Finding and Using (Mostly Free) Sound Effects

Finding and using the right sound effect is difficult when starting out. While sound effects libraries aim to make finding the exact right type of running-water effect a simple task, the money needed to buy and license these effects can be prohibitive.

Getting a field recording. From the Vancouver Film School (Flickr)

Finding Sounds

Record Your Own

By far the best method of getting sound effects is to record your own. You get the most control about the exact sound you get, and you own the intellectual property of the recording. It is surprisingly easy nowadays to get a usable sound effect recording: I have recorded items on my iPhone voice recording app (other smartphones are available) and then edited them in Audacity to make an effect. You can also use a handheld field-recorder or even a full-blown foley studio or field-recording kit, but the principle is the same. You get a microphone and hold it near the source of the particular noise, and then ask the actor/passerby/machine/animal to make that noise for you. Of course, you don’t have easy access to all effects. What if your play is set in the First World War, or the African Jungle? You probably don’t have access to heavy artillery and a tame lion. This is when we start hunting online.

Find Online

The wonderful thing about the internet is that someone, somewhere, has found a series of heavy cannon, a biplane, and a tame lion, and recorded them. I don’t know why, but they have, and often a simple google search will turn up exactly what you need. The problem comes from how much they are asking for the recording. For a historically accurate biplane recorded in surround sound, they’ll probably ask a gefty whack. For some modern small plane recorded in mono at a low bitrate mp3 they’ll give it away, but it might not be worth it. In these situations I find the best solution is to compile your own. Cant find a battle sound? Pull together effects of guns, mortar, horses, footsteps, voices, wind, rain, machine and engine noises into one complex soundscape. You can even combine these sounds with your own recordings (get an actor to bark military instructions, record the cast marching on gravel etc). In this way you can get the perfect sound effect for your production with as much or as little detail as you need.

Keep them Legal

Make sure when you pull together sound effects that you keep track of what sound you are using, where it came from, and the license under which it is issued. Many sound effect sites use creative commons licenses, which is great, but you need to make sure that you are able to use it for what you need. If your production is charging for tickets you need to make sure it is suitable for commercial use, and if you want to mix it into a landscape of sound effects you need to make sure that they allow modification of their original source. Most creative-commons licenses ask for attribution, and it is up to you to decide how you attribute the sources of your sounds. Remember, this person braved a lion to get you that sound, at least acknowledge that!Some sources of sounds (free and legal)

Using Sounds


Once you have collected the sounds you wish to use for your effect, you will probably need to do some basic transformations to make them usable. This usually involves trimming off the excess sound before and after, increasing the volume (normalizing) of the sound, and perhaps basic noise removal. This should give you a clip that is only the sound you want, nice and clearly, all ready for you to drag into your mix.

You may also want to do some more advanced transformations, including (but not limited to) pitch/speed/time stretch, retrograding (flipping it backwards), or perhaps any echo or reverberation effect. All of these are best done in the DAW (digital audio workstation) of your choice, and you’ll have to look up how-to’s for these elsewhere.

Layering together

So, you have all your sounds cleaned up and ready to go. Some of these can just be plugged straight into your show-cue system and built into the show (phone rings, doorbells etc), but others will need layering into a more extended soundscape. Here you can fire up your artistic ears and select the right sounds for the situation. If you drop these all onto separate channels of your DAW you have the greatest amount of control over every nuance of the sound, and can set individual levels, panning and effects for each sound, and even automate these to change during the clip itself.

Creating an aural space (panning, distance)

While there are no hard and fast rules on how you build your effects it could be wise to use the framework that R. Murray Schafer, a canadian electronic musician, wrote about when he coined the term Soundscape:

Keynote sounds
The basic foundation for a soundscape. The keynote sounds may not always be heard consciously, but they “outline the character of the people living there”. They are created by nature (geography and climate): wind, water, forests, plains, birds, insects, animals. In many urban areas, traffic has become the keynote sound.
Sound signals
These are foreground sounds, which are listened to consciously; examples would be warning devices, bells, whistles, horns, sirens, etc.
This is derived from the term landmark. A soundmark is a sound which is unique to an area.

In practical terms a theatrical score will primarily make use of a texture of keynote sounds with a couple of establishing soundmarks, and only use sound signals when indicated in the script.

You will also want to create an aural space through the illusion of space and distance. This is basically accomplished using panning (moving the sound left or right in a stereo mix or placing it within a surround sound layout) and reverberation or delay combined with judicious volume setting to create a sense of distance from the listener. Again, use your judgement and the cues given by the script.

In summary, you will collect and process sounds from a multitude of sources and use them to create a tapestry that provides a physical and emotional setting that envelops the audience and the production. How you do it is up to you, but many tools work in similar ways. A good soundscape is like an electronic composition, perfectly placed sounds interact with each other to develop the narrative and contexts of the play. A bad one is like a shuffle mix of a CD of sound effects, and adds nothing to the drama. Mess around with your resources and see what you can come up with, but make sure your end product is a work of art: subtle and perfectly placed. If you do it right, no-one will notice. Then you have won!