Updated: Apr 28, 2021
Is your sound design falling flat? Or maybe it doesn't quite punch through the mix like you hoped. Yeah we've been there many times ourselves, but there's good news. Here at Thunderbird Sound, we've identified a sure-fire system to creating sound with impact.
When layering Sound FX you need to start thinking in 3 dimensions:
True.. this ain't grandma's secret recipe but I can assure you this is what the best of the best are thinking about every time they are approaching sound design for a scene.
The Track Stack
Does your session look like this? At first glance it does seem to attract the eye. A beautiful array of colors stacked neatly atop one another, sometimes 5-10 deep. You may be stroking your own ego about how meticulously these layers were crafted.
Unfortunately, one slap of that space bar reveals an all-out sonic disaster. A
symphony of indistinction and obscurity. The variable "white-noise effect" that never had a glimpse of hope for cutting through a dense mix of music and dialogue.
You're left to scrap the sounds all-together and start back at ground zero. You'll never get that last hour back.
But alas! There's another way - a simple trick known by the industry pros but no one seems to be reveling about it... until now.
The Complimentary Approach
You need to shift your thought-process toward layering sounds that compliment one another. Let's get rid of that mindset of stacking 6 sounds that all sound very similar - this will not help you in achieving impact. It's time to start thinking 3 dimensionally when layering our FX.
The Anatomy of 3D Sound Design!
1. Height - The Frequency Domain
Impactful sound design consists of a full spectrum of frequency content.
Music knows this all too well. Great music always represents itself beautifully in all three of these categories. That's what moves people. You can't get into the groove with a lack of bass, and the rhythm just doesn't feel right without that shimmery hi-hat.
Let's break this down into 3 simple bands: Lows, Mids & Highs.
Mids: Start with a mid-range sound as your primary.
Lows: Stack a low sound to create weight for the object.
Highs: Sprinkle in a high-freq sound for some clarity & realism.
Remember that layering two sounds in any single band causes frequency masking for the listener. That's a fancy way of saying that the louder sound dominates your ear drum. The result becomes a smeary and undefined mess.
A great trick here would be using a combination of a high and low pass filters to reduce a sound layer to just one frequency band. Freeing up precious space for other sounds to shine through.
2. Width - The Panorama
Great use of width can immerse your audience into the story.
The natural world is a great example of this. If you take a moment to stop and listen, you'll hear sound resonating from all around you. It envelops you into the story that's being told in your world.
You can use width to you advantage by placing sound FX layers at various points around the 360 spectrum.
Let's break width down into 3 categories: Center, Wide, & Surrounds.
Center: Attach "hard" or transient FX to the center of the action on screen.
Wide: Use a wide texture to make the sound feel larger than life.
Surrounds: Place sustained or ambient textures in the surrounds so the sound "envelopes" the listener.
Don't be afraid to use your panner here to place sounds around the spectrum. Keep in mind that it's often best to keep transient sounds attached to the screen, so as not to steal attention from the screen..
3. Depth - The Acoustic Space
Depth can create a hyper-realistic experience for the audience - placing the viewer into the scene.
Our ears are constantly processing the acoustic reflections around us. The brain uses these reflections as a locator to pin-point a sound. It's the reason you can differentiate a close-up conversation from someone yelling in the distance.
We can break depth down to: Close, Med, & Distant.
Close: Use a "dry" or "close" sound to direct the listeners attention to the action.
Med: Use a medium range sound to add size and density.
Distant: Use ambient textures to place the sound into the acoustic space.
These sounds can be a combination of recorded sound FX and artificial ambience from a plug-in. Shoot your close sound through your favorite reverb plug-in to put the sound in it's acoustic space.
Ok enough all this intangible crap... let's see how we can use this in a real world example. Here's a breakdown of how we could apply this thinking to the sound of a single gun shot.
Low: 808 - Bass Drum
Mid: Muzzle Blast
High: Sword Scrape (for Gun Mechanics)
Center: Muzzle Blast
Wide: Wood Smash
Surround: Room Reflections
Close: Muzzle Blast
Medium: Wood Smash
Distant: Room Reflections
You might have noticed that in this example we've only used 5 unique sounds to cover all 3 dimensions. That's because any one sound can crossover between multiple dimensions.
You could essentially cover all 3 dimensions with just 3 sounds. In fact, in many cases you'll get a more impactful result by doing so. Less is more!
Take a listen to the result - One clear and impactful sound!
You can also use the time domain to create more clarity. For Instance: my "Muzzle Blast" and "Wood Smash" conflicted in the mid-range band, so I spaced them on the timeline to keep them from overlapping each other.
You get the idea - let's wrap it up here...
When sound designing, try to think in 3 dimensions: Height, Width, & Depth.
Use as few sounds as possible to tell the story.
Layering too much will only create mush.
Always serve the story! Story is King.
This method has proved itself invaluable for our projects. Here at Thunderbird Sound, our clients love the impact that we can deliver with our 3D sound design.
What's your approach to sound designing with impact?
Let us know in the comments below.
P.S. We're so proud you made it to the end. Here's a Free SFX Library from Thunderbird Sound.