Movie Sound Effects | Cars! Weapons! Machines!

Sep 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Mike Levine



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Sound FX editing has come a long way since the days of Moviolas and razor blades. Today, the editor of choice is Avid Pro Tools, the de facto standard in Hollywood post-production houses and mixing stages. In addition to all of the sonic manipulation that can be done in Pro Tools, sound designers and sound effects editors also use a lot of plug-ins, both of the instrument and processing variety. Because manipulating pitch is so important to sound effects creation, sampler plug-ins such as Native Instruments Kontakt are very popular.

“With the samplers that they have today,” says Harry Cohen, “there are several different modes, where you put the sound on the keyboard and you play it lower and it can be lower pitched and slower, but you can also have it so that you can play it at a lower pitch and it’s not slower, it’s the same speed. You can dynamically change the pitch, you can put it through rough filters and just do whole bunch of different stuff with it.”

Convolution reverbs are also very useful for sound effects. Cohen says he uses Audio Ease Altiverb and Ircam Spat. Jon Title talked about using the convolution reverb built into Kontakt. These reverbs are more often used as sound-design tools, or on internal layers of a multilayered effect, rather then to provide overall ambiences. That task is typically left for the sound mixers. Cohen, Title and Assells all talked about being pretty ginger with their use of reverbs on the predubs they submit to the mixer. “Generally,” says Assells, “I’ll present it two ways since tracks are free. I will pre-reverb something and paste it in there, and I’ll also give them the raw sound so that if a reverb that I’ve created isn’t matching what they think it should be, they could either turn it off or go to my untreated sound and reverb it the way they think it should sound.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time they like it and they use it,” Cohen says, “but by rendering it separately, I haven’t locked us into anything.”

Chris Assells has cut a lot of automotive sounds in his career and has quite a few tricks up his sleeve for creating more impactful sounds. Here, he explains a couple.

From a sonic standpoint, how do you make a car chase more exciting?
There are several things you can do. For instance, a close-up car-by by itself can sound great and very exciting. But if you sweeten it with a jet-by…Here’s something that works great on motorcycles: You have a recording of a small helicopter “whip pan,” which means the helicopter is coming one way and your microphone is pointing in the opposite direction. As the helicopter comes by, you sweep the microphone in the opposite direction that the helicopter is coming so there’s a real big peak. So you don’t hear it coming that much, and when it’s in your face, it goes “pow” and pushes the air into your face. For some reason, I found on motorcycle chases, you take a smaller helicopter like a Little Bird and you use a whip pan on one of those to make it go by, and it raises the hair on the back of your neck. It works just wonderfully. Jets work very well for close-up car-bys. Sometimes you want to throw some stuff in the sub when it’s right in your face so your pant leg kind of wiggles a little in the wind as it comes by.

Is the whip pan recorded in stereo?
Generally yes, but even a mono recording of it will work because what you want is the dynamic of that thing coming into your face; coming from almost nothing. And again, it’s because the microphone is [initially] pointed away. Let’s say the helicopter is coming from the right, your microphone is pointed to the left. As the helicopter crosses in front of you, you bring your microphone from left to right. And again, so you’re not really hearing it coming that much, but when it peaks, it really pops on the peak.

Do you have any other tips for cutting car sounds?
This took me awhile to learn. This is for a car coming in and stopping. Generally, cars today when they come in and stop [with an automatic transmission], the engine disengages and the car kind of floats in and stops. In that situation, I will frequently use a “reverse in.” And the reason is, you’ve got the tailpipes coming at you, which gives you a sound of the engine instead of just air coming in. Also, if you’re in reverse, the transmission is tied to the engine so that the engine is slowing the car down instead of just this air coming in. When you go to park your car, listen and you’ll see what I mean. When you take your foot off the gas and put it on the brake, the engine disappears. It becomes featureless and boring. I try to get these guys, when they record the car series, to do “in-and-stops” in low gear. That way, the engine is tied to the transmission. The transmission is slowing the car down, and you can actually feel and hear the engine slowing down.

Jon Title was tasked with designing the sound of a massive bridge collapse in the recently released Final Destination 5.

Obviously, a bridge collapse isn’t something you can go out and field record. How did you create those sounds?
The way I did it was to just take it one element at a time. In that case, we have a huge library of sounds, and I’m very lucky to work in a company that has this. You start there. In case of that scene, you start with concrete crumbling and breaking. And metal ripping and groaning. And then you go on, using explosions strategically to help with the power of it. You try to use all the speakers, to make it even more massive, using the LFE or the subwoofer. And you just keep building on it. In the case of that bridge, and with a lot of movies that we’re working on, it’s so CGI-intensive. The visuals are made in a computer and a lot of the time they’re not done until days before we’re finished mixing. So it’s an evolving process of adding and taking away as we continue to work on it.

When the bridge actually falls, I assume you put in a really big roar?
It’s a roar, it’s earthquake-type sounds, it’s cables snapping. The constant sounds would be like earth rumbles and concrete crumbles, punctuated by these explosions and metal snaps and things like that. And then interesting things on top of that: metal groans and moans and higher-frequency screeches that can cut through music.

And a lot of stuff rumbling in the subwoofer, I assume?
Oh yeah.

And what do you use for that?
Sometimes I like to leave that until we’re on the mixing stage. It can be hard to know how a low-frequency sound, especially something huge and sustaining, is going to translate to a big theater. That being said, I think in the case of the bridge, I did cut a low-frequency sweetener for that, which I think was an earthquake rumble that I then wrote the volume on, just to kind of help the arc of the action.

So you automated some volume changes in Pro Tools?
We do a lot of that.

Mike Levine is a New York–area recording musician and music journalist. He’s the former editor of Electronic Musician.

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