Live Sound Effects

Many of the sound effects (SFX) that you'll need to enhance the audio track of your television spot or program will be available in a commercially available sound effects library. The CSU-Pueblo library owns the BBC sound effects library on vinyl (they will dub selected effects to audio cassette at your request), and KTSC-TV and the mass communications department owns selected sound effects libraries on compact disc. However, there are times when a prerecorded effect is not available, or doesn't fit just right--the duration, intensity or character may not be just right. In these cases you may want to try some tricks of the foley artist. Foley artists create manual sound effects to sync up with projected film or video images (see http://www.irasov.com/foley.htm). This art is very specialized and used primarily for feature film post-production. However, in a pinch you can use the following tricks or make up you own to bring that special touch to your sound track.

Take care in choosing a microphone to pick up the audio effect. Pickup pattern and location can make a great difference in the sound recorded. Also consider the acoustics of the location in which you are working.

One last note: the SFX listed below were contributed by a variety of sources who claim that these materials and actions will result in the so-stated SFX. In most cases it is true...in others you really wonder. Special thanks to Harry Sova for putting this collection together.

ARROW IN FLIGHT--1) Use a 1/4-inch dowel rod approximately two foot long. Holding it at one end, sharply sweep down past the mic at a distance of six inches. 2) For a shrill high pitched swish, use a piece of umbrella rib with the open side facing the direction of the thrust past the mic. Proximity makes a sound grow bigger, so the thwang of a large rubber band will do well enough for the bow.

ARROW STRIKING--In real battles the arrows bounced off stone walls and towers making a rather undramatic clatter. An arrow landing in wood, however, is so much more satisfying aurally, so convention demands that all the best misses land in wooden paneling and tree-trunks. For this: 1) throw a dart into a piece of wood close to the mic, or 2) use a heavy knife with a sharp point, and plunge sharply into a large block of soft wood, such as balsa.

AUTO BRAKES SQUEAL--1) Drive two or three nails slightly through a piece of wood and scrape the points on a sheet of glass which is sitting on top of small blocks of wood. The small blocks of wood will aid in the resonance of the squeal. Try the same technique on various flat pieces of metal for other effective squeals. 2) Slide a drinking glass with the top placed against a pane of glass.

BASEBALL HIT WITH BAT--Hold a short piece of rubber garden hose or a small mallet and strike a large piece of bamboo.

BIRD WINGS--1) Using a hoop of stiff wire (about one foot in diameter), shape a wire handle, and sew to the hoop a piece of old silk or satin, Allowing plenty of slack, using a sharp jerking motion popping the slack material back and forth. According to the bird being simulated, vary the rhythm and tempo. Bats may also be created by this method. 2) Hold a large feather duster in one hand and slap the feathers (gently) against the other hand.

BLOWS TO THE HEAD'--1) Strike a pumpkin with a mallet. 2) Strike a baseball glove with a short piece of garden hose.

BLOWS TO THE CHIN--1) Lightly dampen a large powder puff and slap on your wrist close to the mic. 2) Hold a piece of sponge rubber in one hand and strike with the fist. 3) Slip on a thin leather glove and strike the bare hand with the gloved fist.

BODY FALL--1) Drop a melon from the top of a ladder onto a slab of concrete. 2) Drop a gunny sack filled with sawdust or sand on a hard floor. 3) For a truly gory fall, empty a bucket of wet rags on a slab of cement...ugh!

BOILING WATER--Blow slowly through a straw into a glass of water. NOTE: thicker liquids may be simulated by replacing the water with milk.

BOTTLE BEING OPENED--1) Use a child's pop gun. 2) Press two "plumbers friends" together and pull suddenly apart. 3) Flick finger against cheek with open mouth. 4) Use a bottle with a tight fitting cork.

BREAKING BONES--1) Chew Life Savers close to the mic. 2) Snap small diameter dowel rods wrapped in soft paper.

BREAKING EGGS--Take a six-inch square of very course sand paper and fold corners in toward the center, rough side up. Lay in the palm of your hand and squeeze suddenly.

BREEZE--Fold a newspaper into quarter size, then cut slices up from the bottom nearly to the top. Holding it at the top, sway the paper near the mic, but don't touch it or you will cancel the illusion.

BRUSH CRACKLING--Use a broom straw, working it between your hands very close to the mic.

CRASHES--1) Metallic crashes may be made by piling a collection of tin and metal scraps into a large tub and dumping it out. To get a sustained crash shake and rattle the tub until you need that big crash sound. 2) Wooden crashes can be created by smashing any large type of wood fruit basket next to the mic. 3) Door crashes are created by simple brute force, i.e., hitting a door with the shoulder, and simultaneously smashing a wood fruit basket next to the mic.

CREAKS--1) Twist and squeeze an unwaxed paper cup next to the mic. 2) Mount a rusty hinge between two blocks of wood. Then twist so that the hinge will bind as you either open or close the hinge. 3) Use a combination of string, powdered resin, and cloth. The resin should be spread in the cloth which is then pulled along the string. For the very best sound, the string should be attached to something rigid such as a resonant wooden panel. Varying the pressure on the string will give you different types of creaking sounds. 4) For the creak of a ship rubbing against a wharf, rub an inflated rubber balloon close to the mic.

Bill Kartina of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania solved his "creaking" problem with this solution:
"I have been toying with the idea of a piano wire (the lowest note) attached to the lid of my window seat. The wire is draped across a hacksaw blade behind the box and out of audience view. The blade is attached to the body of the box with standoffs. This allows the box to be used as a resonator. A 1-Pound weight is attached to the end of the piano wire, which keeps it in place. Whenever the lid is lifted the wire is "pulled" by the 1-Pound weight across the blade making a suitable creaking sound. This seems to be working very well and offers a high degree of repeatability. I am surprised at how really convincing it sounds."

