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Have you been in this situation? You spend days (and possibly weeks) creating your sound design masterpiece but find that it lacks that certain…something. It's hard to put your finger on it. The best way I can describe it is "sparkle" - it just has that magic quality about it, it leaps off the screen and becomes real. It has an "air" about it.

Some recent examples of film sound design sequences that have this "sparkle", in my opinion:

District 9Saving Private RyanThe MatrixWall•E

It is that artful combining of frequencies and dynamics that make it sound so cool. Sometimes it is a certain processing chain or piece of outboard gear. Who's got magic tricks they want to share?

Wall•E

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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

As both a sound designer and mixer, I'll put a few bugs in your ear, none which are "magic".

First, be careful with processing if you are NOT the mixer... something that sounds amazing in your edit suite can fall apart very quickly on the dub stage. Always consider the greater mix when your building sounds. The most amazing sound by itself, is not always the most amazing in a mix. Also if you're finding that your sounds are great in your room, but not at the dub stage, then consider looking at your monitor chain (and all that entails).

If you are both the mixer and the designer (as is very likely these days), and you're happy with the sounds themselves, then it boils down to the mix. Having spent the last 10 years mixing a LOT of shows, I can say that 90% of battle is level, the other 10% being processing (EQ, Verbs, etc). Making sound effects "real" and sound like they belong in the track rather than added on is an art that takes a lot of time to master. My best education came from sitting with some experienced mixers on my early stuff and watching how they dealt with things.

Finally, always be aware of the "I suck" phenomenon. Not that you ACTUALLY suck, but it's easy to compare your work to someone else (especially people you admire) and find it lacking, when everyone actually thinks it's good. I remember talking to a fellow mixer and commenting that I always found his mixes so much better than mine, and he turned to me and said "Funny, I always think YOURS sound so much better". Sometimes getting an unbiased opinion shows helps a lot.

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Can I ask: what resources are involved in making your track?

The films that you list have large teams of very clever very experienced people developing all of the elements over many months & are then mixed in the best film mix stages by Oscar winning mixers, again over many weeks & months... And all of their work is driven by the actual requirements of the project ie the context & the creative vision of the director

I'm not sure there is a 'trick' that is a substitute for that....

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One specific "trick" that I use when a sound feels very flat is setting a bit of delay on an effect or dialog. If you set a delay on track of 15 - 30ms at 20 - 30%, you can let the sound spill into the next sound cycles that the ear is processing. It creates a subtle "beef" to the sound. You can obviously go a lot higher, but then it'll sound too echoey. You can use the same technique when applying reverb.

I use this a lot of times on live vocals that sound very lifeless, even with reverb or other effects applied, post compression.

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Interesting technique…will give it a try! –  Jay Jennings Apr 21 '10 at 16:37

My sound fixes usually make me feel newbier than usual, but I'll share anyway. My first magic bullet is iZotope Ozone set to "4 Band Master with Excitation and Widening" with a couple of adjustments. I'll also exaggerate the panning more, and depending on what I'm doing, I'll sometimes throw Lowender in there too (dbx 120 for the cool kids).

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Thanks, Matt. I'm not familiar with Ozone but have heard great things about it. –  Jay Jennings Apr 21 '10 at 16:37

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