The Sound of Serenity


In this clip from the title sequence to Joss Whedon’s 2005 movie “Serenity” I’ve removed the center audio channel.  What is left is mainly the ambiences and background effects.  After listening to it this way, undistracted by dialog, I have a few observations.

First, and most obviously,  this scene would not work at all without sound.  There are no windows or portholes or display screens showing us what exists beyond the confines of the ship, so it’s entirely up to sound to convince us we’re in a ship flying through space and not a stationary film set.

Mr. Whedon implements the classic sci-fi trope of creating the illusion of turbulence by timing camera shakes with actors reactions and sound effects.  We’ve all seen it a million times (and laughed at it when done poorly) but it still does the trick.  Also, at 3 minutes 4 seconds, Mal and the doctor look up in response to an especially loud bang.  I wonder what the actors were responding to on set?  Probably someone shouting “boom!”.  Once again, these are both examples of how sound is used to sell the illusion of a larger reality beyond the frame of the camera.  In these examples, the actors interact with the off screen sound which makes the illusion even stronger.

My third observation is not as obvious unless you have worked in audio post.  Typically, in scenes with lots of cutting, it’s not uncommon for the perspective of the camera to jump dramatically.  Think of your typical conversation between two people facing each other where the camera cuts back and forth from one over the shoulder shot to another, shifting perspective by 180 degrees each time.  Now imagine there’s a water fountain or something off to one side.  If audio followed the perspective of the camera the sound of that fountain would jump from one side to the other with each cut.  With frequent cuts this becomes very distracting so it’s common practice to keep the audio elements more or less stationary, thereby setting up a sort of objective audio perspective separate from the visual perspective.  In tracking shots like the one in this sequence, the visual perspective doesn’t jump at all, so it’s possible to lock the visual and audio perpectives more closely together.  Pay attention to the use of panning throughout this scene.  One good example being the hiss of the engine room as Mal turns to talk to the doctor around 1:41.

My 4th observation is that once the dialog is taken away, and our attention is fully focused on the ambient sounds, they can start to seem over the top and unbelievable.  Would a ship solid enough to travel through atmosphere’s really creak and groan like that?  It’s very easy to over think every sound, especially during a mix session when scenes are played over and over again.  Yet, with the dialog in and our attention focused on what the characters are saying, we accept these sounds as perfectly natural.

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Sound of the Week = Marble in a Balloon

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Fun with Noise Reduction

What’s the aural equivalent of negative space?  Silence is the obvious answer, but what we call silence is not really silent at all.  Practically speaking, the aural equivalent of negative space would be the refrigerator humming in the background, the buzz of the guitar amp between notes, the cellist fidgeting in her seat during the rests, the wind in the trees outside the window next to the man being interviewed.  Sometimes we want to get rid of this background noise  and the tool we turn to is often noise reduction software.  It’s possible though to turn subvert the intended use of this software and instead use it to extract what we would normally be trying to get rid of.   It can be used to highlight rather than obscure noise.

One of the more popular pieces of noise reduction software, Izatope RX, has a little checkbox in the upper right hand corner of it’s interface which says “output noise only”.  By checking this and adjusting the controls for tonal reduction separately from broadband reduction, it’s possible to separate just the tonal elements of a sound.  This technique applied to the sound of an idling car engine sounds like this.

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Noise reduction plugins work their magic based on a “noise profile” which is supplied by the user.  Normally, this would mean supplying a small portion of just the offending noise.  A little bit of guitar amp buzz from a small section of the recording for example to reduce the guitar buzz throughout the whole recording .  It’s possible however, to use completely unrelated sounds for the noise profile.  The following example clip contains  a series of sounds followed by the same sounds treated with some creative noise reduction.  The first, is of a motorbike driving away with my voice as the noise profile; then a bowed cymbal with a guitar rift as the noise profile.  This is followed by a drumbeat with the previous bowed cymbal sound as the noise profile and finally the sound is of a car driving past in the snow but, instead of outputting just the noise like I did for the others, I did a more traditional noise reduction but with the reduction settings set to max and the filters meant to prevent digital artifacts turned all the way down.

