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What are Sound Effects?

Engineer adjusting the levels of sound effects

Anyone who wants to be an audio producer must have the ability to navigate a diverse and complex range of sound effects and audio enhancers. Now more than ever, audio producers have an extremely extensive palette of tools at their disposal in the modern world of audio production. Knowing what all these effects are and having the ability to list them off is one thing; understanding each one’s purpose, as well as how and when to apply it, is another step further. Both are necessary for success in the audio production field.

What are Sound Effects?

SFX can either stand for “sound effects” or “special effects,” more frequently the latter. As such, it can be confusing to differentiate between the two, and so the word “sound” is added in many cases to clear up any misunderstandings among audio producers and other crewmembers. This is a broad term that can apply to many different forms of media from music, film, TV, and essentially anything else that involves audio. In any of these types of production, sound effects are a critical stage in enhancing the experience of the audience or listener by heightening the emotions and drama or creating a fuller, more robust, and cohesive overall sound.

When referring to the music industry, SFX are a broad range of filters and enhancements that “sweeten” or otherwise clean up the tone quality, timbre, volume, or any other quality of the musical voices in a mix. The modern music industry is full of these effects, particularly in the more commercial genres like pop. Today’s audiences are so used to hearing these complex layers of enhanced sounds that oftentimes, a song sounds dry or incomplete without them.

What are the Different Types of Sound SFX?

There are many different types of sound SFX including reverb, autotune, Foley, panning, equalization, and compression to name a few. Each one has a different use case and reason for an audio producer to layer it onto a track.

Reverb

This is an invaluable tool that takes the concept of an echo and pushes it to the next level. Reverb is a complex mix of echoes that can be controlled and adjusted to generate a fuller, more lively sound. While bringing life to the sound, it also communicates information to the listener about the size and shape of the space where the sound is coming from, or at least where it’s engineered to sound like it’s coming from. It’s a particularly popular enhancement to use for singers, but it’s also a great way to fatten up the tone of brass or a variety of other instruments. It can also help to capture a certain feel, whether that’s spacey or sentimental.

Reverb is one effect to be careful not to overuse. If every voice in a mix is drenched in reverberations, everything will sound far off and indistinct. This can also quickly lead to muddiness if you’re dealing with complexly layered productions. At the opposite extreme, no reverb might make everything sound dead and even unrealistic. Only for certain instruments can you get away with holding the reverb entirely, such as percussion when you want it to dramatically pop out of the mix.

Autotune

Whether it’s an artistic choice or a necessity due to a tone-deaf singer, autotune has become an audio producer’s best friend and a crucial element of a studio’s wheelhouse. The intensity of an autotune filter will change the way the listener perceives it, ranging from not noticeable at all except to the highly trained ear, to something that becomes a key characteristic of the voice that it’s applied to. The subtle use of autotune is extremely helpful for horns or singers that fall slightly out of tune, especially since today’s music listeners are much more conditioned to expect tonal perfection even if they don’t know what that means. When something is out of tune, you don’t have to be a music theory expert to hear it.

Foley

This is a branch of audio effects that generally applies to filmmaking and is almost always present even if the audience isn’t thinking about it. Every time a character moves and performs an action or when environmental factors occur, it needs a studio-curated sound to accompany it. Very rarely are the live sounds captured on location usable for professional film production; this means they must be created one at a time by Foley artists. This interesting branch of sound design involves using every object imaginable to best capture the audio essence of what the audience is seeing on the screen.

Oftentimes, to make a cohesive presentation that makes sense to viewers, sounds are highly exaggerated or even added in when, realistically, there would be none. Removing a sword from its case and punching sounds are prime examples, particularly in fantasy and adventure genres. Other breakaways from reality, such as a thunderclap occurring at the same moment as a flash of lightning instead of the delay that we expect in real life, are small ways that movies must adapt to viewers’ expectations to maintain the illusion they’re creating.

Panning

Panning involves distributing sound signals between left and right channels, creating a stereo mix. It’s a key way that audio producers convey a sense of space, which helps to make each individual voice and instrument more distinct. When there are two or more competing musical voices in the same range, they will often be at odds with each other unless they’re panned far enough apart.

Equalization (EQ)

EQ is used for controlling the highs and lows of each individual track or of the mix as a whole. Oftentimes, when a raw track is recorded, it will sound either fuzzy on the low end or pitchy and shrill in the higher octaves. Using faders and an equalization tool to control these levels, an audio producer can reshape the overall sound in a fine-tuned way based on hertz range to create the clearest tone possible.

Compression

This is used for recordings that have highly variable volume levels. It’s an automatic way of bringing out the softer parts of a track while keeping down the louder areas, resulting in a more consistent sound that allows you to hear all the nuances.

SFX In Film and TV Shows

If you’re not actively listening for them, it’s easy for a casual audience member to miss many of the more nuanced and subtle effects that go into the complex mixes of sounds in professional productions. Oftentimes, the point of a good sound effect isn’t to pull focus from a scene and steal the whole show; rather, it’s to enhance what’s already there, serving as the icing on the cake that is the entire audiovisual production.

With that being said, there are plenty of times when an SFX is meant to pop out from the mix, as to be right in the audience’s face. When it comes to big moments like explosions or other dramatic points in a story, the audio engineers have a bit more liberty to push the limits decibel-wise. Even so, the audio effects aren’t usually something that blasts the viewers’ eardrums lest the audio levels of the entire rest of the picture are thrown out of balance. It’s extremely frustrating for viewers to continuously reach for the remote to adjust the volume when they can’t hear the softly muttered dialogue after a deafening car chase scene.

If you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show with the effects stripped out, either by way of an editing error in a behind-the-scenes or making-of video, you already know just how stark of a difference it makes in the overall presentation. All the air is taken out of every action, and it’s hard to fully understand what’s going on, let alone get swept up in the intensity of the scene.

What Helps Make These Sound Effects?

The first thing that any audio producer needs to create sound effects is a DAW or digital audio workstation. This is the powerhouse tool that audio producers, audio engineers, and sound designers rely on to do their jobs in a modern, flexible, and efficient way. It encompasses any type of software that allows you to mix, edit, and even master your audio work with a huge number of built-in effects and plugins to create the sound you hear in your head, or whatever sound the directors, artists, or executive producers are asking you to make.

There is a wide variety of DAWs, each with its own specialties. Some are best suited for engineers working in live performance settings and require the ability to change filters and raise or lower an effect on any given channel. Other audio workstations are specialized for the deep editing and engineering that takes place in a studio.

The creation of unique and original sounds isn’t always confined to the digital realm, however. Just as it was before the highly advanced technology-driven times in which we’re now living, sound designers still use common, everyday physical objects to help them capture specific sounds to elicit the perfect emotional or dramatic response. A sound designer might spend countless hours experimenting with different sounds they’ve recorded by layering them in different combinations, altering the pitch and speed, or even reversing them before finally finding satisfaction with their work.

Final Thoughts

Not sure if you know how to use all these sound effects? Don’t worry. You can learn everything covered in this blog and more during an audio production program. Take the time to learn Sound SFX and enhance any track that you make. Before you know it, you will be an audio production professional.

Audio Production Program

Ready to get an audio production degree and start creating your own Sound SFX? The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.