The Most Powerful Tool in Your Toolbox
Guest Contribution by Richard Gould
…and a hold-over from last month’s “Voice” theme
I didn’t realise it until recently, but I’ve been a sound designer for most of my life. I may have only discovered the term “Sound Design” a few years ago, and I may have just graduated from studying the craft of sound design itself, but like most of us, I’ve been designing sounds since I was a kid, I just didn’t know it. True, I wasn’t sitting behind a console discussing aesthetics with directors, nor was I packing up my gear for a field recording session, but just as I might find myself today making sounds for non-existent worlds, beings and spacecrafts, I was doing the same thing when I was six years old.
I would run through the woodland up in the valley near my house, only it wasn’t a woodland, it was an alien landscape on a distant planet, or a medieval forest where a beastly dragon placed me in mortal danger. I could see these creatures, I could hear them (and I wasn’t afraid to let others hear them either). I was using the two most powerful tools in my sound design toolbox to realize the sonic sources of these worlds; my imagination and my voice. As I grew older however, I had less and less time to go up to the woodland, less time to visit these other worlds, and as a result, my first career as a sound designer came to an abrupt end around the age of eleven.
I didn’t rediscover the playful sound designer within until many years later. Whilst at college in the States, I had to do my first sound replacement for a clip. I originally went to college to study music, so when I had the opportunity to approach sound, it was unexpected and enlightening. My imagination sparked and I rediscovered the willingness to try, fail, experiment, imagine a world that didn’t exist, consider the sonic implications and try to realise them in a form that others could appreciate. Music had always been more academic for me and it took a while until I was comfortable enough to ‘play’ in that world. With sound however, it was immediately evident that ‘play’ was central to the process.
I had been taught how to use sophisticated, “powerful” tools to meet my needs. I was proficient with Pro Tools and had access to a quiet studio space. I was armed to the teeth with expensive microphones, plugins, synthesizers and I even had access to great sound libraries and yet no one ever really suggested we consider using our voices. There was one class in which we had to create a piece of music where all the sounds came from a vocal recording, (which was subsequently processed to create drums, pads, lead sounds and effects) but that was more an experiment in digital processing than in creating sounds with one’s voice.
I didn’t rediscover the potential for the voice as a tool until I was asked to do some voiceover work on other student’s projects. I had done some acting back in the UK and had been spending four hours a week “on mic”, broadcasting on the college radio station. These experiences made for a natural extension into the booth.
It began as you might expect; someone needed a British accent, ask the British dude. But I soon found myself experimenting, failing, playing around, trying accents, vocalizing for creatures. In short, I found myself making sounds again in a way I hadn’t for years. It got to a point where people actually approached me to record raw materials for them to make sounds with. It’s not as if I was proficient in anyway, It’s just I was the only one willing to ‘play’, unafraid of looking or sounding like a fool. I was a dragon, a chicken, a Russian, a hamburger (don’t ask). It didn’t matter what it was, the goal was always the same; I was always trying to bring something to life.
It quickly became obvious to me that my voice held huge potential as a tool in my sound design arsenal. It’s better than any synthesizer, more intuitive than any plug-in and has the potential to create powerful, emotional audio content that an audience can connect with. It’s also free to use and we all have one at our disposal. I think there’s a myth going around that because we’ve been using our voices to talk all these years, our skill in making noises are as adept as they will ever be, but that’s not the case. It’s truly an amazing instrument, and similar to any other instrument, it rewards practice and confidence when used. When we were young, it was a form of play, it didn’t matter what it sounded like. Now that we’re all grown up, we have much higher standards and don’t allow ourselves the time to experiment, develop and improve. Age and maturity have left us thinking that it isn’t a viable tool. But it is…
Other than for literal human voice-over work, I’ve been using my voice in three ways I thought I’d share with you.
The voice is obviously a great tool for vocalizations and as mentioned, this isn’t an uncommon approach. Many other sound designers have used their voice and I’m sure I must have seen some behind the scenes clips that got me started in this direction. The first time I tried this was when I had to replace the audio in a cutscene which followed a chicken around a period town as various unfortunate situations befell him. I initially began by scouring sound libraries for chicken effects, but I soon realised nothing had the relatable emotive content I was looking for, and besides, editing the sounds would have been a nightmare. I knew it was key that my audience feel something for the chicken, so I decided to try using my voice, and with a little processing, it worked perfectly.
The voice needn’t be the only element of course. Human beings are experts at detecting the qualities of the human voice so It’s often necessary to layer other components on top in addition to using some processing (that is if you’re designing for some kind of non-human creature). I’ve found the elements of a performance are pretty resilient though and will still be present after extensive processing.
Perhaps a less obvious approach is to use your voice as a component in the creation of sound effects for inanimate objects, transitions or for UI sounds in games. I’ve previously used my voice for the sound of an M-203 grenade launcher as I wanted it to have a satisfying “flomp” sound, harkening back to Tomb Raider II’s grenade launcher sound. I also once used my voice when creating meteor pass-bys and winds for a cutscene. There are other examples, but those are the ones that come to mind.
Obviously the viability of using a voice is a little more limited when dealing with inorganic sounds, but I’m constantly surprised by what can work. I often like layering a human breath component into transitional sweeping sounds. I find it helps to add drama to a given moment, especially if a character or creature is in peril.
I often find myself using my voice and mouth to create UI sounds for video games. If I need to create clicks, pops or swipes, I often begin by using my voice and processing from there. Mouth-made sounds I find work incredibly well for indie-games and apps with a cartoonish art style, especially those appealing to a younger audience.
Perhaps the most interesting way I use my voice is to occasionally sketch out sound design ideas. Sometimes I’m doing it for my own sake, an audio post-it note if you will to remind me of something or point me in a specific direction I want to pursue. On other occasions however, I’m doing for an entirely different reason.
When I was back in college, I entered a scoring and sound design competition where we were encouraged to collaborate in teams of two, composer / sound designer. I teamed up with the wonderfully talented composer Stephanie Chan. Time was tight and I quickly realised we wouldn’t have many opportunities to compare work and consider how the music and sound were working with each other. To try and resolve this issue and save headaches during the mix when we brought music and sound together, I decided to do a pass at the sound using just my voice with no processing at all. It was intended to be a sketch and of course didn’t sound anything like the finished product, but it allowed us to get a sense for the ebb and flow of the sound ‘moments’ as I like to call them. Stephanie and I were then able to have a discussion about the relationship between sound and music and when one would make room for the other. It was like a spotting sheet, only you could listen to it, even work against it. It certainly helped us when time was tight to create a cohesive audio experience, and I even ended up using a lot of the sketch content layered into the final sound design stems. If you know where to look, and if you’re seeking some comic relief, you’ll find the voice-only version somewhere on my blog.
So why isn’t it taught? Why are we left to discover and try to learn these skills on our own. Of course there are professional voice actors and schools where you can study, but I’m thinking more specifically of “noise-making” classes. There are beatboxers, and they’re certainly making noise-making more socially acceptable, but I’m thinking specifically for the purposes of sound, not music. Why is Daniel on Australia’s got talent and not a professor at some illustrious college? Ok, maybe that’s a step too far, but were a class at my college offered on how to really use one’s voice to make sounds, I would have jumped at it. I truly think it’s something that’s missing from sound design curriculum.
Am I crazy? Probably. But I think it helps to be just a little bit crazy in this field. I invite you to share your thoughts, opinions and tales of how you’ve used voices creatively in your work.
Here are some of my other favorite examples of noise-making.
And just for fun… Kids Do Movie Sound Effects