9 Creative Sound Design Tricks for SFX
Transform your sounds with the power of audio editing and special effects. We’ll show you 10 tips for bringing more power, impact and polish to your SFX design
Giving a project life through sound design is no small feat. A great soundscape has the power to immerse an audience, deepen their engagement, and elevate their entire experience. So how can video editors learn to work better with sound?
We’ve put together a list of 9 tips to enhance your sound design skill set, polish your sounds, and get you back on track when you’ve hit a creative roadblock. Each one of these tips has illustrated using our free SFX Cellar -Weather Sounds Pack, which you can download in the box below.
Automation gets most of its credit for being an incredibly versatile tool in smoothing out loose ends and making sure elements fit together just right, but it can be equally powerful as a creative technique. Typically, an audio parameter sits where you last left it, but automation gives you the ability to map out its movement over time. Automation is an experimental playground for creating excitement in your SFX through movement.
Aside from volume automation, you can try automating an EQ band, effect settings, and even driving a track’s send into a processor for truly remarkable results. Simply flip on your DAW’s automation lane and map away! Try this with any combination of parameters you would usually set and forget.
In this example, a snippet of thunder crackles was pitched and sent through a reverb track with several lanes of automation; EQ low-pass band, EQ low-mid band, and delay mix. The result is a one-shot with some sweeping movement on the effect tail.
Experimenting with stacks of plugins you wouldn’t typically place one after another will lead you in a direction you hadn’t thought of before. Not only is this useful for slight tweaks on an existing sound effect, it is a great way to manipulate a sound into something completely new! This sort of experimentation works particularly well with effects, but can also lend itself useful with other processing. Try stacking multiple instances of delays, reverbs, pitch shifters and see what you come up with.
A recording of strong wind from the SFX Cellar Weather Pack that has been heavily processed with a stack of plugins to create a sci-fi type pad/layering tool.
Parallel processing refers to blending a processed signal with it’s unprocessed predecessor. Many modern plugins offer some form of control between these “Wet” and “Dry” signals, but you can easily achieve this with any processing you like. Simply create a send from your sound effect to a new track, and just like that, you’ve got another instance that you can process and blend to taste.
Try parallel compression to combine the full dynamic range of uncompressed audio with a compressed version of it on the parallel track, or even distortion and saturation to create some texture you can mix in. Going overboard with the processing you apply on the parallel track will surely reveal some new ideas to chase down, don’t be afraid to stack away!
Two channels of parallel processing on “SFX Cellar - Soft Summer Thunder Rolls”; one with saturation and volume automation on the low frequencies, one processing the high frequency rain with a touch of stereo spread and reverb.
Sometimes a sound effect simply lacks the initial punch required to serve its purpose. This burst of energy is known as a transient, and improving or manufacturing it will yield fantastic results in making your sounds more impactful. Sounds like thunder and gunshots don’t sound quite right without a proper transient to introduce them into the project.
There are several ways to approach the attack of a sound; transient shaping plugins, volume automation, or simply layering in a complimentary transient from another sound. In our example, we’ve added in sharp automation points to accentuate the thunder’s initial impact.
Adding some impact to the thunder’s attack by automating sharp spikes on the track’s volume fader.
You’ll often run into situations where one sound effect just isn’t enough on its own. Before scrapping it and starting over, layer other sounds underneath to see if you’re headed in the right direction. This is a very common sound design technique, and is often the key to achieving sonically full SFX.
When layering, it’s good practice to ask yourself what the purpose of each layer is. Are you looking to make a particular frequency range more dense? Are you filling up a frequency range that the previous layers didn’t cover? Are you adding in some unique unpredictability or variation to the sound? Layering with intention tends to work best, but trying out a variety of combinations certainly won’t hurt.
A combination of three different layers creating a rainfall scene with a hint of thunder rumble in the background.
When working with layered sounds or a sequence that involves several things happening at once, you’ll most likely run into some overlapping on the frequency spectrum. We often spend a good chunk of time EQing a sound to perfection in solo mode, that we forget to check what happens to it once the rest of the elements are back in the picture.
By taking the time to listen to your sound effects both individually and as a group, you’ll start to hear where the areas of conflict are. From here, you can make accurate decisions on which sound has priority over which lane of frequencies. Reach for your favorite EQ and gently carve out conflicting frequencies on the elements you’ve decided to demote in priority. This technique often requires making compromises, but in the end, you’ll find that your sounds coexist much better with one another.
Using the stereo field to your advantage is a major component of great sound design. Experiment with setting (and automating) the pan knob of layers in your session to create huge sounding results!
Additionally, you can add perceived width to mono sounds with what’s known as the Haas Effect. This psychoacoustic discovery outlines how our brains interpret two slightly delayed instances of the same sound as one. To put this effect into play, pan two identical copies of the same audio hard left and right. Then, delay the playback of one of the two by up to 40ms using a plugin, or by manually moving it on the timeline. Pay attention as you increase the delay time–depending on the content of your audio, you may start to identify the two separate instances much earlier than 40ms, especially with transients.
Since the two channels of audio are panned opposite of one another, and are delayed within the limitations of the Haas Effect, we hear them as one sound with more dimension than the original mono track. This illusion is a fantastic way to manufacture stereo width!
Alternatively, there are many great stereo imaging plugins that allow you to manipulate width and symmetry between the left and right channels. Take caution when applying these techniques, as this sort of manipulation can cause comb filtering and phase issues if applied too drastically. Check your audio in mono to make sure that the left and right channels don’t cancel each other out when folded down.
Widening up “SFX Cellar - Rolling Thunder With Low Rumbling” using the Haas Effect gives it a more spacious presence in the stereo field. A duplicate instance was created, panned to the opposite side, and delayed by 20ms.
You can always find some hidden gems by reversing a sound or stretching it along the timeline. Trying this technique on different sound effects throughout your project may present you a piece of audio that can be used as a standalone effect or layering component. Try chopping up an audio file and reversing/stretching different pieces of it. Sometimes, extreme stretching can result in some awesome glitchy bits for your project!
From thunder crackle to robotic glitch, manipulating the waveform itself leads to all sorts of neat audio bits for your sound design projects.
Most DAW’s come with some type of signal generator that includes different waveforms and colored noise options. While these may be fairly underwhelming on their own, they are a great place to start when attempting to produce effects from scratch or building a texture element. Print different signals and experiment with them using the above techniques to see if they can be of any use in your project.
Using noise in conjunction with automation will help you achieve some fantastic sweeps and ambient sounds. You can also try generating a frequency tone and stacking experimental plugins/effects on it for some really unique sound effects. From there, print your result as a new audio file, splice/stretch different pieces and continue!
Using signal generators, plugins, and automation to create some tension around SFX Cellar - Light To Medium Rain With Thunders.wav
Don’t forget, if you’re looking for high quality royalty-free weather sounds to use in your videos then download the free SFX Cellar -Weather Sounds Pack via the button below. In it you’ll find heavy rain, light rain, thunder rolls, ocean ambience and much more!