The most fun and creatively satisfying part of sound design, to me, is finding everyday objects and using them in a way no one designed them to function. Recording your own material is rewarding and something I urge everyone to do. In this I want to outline my process in finding new and creative props to create new and creative sounds.. Sometimes the sound you need is sitting beside your desk.
Now let’s talk creative props. By creative props I mean things outside of footsteps or basic Foley style recordings. I’m talking banging things that shouldn’t be banged (I will bang all the things with my timpani mallets.) Rubbing, scraping, scratching, itching, touching, pinching to coax a sound out of whatever object you’ve discovered.
Pick it up, use it. Touch things, think about what your project is and what you need. What are you building? I try and break my sounds down to keywords or components of the animation or scene. Recordings don’t have to be a one and done. What’s perfect for the transient? What’s perfect for the tail? What WORKS? Mix and match. Wander the house, knock on things, turn things on and off. Eventually you’ll have your go to spots for finding props. Mine include my home gym, my Father’s workshop and the Kitchen. Listen intently. Get inspired.
I want to emphasize listen intently. Whether you have your recorder or not, be intently tuned in to what your surroundings are doing. I especially like to do this when I’m alone. I take in my surroundings and listen to what’s going on around me. What is the ambiance? What can I hear from where I am located? Would I have included the same sounds if I were designing this scene? Find a cool sound around you, deconstruct it, recreate it. Record it with your phone or make a reminder of what it is. I feel that you improve your sound design by exercising this creative muscle. Think of things as what they could be, not as they are.
Try not to linger on something that doesn’t work. This is good advice for any part of the process, but if a prop isn’t making you the sounds you want no matter how nicely you ask, move on. Gather props together and don’t be afraid to delete something entirely, no matter how much time you spent manipulating it in your project.
A good example of creative props can be found in this interview with Jason Graves. Re-watching this gets me jazzed, I hope it does for you too!
The chicken wire and cello bow trick is something I tried out years ago, it’s still a wonderful effect. Experimenting with instruments is also a wonderful start. I play guitar and its amazing what you can get out of it if you bow the strings scrape something along the strings.
Here is an example from my own recordings:
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I took a shovel that I held upright and hit the handle off the floor. I put my mic up close to the head of the shovel where the most resonance was. The sample has two dry hits and the rest is designed. I came across this as I was trying to find a similar resonance to Thor’s hammer. It works great as a tonal layer.
I would’ve never found this sound if I wasn’t actively listening and purposefully coaxing sounds out of objects. I stumbled upon the resonance when I was standing, handling the shovel, not getting the sound I wanted. I tapped the handle on the ground as I was pondering my next move and it rung for a second, peaking my ear. I hit it harder, and harder still until I could recreate that effect at will. Let happy accidents happen, be ready to record anything.
Another example comes to mind of the ol’ slinky lazer trick. Attaching a metal slinky to a plastic cup and letting one end of the slinky hit the floor. You can also leave that end on the ground and tap it with a metal utensil for a cleaner and more controlled blast. Here’s some designed sounds I did:
— Derek Brown (@SubwooferSub) March 3, 2018
Searching in places not often tread is something I deeply enjoy. I believe it to be an essential part of our craft to be recording anything and everything we can. It’s a love affair I try to take full advantage of. Get outside the studio, close the library, find the prop that makes the sound you hear in your head. oh, and be sure to file it away for later!
Listen intently and always be recording!