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Posted by on Nov 22, 2011 | 3 comments

Harry Cohen Special: Sound Design Moments Re-visited

[Written by Harry Cohen]

I wanted to write a different kind of article, one that indulges my more geeky-tech side. While the main source for material remains great recordings, there are lots of times when we find solutions to problems in processing; these days that mainly means plug-ins, but that was not always so.

Sometimes, looking back, I see creative sound design moments as being more like a place you might visit, as opposed to a method you might use over and over. Time has shown me that the tools will constantly change around me. My main editing platform has changed three times during the course of my career. And so, some great tools become obsolete or unavailable. For this reason, I always encourage designers, when they find their way to an interesting combination of source/processing, to keep going and record lots of material; the next occasion you may want to repeat the process might not be so easy to get back to !  Some examples from my past follow:

The Ionizer

This was a great, if somewhat hard to master, plug-in. It did lots of stuff, eq-wise. One of its tricks was to be able to analyze the frequency profile of one sound, and then to impose it on another. I used it in the film “Wanted” to make some design-ey glass breaks in the convenience store scene by imposing the frequency spectrum of glass windchimes on some explosions:

The Ionizer was so widely cracked that its makers decided not to carry it forward to OS-X; so it has become inconvenient to use, to say the least.


While the NI vocoder Vokator still works, I notice that NI no longer sells or supports it, so it is only a matter of time before it too, becomes unavailable. I have had great luck in using it for creatures. In short, I like to put a series of animal sounds on a software sampler, under different keys, put some under midi fader or foot pedal controller, feed that into Vokator as the carrier, with a mic as the modulator. Set up so you are listening on headphones to your output only, and using lots of gestural control on the faders and pitch wheel, while making ridiculous sounds and screaming into the mic, start to work your way towards interesting sounds. Record your output so that you only have to get it right once, for any given moment ! Record lots of stuff, go through it and pick out the good bits, then edit it together as you would for any creature.


Ah, the synclav. While I have so much to say about how the interface on this wonderful machine shaped the outlook of so many sound designers, for now I will mention only one detail. There was a button combination that would allow you to use the big wheel control to change the octave ratio of the keyboard tuning. This meant that on each side of a breakpoint, as you turned the dial, the sound would pitch up to the right of the breakpoint, and pitch down to the left, by as much as hundreds of semi-tones. It was useful for making some sci-fi type turbine sounds; like this Minbari engine made for the tv series Babylon-Five.


It’s not that the plug-ins in Hyper-prism did things other plug-ins don’t, it was more of the interface it presented you with. In particular, the pitch-time widow let you move a dot around in a 2-d box in a way that made interesting ‘warpy’ sounds; here is some warped out bg vocal stuff from “Exorcist the Beginning”

PCM 80 Doppler

Once upon a time I actually made doppler bys by waving a mic past a speaker. Then came the Lexicon PCM-80 with a pair of doppler algorithms that could be mapped to a mod wheel controller. While not as realistic as say the Waves or Grm plug-in, it was much warpier. This is some warped out metal used in “Spawn” made with the PCM 80

Sound Hack

This program is still available, though I find lately that it has problems with the headers on lots of my sound files. While not real-time, I found that I could still have some ‘lucky-accidents’ with the convolution and mutate functions. Here is a bit of screeching metal mutated with a slow masking tape-pull, used as the antennae freezing in the Super-Freeze scene for “The Day After”.


This wonderful program is very deep, and I will never totally master it. But it does unheard of things with sound. There is a free-ware player only version available, but it is hard to adjust your inputs and outputs on the free version. There is also a freeware language called Pure Data (PD) that has the same functionality; but MAX is the one I was introduced to and became familiar with. Here is some granular type stuff made with MAX, for the smash movie hit “Apollo 18”

There are tons more to list. While there are more plug-ins for Pro Tools than I will ever have the time to truly explore; it’s good to remember that there are lots of other interesting platforms and programs and hardware to check out when looking for sound solutions to design problems.


  1. Fantastic post! More like this please. 

  2. Harry is the wizard of coming up with new processes. Where others follow, he leads. As always great stuff HC.

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