Movie Making Manual/Sound Design

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The job was originally referred to as "Sound Editor" but when legendary Film Editor Walter Murch worked for Coppola on Rain People he was not a part of the union so could not use the standard job description and thus coined the term "Sound Design".

Since then the two terms have served to identify the distinction between the technical skills needed to work in the audio strand of Post-production (the editor) and the artistic or academic skills and knowledge used to inform edits (the designer). Thus an editor would be able to employ equipment, such as a mixing desk, while the designer might employ Walter Murch's theory, 'The Color of Sound', to create a well balanced mix.

In practise, a working professional must be both a competent editor and designer.

The Importance of Sound[edit]

The sound in a motion picture is composed of dialogue, music and sound effects. The most important thing that film students must learn is 90% of a motion picture is sound. The picture is far less important than the sound. Here is why:

The audience can only look at one picture at a time. Yet the audience can hear dozens of distinct sounds all at the same time and separate and process all that information... if it is done correctly. Therefore, much more information can be transmitted from the filmmaker to the audience via sound than via picture.

The goal of a filmmaker is to give the audience as much information as possible. Too little information and the audience becomes bored. Example: If a shot remains on the screen for more than 5 seconds, it becomes boring. For the younger generation, the average time between cuts is 1.5 seconds where as movies made for an older generation will cut from one picture to the next on an average of once every three seconds. This is because the eye can examine and process all the information in a frame in about 3 seconds for an adult and 1.5 seconds for teenagers. So if you are going to have a shot longer than about 5 seconds, you must find some way to convey more information to the audience.

When a motion picture is delivered to a distributor (specially for distribution overseas), the sound must be on three completely separate tracks. The dialogue, music and sound effects must be kept separate on the final mix. But when you are editing a motion picture, you must always look at all the sound together. If you are doing sound, you cannot ignore the dialogue or the music. They all tie together. They all work together.

Here is something else you need to know:

1. Sound effects make the scene seem real.
2. Music creates the mood of the scene.

Another thing you need to know is:

3. Sound and music create the continuity for a motion picture.

When you cut from one shot to another, you always create a discontinuity. If the sound remains consistent from one shot to the next, continuity is restored.

So let's get started:

Sound Effects[edit]

There are different types of sound effects.

1. Ambience = Background sounds = Atmosphere
This is the sound in the background. There are two parts to this.
A. One part of ambience is room tone. This is the background noise on the movie set. When you erase dialog or unwanted noise (such as the director yelling, "Cut!", you must fill the gap with room tone.
B. After the scene is edited, a background sound is added from sound recorded in the field. If you are editing a scene of three men in a cafeteria, you have to go to a cafeteria and record the background sounds from the real cafeteria and put in faintly in the background of the scene.

Many movies do not have background sound. When you watch "The Sound Of Music" and Maria is singing on the top of a mountain on a green meadow, there is no ambience sound. This scene sounds as if she is singing in a sterile sound booth... which she is. If you take that same sound track and add the sound of a meadow in spring, the audience hears both the singing and the meadow separately... and entire scenes sounds much more realistic and inviting. By not having ambiance, you limit the information that you give the audience.

2. Walla
My favorite sound is walla. Where else but in motion pictures do you worry about how people mumble faintly in the background? Walla is indistinguishable voices talking in a murmer. It seems a bit dorky to record people mumbling but it really is great in scenes of a crowd. The most annoying thing is I have not found a good sound effects library with walla.
3. Pre-Recorded Sound Effects
For music, using pre-recorded music is frowned upon. But for sound effects, the fastest and easiest way of getting sound effects is from sound effects libraries.
4. Field Recording of Sound Effects
Eventually, this is where most sound effects for motion pictures come from. It is not easy to record good, clean sound in the field.
5. Foley Sound Effects
See the separate section on Foley sound.

Sound Sweetening[edit]

Sound Sweetening simply means enhancing a sound effect. This is easy to do if you have the right sound effects program. All you do is create copies of the sound and apply various sound effects filters (reverb, echo, pitch shifting compression etc.) and then combine them all together until it sounds good. You might have half a dozen different layers in a single sound effect. Total trial and error.

Sound Recording Hardware[edit]

There is no good sound recording device for low-budget filmmakers. Sony's MD (MiniDisc) recorders have strong limitations, because they compress the incoming signal very much like the compression of a mp3 is done. It also could only record in 32 Khz sampling rate. A good alternitive is a DAT-recorder, which can record in 16 Bit and 48 Khz without any compression. Try to record the signal as loud as you can, without overshooting. This will ensure that you have a good signal to noise rate. There are also some hardware recorder on the market, which are able to record 2 channels at once in high quality 24 Bit 48Khz or 96Khz on a memory card. They are the best, you can get for the job, because they get the sounds as clean as possible and without compression. Some have build in microphones, which are quite good, but also allow to connect external microphones with symetric-wireing. The microphone that you use, makes a tremendous difference. Also, with sound effects, you will find that you need a wide selection of microphones since each one is designed for a specific application.

Sound Software[edit]

There are two kinds of software for sound.

1. DAW software is multi-track recording software which simulates a digital audio workstation.

2. Sound editing software is a program which can work with individual sound samples.

Programs such as iMovie, Final Cut Pro and Final Cut Express include most of the functionality of a multi-track digital audio workstation. All three programs are useless for working with individual sound samples.

Long ago, there was a program called "SoundEdit 16" which was easy to use, easy to view, totally bug free, and produced wonderful results. A few years ago, Apple provides a free copy of BIAS Peak which is not easy to use, not easy to view and rather buggy in my humble opinion ( There is an upgrade path for a later version but I see little incentive in upgrading a program that they could not get right the first time. If you purchase an older version of Final Cut Pro, you will still get this program.

Now Apple sells a program called SoundTrack which will slice and dice any sound in a thousand different ways. However, first look at the program will convince you it is not designed for quick and simple sound effects sweetening.

A fairly simple and effective program for quick sound editing on Windows is Goldwave ( It is lightweight, and provides many effects to apply, along with options for volume, panning, and others. It is even possible to edit a wave on the sample level - you cannot get any more fine-grained. There is an expression evaluation effect which can be used for generating background hum, white noise, and various other frequencies. While it does not offer multi-track functionality, it's sister product MultiQuence provides these features.

Audacity ( is another, totally free, sound editor for Windows, which provides many of the features of higher-level programs such as Cubase in a more accessible interface. This program has received many recommendations and good reviews.