April 16, 2016

How Many Layers Does It Take to Make Your Audio Dynamic? (Hint: A Lot)

According to world-renown editor and sound designer Walter Murch, editing is a lot like cooking.

And if you know anything about cooking, which I don't, you know that it's all about layering flavors so your food has dimension. It's a similar concept within the context of sound design — you have to choose sound effects that pair well with each other, as well as with your video, and layer them to create depth. To show you a couple of methods you could use to do this, here are tutorials by self-professed video nerds Casey Faris and Dan Bernard.

First up is Casey's tutorial, in which he shows you how to create dimension to a transition by layering sound effects.

Next is Dan's tutorial, in which he layers a bunch of sound effects to create a believable punch sound from scratch.

When you're first starting out, it's typical to look at your timeline, notice areas where you're going to need a sound effect, like a whoosh, a door knock, or a footstep, add that sound effect and call it good without ever considering layering additional sounds to create more dimension. But if you're racking your brain trying to figure out what's missing in your audio — why it sounds empty — then that's probably the issue.

And Casey and Dan's tutorials only show you the tip of the iceberg. Just look at editor Vashi Nedomansky's timeline for The Grind — the sheer number of layered audio tracks in this feature films is staggering — and typical.

Dem layers tho, Vashi!Credit: Vashi Visuals

Don't let that behemoth of a timeline scare you, though. How much work you're going to put into your project depends on the details of the project itself, like runtime, location recording, even genre (an action film will most likely require more sound effects than a drama). You don't have to be a pro right off the bat; even knowing that these sound design techniques exist is a huge step in honing your craft. (The next step is practicing!) 

Speaking of practicing, you might want to check out Casey and Dan's site Wave Brigade. They have plenty of royalty-free packs that you can purchase, but they also offer a bunch of them for free if you want to start playing around with sound design. As it turns out, these guys and I live in the same city and we were able to meet up and talk about how they record/digitally design all of their sound effects themselves. (Go locals!)      

Your Comment

11 Comments

Wrong wrong wrong. Great sound design has nothing to do with the number of tracks and effects you have. Great design can be done in 7 tracks or 700. What matters is the creativity, the vision, and the willingness of the director and sound team to use sound in interesting ways to tell the story.

I was a sound editor for major network TV for years, and I can tell you that 99 times out of 100 the sound in a movie is lame and flat/empty because no one considered it creatively. It's treated as technical filler instead of an integral part of the story. I can't tell you how many shows I've been on with hundreds of tracks, and all of them adding nothing creatively. If you want your audio to be dynamic, all you need is a vision for how sound fits in the story. You have to write your film and plan your script with sound in mind. You have to use loudness and quiet to create mood. You have to think of sound as a series of artistic choices, not merely sweetening what you see on screen. So few writers and directors do this. And then your movie sounds empty because you're thinking of sound as something you fill in at the end just to take up space, and not thinking about sound from day 1. Adding more tracks won't fix that - it'll just create white noise.

Articles like this do a disservice to hard working sound editors who have long had to struggle to gain artistic respect in an industry where sound is often relegated to a merely technical afterthought.

I do agree that it's better to record your own effects whenever you can. Much more fun and easier to do than most people think. My advice to anyone wanting to get into basic sound design for their work is to consider sound the same way they consider visuals, as a Creative aspect to be written for at the beginning. Read Randy Thom's magnificent paper "Designing for Sound" which is freely available on filmsound.org, and make sound a priority instead of an afterthought. :)

April 16, 2016 at 11:25PM

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Marcelo Teson
Filmmaking Instructor/Sound Editor
288

Thanks for getting us in touch with sound design! Your comment sounds genuin and straight forward, opening the way to the real thing ; )

April 17, 2016 at 1:38AM

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I couldn't appreciate your insight more. Each time I get to edit the sound is the first thing I try and get an idea of. Maybe its my background as a musician i'm not sure. But every time I edit I never feel like any of the emotion is completely there until I get to start adding in sound. That's when it all comes to life for me.

April 17, 2016 at 4:16AM, Edited April 17, 4:17AM

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jacob
128

I'm so glad I read this article because it led to this beautiful piece of advice from you. Though I'm completely new to sound design and cinematography as a whole, I know better than to see quantity as a measure of quality. Thanks so much for your input!

April 17, 2016 at 9:25AM, Edited April 17, 9:25AM

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Hugo Guzman
Director
11

Excellent comment Marcelo, it is really a pleasure to hear from people with a deep understanding of a field, and who can bring some light to "overcook" articles which are really hard trying to make us believe that the editing process can be easily made by machines instead of artists.

April 17, 2016 at 2:18PM

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Borrowing from a previous comment by Hugo Guzman -

"I'm so glad I read this article because it led to this beautiful piece of advice from you."

Thank you sir, you are absolutely right!

April 17, 2016 at 2:43PM, Edited April 17, 2:43PM

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Thank you for taking the time to battle this nonsense. You literally could not create a more deceptive and buzzfeed-esque headline for an article if you tried. Why not take the time to explain creating windows of frequencies so vocals and sfx can pop through score, or sidechaining compression, or SOMETHING useful rather than showing us a completely collapsed timeline of an hour long program with an editors pre-mix'd design? I'm surprised Vashi agreed to have his work represent such misinformation.

April 17, 2016 at 6:55PM

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Kyle M Drexler
Cinematographer
81

As a sound designer myself I applaud you for this.

April 25, 2016 at 4:18AM

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Thank you for this. :)
The number of people / directors who really think about sound right from the scripting level are so few in number. A common phrase that flies around is "All that can be done during post-production". Frustrating.
"..make sound a priority instead of an afterthought."

April 25, 2016 at 2:14PM, Edited April 25, 2:17PM

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I've noticed how artificial sounds are becoming on Hollywood productions lately. Some are too loud or intense to match the action. Often sounds are used solely for jump scares which becomes ridiculous when you start catching on to it. It reminds me of the 3D or CGI that is designed in a way that it shows off the effect instead of fitting into the film seamlessly.

April 29, 2016 at 12:53AM, Edited April 29, 12:53AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
296

I was lucky enough to interview editor Thomas Grove Carter recently, and audio is very important in his edits. This article has screenshots of the timelines for the Game of Thrones teaser and Honda's The Other Side interactive ad, both which feature great audio:

https://www.macprovideo.com/hub/interview/fcpx-interview-thomas-grove-carter-award-winning-video-editor-honda-type-r-game-of-thrones-ad (the link hasn't worked properly here, so copy-paste the whole thing)

I had nothing to do with this next one, but check out his video presentation here for more info on his editing: https://vimeo.com/158641571

April 18, 2016 at 7:08AM, Edited April 18, 7:09AM

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