[Written by Frank Bry for Designing Sound]
I don’t often have time to mess around with the sounds I record. Between recording new sound effects and game sound design, I am just tapped out as far as time is concerned. The remainder of my available time involves cataloging new assets, editing metadata, or editing sounds for a new release. Every now and then I will wander off into another world and experiment with my own sound effects. If I find a sound that catches my imagination, I might start mangling it to death either with plug ins in Pro Tools, Peak Pro, or the VST Rack in Soundminer.
When I started out in sound design, I used a keyboard sampler such as the Emulator III. I learned that sounds take on a totally different quality when played back at multiple pitches at the same time. I grew very fond of working this way and spent many years messing around with all types of sound effects. I could take a simple metal door slam, and by playing a few chords on my keyboard, I could created a massive space ship impact or a heavy robotic footstep. I did not have Pro Tools and used a MIDI sequencer to record my events, edit the timing, and then lay back to multitrack tape, DAT, or playback live synced to video timecode. When I started using Pro Tools with my EIII, it became evident that the plug ins and digital multitrack capabilities would eventually make my EIII extinct. Or would it? I resisted as long as I could but eventually my hardware sampler was racked up and stored away. It was just too time consuming to use it, or the hard drives from that era just gave out.
As time moved on, I started to miss the keyboard style of sound design. I liked that instant pitch change and the layering capabilities that I had with my EIII. When Avid released the Structure virtual instrument sampler, I decided it was time to go back to what I had been missing for years and give this software a shot. I knew there were other virtual samplers available and many options, but I felt the Pro Tools RTAS plug-in approach suited me the best.
I’ve been known to layer up to 20 sounds together to get that perfect combination of impact, emotion, and character. Most of the layers are so subtle that they are only noticed when they are removed. I go way over the top designing a sound sometimes but I figure I can always pull it back a bit if need be. When I listen to them isolated, I ask my self, “What have I done?” But played back in the video game environment or in a cinematic, they always seem to be what I was imagining before I started designing. Sometimes I design a sound and end up in a totally different place than I intended. I save it for another day and project and get back to what I was aiming for.
Below are some audio clips and the stories and processes behind them. The original sound effects can be quite mundane or very organic. I’ve tried to remember to the best of my ability what I did to transform these sounds. Some were done many years ago and others more recently and are the result of me just messing around to see what I could come up with. I like to experiment when I can, even with a sound that in it’s original form might not be the best take, the most interesting, or the cleanest recording.
Road Grader and Freight Train Pass By Transformation: The Future Is Now
Back in October I was outside puttering around, and I heard a helicopter approaching in the distance. I can hear these flying machines approach from quite a distance because it’s so quiet here. I sprinted back to the house to get my PCM-D1 and started recording out in my yard. Right after the helicopter flew over I heard another sound coming from the up the street. A road grader was coming down the road at a fairly good speed. It had its blade up and was probably heading back to the County garage. The operator seemed to be in a hurry. These graders make a great sound when traveling faster than their normal blade down speed. I morphed this into a Sci-Fi Transport using Waves Doubler, H-Comp, RenBass, and L2.
The second part of the audio demo demonstrates a freight train being transformed into a high speed futuristic tram. I recorded this train back in the early 90’s in the middle of the night at a place where the train was switching tracks. I was thrilled that I found this location because it was very quiet, and I was able to get quite close to the train as it was departing after the track switch. This train made some great diesel engine throttle ups that I used to create the final composite. I selected some sections and edited them together with crossfades and then bounced it out of Pro Tools as a unprocessed file. I then loaded it into Peak Pro and performed a Reverse Boomerang DSP effect on it. I was really suprised at the results. It turned into this crazy crossfaded and panning Sci-Fi transport pass by. I loaded it back into Pro Tools and added some slight pitch envelopes to the beginning and the end; I then compressed and limited the heck out of it.
Gun Transformation: Can You Say Boom?
This year I had the chance to record a few guns at 192k with multiple microphones here at my ranch. After the session was over and I had copied all the files to my Mac, I started playing with pitch changing and processing a Ruger M77 Rifle and a Remington 870 Shotgun. Since I recorded the guns at 192k, I realized that pitched down two octaves might sound cool. I had the VST Rack running in Soundminer and I set the pitch to 22% and loaded a bunch of plug ins into the rack to see what I could create. After running the guns through a Waves doubler with three voices pitched down slightly and H-Comp set to squash the heck out of it, I started to feel that it was no longer a gun or even a really BIG gun. I proceeded to add some RenBass and a whole ton of L2 limiting. The next thing I knew I had what is very close to an explosion sound. I messed around with a few of the settings on the plug ins and it really started to get big. H-Comp was instrumental in getting the sound fat. I really over squashed it and eventually pulled back on it some because the background noise and hiss was starting to get noticeable. I added some C4 high frequency noise reduction and expansion and it came out well. The last sound in the audio clip I added a processed close lightning strike around two octaves down along with both explosions that you hear earlier in the clip.
Thunder Transformation: Can You Here me Now?
I love the sound of thunder, and we get a lot of it in North Idaho especially in the summer. These audio clips are from a thunderstorm I recorded in July 2009. It was the middle of the night when this storm rolled in. It shook me out of a deep sleep and kept me up for over two hours. This was a very rare type of thunderstorm as there was little to no rain. They call these types of storms “dry lightning” in the desert southwest. I was able to stick my CSS-5 right outside the front door on the deck and get some amazing thunder claps and booms without any of the heavy rain which usually accompanies thunderstorms here. I was amazed at the amount of lightning stikes.
The first demo contains some original mastered thunder and lightning strikes and after those is the composite sound which I designed in Structure. I layered a few parts together and adjusted the relative volumes between them and played the thunder from my keyboard. I wanted to add some attack and some intensity to the thunder so I played the original pitch sample along with a 7th and a octave above (C4-G4-C5). You can really go crazy with the amount of keys pressed but too many can muddy up the result. I usually go crazy with five or ten notes and then pull it back until I get a sound that has definition but is a composite of thunder claps that sound like one lightning strike.
This next thunder clip is three previously designed lightning strikes I made with Structure. I played a 7th and a octave above the root on the keyboard. Each of the three sounds is probably two or three thunder claps with variations in the attack time. Since thunder can roll and rumble a bit before the big clap, I removed this roll in some of the files which gave the thunder some serious snap. I then layered these into a new Structure preset and recorded the output back to a new track in Pro Tools.
Metal Trash Container Door Transformation:
A few years ago I was able to record a large metal industrial waste container. This huge metal container was the size of the cargo containers that are used to ship stuff on the open sea. It had these two large doors at one end that opened up to allow construction debris to be loaded in. The sound this heavy set of doors made was amazing. It had very rusty hinges and when slammed it made the whole container resonate. The audio clip below contains two door movements. I loaded each sound into Structure and played four or five notes at a time at an octave or more down below the root. Once I had my notes and adjusted the relative pitch between the door creaks, I re-recorded back onto a stereo track in Pro Tools. I made sure I had multiple takes so I could pick the best ones to process with some EQ, RenBass, and just a hint of ReVibe reverb.
I hope you enjoyed my audio clips and the stories behind the recordings. As I stated earlier in the article, I wish I had more time to mess with mangling my original sound effects recordings. I hope to soon find the time to escape to the part of my work that gives me a really good buzz. I encourage anyone starting out in sound design to push the envelope and try anything on any sound. Sometimes the coolest sound comes from messing around to see what happens. All sounds tell you something about themselves with their frequency content or their vibration and can lead you in a direction that might surprise you.