Sound FX Design: Perception vs. Reality

I remember an incident years ago where I was once locked in my studio creating sound effects from a list of over 1000 sounds needed for a new shoot-em up game when a producer walked in and stood behind me to observe my process. After a while, he interrupted me and asked “how come you’re not just making sounds with your mouth, you know, like they did in the 30’s and 40’s? Rather than engage in an argument, I simply said there are many ways to create sound effects these days and everyone has their own process. I mostly used sound effect CD’s and treat each sound as a painter would use a palette of colors. I would mix and blend and create new effects from these base sounds. He didn’t like that answer but he soon left and I was able to get back to work.

I did understand his point, though. The audience, in reality, can rarely distinguish where the actual sound comes from to begin with and whether or not it is a realistic sound representation of the visual image or scene. If you see an image of someone lifting up a rifle, cocking it and firing, the sound you hear to accompany the image is more than likely the sound of an actual gun. Or is it?

If you’ve ever recorded live sounds to mix in later, you might find the actual gun used and recorded might not have enough “oomph” to it. It might be too thin or light and the scene might call for it to have more weight to the sound. The perception of the sound vs. the reality of the sound can be quite different.

When I’m using sound effects as a palette of sound, I would most likely mix several guns together to give it the right feel for the image and scene. I might mix completely different sounds together, such as metal clanking and clicking, wood thumps, several gunshot firing sounds. One trick I liked to use was to mix bass drum thumps to the gunshot, giving it a much deeper sound and feel.

This is one of the things I loved about being a sound designer. I could sit and imagine what I think a sound should sound like, and then try to image all sorts of objects and experiences that I could use to recreate the sound in my head. It’s this creative process that is recognized when awards are given. If it were as simple as recording the actual door closing or gun being used or car driving by, anyone could do it and it would all sound the same.

Imagine now that you’re working on sounds that have no basis in the real world. I remember being fascinated by the sound of the Wookie, Chewbacca, in Star Wars. Ben Burtt was the original sound designer for Chewie. Mr. Burtt’s palette of sounds came from a mix of many different animals such as walruses, lions, camels, bears, rabbits, tigers and especially a bear.

He crafted these sounds together to create a believable, new voice for a character that doesn’t actually exist in the real world. Yet our perception is to believe and accept this “voice” as if it actually exist. The same can be said for the beeps and blips of R2D2.

Comparing these techniques to the early days of media, when live radio was the primary source of entertainment, reveal a huge curve in the development of sound effects over the years. In radio, sound effects were developed and teams put together to create what was needed immediately for the story. Big sheets of metal were used for the sound of thunder. They used bells, whistles, footstep and yes, sounds created by the voice to meet the needs of sound effects for their live stories. Audiences weren’t as sophisticated as they are today when it came to the magic of movie making, so many of these techniques migrated to film.

As the years went by, groundbreaking techniques were developed to push the boundaries and add realism. Recording and playback technology continued to evolve giving us stereo then 5.1 surround, and Dolby and THX and beyond. Magnetic tape developed into multitrack recording which developed into digital recording and mixing. All this technology allowed for greater creativity and the audience has become far more sophisticated in their expectations of what sounds should sound like.

But here is what is all boils down to: does the sound work and does it help to tell the story without distracting from the story? It literally makes no difference where the sound comes from. It can come from making a whoosh sound with your mouth to capturing a live jet takeoff and landing. If the audience is thinking, “hmm, that sounds just like someone is making a whoosh sound with their mouth and doesn’t fit the image I’m seeing of this fast car passing by” then the sound doesn’t work. The perception is off. But maybe that same source of sound can be mixed and tweaked and it does give reality to the image of the fast car passing by. Then by all means, the perception works. Perception trumps reality.