Core concepts in foley and sound design
Understanding core concepts and techniques, and reflecting on how they can benefit my work.
Foley is the process of recreating real-world sounds to be added to screen and is named after Jack Foley, the radio SFX artist who first developed the technique in the 1920’s. In the context of radio, where there is no visual aspect, foley sounds were added to help bring to life the action being described, such as footsteps and horse hooves. Today, in media with a visual aspect like TV and film, foley sound is still used to enhance the action, but it is also used to correct scenes where sounds from outside of the story interfere with the authenticity of it. Imagine filming a long scene in a period drama, where everything is perfect, until a plane flies overhead. Obviously this modern day sound can’t remain in the final scene, so the sound for the whole scene (wind, rain, people in the distance etc) is recreated in post production. Roughly eighty percent of all of the sounds we hear on screen today are added after filming. (Newstalk, 2013).
Foley sounds are created in very imaginative ways, they do not need to come from the true sound source. To identify a sound that would be a convincing proxy for an object, sound artists use reduced listening, a term coined by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer. It means to listen to a sound devoid of any meaning or attachment, mentally freeing it from the source that created it, so that it can be applied to something else.
Did you know that rustling of cellophane is used to create the sound of fire? If you use reduced listening as you play this clip you can easily imagine that this cellophane is a crackling fire.
Other examples of foley sounds identified through reduced listening are: the screeching of tyres, created by rubbing a hot water bottle filled with air across the top of table; and footsteps in the snow, made by stepping on cornstarch. Being able to use different sounds to emulate on screen action is incredibly useful to sound artists when they are not able to record real sounds, as well as when capturing real sounds is too dangerous, like lions in the wild! Reduced listening is the key to finding great foley sounds.
To be good at reduced listening you must analyze the sound in as many ways as possible. What is the quality of that sound source? Is it high or low in pitch? Does it stutter, or is it consistent? It helps to use descriptive terms to understand the sound source. Is it a spiky sound? A soft sound? One way to question the quality of the sound is by thinking in terms of attack, decay, sustain and release (ADSR). Attack means how quickly the sound peaks to its loudest point. Decay is how quickly the initial sound reaches a consistent level. Sustain means how long this consistent level remains, and release means how quickly it drops from this level to zero sound.
Consider the ‘meow’ of a cat. The attack and decay of ‘me’ are quick, followed by a slightly elongated ‘oooooww’, which is the sustain. Then there is a quick release. Let’s try another, what is the ADSR sound quality of a staple gun? In this instance all four of the ADSR elements are quick, which is remarkably similar to the shots fired by a real gun. This similarity means that a staple gun would be a good core component of a foley sound for a real gun, a component that could be layered with other sounds to make it more impactful.
Foley sounds often need to have other sounds added to them to make them more impactful. In fact even real sounds, real gunshots for instance, can sound underwhelming and need a boost to make them dynamic enough for screen. Sounds created for screen are commonly heightened and made hyper-realistic, through a process called sound design. Sound design is found everywhere, from the sounds in movies, video games and radio, to those used in theatre, audio books, mobile apps, live events and even car design.
Spectral layering is the process of mixing and arranging a collection of files into a single, effective sound to make it even more persuasive and engaging. It can also be called Audio Layering. Each layer adds something unique to the final product, giving it a distinguishable character and quality of sound.
Spectral layers can also be added to instill meaning to a sound, for example to convey a particular feeling or sensation to the audience. When layers are added for the purpose of emotion, rather than purely to represent the sound source, we use a different term for this…
Michel Chion describes rendered sound in his book Audio-Vision as ‘a clump of sensations’. (Chion, 1994). Rendered sounds use spectral layering to convey more than just the sound, to communicate something that the sound can’t produce by itself. A good example of this is the swinging of the metal flail from 55:00 in the film Gladiator. The spectral layering in this sound consists of: the roar of a bear, a low 40hz frequency rumble and metal chinking together. Is this noise what the swinging of a metal flail really sounds like? No. The intention behind the bear’s roars is to evoke fear.
Another example of rendered sound and spectral layering in sound design is in the creation of a sound for something that doesn’t exist in the real world, for example the lightsaber in Star Wars. The sound designer responsible was Ben Burtt, who combined the humming of projector motors with a buzz from a microphone. He then combined a third sound for the clash of lightsabers, which was the sound of moving microphones. His lightsaber sound has become iconic. It could never be used for anything else because it is so strongly associated with Star Wars.
How are these techniques useful to me?
In my work as a sound artist I will need to be competent in all the techniques above to create the most realistic, engaging and exciting sounds for screen. In a project called Chirality that I worked on in my first term at university, I knew that I needed to layer at least two to three sounds, each occupying their own frequency (e.g. low, mid and high frequency), for the most optimal effect. The low sound would determine the weight of the sound, how powerful it is. The mid sound would form the body, the majority of the sound and its tonal characteristics — in other words, the main information. The high sound would provide what are called the organics, this is where it’s common to hear what the source of the sound is made of, for example the clinking noise of metal, or the fizz when pouring champagne. These sounds are often situated around 2k hertz and above.
For the monster in Chirality I layered sounds like a sliding coffin lid, which gives weight and creates an uncomfortable feeling in the listener. I also layered a screaming female voice inspired by the unforgettable sound of the Nazgul in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings, a sound comprised of multiple layers including Peter Jackson’s wife screaming.
The more techniques I am aware of, the better I can make my sounds, meaning both true to life as well as compelling and attention-grabbing. “What do sound designers do? We lie for a living!” wrote Stonehouse, 2021. I love this understanding of sound design, because it highlights the importance of creativity and imagination when making sounds, the ‘lies’ that make for a better experience for the audience.
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CHION, M. (1994). Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen. New York: Columbia University Press. Pp.113
GLADIATOR (2000). [Movie] Available from database: Netflix. [Accessed: 06.12.2021]
NEWSTALK. (2013). Emmy nominated Foley Artist Caoimhe Doyle demonstrates movie sound effects. [Online video]. August 22nd. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrbgY6ajTgo. [Accessed: 13.12.2021]
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