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Now I’ll discuss the traditional techniques of sound manipulation, which are appropriate for all sorts of projects, as well as a few tools for producing more radical results. Check out the sidebar “Who Wants to Be a Sound Designer?” for some other projects you can try.

Editing. Editing is simply the process of choosing the part of the sound you like and discarding the rest. I typically record a dozen performances of a given door creak or screw turn and save them one after another in a single file. When examining the file, I listen carefully for the version that best fits the timing and performance of the action. Sometimes the creak of one take fits best with the slam of another take; don’t be afraid to mix and match. I’ve also taken small segments of different sounds and put them together to create entirely new sounds. For example, I once used small snippets of a gun cocking and edited them together with a bicycle gear change to create a metallic tool ratcheting into place. Cutting, pasting, and crossfading are essential tools in your arsenal.

EQ. EQ can be used both correctively and creatively. Rolling off the low end of a wind recording at 85 Hz can eradicate unwanted rumble. But if you move the filter cutoff to 4 kHz, you can eliminate the parts of a sound that provide its basic identity. Try that with the sound of wind and you’re left with a wispy, airy sound that could be used for a ghostly ambience. Creating strong resonant peaks in the middle of a sound’s frequency spectrum can be great fun as well. Better yet, try moving the peaks over time as the sound plays back.

Dynamics processing. Level compression can be useful in adding punch or body to a sound, but be careful. It is a common mistake to overcompress sound elements before they are layered and mixed because doing so doesn’t leave enough headroom once everything is put together. You have to turn down the sound in the mix to make it fit without peaking, negating your original intent. Hang on to your dynamic range—it is a precious commodity in short supply.

Pitch and time shifting. Pitch and time shifting are two methods of sonic manipulation that have been around as long as sound recording. By speeding up or slowing down a tape, you raise or lower the pitch and decrease or increase the duration of the sound concurrently. That technique can change a sound in powerful ways—voices and everyday sounds take on a murky, mysterious quality when dropped in pitch and time, and they assume a cartoonlike quality when raised.

These days, DSP techniques can change the pitch and temporal components of a sound independently. Those functions are useful, but they often impart artifacts to the sounds that disrupt their clarity, beauty, or impact. Try turning off the preserve duration option in the program you use to see if you prefer the results.

Chorusing, flanging, delay. Standard pitch- and delay-based processing have an important place in sound design. Chorusing and very short delays can be useful for converting a mono file to stereo, just as in music. I like using flangers with noise-based sounds to create jets and starship sounds. I’ve also used flanging on the tail portion of gun and weapon sounds to create more motion and edge.

Delays are great for making sounds bounce around, particularly if the delay taps are panned around the field, with a bit of pitch shifting thrown in for good measure. Short single-tap delays can simulate the early-reflection portion of a reverb, which can evoke the feeling of a tight space without adding a reverb tail.

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