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Tag: sound design

Experiments from the fx lab #1

Electronic door effect from a shoebox.

This whole thing happened as an accident. I recorded some foley while a regular shoebox was at the wrong place and as I moved it from my way, accidentally I ran my hand over the box in a way it produced an interesting sound. Fortunately it happened almost right before the microphone. I didn’t even thought about it for a long time, but suddenly when I edited those recorded tracks I stumbled across the “shoebox” fx and it somehow reminded me to the old Star Trek door fx which was made with paper and envelope. And I thought, why not, let’s make some electronic door from this too.

It is not a re-creation nor some imitation, simply some experiment with a happy accident.

The process

I quickly made a new session with a few audio tracks, a master bus and a re-record track. I prefer to re-record stuff to a new track instead of bounce to disk, but that’s entirely another post. So after I set up the little session let’s the fun start.

I simply trimmed the original to a short length, made a little fade in and out. This is our door’s main ingredient.

Then quickly throw-in some other effects for fun: steam, gas, wind, hisses, etc. Really anything is good, remember, this is an experiment, so there’s no wrong choices here. If there is something you won’t like, you can throw it out anytime during the process.

Search your effects library for keywords that are reminiscent of an electronic door, or simply quickly audition different sounds, and whenever your brain unconsciously pick a sound, put that into your session. The point is, do not over think this. If you find 1 or 2 effects that is enough. If you find 8 or 10, good for you.

Now we have all the ingredients let’s start doing something. I tell you how I did this, but don’t take it as the right way, if you have other workflow that’s completely fine. I quickly counted how many sweetener fx I’ve found, and made a quick copy of the shoebox fx with with alt+drag the original clip.

Then place the sweeteners right under the shoebox effects. I prefer to have every additional fx on its own track as this way I can process them separately without harming any other sweetener.

Now one by one nudge and trim the sweeteners so they start where they should and their length is appropriate for the original. If you’re confident enough, at this point you can make the fade ins and outs too, but if you would like to play with it later, that’s fine too.

Now add some eq to both the original and the sweetener tracks. It is a good idea to process them separately, this way you can have even more variation from the same thing. At this point anything can happen. Throw in some other plugins and have fun!

With only some eq and a touch of reverb you can have many doors from this accidentally recorded shoebox. The following examples are all in a very close perspective, you can add reverb to make them fit into the scene. Here’s the result of a five minute fun session:

The sweeteners are:

  • steam engine
  • steam machinery
  • servo motor
  • boa snake hiss


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How to turn a weak explosion into a big one

If you have a thin, weak explosion but need a big, heavy, earth-shattering one, here’s a quick method. For now, let’s assume that you have access to other high quality library, don’t have the time and means to arrange a field recording session. Just sitting in the edit or mix room with limited material at your disposal and the director want a huge blast instead of the weak, thin one you have there.

You can create it within a minute, here’s how. This is only one fast and dirty approach, these techniques can be mixed or you can change the order of them, even leave out what you feel inappropriate. I used tools which are either part of the Pro Tools package or you can freely download them. The only exception is Lowender by Refuse, which is a great and cheap plugin.

Let’s see what we have now

This is a stock explosion which is not so bad, but not good either and the director wants something much more powerful. The first thing to do is to duplicate the track (alt+shift+d) and filter out even more low-end from the sound. Then put a “analogue” distorsion plugin onto the duplicated track. I used the Softube Saturation knob.

You can experiment with the amount and type of the distorsion, but do not stuck here, remember, we are in a hurry. You can quickly blend the original and the distorted one together. The enhanced distorsion will help to elevate the percieved power of the explosion without using too much volume.

So far, we have this:

Great, but where’s my low-end?

It’s missing. But now our next step is to enhance that part. We are not far from the finished, beefed up explosion. Now I used the Lowender plugin to give more low-end to the original explosion.

If you happen to use the same, I recommend to audition the three different ranges (classic, guitar, bass) because they can give you very different results. Choose what you consider the best.

After this, we have and almost finished big explosion:

The last ingredient

Obviously, as all the steps, this is optional too. Sometimes this step is a miracle, a really powerful addition. Other times simply mute it, if it happen to be the opposite.

