Associations with sounds

Designing sounds for fiction

Telling stories about magic, alien spaceships or dinosaurs is one of the things that movies and games are fantastic for. It lets us explore these themes and picture what it would be like to interact with them. But it does pose a question for sound designers. How do you create a sound for something you have never heard in real life?

You probably already have a pretty good idea of what the examples above would sound like. You might have heard the sound of spells in Harry Potter movies, spaceships in Star Wars and dinosaurs in Jurassic Park for example. But before these subjects were popularized in pop-culture media it was anybody’s guess as to what those things would sound like, and it was the job of sound designers to bring those things to life in a convincing way.

Here is a 2-minute video about creating the sound effects for Jurassic Park. Also fun to see what a sound design set-up looked like back in those days!

Finding real-life references

When you have to create a sound for something you’ve never heard before you go and look for references. Things that look similar to your subject or have a similar association to the one you want your subject to have. Should the sound be organic or mechanical? What kind of textures would fit? Should it sound big, use low frequency sounds. Should it sound small, use higher frequencies. Those are expectations built into the human brain that help to connect the sounds we hear to the objects they are connected with. If you use those principles that we use to make sense of the world, you can ensure that your sounds also make sense inside the world. Or you can deliberately do the opposite so that the sounds feel alien and different from what people are used to and expecting.
The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are referenced after other animals, combined and processed to make them sound unique but still believable as animals. Having both low grumbling layers and high screeches in the dinosaur vocals makes them sound scarier because it doesn’t quite make sense in our minds.
Magic sounds often combines elemental sounds like fire and water with whooshes, reverb and reversed samples. Elemental forces combined with lot’s of processing and samples that indicate movement make the spells feel powerful and alive. There are many spaceship sounds that use synthesized elements that made them sound futuristic in the 70s and 80s, and we still have that association and recognition of spaceships.

Going beyond existing material

Because a lot of sound expectations have already been developed over the years in pop-culture, it creates an interesting choice for sound designers. Depending on what you want the audio to accomplish in the project, you could either decide to follow the already established approaches or go in a different creative direction to what people are used to.
By following the expectations you create an instant recognition of the sound and connect the associations the listener has from other media with similar subjects.
Going in a different direction can make your creatures and spaceships really stand out and be a recognizable staple of your project.

So when you design sounds for things that don’t exist, or not anymore, find real world references that are physically similar or that convey the same feeling or emotion that you want your subject to convey.
And if there are already expectations in place, choose whether it’s best for your project to follow those expectations or go in another direction and make something new.


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