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Hi all, how do sound designers come up with sounds for things that do not exists?

For example:

  1. Dinosaurs.

I read a little bit on the sound design for Jurassic Park by Gary Rydstrom and he mentioned that he basically got people running around recording stuff and then the sounds got layered over one another to give the sound for a particular dinosaur. What i would like to know is this. Do sound designers like, take into consideration the biology/anatomy of like the dinosaur's bone structure, mass, diet and then result in having an idea of how it should sound like?

  1. Items and objects that exists in a science fiction world (lightsabers, spacecrafts, transformers, robots, etc.)

Again i have read somewhere on how Ben Burtt, having done a degree in Physics, implemented what he learnt in Physics to produce some of the sounds for Star Wars.

Thus, to break my question further down:

  1. Do real life physics and biology/anatomy of a creature play a part in sound design?

  2. Or do sound designers just record sounds that are relevant, or if it sounds great, and layer it with other sounds to produce 'that sound'?

  3. I remember reading somewhere, where the interviewee said that sound design is essentially used to complement the movie, to the point where it is exaggerated to bring out or match the genre of the film. In this case, how do sound designers balance realism and 'creative licensing' (if this is the term called)?

Also, could any of you be so kind as to refer me to any websites, articles, books or videos that you know of that is relevant? It would be great!



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up vote 10 down vote accepted

In my opinion, the only true rule in sound designing is: It must be believable.

When it comes to stuff like bonestructure, and mouth cavity form for example, noone really cares as it's virtually impossible to predict exactly how such things affect vocalization even for someone studying these things for a living. Mass do affect the sound as bigger lungs and bodies gives higher probability of deeper voices, normally when you see a big creature you expect a big sound. Diet doesn't influence the sound at all, though carnivores tend to be much more aggressive and use snarling and growling more than herbivores. That's however not entirely true. Cats (carnivore), for example, doesn't growl at all. Some cats do have a "I will send your fingers to kingdom come you prick" almost sounding like a snarl, and they hiss, but that's pretty much it. Cows (herbivore), normally considered imbecile pacifists, can give off a VERY disturbing roar when they get pissed off. And take my word for it, when these huge retarded juggernaughts give off that call, you will not have any doubt in the world now is a VERY good time to run like there's no tomorrow...which of course is true if you stop for even a split second before getting somewhere safe...jeez...

When it comes to layering and designing, practically all of us have our own ways of doing this, but generally it's often not a good idea to layer discrete sounds directly on top of each other as it can sound like two separate voices. It's not always that way, but often. Like with most other complex sounds, like well-designed guns and machines, one way many of us do it, including me, is to begin with the best single sound we can find for this purpose. Then we add what's needed to reach that specific sound we're looking for that specific session.

When it comes to realism versus creative licensing, there is no difference when it comes to sounds noone has ever heard. If you edit, for the sake of argument, a light sabre, everyone knows how it sound as it's not unknown. But when Ben Burtt made it, it was completely new and he could do whatever he wanted as long as the audience bought it. Same goes for extinct animals and other things man has never seen. People expect a Tyrannosaurus to roar as it's humongous and they always roar in movies, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a regular lion-roar. Velociraptors are expected to sound bird-like because they do in Jurassic Park. But suppose they give you a project with a somewhat big lizard with feathers and fur all over that eats nothing but middle age clerks (or something), then you can do pretty much what you want as long as you follow the size of it and adapt the voice for the story (like making it mean or sad or such).

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cows are not "these huge retarded juggernaughts", you insensitive clod! :) – Arnoud Traa Apr 4 '12 at 14:16
but i do agree on everything else :) – Arnoud Traa Apr 4 '12 at 14:17

This question is really broad and would require a book to answer. But I will say that I believe that a primary role of sound designers, especially those working in movies with visual effects or animation, is to make the audience believe what they are seeing on screen is indeed real and interacting with the physical world.

