Historically, sound effects were used as comic relief or to signify an action happening off-screen. But as cinematography has evolved, so too has sound design. Sound design has become a powerful tool and if you’re a filmmaker looking to increase the production value of your projects, these sound effect techniques can help get you there. This article will break down popular uses of sound effects and where you can find these film sound effects for your next project.
Watch: Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Sound Explained
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How to use sound effects
Sound plays as big a role as the visual elements of a film. It’s a tool to immerse the audience in a cinematic experience, or bring a fantastical creature to life, or ramp up the tension in a scene.
Think about the audio brilliance of Ben Burtt’s work on Star Wars or the subtle art of sound effects in great horror films like the Alien franchise. Modern movies are using sound in new and exciting ways that push the envelope on how films tell their stories.
And while location, editing, and special effects can capture your vision, it’s the sound design that really brings it all to life. In this video, we examine how Tarantino uses sound to help guide the tone of his violence.
To understand how valuable sound effects can be, it helps to understand all the ways you can use them. Effects (and sound design in general) can impact an audience’s emotions just as powerful as an actor’s performance, a beautiful vista shot, or a dramatic scene.
Here is a step-by-step guide to sound effect techniques you'll be able to bring into your next project.
Elements of Sound in Film
Step 1: Create ambient sound
Ambient sound is the most common way filmmakers use sound effects. Think about movies like Master and Commander, Avatar, or The Lord of the Rings. These stories take place in settings that we can’t experience, and yet it’s the filmmaker’s job to make those settings and characters feel as real as anything else.
Ambient sound does a lot of the heavy lifting in this scene. Viewers would expect the sounds of ocean spray and constant waves, but it’s the little pieces — boots on wood, rigging in the wind, distant conversation — that really sell the idea of a large crew on a ship at sea.
Importance of Sound in Movies
Step 2: Establish some realism
By adding appropriate sound effects (or, in some cases, creating new ones with Foley artists), you can establish realism right off the bat. This how filmmakers use diegetic sound to transport us to new worlds.
One of the best examples of this is Avatar. The movie takes place on a fictional planet, stars fictional creatures, and ultimately exists as a masterclass in green screen work. But the constant touches of ambient sound help viewers overlook all of that and immerse themselves instead.
The human brain cross-references things we experience. And by adding familiar sound effects to a scene, you are providing context that supports what is on screen. The viewer’s brain connects what it sees with what it hears, which allows the audience to immerse themselves in a particular scene or location.
Functions of Film Sound
Step 3: Use nonverbal storytelling
All living creatures use nonverbal communication. In the case of humans, our brains process more than just physical gestures. We can also hear a sound or see an image and understand a variety of meanings or suggestions.
That one scene could stand on its own as a short film, and it would still be a success. Nonverbal storytelling is a trick that is uniquely available to filmmakers. You probably already incorporate this, because a film’s visual elements should tell part of the story (otherwise, you’re probably using too much dialogue).
The Use of Sound in Film
Step 4: Add sound effects for tension
Sound effects can tell the story of a location or character. And you can do that within a scene that is already pushing other plot points forward. Master storytellers know how to weave these things together because that is how they capture a viewer’s attention from start to finish.
Distant voices and car sounds can create the illusion of a busy street, even if there’s no one around. A heartbeat or rush of wind can add tension and dread to a scene where a character has to make an important decision.
These might be a little on-the-nose, but you get the idea. Horror films excel at layering sound effects to build a mood or feeling, and even an addition like the cat in that scene from Alien shows how the smallest sounds can play important roles in film.
Sound Effect Techniques
Step 5: Shift audience emotions
Filmmakers understand how music can steer an audience’s emotions. There is a lot of research on how music affects the human brain, and that is going to continue for the foreseeable future.
But the same facts also apply to sound effects, even if it isn’t as obvious.
Ambient sound effects help us make sense of what’s on screen, and nonverbal storytelling clues us in on the context. But the one thing those things have in common is they affect how viewers feel.
The visuals of a passing storm may be dark and gloomy, but filmmakers can use sound effects to manipulate how viewers perceive the storm. Distant thunder is foreboding; falling rain is calming; faint birdsong suggests that the storm is passing and sunlight is coming soon.
This scene’s dialogue sets a playfully competitive tone. And even though audiences know what to expect, there is a sense of excitement about everything. But as the storm approaches — and the sound design becomes more chaotic and louder — the audience’s emotions become as tense and on edge as if they were watching a horror scene.
This particular use of sound effects allows you to practice your art, to become one of the great auteur directors and choose how people will react to things. Sound effects give the filmmaker more control of a viewer’s experience, and that’s just one more reason why sound design has evolved to become such an important piece in filmmaking.
How To Get Sound Effects
Step 6: Find sound effects
At its core, filmmaking is almost like magic. It’s the art of convincing people to accept something that isn’t real, to have an emotional response and carry a piece of the film home with them.
Hopefully by this point, you’ve gotten an idea of how sound effects can help you achieve your filmmaking goals. And hopefully you also realized that using sound design relies more on your vision for the film than any experience as a mix engineer or Foley artist.
But a common struggle is finding sound effects that don’t suck. Freesound is an amazing (and popular) resource...but actually sorting through thousands of effects can be a huge pain. And that can be true for the vast majority of free sound effects libraries, like Free Sounds Library or SoundBible.com.
Sure, they are cheap and convenient. But in some ways you’d save more time by creating your own sound effects rather than tracking down something that fits just right. That’s why many filmmakers end up buying, licensing, or subscribing to professionally curated libraries.
If you’re looking for higher quality or very specific sounds, you might have access to sound effects through a service you already use, like Avid Pro Tools or Adobe Audition. Maybe you need a subscription service that provides thousands of professionally made sounds.
The point is, there are hundreds of options out there. Thankfully most of them are available to browse for free, so you can explore your options before committing to one platform or another.
And that’s the trend, really. Filmmakers have access to more — and better — resources than ever before. When it comes to finding a place to download sound effects, you are already spoiled for choice. Now is the perfect time to start experimenting with how sound effects can add more depth, emotion, and realism to your videos.
How Tarantino uses sound design
When people think of Quentin Tarantino movies, the sound design isn't typically first on the list. But that's a mistake — not only is Tarantino's use of film sound effects unparalleled, he makes it seem so effortless. And sound is the key element when it comes to understanding the range of violence and whether we are meant to have fun with it or not. Let's look at how Tarantino uses sound effects to present film violence.