Elements of Sound Design (Intro to Sound Series)

elements of sound designWelcome to the Sound Series, where together we’ll go over some of the basic aspects of film production and appreciation in relationship to sound effects and music, including gear and industry best practices. Collectively, these elements form the soundscape or sound design of a film.

To kick things off, check out our article on Sound Design, where you will understand why sound is so important, especially when contrasted to the raw, unedited audio:

Sound Design and the Importance of Sound in Film

Once you’ve read that article, you can go more in-depth here:

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What is Foley?

Foley sound design

Foley artist Gary Hecker uses a sword and spatula to create the right sound (see video below).

Foley is one of the components of a film’s sound design. Foley effects are sounds recorded during post-production to give weight or oomph to subtle sounds that appear on the screen during an actor’s performance and other scenarios.

As I wrote when I talked about the boom microphone, the sound recordist and the production crew are more concerned with capturing dialogue than any other sound during principal photography. Not only does dialogue carry the weight of the story, but you also need an actor to deliver it, which makes the dialogue the undisputed, most important sound element in a narrative film. It can also be the most expensive, if you need Meryl Streep or George Clooney to perform it, which is why on a set you aim your boom mic at the actor’s mouth.
But in the “full canvas of sound,” as foley artist Gary Hecker calls it, other sounds elements are also incorporated in the film. “Little” sounds like footsteps, water running, or an AC humming, need not be recorded on set because they can easily be reproduced during post by foley artists. Here’s how they do it:

The Craft of Foleying

The artistry of foley comes from an artist’s resourcefulness to create a sound using unlikely objects. As you see in the video above, foley artist Gary Hecker mimics the sound of the unsheathing of a sword by scraping a metal spatula across a prop sword. In the video, he explains that timing is also a pre-requisite for foley artists. In a single scene, you may have to recreate dozens of sounds before the next breather. To make the process smooth and efficient, it is in everyone’s best interest that foley artists record the effects at the right moment (instead of having to rely on a sound editor to synchronize sound bites every time). This is how crazy it gets:

And here’s another video:

Filmmaking Sound: The Boom Microphone


Boom mic operator demonstrating proper technique.

Boom microphones have long reigned as the superior choice for filmmaking. Why? A few reasons:

  • In double system sound recording, the microphone works independently from the camera, so that noises made by the camera or operators are not recorded in the sound file.
  • It has a long pole that allows “easy” access to the sound source. Boom operators often have a very specific sound they are trying to capture. The most important one for narrative films is, of course, dialogue. With its long pole, the microphone can be suspended overhead, above actors. Additionally, if the sound source is on the move (like a walking actor), operators can follow them with the microphone.
  • It is highly directional, meaning that it has a narrow pickup pattern. This allows the operator to isolate the other unwanted sounds. For instance, while recording dialogue next to a busy street, the boom operator will aim the microphone away from street to avoid noises.
  • Most professional boom mics sound better than any built-in mic your camera may have.

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