Hey folks,

You can skip the italicized section if you're in a hurry - that's background for the question.

I'm working on the second iteration of an art game. It's a cool project, you should check it out on my site (www.wraughk.com, navigate to Sound Work > Games > Deep Sea). The game works like this:

  • Player is blinded and wears a gas mask.

  • Gas mask monitors their breathing, and plays back bubbles as they breath out.-

  • Player must hunt down a seamonster by listening for it, but every exhalation/movement makes it harder to hear where the monster is.-

    In my first iteration, which you can hear on the site, I produced a world that sounded underwater according to hollywood's rules of what underwater sounds like. Bassy. Filtered. You get the picture. One of the problems that presented, predictably, is lack of audio resolution and distinct sound design. What's sound design limited to < 1k?!?! Sucky sound design.

    Inspired by a recent conversation on the filmsound.org listserv, I'm reworking the game to sound more like underwater actually sounds. High frequencies emphasized, not filtered, etc.

    I'd like to ask you folks what your tricks are for getting that underwater-quality to a sound? It'll help me out a lot on this project. I'll start with some cool tricks I've learned on this project:

1) Use EQ to emphasize the resonant frequency of a sound.

2) Sounds transmitted through solids are closer in quality to sounds transmitted through liquid than sounds transmitted through air. Therefore, contact mics are awesome.

Now your turn!


8 Answers 8


You're right in stating that there's a disconnect between what we hear in films and what things really sound like underwater, in our ears and through hydrophones. First-time hydrophone users often comment how bright and alive everything sounds, while many submarine films with exterior POV shots sound muffled and "cinematically aquatic." Rolling off HF's for the cinematically aquatic sound will not be very interesting for a prolonged user experience, as you seemed to have discovered already. The sounds you've got already are a nice start, IMO.

[begin riffing]

Might you want to have a transition in which the user initially is immersed in a cinematically aquatic soundscape initially, and then bring up the higher-frequency ambiences and hard sounds as gameplay begins? It's metaphorically like one's eyes adjusting to the dark, and not entirely realistic, but it can help to immerse the player by first using a film trope and then transitioning, even in just a few seconds, to a sonic palette that'll give you a lot more room to groove. Realism can be overrated compared to the sensations and emotions you want to convey.

I'm always excited to hear the crackle and sizzle of HF ambience underwater, from bubble clouds to fields of nearly-microscopic shrimp, which come and go. If you have a desire to have the sea life or primary threat have more of a sense of distance, maybe some super-deep-spacey reverb or delay might be nice - thinking of how whale calls sound underwater, that kind of thing.

It also depends on how rich you want the sonic space to be, versus how sparse, and how clearly you want the player focused on a single threat or generally unsure of what to make of various sounds in the soundscape.

  • 1
    That's a really good idea - transitioning from "movie" audio to more realistic underwater sound. And it shouldn't be too hard to implement. I think I'll try that! Already, the new HF sounds are so much richer! And they make the game easier to play too... I'll be writing an article about what I've learned making this game once it's done - some of which pertains to what you're saying. I think you'll find it interesting. Commented Oct 18, 2010 at 19:52
  • I really dig the transition idea as well. I'm always down for adding psychoacoustic tricks in productions. Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 15:34

A trick that I've learnt from Saving Private Ryan. Record the sound through a long PVC pipe. Add water sounds to taste.

But looking at newer technologies, you might be able to replace that with an impulse response rather than re-recording it.

  • COOL IDEA!!!! Awww man, I'm gettin' some PVC Pipe! Commented Oct 18, 2010 at 19:53
  • I can hereby report that the PVC pipe worked really nicely. It's not perfect, but layered with highly processed versions of the raw stuff it adds an edge of realism. Thanks for the idea! Commented Oct 20, 2010 at 19:31
  • No problem at all. Glad that it worked well for you.
    – Hector Lee
    Commented Oct 22, 2010 at 11:12

In response to point number 2 of your post ("sounds transmitted throug..."), you could make use of some of the actual true physics of sound in water. High frequencies actually travel much better through water than through air, but they do pass by quicker; and low frequency sounds tend to sound like they're coming from everywhere all at once. Some variation on those ideas could provide an interesting mechanic or two for the game your working on.

Damn, I should really start SCUBA diving again. lol

  • Really good point! And that makes a lot of sense now that I think about it. Commented Oct 18, 2010 at 19:55

I've vocoded water movement (eg doing sweeps with your arm in a swimming pool) with various sounds (eg explosions) and the results can be very interesting & useable....