A CGI Dinosaur or an enormous rolling bolder made out of styrofoam make little to no sound, but when I first heard the T-Rex footsteps and roar, or the large circular boulder crashing down towards Indiana Jones...I believed they were real and remained completely engrossed in both films. It is clear to my ears that designers like Rydstrom and Burtt are very interested in physics and biology, and go to great lengths to find and design the right sounds for the right moments.

Ultimately though, every sound in a film is selected and designed to benefit storytelling...period. Be it vérité storytelling or fantastical storytelling. Or both.

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Christian van Caine's point above about audience expectations is well taken. It goes to director expectations as well: David Yewdall talks in his book about designing the monster vocals for "The Thing," and tells (I'm paraphrasing here) how he was looking forward to doing something new and unique; i.e. not the same old walrus roars and pig squeals etc. that every other big monster was made of. And he came up with some great, unique sounds...which the director axed in favor of walrus roars and pig squeals, because that's apparently what a big monster we've never seen in film before must sound like!

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I'm pretty sure that in Jurassic Park they actually went against what scientists best guess was for the dinosaurs sound. They went for a more dramatic, deep roar. I think on the whole you would focus more on what sounds good and fits nicely and less what is factually correct, just the same as you don't hear 'realistic' sounding punches in movies etc.

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Some great answers so far. As many have mentioned, the answer to your question can go very deep. If you are interested in finding out more about some established sound designers' influences and decision making, there are many 'making of' shorts that focus on a production's sound design. Check out Designing Sound TV and the Soundworks Collections to start with.

For an interesting insight into developing sounds for things that do not exist, check out the Soundworks Collection the Sound of The Lost Thing.


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So, what would your answer to the question be? – Joseph Harvey Oct 15 '13 at 5:35

When i face a problem like this one what i normaly do is to analyse the "mechanics" of the object (animations help a lot), its size, its elements (metal,flesh,scales,etc etc), how these elements connect with each other, the behaviour of the object and i mix in a lot of fantasy if i go to dead ends. Trial and error goes there then.

But to answer broke down questions:

1.Do real life physics and biology/anatomy of a creature play a part in sound design?

Depents on the project! Except extreme situations though I always try to maintain this relativity cause its "how people are used to hear things" and giving a robot for example, a totaly un-physical sound will make it sound bad cause people "know how a robot sounds" by habit.

2.Or do sound designers just record sounds that are relevant, or if it sounds great, and layer it with other sounds to produce 'that sound'?

...this is one part of a bigger process! Here though come the matter of personal opinion and taste. Some people prefer minimalism, others multiple layers etc. you have to find your own style!

3.I remember reading somewhere, where the interviewee said that sound design is essentially used to complement the movie, to the point where it is exaggerated to bring out or match the genre of the film. In this case, how do sound designers balance realism and 'creative licensing' (if this is the term called)?

Also here, different movie styles require different approaches. You can't do the same on a "thriller" and a "comedy". Research and experience is required on this matter!

...just my 2 cents!

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Using ones imagination and thinking what something would sound like to you and then recreating it like what you hear in your head is a good place to start. Like for me when I was a kid I always imagined that a Teradactyl would sound like a Heron or a shag (two birds found near water). They are raucous sounds, and since that's how I imagined those dinosaurs would sound, when I create flying dinosaur sfx I use heron or shag sounds as the basis for this and then process then to get the sound that is believable ( at least to me anyway). It pays to always have an ear out for possible sounds that could be used for various sound effects. Sometimes the most unexpected things can work. For example, recently I accidentally got two pieces of equipment clocking at different sample rates. The result was an undulating hissing sound mixed with a light buzzing coming from my monitor speakers. Before rectifying the problem I grabbed my portable recorder and a condensor mic and recorded the sound. Later I imported the sounds in Sound Forge and by using dopplers and reverbs I created a small library of space ship sounds coming and going left to right, right to left etc. A happy accident that worked really well.

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