Make a new mono track, and select and area, about 1–4 seconds. Initiate the signal generator from the Audiosuite plugins and make some low freq sine wave tone. I chose 80Hz, but it can be almost anything. The only thing you have to avoid is to choose a tone which is too high because we want more low end. This is a very old trick, which is basically a downward sweep.

When we have our tone, use the Vari-fi plugin to make our downward sweep. We need Vari-fi to slow down, fades on (at least I prefer it on) and now you can choose to options: Fit to or Extend. Personally I love the extend mode, but it is so situation dependent that you have to try which fits better. Just render it, try it and if you don’t like the result, make an undo and re-render it with the other method.

The last step is to mix it all together with downward sweep, the original one and the distorted one. For the sake of this example I mixed the sweep a little high into this last audio clip, but I think you already grabbed the point here, it should only enhance the explosion.

If you have more than a minute

As I told you this is a really fast and easy method. If you have just a few minutes more, you can try different things like duplicating the original and use pitch shifting, use some other effect which has ample low-end and mix that with your explosion, play with some modulation plugins, etc.

The possibilities are endless, but remember, the patience of the director might run out sooner than you would like, so if you’re in trouble, use this really fast method. Enjoy!

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Water boiler study

I need to create/design sounds for a short film, which is about a usual tea ritual. The story is very interesting as it seems that nothing else happens expect a making of a good tea. And this is true up to the point where the water boiler starts to boil the water. From this point on, supernatural things going on while the water is getting hotter and hotter and it all stops when the boiler is ready.

So the main task is to create different sounds in that approximately one or two minutes while the little electric water boiler is working. It needs to stay attached to reality to some degree so completely eliminate or change the water boiler’s sound is not a viable option here.

The first task is pretty obvious, record a little water boiler. Because I’m in serious love with MS recording, I decided to record this in MS. (what a surprise…) I wanted to capture not only the natural process but some more low end, so I placed the rig near, about 20cm away from the boiler. I made a few “test boilings”, and it seemed to me that the gurgling at the end of the process is not articulate enough from the main rig, so I set up the Sony PCM D50 at the other side of the machine aimed at the top of it to capture more clear gurgling sound.

The test boilings were very helpful, because the different amount of water in the boiler produce different sounds. If you fill it full it looses character, if you use too little then it boils too fast and really doesn’t produce good sound. In this case, half litre was the best sound wise.

Here’s the original recording the MS setup (Mid: Neumann KM74 Side: Neumann KM86i) combined with the Sony.

At this point we only know that the supernatural occurrences won’t be pleasant things, so we need sounds melted into the boiling which creates fear, anxiety, and helps changing the different bad things along the scene.

Let’s shake the Earth

As I mentioned above I positioned the mics close on purpose. I wanted more low end than the natural. Actually the figure of eight mic had the most low end, so I used that to create an earthquake like sub.

Simply duplicated the side track in Pro Tools, and with some pitch, eq and subsonic enhancer plugin I achieved this:

Of course, you can reproduce this from many alternative sources but it was fun to do it from the original recording. As this huge sub can easily mask details I needed something that could really keep the high-mids and the gurgling focused, and this is exactly why I set the little handheld up for. I filtered out the low end of that track, and mixed in to some degree, more when the sub comes in.


It was really fun to experiment with the additions. Tried many various things from whooshes, fire, wind, rain through different vehicle and mechanical sounds to animal sounds. It is really interesting to hear how the basic sound transforms into something (many times) unconsciously different, yet it remains fundamentally the same. With some low level add ons, it is possible to push the story, to change mood. The point is to mix in sounds to evoke emotion and to help different story lines to develop.

As Randy Thom said:

Experiment as early and as often and as inexpensively as possible. Make lots of mistakes when mistakes are cheap.

This is a rough cut. You can hear the original water boiling with added whooshes, lynx-camel-cat growl, wind, fire. Some of it works better and fit almost naturally. I know that it is very hard to imagine this without the picture, but try it.

