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The Ultimate Guide to Designing Period Gun Sound Effects Pt. II



So here it is... the sequel to our epic write-up about recording period gun sound effects for Civil War era western. In the last article I broke down the entire process of recording period gun sounds for a movie.



In this article I'm gonna be breaking down the entire sound design process used in turning those location firearm recordings, into gut thumping Hollywood-esque gun sound effects. I’ll be showing you step by step how I took this raw recording...




...and turned it into this...




Quite a difference eh?


My aim is to give tangible advice that you can use in some of your sound design endeavors - and as an added bonus we'll be giving away this library of designed gun sounds for FREE at the end of the article. Sit back and enjoy the read!


In this Article:


 

The Raw Recordings


So after a successful location firearms record we are now the proud parents of a squeaky-clean library of period gun sounds. But just like any offspring, these babies aren't quite ready to be released into the wild yet - they're gonna need a little nurturing and finesse.


Our recordings still lacked that extra "something" in order to even stand in the room with some of Hollywood's best gun sounds. Our director was keen on making impact with these sounds, so I needed to give him just that - IMPACT.


It was time to get started on shaping these gun sounds into their fullest potential.


Here's how we did it:



 

Edit and Cleanup


Yeah we know... this is probably the most boring part of the process - albeit a necessary one if you want to create awesomeness. The recordings needed some editing love that could only come through a few hours of detail work.


Get it Organized


The tracks were already organized well from our location record, but now was a good time to use some of my favorite color coding techniques to start categorizing different track groups. Get organized now and save time later.


I then started cleaning out all the unnecessary gaps/noise between gun shots and gun changes. Next was to isolate each gunshot with a healthy amount of tail, about 5-6 seconds. I then grouped all the gunshots from particular gun into one sequence of shots as shown:



Bye Bye Birdies


Now was the time to critically listen for any extraneous and unwanted sounds in the recordings, i.e. birds, planes, wind gusts etc. If I thought a shot had too much background noise, I simply weeded it out. This is the entire reason we recorded at least 10 shots of every weapon, so that we'd have plenty to choose from.


If I found a less invasive noise such as a bird chirp or a cricket chirp, I'd crack into iZotope RX and draw it out manually. No reason to waste a perfectly good recording for a sound that's only taking up a small portion of the frequency spectrum - it can usually be removed. I was ok leaving some BG noises as I knew they would be fine in the context of the final mix.


One trick you can use here is to monitor with a limiter on your channel in order to heavily reduce the volume of the gunshot so you can hear what's going on in the noise floor. That way you can crank up your system and not blow your ear drums out with the gun blast.





 

Mix Decisions


Phase Check


A quick polarity check was in order to make sure all mics were in phase with one another. Best not to do much time-shifting here as you'd effectively be erasing the mic distancing you worked so hard at during the recording. My best efforts were made to cure any phase issues with a simple polarity flip. In some cases I made a few nudges to a mic or two in order for transients to align, but this was done very conservatively.


EQ

Next was the process of EQ'ing individual channels if I felt that it needed it. I'm never a huge fan of over EQ'ing at this phase because you're implementing phase shift between the multiple mic sources when EQ'ing the individual tracks - not something we really want in this case. Simple high-pass filtering and broad EQ strokes do the trick here. We will save any heavy EQ processing for later once I've committed to a mic blend.



The Mix


I like to commit mix decisions early on in the process so that I narrow down my list of available options. Too many options throughout the process can get a little overwhelming. I started to build a blend of all the mics that we had on location.


My Schoeps ORTF array was the clear leader for our sound. I then brought in some of the Crown SASS for "body" and the pair of spaced Schoep's mics for the "bloom" of the sound. The 416 and the MKH60 added some mid-range grit. Lastly I peppered in the distant AKG 414's to put the sound in their ambient space.. I was able to eliminate a couple mics in this stage that just weren't needed for the overall effect that I was looking for. We were now starting to sound like a gun shot!


I went ahead and committed the mic blend for each firearm down to a single stereo track.



 

Processing


My background as a music mixer was bound to pay off here. I've spent years honing the processing to make my snare drums sound huge - I had a hunch that this processing chain would be a great place to start for my gun sounds. A quick import of my music template and we were off. It's worth noting that each firearm warranted a little bit of different processing, but I'll just be covering a more global view of my approach.


I like to use a mixture of channel processing, parallel processing, and master bus processing.


Here's the entire processing chain broken down.


1. Channel Processing


  • Avid X-Form: Some of the firearms warranted a little bit of downward pitch shift. I used just a touch (1-2 semitones) of pitch shifting to beef up a gun if I felt that it needed it.

  • UAD Neve 1081 EQ: 1.8 Db Boost at 220Hz for some extra beef.



  • Soundtoys Decapitator: Harmonic Distortion! Yes Please. Not afraid to add some drive here, these gunshots need to hit hard, and distortion is a great way to trick the ear that a sound is actually louder than it is.