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I used similar techniques to make a series of Kontakt instruments from recordings of a long cardboard tube fitted with a metal cap drug across the hardwood floors in my living room.  The un-processed recordings sound like this.

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Then I did quick drags and slow drags with the tube and then processed the sounds with iZotope RX, using different noise profiles including my  voice.   Here’s a song featuring the resulting instruments along with some piano.

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Also, here’s a great link to the work of composer Richard Eigner who has taken denoising to a whole new level.

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Sound of the Week

A + B + C = Corpse Worm

How I made the corpse worm sounds for JourneyQuest.

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Sound of the Week = Faux Scratching

Here’s a quick tutorial video I made about creating a faux dj scratching sound out of an instrument case and a plastic fork.  The concept could easily be applied to other materials as well.  The result is not meant to sound exactly like vinyl scratching but rather a unique variation on that concept.


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Sound of the Week = Zadar Sea Organ

It’s an organ.  Played by the sea!

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Sound of the Week = Ketchup Bottle

This week’s sounds were made for the short film “When I Grow Up” by Colin Hesterly.  The video is an homage to the cartoons of the 40s and 50s so I wanted the sound effects to be reminiscent of that era as well.  

 I found these inspiring videos about the sound effects masters behind the old disney cartoons.

What strikes me watching these videos, is how creating sound effects was so much more of a performance in those days than it typically is now.  I love the comment about how many sound effects artists back then were drummers.  Makes sense.  Being a competent musician is still helpful for modern day sound designers, but with digital technology performance is often taken out of the equation in a way that just wasn’t possible when these cartoons were made.

ketchup  For my contribution to “When I Grow Up” I wanted to incorporate some of these performative elements  back into my workflow.  Of course, being a child of the digital era,  I couldn’t help but do a round of processing as well.  To make the train sound, I first performed the sound by huffing and puffing into an empty plastic ketchup bottle, then I pitched and EQ’d the sound a bit in Pro Tools, layered in a bit of an actual train recording, and edited my performance to better match the tempo of the music.  The ketchup bottle also came in handy when making the sound of the river boat.


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Sound of the Week = Pistachio


 Here’s a song I made recently as part of a guest posting on the popular blog “Designing Sound“.   The song is  made entirely from a bowl of pistachio shells.  

And here’s a video that explains some of the techniques I used to make the song.

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Sound of the Week = Scissors


This weeks sound is from my sample library Fractured.  Fractured is a collection of multisampled Kontakt instruments made from acoustic guitars played every possible way except for the “correct” way.  A large part of the time spent making the library went into experimenting with all the different ways I could combine the guitar with other items and get cool sounds.  One of my discoveries involved threading a pair of children’s scissors through the strings in such a way that when flicked they would bounce back and forth and make a very strange noise.


Fractured can now be purchased bundled with my other sample library Violence.  Click here to read more about the bundle and listen to music demos for each library.  The following audio file  is a collection of raw sounds from both Fractured and Violence followed by those same sounds in their processed form put together into a very short musical piece.


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Sound of the week = Epic Stapler!

Epic Stapler

     I was zeroing out the vocal booth after a recording session one day and for some reason I found myself walking past the microphone with a stapler in my hand. So of course I stopped for a moment to see what kind of sounds I could get out of it. This is the sound of me thwacking the stapler against the side of my hand and letting the internal mechanism jangle about.

unprocessed stapler 

With some processing to really bring out the spring sounds, it sounds like this.

louder stapler 

That’s a pretty cool sound on it’s own, but I took it a step further and layered together a bunch of processed versions of that sound to create something much bigger and more dramatic.  The following sound clip plays through each of the layers seen in the image below.  First, you’ll hear the sound run through iZotope’s Iris, then the same with added reverb, then the same sample played through Iris again at a higher register, then the sample heavily bandpassed to bring out one resonant note, then a version processed to accentuate the low end, then a pitched down version of the bandpassed note then finally everything mixed together.

processed stapler 

Viola! Epic stapler!

This sound is included in the “Cinematic Impacts Volume 1″ SFX pack available for purchase on my downloads page.


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