Tips for recording sound effects

Tips for recording sound effects

Sound effects or the acronym SFX, is non-dialogue sound that is recorded simultaneously or separate from a video recording.

1. Simultaneous SFX could be audience applause, natural background sounds from sporting and action events, or even generic “room tones” used in post-production.

2. Separate SFX is either recorded on-camera or with an audio recorder and will be added later in post. These sound effects can range from natural sounds out in the field to home-made, do-it-yourself foley created sounds that will enhance a video or film, but the actual sound cannot be recorded live. Sound effects also includes background noises that may not be wanted.

Raindrops and footsteps – unwanted SFX:

Raindrops: Have you ever watched a movie where the scene is in a rainstorm, yet the dialogue is clear with little interference from the sound of the rain? How do they do that? There are a few options; if you have the budget and your subjects have the talent, you can ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) the noisy takes; where the talent watches the recorded scene and voices over a new dialogue and the rain sound effect is added in later.

If this is not an option, just because the scene calls for rain doesn’t necessarily mean you need to shoot in the rain. In movies, you may notice that though it is raining all around the subjects, and they are not getting wet. That’s because production will hire a water truck to not only wet down the area, but to direct water falling raindrops around the talent so it looks like they are standing in the rain.

Obviously, hiring a water truck (and don’t forget the teamster) can be cost prohibitive. However, you can simulate this scenario by wetting down the talent, and with a garden hose provide a well spread, spray of water. Nevertheless, that is not what this article is about — it’s about audio.

You can use wireless microphones, but remember to waterproof them correctly from stray water sprays. However, the sound may not be just right; because of the omni-direction of a wireless lavaliere, the simulated rainfall may be a little overbearing to quiet dialogue. So remember to adjust for that.

Better would be a boom shotgun microphone boomed from below, to minimize the sound of raindrops splashing in water puddles. By booming from below, there must not be an umbrella in use, because this will pick up the sound beating against it.

If there is no room for a boom microphone under the umbrella, without being in the shot, there are water diffusers that can be wrapped around the shotgun microphone (available at most audio houses) which diminishes raindrops falling on the microphone itself. To get a clearer sound while booming above the umbrella, bring the boom a little more out in front — instead of overhead to capture the sound signal as it leaves the cover of the umbrella.

Footsteps

Have you ever noticed in a crowded movie scene, where the subjects are either in a crowded city setting or trampling through the jungle, yet you hardly hear any footsteps? This is accomplished in a couple of ways:

1) See ADR above.

2) In a crowded indoor or city scene, use a rubberized shoe foam (available at audio houses); cut and adhere to the soles of shoes on the moving subjects. This may reduce ALL footsteps, so use wisely, or capture footsteps later to layer in during post.

Pre-cut foot foam

3) If the scene is not head-to-toe, have them take their shoes off. If the talent is wearing a “floppy” shoe and they can’t take them off, use double-sided tape to bind the shoe to their feet and tell them to walk gingerly.

4) In jungle or forested scenes, try to boom from below to minimize the footsteps (this is why you use a microphone with a polar pattern that rejects sound from behind the microphone element).

5) If possible, clear the path of foreign objects that the talent will be walking on before you start shooting. This will eliminate the unwanted branch cracks or rock stumbles.

6) Use wireless microphones judiciously. If there is an ensemble of talent, not only will their footstep be heard, but also anyone who is involved in the shooting process (camera operator, lighting person, director, boom operator, etc.). It could get quite crowded and noisy.

The importance of point of view when creating sound effects

Creating sound effects can be as simple as a room tone used for editing transitions, or something much more complex, as one sound either created or recorded to supplant an original sound source.

An example of the latter was when I was given a finished commercial that was shot at a fishing dock with no sound other than the voice-over announcer.

I didn’t have enough time to record or create any sound effects, but by going through my existing library of previous audio recordings, I found noise that wasn’t necessarily associated to the location, but added the feel of being on location with a variety of clangs, squeaks, thuds, and creaks. The commercial went onto win a local award for commercial excellence.

Room tone: This is the natural sound recorded on the set without ANYONE talking for about 30 seconds. This is used for transitional editing, or if the dialogue is too bare of background ambience, the room tone will be added in post to give a natural ambience to an unnatural way of shooting. Use the same microphones that were used on the subject, hopefully in the same position.

Recording sound effects: When recording general sound effects and not environmental ambient, use a high-quality, wind protected, stereo microphone or shotgun microphone and an external recorder. Using a camera microphone will do in a pinch, but be careful of any camera movement or touching the camera, which will produce noise from the camera body. Avoid using the camera while recording — place it on a tripod and walk away. Also, wind protection is a must on camera mounted microphones, even if it is only a large piece of microphone windscreen foam taped around the microphone element.

By using a shotgun microphone, you will be able to hone in on the sound effects (e.g., birds) without picking up unwanted ambience. Use a stereo microphone for a sound effect from a wider sound source (e.g., crowd at a sporting event).

Once while on a Coca-Cola commercial, the director requested that I record a variety of sound ‘noises’ that will be chopped and ‘auto-tuned’ to fit the commercial’s jingle. Along with these recorded wild sound effects, the director wanted me to go back to the hotel and record the talent swimming in the pool, capturing the splashes.

Well, first of all, I knew the swimming pool wouldn’t work because of the proximity of getting the microphone close enough to the talent and avoiding all the unwanted noise from the other guests (and kids) around the pool. But of course, I told the director okay and proceeded to go home.

At home, my boom operator and I set up a makeshift foley studio in a spare room and proceeded to record every type of water sound we could make. As we made our way back to the set, we recorded anything of interest, with the boom operator sticking the microphone out the vehicle’s window.

When we got back to the set, I played what I had recorded for the director, who especially loved the water sound of swimming; he believed I had gone to the hotel to record the sound, when instead I actually filled a trashcan full of water and rhythmically scooped and splashed the water as if I was swimming with the microphone just a few inches away.

When I saw the commercial, I noticed they used the swimming sound, but none of the wild sound effects. Instead, they went with just the music-only jingle. Oh well, I got paid and it made for a fun day!

Be creative in recording sound effects. Strap on a microphone and run through the jungle, start up a motor and listen to the various noises it produces, take usual items and use them in unusual ways, like “punching a piece of meat” for a punch to the body. Just place the microphone in close to hear every nuance, and record it in place as quiet as possible.

Gunshots and explosions

One type of SFX that is treated differently from general SFX recordings is capturing gunshots and explosions. The dynamics of these types of sound effects are very similar: an extreme peak of sound from the explosion or firing, a slower trailing or fading of the compressed sound expanding, and the reverberation off hillsides and buildings.

In recording these effects, keep the limiter or compression OFF, and the levels lower to handle the quick peak without distorting or being overly compressed. If you are able to ride levels, gradually raise the gain through the different stages — carefully monitoring the sound to avoid any drastic “jump” changes in the audio level. Most explosions are a “one-shot deal”, there is no second chance. Keep your explosion levels lower than anticipated. The levels can easily be raised in post compared to a distorted mess that is unusable, needing to then research and buy pre-recorded sound effects.