  • Waves SmackAttack: Adding some serious attack to the sound, and reducing sustain. I wanted this shot to be short and blasty - reducing sustain was the ticket.


  • Avid Lo-Fi: Just a touch of distortion for some extra warmth to the sound.

  • UAD API 550A: Analog EQ for tonal shaping. Adding some Mids to the sound.





2. Parallel Processing


I'm a big fan of using parallel processing blended with the original signal. This can allow me to really get crazy with some compression and other FX, and then blend them back with the original signal to taste. Here's my parallel busses:

  • Smack: Avid Smack compressor plug-in. My goal here is to raise the RMS level of the gunshot as much as possible. Fast Attack and Fast Release. This puppy can really excite the sound and add a healthy amount of sustain.



  • Aphex: Aphex Vintate Exciter from Waves. Adding a liberal amount of air and upper harmonics to the sound. The idea is to get more of that "in-your-face" sound to the shot.

  • Deviloc: Soundtoys Deviloc set to stun. Nasty, gritty, and crunchy distortion. Adds some serious punch and sustain to the overall sound. Blended just behind the original sound.


Just remember all of these parallel busses are blended back with the original sound. Their processing would be too much as a direct channel insert. When in doubt play it conservatively!



3. Master Processing


Finally, I fed all channels and busses to a master bus called "Gun Bus". This is how I did my broad brush strokes to the overall sound. Sort of the "mastering" process if you will. Here are the inserts on this master bus:

  • Avid 1-Band EQ3: HPF set at 41Hz. Just to knock off some of the super low "whoof" out of the bottom range.

  • FabFilter Pro-Q: Just some subtractive EQ shaping. Cutting unwanted frequencies that are sticking out to me. This varied based on the gun.



  • Cranesong Phoenix II: A little bit of extra harmonic warmth added here.

  • UAD Pultec EQP-1A: Boosting 5 at 8kHz. Again looking to still bring the sound toward the viewer with some top end.


  • Oxford Inflator: "Loudness Enhancer". Taming the peaks a bit and raising the RMS level of the gunshot.




  • Avid Pro Limiter: Finally a touch of limiting to catch any remaining peaks.









You may be seeing a trend here... DISTORTION!! When it comes to designing gunshots with impact, distortion tends to get the job done. It allows me to round out those harsh peaks and raise my RMS level for a "louder" sound without actually turning the volume up. You'll also notice that nowhere did I use compression on an insert, it was only used in parallel - to add more blast to the sound while keeping the original transient in tact.


Some of these plug-ins could serve you well on your next design project. Just remember that your results will vastly depend on the sound of your source material. Always use your ears or borrow a friend's!


Also, all of my gun sounds were designed solely at a close range perspective. I knew that if I needed more distant perspectives I could use EQ and reverbs in the final mix session to create that sense of space & distance.



 

Augmenting


Now... we've got ourselves a pretty good sounding gunshot but one problem still arises - there's hardly any audible variation between each shot gunshot. That's sort of the nature of the mechanical beast - these gunshots tend to sound alike from one shot to the next. I just can't imagine a very engaging gun fight when all shots are sounding the same. It's time to get some variation in there!! I augmented our gunshot sound with a few other layers of sound effects to achieve variety, here they are:

  1. Monster Kick Drum: Used to add a low end thump to the each shot. No variation here, just needed the extra oomph out of each shot.


2. Wood Impact: Used a large variety of these wood impacts to vary the sound of each gun shot. Also added some extra "ooomph" to the sound.


3. Metal Rattle: Recorded a belt buckle ratting to give each gunshot some "metal mechanics" sounds when fired. This adds some serious realism to the sound.



Ok... so now we're really starting to get some cool sounds going here. On to the last step!



 

Referencing


Real men use references. Sure it's cool to think you've created the greatest sound that's ever existed... but you really can never be sure until you stack it up against some of the best sounds out there. You've got to reference other great material.


In my case I referenced gunshots from some of my recent favorite movie guns: The Magnificent Seven and Hateful Eight. My director told me he loved the short & blasty nature of the "Mag 7" guns, so that would serve as my baseline comparison.


In the beginning my guns just didn't compare, and I'm not afraid to admit it. But after several rounds of back & forth with my director, I started to get something that was as impactful as some of these Hollywood sounds. Here's my final "1851 Navy Colt - Short Tail" gun shot sound:




Now... the guns in Hateful Eight were much longer and sustained with heavy gun tails. I went ahead and created a library of "sustained" shots as well to use for "hero" gun shots in the movie. Here's a sample of a "16 Gauge Double Barrel - Long Tail":



Let's wrap this puppy up:

 

Wrapping it Up


And there you have it! I hope you enjoyed the write-up of our sound design process for period firearms. Feel free to use any of these tips & tricks in your next sound design project.


As promised here's a FREE link to download every single one of these designed gun shots sounds in this library, including the additional gun foley sounds! That's over 600MB of sounds all at 96kHz! We hope these sounds serve you well in your next project.




 

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We'd love to hear your questions and experiences on Gun Sound Design in the comments below.




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