CRICKETS--Run your fingernail along the fine teeth of a very cheap plastic comb. Remember, the sound should alternate between being very loud then soft.

DISH BREAK--Use castoff dishes or unfired pottery rejects. To get the true sound of the break, place several pre-broken pieces of dishes in a whole dish, then drop. The whole dish may not break, but it will give the impact effect, and the broken pieces will scatter, giving the sound of scattering fragments.

DRAWERS--Slide two pieces of wood together. Put a small crosspiece of wood on one so that the other will hit it at the end of the slide indicating the close of the drawer.

EATING--For this effect, the complete noisemaking set consists of a single knife, fork, plate, cup saucer, and spoon. It only takes a little of this noise to suggest a lot.

ELECTRIC SPARK--Rub two blocks of sandpaper-covered wood together in one fast long stroke.

ELEVATOR DOOR--Run a roller skate (old type with metal wheels) over a long, flat piece of metal. There should be a wooden bumper at one end and several nails at the other, Rolling the skate against nails gives the effect of opening the door, and the wood block for the close.

FALLING INTO THE WATER--The important thing here is to get the impact of the hit on the surface of the water. To simulate this effect, however, reverse the procedure this way: Secure a large wash tub or wooden tub. Fill it about 3/4 full of water. Get a bucket and sink it until it is full of water, then turn it over, but keep it submerged. With the bottom side up, yank sharply out of the tub.

OR, Fill a bucket with water and have a plunger ready. For most splashes, have the more flexible rubber lip folded into the bell, then plunge the plunger into the bucket. For a larger splash, just do it harder. (thanks to Wanderer)

FIRE--1) Gently twist a piece of cellophane close to the mic. 2) For larger fires, add to the cellophane the frequent snap of crackling pieces of berry box. 3) To get sudden flare of flames, lake the ignition of gasoline-soaked wood, snap open an umbrella, then bring in the crackle of cellophane.

FOOTSTEPS: IN LEAVES--Stir corn flakes in a small cardboard box with the fingers. Watch the rhythm of the walking.

FOOTSTEPS: IN MUD--In a large wash pan place several crumpled and shredded newspapers (paper towels also work fine). Leave very little water in the pan. Simulate walking by using the palm of the hand for footsteps.

FOOTSTEPS: IN SNOW--Squeeze a box of cornstarch with the fingers in the proper rhythm. Better yet, put the cornstarch in a chamois bag.

FOOTSTEPS: ON STAIRS--Use just the ball of the foot in a forward sliding motion. Do not use the heel.

GOLF BALL STRUCK--Use a swish stick (see: arrow in flight). Then at the end of the swing, strike a small piece of two-by-four with a wooden mallet.

GUNSHOT--1) Strike a leather cushion with a thin flat stick, 2) Prick an inflated rubber balloon with a pin. 3) Hit a large corrugated box with a curtain rod.

HIT IN THE FACE--To get the comedy effect of a person being slapped in the face with a ripe tomato, pie, etc., use a wash basin and rags. In the wash basin, put a little water, then several layers of paper towels or rags. Let these soak up the water. Next prepare a wad of rags so they may be easily held in the hand. Soak the bundle of rags also, On cue, slap the wad of rags in the pan. This must be done quite close to the mic, but not so close as to get the mic wet!

JAIL DOOR--The characteristic sound of an iron door is the noise when it clangs shut. For this, clang two flat pieces of metal together, then let one slide along the other for a moment, signifying the bar sliding into place.

LIGHTING A MATCH--There are two distinctive sounds in lighting a match: the igniting and flare of the flame. Use large wooden matches and scratch on a piece of sandpaper about six inches from the mic. As soon as the match flames, move as close to the mic as feasible. In this way the flare of the flame is audible.

LOCOMOTIVES--1) A simple technique is to cover one side of two pieces of two-by-four with heavy sandpaper. Rub the two sandpaper sides together. 2) A better technique is to use a cheap scrub brush with a good handle on it. 3) The beat or rhythm differs between a freight and a passenger steam locomotive. The freight engine rhythm is CHUFF chuff, CHUFF chuff. Every other beat is accented. 4) The passenger train sounds like this: CHUFF chuff chuff chuff, CHUFF chuff chuff chuff. The accent is on the first of every four beats.

PHONE BOOTH DOOR--Unfold and fold the legs of a metal card table. Honest! Good luck however finding a phone booth to shoot!

POURING A DRINK--Always touch the edge of the glass with the bottle to establish the sound.

RAIN--1) Take a ball of cellophane and loosely wrap it in tissue paper, then roll it slightly between the hands. 2) Drop salt on different materials; in the case of a tin roof, drop the salt on a piece of metal.

SIZZLE--To get the sound of a sizzle as of someone backing into a hot stove, put a heated electric iron into a very shallow pan of water. If you want the effect of bacon frying on the stove, place a little lubricating oil on top of the water.

Or, Stretch a piece of waxed paper taut next to the microphone. Pour uncooked rice onto the paper. (This effect can also stand in for the sound of rain.) (thanks to Wanderer)

TELEPHONE--Adapt a standard telephone so that the buzzer can be worked by a press button. In order to suggest that the ring is stopped by picking up the hand-piece, it is usual to finish up in the middle of the ring, followed quickly by the sound of the hand-piece being lifted. As this last sound is much quieter than the ringing it should be emphasized a little. Cut down on the amount of figures to be dialed, but if calling a known location, use dialogue over, or make sure the first three digits are 555.


To contact professor Ebersole, e-mail him at samuel.ebersole@colostate-pueblo.edu

Return to CSU-Pueblo Television Production Handbook home page.