cabinet determine whether or not you are a professional. Start developing your craft now. As the paying gigs come, you can always upgrade. But, don’t wait for the upgrade to get started.

Here are a few tips to help you achieve that “million dollar” sound:

1. Where you position the mic is far more important than which mic you use. This one should be a no-brainer. Mic placement is everything when it comes to recording. A bad mic in a good place will sound better than a good mic in a bad place. Find the sound source and choose an optimal position to capture that sound. If you aren’t using all of the tracks on your recorder, try experimenting by putting additional mics in different places. You can mix them together or choose your favorite position in the edit. A nice trick, if you are recording in mono is to set up a second mic with a level that’s 6-12dB lower than your primary mic. This will give you a back up track, just in case the first track clips, peaks or if something bumps the stand during the take.

2. Recording with good levels on a cheap recorder will give you better quality than recording with poor levels on a great recorder. Preamps are the most important feature I look for in a recorder. A recorder with poor preamps is nothing more than a high tech paper weight. But even with quality preamps, if your signal is too low you will get noise when you amplify the sound in post. Always record at the hottest level possible. You can always back it down later, but you can’t increase poor levels without introducing noise. Quick side note: If you are recording something that is super quiet, for example a grasshopper shaving his beard, you aren’t going to get ‘great’ levels. Don’t turn the mic preamps too far past unity, or you could introduce system noise. Most nature ambiences are the same way.

3. Spend your money on gear that will make a difference, but save on the things that really don’t. Gold plated, super high-end microphone cables that were manufactured by angels up in heaven will not sound better than a cable that costs a third of the price. You have better things to spend your money on. Don’t fall into the trap that a single cable will increase the quality of your work. Buy good cables so that they will last longer and handle the rigors of the field, not because they were hand crafted by pixies. I’ve put a $60 cable next to a $15 cable and ran tests with no noticeable difference to the ears. Perhaps, if we put them both on scopes we could see unique signatures that would prove that one was better than the other, but the audience won’t do that. Remember, consumers think MP3s sound better than CDs.

4. Where you record is one of the most important ingredients for recording good sound effects. I would rather record in a quiet location with a $2,000 gear package than in a noisy, reverberant location with a $20,000 gear package. Unless you are going for a specific effect, try to record your material dry. You can always add effects later, but you can’t take the effect out once it’s been recorded. That said, if something spontaneous comes up, but the location is not optimal, record anyways. You never know when you’ll hit pay dirt. However, if you’re lining up a location to record footsteps, avoid setting up in a building next door to the airport.

5. Avoid over-processing your sounds. Compressors, equalizers, noise reducers and reverbs are all very useful tools. But, like salt, can spoil the taste if overused. When building your sound libraries, go with the less is more approach. Your goal is to create sound effects that can be tweaked and processed later. If you go too heavy on compression when you master the file, you’ll be stuck with those dynamics. However, if you leave the original dynamics in the file, the file becomes more versatile later. The same goes with reverbs and equalization. There are times when you’ll want to over process and go nuts with creativity. That’s great if you end up there. But, if you start there with a processed file, you’ll have nowhere else to go.

6. Monitor at consistent levels. Switching back and forth between loud and soft levels can be deceptive to your ears and lead to poor decision making. This is true for headphones and for studio monitors. Find that happy spot where it sounds “just right” and stay there. Don’t touch that dial! Occasionally, you’ll need to crank up your levels to check for noise or other background problems, but be sure to return the knob to the same level. If not, you’ll end up with weird and inconsistent levels in your mixes throughout the day. Never work at levels that leave your ears sore at the end of the day. When in doubt, work at a lower level and stay there.

7. Your creativity. If you’re not a song writer, a $10,000 limited edition Les Paul will not do you any good. Conversely, if you’re not creative, a $10,000 studio is not going to be of much use to you either. Don’t get hung up on what you see outside of yourself – gear, projects, other sound designer’s techniques and work. Focus on what you see inside of yourself. I might have a bigger recording studio than you, but you might have better ideas than me. Therefore, your work might sound far better than anything I could produce. Remember Mr. Miyaga from the Karate Kid? He told Danielson that Karate is not in his head it’s in his heart. Sound design is not in your rack, it’s inside you.

I have a tattoo on my right arm that my wife designed for me. It’s a deck of cards with the Ace of Spades sticking out from the bottom. It’s there to remind me that life is five card stud, not five card draw. You can’t ask for different cards. You have to play the cards you’re dealt. You can sit and complain about your parents, your city, and even your economic status all of your life and nothing will change. Or, you can sit up at the table and play the game with what you were dealt. But, don’t worry - you can still win a round of poker with a crappy hand as long as you play your cards right.

The whole point I’m trying to make is don’t waste your time waiting for something to come along to make you a better sound designer (school, projects, money, gear, a different city or country). Look around at what you do have and start there.

Avoid getting blinded by the flashing LEDs on that new piece of gear and save your money for the things that really matter. Remember, even though the Imperial Army had more advanced weapons, they were defeated by Ewoks using only sticks and stones.

RicViersHeadshotRic Viers is a sound designer and author based in Detroit, Michigan. Ric is the world’s largest producer of professional sound effects libraries with more than 666 products produced to date. He is the owner of SoundEffects.Com, author of “The Sound Effects Bible” and “The Location Sound Bible”, and the founder of Blastwave FX – one of the world’s leading sound effects publishers. His location sound credits include hundreds of productions for nearly every major television network, Universal Studios, Dateline, Good Morning America, Disney, and many others. Known as the “Rock and Roll Professor of Sound”, Viers was inducted into the Full Sail University Hall Of Fame in 2014 and has hosted several video series like “Rode University”, “Rode Rage” and most notably “The Detroit Chop Shop Video Diaries” a YouTube based reality series about the interns at his studio The Detroit Chop Shop. His sound design work continues to be used in major motion pictures, television shows, radio programs, and video games worldwide. 

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