“Dude, the pipes connected to your toilet make this crazy ‘vwroooSHHhhHHhhhh’ sound when you flush! Lemme grab my field recorder real quick.”
Yup, these are actual words I said out loud to my friend after using the bathroom at his place.
So far, we’ve covered some basics of getting into game audio and talked a little about composition. Today, we’re going to discuss this insane world of sound design. Soon, you too will start hearing the world in a whole new way and want to record literally ALL THE THINGS (including toilets flushing)! And remember, if you’re not so interested in sound design and want to focus more on music, read this post anyway, as there are many useful techniques in both areas that overlap and inform each other!
Sound Design (it’s #craycray)
In its simplest definition, sound design is the art of being a mother-effin’ wizard.
In other words, sound design is effectively the art of taking some sounds, manipulating them, and making them sound like something else. What’s so exciting about sound design is that there are infinite opportunities for layering and processing sounds to make them sound completely different from their source.
That one sword sound you heard in that one game? The impact layer probably came from an oven door slamming. That spell power-up sound? Most likely comes from an electric toothbrush vibrating against a Himalayan singing bowl. That monster roar? Elephant farts.
Basically, the world is your audio playground, and there are no real rules here. There’s no one ‘right’ way to do sound design. You can take a sound from a sound effects library (which I’ll cover later in this post) or record something yourself, and then layer it with several other sounds to create audio magic. Usually, each layer will serve some small purpose for the sound. It’s kind of like a puzzle piece.
For example: a magic spell might have one sound to cover the lower bass frequencies, a sound for the ‘vworp!’ meaty substance of the spell, another sound will cover the ‘crack’ of the spell firing, and another layer will offer a gentle ‘sizzle’ for after the spell’s blast. All of these layers blended and played together create the final ‘magic spell’ sound effect. It’s all about having fun experimenting with recording/audio manipulation and accepting the fact that you actually have no idea what you’re doing but it sounds cool anyway so ship it. #yolo
Since sound design is all about manipulating sounds, it can be incredibly fun and empowering to create your own SFX from scratch. One of the best tools you can invest in for sound design is a portable field recorder. You can record to an SD card and offload the sounds to your computer later, and most allow you to record up to 96khz sample rate. What’s cool about some recorders is that they have XLR inputs which lets you to plug in multiple microphones, allowing you to hypothetically record one sound using a few different types of mics from different positions, as well as using the device’s built-in microphone.
Here is a list of some high quality field recorders that I’d recommend looking into:
- TASCAM DR-05 ($85)
- Zoom H1 ($99)
- Zoom H4n ($199)
- Sony PCM-M10 ($245)
- TASCAM DR-100mkII ($299)
- Zoom H6 ($400)
If you’re really interested in exploring sound design further (or if you enjoy doing a lot of processing and sound manipulation for your music compositions), a field recorder will be a must-have item in your toolkit. If you’re not sure which one to invest in, I’d recommend the Zoom H4n! It’s what I’ve used for years and has served me incredibly well.
Sound Design and Foley
We’ve talked a little about how you can record something and use your DAW to process it. Let’s go into this a little further with a few common techniques that you might end up using as a sound designer!
When I talk about ‘processing’ a sound, I am referring to manipulating it using various effects and other plugins. These can be plugins you have in your DAW already or they can be other specialized software or hardware that you’ve purchased.
Let’s say you’ve taken your shiny new portable recorder and recorded your blender choppin’ up some fruit as you made a delicious mango-strawberry smoothie. Now, let’s pretend that you’re working on a game and want to make a teleportation ‘wooorp!’ kind of sound. You could plug this blender recording into your DAW and do the following: you could use a tool like PaulStretch to slow down the blender sound, then use a pitch shifter to lower the sound about an octave. You could reverse the whole thing and then apply a reverb to add extra atmosphere. Applying a bit crusher will add some granularity and distortion to change the texture of the sound. You could then automate the pitch so that it rises at the end of the sound (to emphasize that ascending ‘wooOORP’). With a few more tweaks/layering in some other sounds to taste, you then have your teleportation sound!
These are just a few common techniques that may seem really simple, but can really transform your sounds in a big way. Don’t be afraid to mess around with your audio manipulation! Remember: a lot of sound design is experimenting, randomly mashing your keyboard until your DAW does something weird to your sound and you stumble across a happy accident that sounds super rad!
Another great reason to own a field recorder is to record sounds in a process called ‘foley’. Foley is a form a sound design that basically reproduces sounds you might hear in every day life. It’s common for sounds that don’t require a lot of processing, such as recording footstep sounds, car doors opening/closing, clothes rustling, or a jungle ambience. This video offers a pretty good look at some examples of foley design.
Sound Libraries and Plugins
Some day, you might end up working on a game that’s basically like the next best Zoo Tycoon, but you suddenly realize that you don’t have a wild albino liger at your disposal that you can record. “Welp, that’s it,” you might think to yourself. “Time to hang up the recorder and audio software and go start my new career as a professional underwater basket weaver.” BUT WAIT. All hope is not lost! Fortunately, there are things (similar to sample libraries) called sound effect libraries.
A sound library is a collection of professionally recorded sounds that you can use to layer in and manipulate in addition to your own recorded sounds (technically you could just use the sounds stand-alone from the library, but that’s not the best kind of practice to get into). Sound libraries are great because they can be really convenient when you’re in a pinch and need that super rare flying tiger monkey mating call, want some pre-made sci-fi sounds to layer in, or maybe just want some higher quality recorded water ambiences.
Here are a few companies that make some incredible sound libraries:
In addition to adding some sound libraries to your arsenal, there are some companies that make some really sweet audio manipulation plugins. Here are just a few companies that offer products that I’ve enjoyed using or have heard good things about:
Congrats! You are now one step closer to becoming an audio wizard! In future posts I’ll be sharing some specific sound design examples and giving some more in-depth tutorials on certain techniques, but in the meantime this guide will help get you started!
Also, I’m going to dedicate an entire post in this series to additional resources, but to get you started, some of my good friends run/contribute to this site: http://designingsound.org/ I’ve learned a ton from reading their articles, and I highly recommend checking it out if you want to learn more about anything regarding sound design!
We’ve covered a lot so far, so if you’re just starting out though and feeling overwhelmed with all the information I’m throwing at your face, just remember the wise words of the great guru Buckaroo Banzai: “Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”
Go get out there and start recording things! Leave me a comment below with some of the crazy sound design/recording experiments you’ve done. Thanks for reading, and I’ll chat to you next week!