Why We Need Sound Effects

It was the summer of 1990. I had just finished filming an Indiana Jones spoof with some friends on my home video camera – the old ones that rested on your shoulders and only came with a black and white viewfinder.

After editing the footage I finalized the laughable, low-budget production with the Raiders Of The Lost Ark score. I had also added a couple of sound effects for certain scenes. The audience, made up of family and friends, enjoyed the modest four minute film. I was surprised to find that the biggest laugh came when Indy swung his whip. They knew that we weren’t stunt actors and that the whip wasn’t the real thing, but when they heard the sound effect of a huge lion tamer’s whip, they erupted with laughter.

Do I really need sound effects in my productions? Yes!Ric01 400

Sound effects are the unsung heroes of most productions.

Sound effects are pre-recorded sound cues that help us tell a story. Their use dates as far back as the 1700s when theatres would incorporate sound making devices such as thunder sheets. The funny thing about sound effects is that they’re not really noticed unless their missing. Then, the silence or absence of a certain sound seems to become a loud ringing vacancy in the audience’s ears. This is because our ears are used to hearing the world around us. Not only does sound give us a sense of direction, but it also gives us a sort of equilibrium and depth to our environment. Even in a quiet room there is still some sound – be it distant traffic, an air conditioning unit or the refrigerator. We always expect to hear something.

This expectation for sound has been further fed over the years by Hollywood films that seemingly put a sound to every action on screen. Sound designers are often told by directors that if we see a dog, we should hear a dog; if we see a snake it should rattle – even if it’s not a rattlesnake! Cartoons are the most guilty when it comes to over-dramatizing sound. A sound is heard for nearly everything from eye blinks to gun ricochets when a character takes off running. In the past decade or so, it has become common practice to have titles and transitional effects accompanied by science fiction sounding whooshes, metal impacts, digital data sound effects and the like. Audience’s ears are becoming more accustomed to the sonic equilibrium of a production’s soundtrack. Therefore, when there is no sound or the sound heard in a scene does not live up to our expectations, we are taken out of the viewing experience and subconsciously asking ourselves “why doesn’t this sound right?”

The mistake many beginning filmmakers make is that they assume the microphone used on the set to record the dialog will automatically pick up the other sounds heard on set. It’s not until they get to the editing stage that they realize how wrong they were. The microphones used on sets are primarily focused on the mouth of the person speaking. This reduces the amount of natural sound that occurs around the actor during the shot, such as footsteps and other movements. The effect is clean dialogue but, the side effect is a virtual sonic vacuum where all other sounds are faint or silent altogether.

It’s no big secret that sound is always the after thought in most productions. The affect that sound has psychologically and emotionally is often taken for granted. More often than not, the only time that sound is really noticed is when there is no sound at all or the sound that is heard seems to be lacking or inappropriate. This is common with lower budget productions like independent feature films or corporate productions that can’t afford to hire a sound designer to craft the appropriate sounds and mix the tracks together. Smaller budget projects have a lot to live up to and have to figure out a way to do that without exceeding their budget. For this reason, professional stock sound effects libraries and on-line sound effects shops that offer individual sound effects for just a few bucks each become invaluable resources.

Sound effects fall into five main categories: Hard Effects, Foley Effects, Background Effects, Electronic Effects (also called Production Elements) and Sound Design Effects. Here are some definitions of each:

EFXCoverHard Effects
Hard effects are sounds that are associated with an action or event but are not dependent on the performance of the sound such as car horns, gunshots and punches.

Foley Effects
Foley effects are sounds that are performed by a Foley artist, typically in sync with the action on screen. These actions would include footsteps, clothes movements and prop movements.

Background Effects
These are ambiences that give an immediate ‘sound picture’ to the location of a scene. For example, crickets chirping can instantly give an interior shot the perception of nighttime. In the same respect, cheerful bird chirps can also indicate morning. When layered under a dialog track, these sounds can help fill in dead spots that can occur when cutting different takes together.

Electronic Effects
These are synthetic sounds, like those produced by a keyboard or sounds that are heavily processed with audio plug-ins. They can be abstract or literal and can be used to give sonic character to titles and graphics. Laser blasts, spaceship hums and other science fiction sound effects would also fall in to this category.

Sound Design Effects
Sound design effects are sounds that are artificially created, typically by a sound designer. They help give sound to unreal objects, such as werewolves or electrical bolts shooting out of the hand of an evil sorcerer. They are often used to give a heightened sense of realism to a sound. These effects can also be necessary to create when the real sound is unavailable or too difficult to record, such as the sound of the Titanic sinking.

Some productions may require only one type of sound effect. Others may have need of all five types of sound effects. But one thing is certain: every production needs some form of sound effects. Granted, not all productions need over-the-top sound design. A sound designer might not even be needed for smaller productions. In some cases a production’s soundtrack may only need some background effects to help round out the dialog.

Choosing the right sound effect is not difficult, provided that you have a sound effects library or can access an on-line sound effects store. After auditioning a few sounds, there is usually a moment where you’ll find the right one and say “that’s it!” Be careful not to limit your choices simply to the literal name of the sound effect. For example, if you need the sound of a witch’s cauldron but can’t find one, try searching for boiling water. You’ll find that many sounds share common characteristics. A dog’s bark doesn’t have to necessarily be from the same breed of dog; however, a Chihuahua’s bark won’t suffice for that of a German shepherd (unless you’re going for funny).

Be creative. You might not find the exact sound effect that you’re looking for, but understand that ears often work in tandem with the eyes – especially when watching a movie. When your eyes see something, your ears expect to hear something as well; however, your ears are far more forgiving than your eyes. If you simply suggest that a sound belongs to an image, more often than not, the ears will buy into the illusion. This is why audience’s ears didn’t question the sound of the laser gunshots when they first watched Star Wars. Even though the sound was simply a guy wire being hit with a hammer, their ears accepted the sound of a fictional weapon. Understanding the acceptance of this sonic illusion is the first step toward becoming a sound designer.

You should also understand other factors such as duration, perspective and pace that can make a sound effect useful or useless. For example, if the scene has a car honking its horn outside of a house, the sound effect of the horn should sound like it would in that environment. In this case, a car horn honking in a parking garage would be inappropriate and sound weird. Reverb plug-ins can be employed to add a room’s reverb traits to sound effects that are dry to help blend the sound effects to the room that the dialog was recorded in. Failure to do this can destroy the illusion that the sound effect is intended to create. Choose the right sound effect with the right perspective and keep them consistent with the rest of the production’s soundtrack.

Some low budget productions use the camera’s microphone to record the sound for the scene. In doing so, sounds that occur in the scene are often picked up by the microphone and seem to naturally blend in with the soundtrack. If this happens, it may be unnecessary to replace those sounds. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! These sounds are picked up because camera’s microphone is meant to capture everything in front of the lens. Unfortunately, the result is often a distant or reverb-heavy sound track with more reflected sound than direct sound. This is more common with consumer cameras, although professional cameras are not much better.

The goal of using sound effects is to help tell the story. Sound effects are not the icing on the cake, but an integral part of the cake’s batter. Allow yourself time in the final edit to finish your project with audio sweetening and sound designing. Using sound effects will add realism to your productions and help give them life. You’ll be amazed at how great an impact a simple sound clip can have.


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Ric 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. 

For more information visit www.ricviers.com.