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Synths are great for creating filtered white-noise sweeps, which make terrific whooshes and swishes. You can use those sounds to create a sense of motion or action, particularly when they’re augmented with panning and Doppler processing. Synths are also useful for creating earthquake and rocket rumbles. One of my favorite techniques is to start with white noise, lower the cutoff frequency of a lowpass filter until there is nothing left but the extreme low end, then use a sample-and-hold LFO to modulate the resonance or filter cutoff. I further enhance the low end through EQ or subharmonic synthesis; the result is instant beef.


After you have recorded the raw sound materials, transfer your sounds to a computer and organize them into clear categories. I work on a Mac with Pro Tools, but I know sound designers who use many varieties of systems and platforms.

FIG. 6: Organizing your material for a project can help you locate the sounds you need quickly. Sound designers commonly create folders that reflect the type of medium for which they are creating effects.

Once you develop a good-size library, accessing and organizing your data becomes decidedly important. I have my entire sound library, some 200 GB as of this writing, online at all times. When I start a new project, I create a new folder that becomes the master library for the project. Within that folder, I create subfolders organized by whatever system makes sense for the project (see Fig. 6). For a film, I might create subfolders by reels (“reel 1,” “reel 2,” and so on), whereas for a game, I typically use general categories that refer to the way the sounds function (for example, “backgrounds,” “footsteps,” or “objects”). In both cases, I might also organize by specific categories of sound, such as doors, vehicles, and weapons.

Next, I pull my DAT field recordings into Pro Tools, edit the materials, move them into my library folder, and add descriptive names such as “night cricket river amb 01.” Any recordings or synth elements I do in the studio are recorded directly into Pro Tools, then moved into the library. I like to keep ambience recordings stereo and about two minutes long. Point-source sounds, such as door slams, are usually mono. I keep all my master material in Sound Designer II format, the Macintosh/Pro Tools industry standard, at 16-bit/44.1 kHz. If possible, always transfer your source material into your computer digitally. I also recommend having an extra hard drive around to make quick backups.

Once the raw materials are organized in your system, polish them to suit the project. That manipulation phase can be as simple as a bit of editing or EQ or as radical as mangling them into totally new sounds, utterly unrecognizable from the original. What and how much to do depends on the context of the work and the taste of the sound designer.

If the project is a film involving realistic characters in the present time, the majority of manipulation will focus on careful editing, EQ, and dynamics processing. If the project is an ultrahip techno-cyber sci-fi game, manipulations will involve every weird plug-in and effects processor you can get your hands on. My personal taste leans toward finding a terrifically beautiful sound, recording it really well, and using as little processing as possible. I do rely heavily on pitch-shifting, EQ, and reverb when needed, however.

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.