It is only a few layers and just a quick play with the elements. From the many possible additions only a few will be there in certain spots. Multilayering and adding some reverb or delay can further enhance the “supernatural” experience. Probably I will need another more aggressive version of this which would serve more like separators. Enjoy!

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Sound design is not easy

It’s probably not a new discovery for most of you, but as I see, there’s really lot of misunderstanding about this whole thing. Right now, I’m in the middle of a really exhausting, impossibly short deadline project. As many would think, I’m cutting and making hundreds of sounds, sync them, then mix them, and in their view, it is so much fun that it’s a sin that I get payed for this.

Well, the reality is somewhat different. I mean I love my job, but this whole process is not a glorious fun activity packed with unbelievable moments and endless fun. Actually sound design is hard. Technically, aesthetically. Of course it’s not hard to search for a simple door close in the library and sync it up with the picture. But we are not talking about one or two effects here. We are talking about hundreds, if not thousands altogether.

While some hard effects are easy to record or find in libraries, there might be many things which is whether not in any library, or not suitable for the situation, for the story, so we have to create a new one. A new one, which is technically good (high quality), believable, and supports the story.

The hardest part of this job is to be able to objectively judge our own work. It is very, I mean very hard! There are many pitfalls throughout the road.


One can actually fall in love with his/her own work, so consider each and every fx perfect. This is probably one of the biggest mistakes of all. We need perspective, need to revisit our own work, and if necessary, change direction or start over from scratch. Big ego is really not what we need at this point. Anyone who acts like the know-it-all man is suspicious. Red flag up, ego problem detected…


Stuck in the mud, as I call it. That is not accepting anything what we’ve done. This is typical, and I think most of us going through this stage almost every time. At least I know I almost always do. This is everything but not good. It’s not good to feel that all my work simply a huge failure. Probably this is the point where we need a little break.

Not necessarily sleep, but something which can inspire us, or just simply entertain us. This could be anything from listening to music, shoot some photos, play some game, etc. Really, anything.


Struggling is necessary. Falling into deep depression is not good, and not necessary. But we have to realize that struggling can actually be a good thing. It force us to work harder, to try different directions, to experiment. And do all these things with amazing focus. This is how we eventually succeed.

I’m not saying that all effect will be this hard to create or select, but the process might have these hard times. I have never met anyone who do this for a living and never struggled. Accept it, it is the part of this lifetime vocation.


The fear from failure. I guess everyone know what I’m talking about. This is so embedded into our society. We must not fail… at least this is what we’ve been taught in schools, in work places, everywhere. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake. Instead, we must fail! We must fail to eventually succeed.

There’s no other way. The fear from failure is a huge burden. It kills creativity, experimentation and boldness to try the unseen methods to achieve something.

So, is failure shouldn’t bother you? No, it absolutely should! And this energy is going to push you further, help you make things even better.


Sound design is hard! I know I’m not the first who tells you this, but this is the truth. Lots of struggling, doubt, failure. And lots of fun, experiment, and the real ultimate pleasure when something is born in front of our ears and eyes. Now, back to work.

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Favorite sound of the week #5

The old electric lawn mower. It’s been serving the family for a long time, though it didn’t get much attention if any over the years. As you can imagine, the electric motor is not in a good shape, the blades are dull, the chassis is battered. But still, it just works, well, most of the time.

The motor is not powerful enough to fight the wet grass, and the dull blades don’t help either. Often the machine struggle, and choked with the wet, thick grass so much the motor almost stop working. The good thing is that with all this struggling and choking and fighting, it produces very good sounds. Sometimes rpm drops abruptly, sometimes gradually. Both sounds nice.

Here’s an excerpt from the running, struggling, choking:

The old lawn mower by tamasdragon

Besides that these sounds are nice, they are useful for a number of things:

  • atmospheres
  • sweeteners for vehicle motor sounds
  • sweeteners for car pass-bys
  • motor starts and stops
  • whooshes

And of course for anything you use them for. I made a quick and short experiment.

As usual, the sounds are freely downloadable and you are free to use it in any way you want, I only ask two things in return. Do NOT ever distribute them for money and share with others where you’ve found them.

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