  • Do you have audio samples of that I can listen to? That sounds interesting. Commented Oct 18, 2010 at 19:55
  • I'll find them & put up on soundcloud
    – user49
    Commented Mar 12, 2011 at 20:13
  • musicofsound.co.nz/blog/underwater
    – user49
    Commented Mar 12, 2011 at 21:07
  • Loving this idea... I'm def. going to have to try that out soon. Any favorite Vocoders you use? Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 9:20
  • as it says in the article I used Orange Vocoder... i dont have one now as thats never been updated by Avid, grrrr.....
    – user49
    Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 17:14

I just did a 100 whooshes session yesterday using only water elements for a project.

What I've found is that if you make good 96k recordings of various above ground water sources and varispeed them down to the 15-30% range you end up with and underwater vibe that retains the high end. Run them through a doppler and you get whooshes. I used streams, a very gently moving fountain and a small distant waterfall as my sources.

I'll post some up later on.

update: here's some of the output.


Source recordings were all done with a PCM D50. Sources included fountains, streams, small waterfalls and a car wash sprayer.

  • 1
    Nice! Can't wait to hear them. Commented Mar 12, 2011 at 19:13

I am using hydrophone in my pool for a FPS underwater game I am working on. Like everyone here has stated, the Cinematic version of the underwater sound is completely different than what it actually is.

If you are going for a connection to reality, then by all means switch gears. There are some very good reasons for this, especially considering that most of us aren't aware of the realistic sound to begin with.

A dark and muffled sound from a Submarine obviously makes sense though, design wise. It adds the sense that you are in the great deep ocean. Psychologically, we tend to associate something vast with a certain ominous low end power.

After some experiementing with my hydrophone, I found that I could just record in my booth, and effect the recording with some EQ and such to get the same result. With higher fidelity of course.

However, I do suggest taking a good size large cymbal, and striking it with something metal. Have the Cymbal half in / half out of the water. Record it with the hydrophone from various distances. It gives you some amazing and strange elements for scary aesthetics.


Interesting discussion... I have several queries though. Why is hydrophone considered as something that can capture underwater sounds the way human ears can hear sounds under water? I personally feel hydrophones can not do justice to how we hear sounds under water. The analogy would be the way camera can see clearly under water but our eyes can not... similar our ears do not hear as clearly as hydrophones capture sounds with all HFs and other details.

Personally I do not have any under water hearing experience, but I do believe that it will sound different (from hollywood sounds and hydrophone sounds) depending on some factors such as whether our ears are bare or are covered under scuba diving suit? the water pressure level on our ears/body... as we go deeper the pressure will increase and hence the way we hear sounds. the viscosity/salinity might affect the hearing.. the dead sea might sound different from the arabian sea. the state of the water... flowing or stagnant or waves.

I guess there is no straight answer to underwater sounds... there is more to it than we know of. I guess it is one of the most difficult "spaces" to emulate or physically model.

  • A good test/example is to draw a deep bath and snap your fingers and listen to the frequency range of that snap... then put your hand under water and listen to that same snap, then put your head under and snap your fingers under water. Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 9:06
  • Very good point on the depth/salinity aspects of it though. I'm sure that there is indeed a difference. Whether it's viable to rigorously measure it and to implement the results is another story though. Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 9:09

To be honest, sometimes realism isn't the best answer. The whole point is to tell the story effectively and sometimes that suspends the rules of physics and requires us to do things that feel and sound right as opposed to what is technically and scientifically correct.

Therefore, when dealing with semi-unfamiliar situations like space, being underwater, or time slowing down or speeding up and so on... which are not overtly common human experiences; I tend to design and mix for feel and not necessarily authenticity all the time.

ie: the perception of bullets can slow down in the matrix, so why should they still sound like real bullets, simply slowed down? I don't see why CGI experts get to have all the fun of suspending disbelief and we do not. We're here to tell a story, not archive scientific history (unless that is your project, then by all means, please do so).

I do try to strive for authenticity, but I'm sure we've all found at times that it just doesn't suit the purpose.

  • Completely agree with realism isn't the best answer...and entertainment media has got full liberty to heighten the experience by presenting the feel rather than the authenticity...and it works extremely well in some cases. But it would be interesting to hear realism in scientific documentaries about underwater explorations.
    – Rishi Dani
    Commented Mar 13, 2011 at 15:11

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