How to create your own movie sound effects.

Discover how filmmakers and sound designers use sound effects to build ambience and create immersive movie soundscapes.    

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Hearing is believing.

Unless your movie is a tribute to silent film greats like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, you’ll need to add sound effects in post-production. It can be easy to forget about sound design because when it’s done well most people don’t even notice it. But people definitely notice if your movie is missing the carefully constructed mix of ambient sounds, background noises, and other sound effects — sometimes called SFX — that make each scene feel natural and alive.

       

Professional sound designers and sound editors spend their entire careers mastering the subtle art of mixing and layering a sound effect to create the perfect ambience. But with these tips and insights from director and cinematographer Steven Bernstein, you’ll be well on your way to making your movie sound like a million bucks. 

 

Separate audio tracks give you total control.

The first thing to remember about film sound is that almost everything you hear in the theater was created off camera. Filmmakers do some field recording of audio on set to create a scratch track, which they use as a guide for what needs to be rerecorded in post-production. But the real sounds are created as their own audio recordings and layered one by one on separate audio tracks.

       

Bernstein explains, “The whole principle here is that we want to control the sounds independently. We record things sometimes on the day of the film shoot, but we record them separately. And then to enhance the sound, we add more later in post-production.” 

Applying unique sound channels to clips to provide independent sound control

Start with clean dialogue.

If you were shooting a scene where three characters are talking in a restaurant, Bernstein recommends instructing the background actors to silently move their mouths and pretend to talk. This way you have a clean sound recording of each character’s dialogue on a totally silent set as a starting point. If in post-production you find that an actor’s line doesn’t sound right, you can rerecord it in the studio and edit it in, a process known as additional dialogue replacement, or ADR.

 

Capture background sound.

Then you’ll want a separate recording of just background noise in the restaurant, like the background actors’ conversations and the sound of plates and silverware. This is known as an atmos track because it records everyday sounds that capture the atmosphere of the space.

       

Record the empty space.

Finally, before everybody arrives or after everyone leaves the room you’re shooting in, record a minute or so of room tone, which is the sound of the room when it’s completely empty. This will pick up the hum of lights and other ambient, real-life sounds unique to that room, which will also be useful to your sound mix.

       

The idea is to have a separate sound track for every different element of the scene’s audio. As Bernstein says, “We control the relationship of the individual volume, the foreground to the background. So if we increase the volume of the foreground, the background doesn’t go up, it stays low. And let’s say outside we want some traffic noises. Well, to make it sound more realistic, we can record traffic separately, bring that into yet another channel, and control the volume of that.”    

Video by Steven Bernstein 

Unleash your inner Foley artist. 

Once you finish shooting, post-production is where you begin adding sound effects to match and enhance the action on-screen. Sound effects can range from mundane noises like a chair scraping against the floor to exotic sounds like a Star Wars-style spaceship taking off. Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers have access to a royalty-free library of over 10,000 sound effects to use in Adobe Premiere Pro or Audition. Or you can create your own through a process called Foley work.

       

To give an example of how Foley sounds are made, Bernstein suggests a scene where two characters are having a conversation while walking down a gravel road.

       

Bernstein explains that on set, “We put foam beneath the actors’ shoes, so their feet make no sound at all. It would be the most natural thing in the world to hear feet, but we want them on a separate track. So now in the Foley stage, we take a couple of shoes, we have some gravel, and we move the shoes up and down on that gravel in synchronization with the moving of the legs. And because it’s a separate soundtrack from that of the speaking people, the audience can clearly hear everything they say.” 

 

Listen to the music.

A little background music can add a lot of life to a scene, whether it’s something we can see the characters are listening to (known as diegetic sound) or something only the audience can hear on the soundtrack (non-diegetic sound). Licensing popular music to use in your film can be expensive and time consuming, but some editing programs like Premiere Pro come with libraries of inexpensive stock music that you can search, download, and license straight from the app. 

Sound designer capturing audio on a movie set

Mix and layer your sound effects.

Sound design is the process that brings together every kind of sound in your film, including the dialogue you recorded on set, ambient noise like your atmos track and room tone, and all of the sound effects that you found or created. When all is said and done, you’ll have a lot of audio files to work with.

       

“You might have 30 tracks, 40 tracks, 50 tracks, each with a different sound on a different volume control,” Bernstein says. “It’s this idea of individually controlling each sound that is essential to understanding why we have post-production sound effects.”

       

One of the most important things to remember about sound design is that it’s about layering sounds on top of sounds until they all blend together. At that point, the qualities of each individual track become less relevant than the overall effect of all of the sounds together. As Bernstein explains, “When we provide too much data to the audience and force them to pick out what’s significant, it replicates their experience in the world and makes the cinematic experience more powerful.”

       

No matter how big or small your filmmaking project is, a properly designed and edited sound mix can go a long way toward making it feel like a professional Hollywood production. Learn more about how Premiere Pro can help make your masterpiece sound superb.

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