Tracking: Home Brew Sound Design

Some audio professionals will tell you that creating a soundscape for a movie should be left to large commercial studios with massive Foley pits, “tuned” recording rooms with live and dead areas, and a sounddesign staff. But armed with a few easy concepts—and the will to experiment— anyone can craft sound design worthy of a Sundance winner with only the acoustic environments available in a home, and with a very modest studio setup.

What Is Sound Design?

If you hear it in a movie, and it’s not music or dialog, it’s sound design. It’s the sounds of a street with honking cars, people yammering, and raging ambulances—the sounds of life moviegoers expect to hear in a scene. For this article, we will design a lakeside scene, using the famous painting by Georges-Pierre Seurat, “Seine Grande Jatte.” I am using this still image because it’s readily available to view online, making it an easy reference for the sound cues to follow. In the real world, this would be a film snippet of a few seconds or more.

Analyzing the Scene

When you view the painting, you’ll notice a number of elements that require the sounds of motion: the water, the sailboat, and the oarsman. We also have a number of things in the scene that don’t require primary motion-oriented sounds, but do need to provide background sounds and ambience, such as the wind through the trees, the flag in the distance, and overall environmental sounds.

Obtaining Audio Assets

Let’s start with the ambience, as our scene is going to need some “environmental tone” and some “water tone.” I could go out on location with a mic and a field recorder to capture these elements, but it would take too long, and all the trouble wouldn’t buy me that much. So I go online to one of the many free sound effects libraries (such as ambience sounds.html ) and pick some options to use as sonic foundations.

Water, Water . . .

First up are the water sounds. I chose an outdoor audio clip with a quiet ambience because the lake in the painting is still. To build on the source sound—and to create the appropriate sense of oars in the water and a sailboat cutting across the surface—I fill up my bathtub with water, and set up a Shure SM57 on an articulated boom stand. I use a SM57 because of its narrow harmonic range and tight pattern. An articulated mic stand is also an important tool, because it allows me to put the mic in different positions around the tub and room to capture all the water sounds I need.

I decide to design the sound for the sailboat first. This is a very leisurely boat, so I drop the mic as close as possible to the surface of the water, and I move my fingers slowly through the water. First one finger, then two, and so on until I get a variety of “bow through the water” sounds. I track this with a light compression setting of a 2:1 ratio at a –10dB threshold—just enough to make my “hand waves” sound even and lazy.

Next up is the oarsman. Oars slapping the water are more aggressive sounds with herky-jerky natures, so I move the mic up about six inches, and place it off-axis from the tub’s waterline. Then, I make a fist and pull it through the water to make some more violent waves. For this sound, I use a heavy compression setting of 15:1 and –30dB, and I also crank up the mic preamp to capture all of the nuances of the water motion.

Lastly, I move the mic about four inches from the edge of the tub and about eight inches above the waterline. This position is to capture the sound of water splashing against the sides of both boats. Now, I splash the side of the water in different ways to represent the different sizes of the boats in the water.

Air & Oars

Now I need the sound of wind for the sails and flag, as well as the sound of the oars, the man rowing, and the breeze through the trees. To simulate the air sounds, I place the mic about five-feet high at the opposite end of the bathroom, and I wave a towel in front of it. I experiment with different compression settings in order to have a “wind library” to choose from when I compile my sounds for the scene. I also “flap” the towel at different levels of intensity to collect some flag-blowingin- the-wind effects. To emulate the breeze through the trees, I gather some small branches from outside, and I wave them gently at the mic from about two arm-lengths away.

For the oar sounds, I take one of the rings of my shower curtains off, and grab my toilet plunger. I place the plunger through the ring of the curtain holder, and I set it on the side of the tub. Then, I hold the ring while I “row the plunger” through the water in rhythmic sequences—just as an actual rower would do. As I do this, my last effect is to breathe hard, because that oarsman is exerting himself.

The Mix

I need two different reverbs running: a long and wide one (a large hall with a very fast attack and a long tail), and a medium one (a medium room with a fast attack and a smaller tail). These two reverbs will simulate physical distances for the scene. The trick to this is making sure the end result doesn’t sound like two reverbs of different sizes and decay times, but as a seamless outdoor environment that matches the idyllic scene in the painting.

All of my bus sends from the original sound-source track will be set to pre fader so that I can have independent control over how much wet signal is used. I send the shorter reverb through a bus to the larger reverb. This allows me to have an element that has its own small reverb envelope (as most things do), while also moving through a larger reverb space (or environment). The water/ambience sample I downloaded from the Web will run the length of my “scene” (about 30 seconds). I send the file through a bus to the larger reverb only, putting the reverb sound at about 50 percent and the dry source sample at about 25 percent. This simulates a body of water that is close and far at the same time— perfect for “distance” cues for the sailboat (far) and the rowboat (close). The flag exists mostly in the big reverb. I use one of the busier towel recordings, and I fade it in and out of the reverb over the course of the scene. This will emulate the sound of wind gusts hitting the flag.

My sailboat sound—which is comprised of a combination of the different “fingers moving through the water” and “water splashing again tub” recordings—will be sent to both reverbs simultaneously. The plan here is to slowly pan the source sounds and the reverbs from left to right to match the “movement” of the sailboat. My rowboat sound is composed of the rhythmic oar recordings (which are the loudest component), the watermovement recordings (my fist), and the grunts (which are mixed lower than the oar-in-water sounds, but louder than the water recordings, and appear every three or four strokes). Obviously, the water sounds, while the lowest signals in the package, will always follow the stroke of an oar.

Finally, I will take those breeze-inthe- trees recordings, send them slightly to both reverbs, and leave much of the source signal in the mix. And there you have it—a “scene” that has been completely sound designed in the home!