Having been set a task of creating mood specific sounds relating to emotional impulses and responses (I'm currently working on a project requiring a sound for love, among other feelings), I was wondering what everyone's approach/ideas/thoughts were on the process of creating fx and designs for subjective abstract feelings and emotions?

Naturally, the blueprint for such sounds are usually laid by the director but as creative editors we, of course, have a large say in making something so deeply personal accessible to all whilst still relating to individualism.

I'm not particularly looking for advice on creating a sound for love just interested to hear anyone's experiences in creating sounds for emotions we often struggle to describe with words, let alone represent with sound.

Any other difficult individual sound tasks you've been asked to deliver, opinions on uses in film, or just chipping in with your two cents all are welcome.


3 Answers 3


I agree with @MixingManiac's advice and analogies. Good stuff.

to expand on his advice a bit... it's not necessarily the harmonic or frequency content of the material as much as it is repetition and leitmotif via sound design. "Subconscious" sounds and not "literal" sounds are likely the way to go in your situation. It does indeed sound like you're about to have a lot of fun and freedom to experiment. I'd definitely take advantage of that type of situation as much as possible. If the directors work is quality then it'll likely end up being a really good demo/showpiece.

My experience example would be a horror film I worked on where I decided upon several core source material sounds and a couple specific processing techniques to use as the basis and representation for the presence of all of the "evil" in the movie (mostly because it was a ghostly presence as opposed to a specific entity). Limiting my sound sources allowed me to focus on very specific things without having to waste time digging through stock libraries. I got to make all my own field recordings and make it 100% original. I was then able to focus more on the process and application over how it was necessarily going to be perceived. In effect, I was creating and forcing the way it was to be perceived. If you want an example you can hear, then you can check out the clip below.

Here's some info on the sound sources and techniques: In this case, all of the sounds started with field recordings I made of my daughter laughing and talking as a happy 2.5yr old does, prepared and tortured violin and piano (typically using a very jagged toothed metal file), a bunch of creaking doors and a couple other random things. I then recorded them to a Studer 2" analog tape machine at 30ips and recorded them back into Pro Tools at 15 and 7.5ips to get a more natural timestretching and pitch shift. I then left some of the sounds as is regular speed with no further DSP wankery, maybe all it required was just good placement, trimming, fades or reversing. Some was more extensive going through DSP FX chains that were 10 plug-ins deep or maybe some very extreme spectral based time stretching (or a combination of both). Another example in there is that I used violin plucks/pitch harmonics drenched in reverb for the blood droplets. Some of the door creeks are used as is with no processing, that was how I recorded them. Or how I used the file scraping on piano string recordings to represent the abrasiveness of the concrete or the grinding teeth. The opening sound is a single word from my daughter put through extreme spectral timestretching (which I use a lot). It almost takes on the characteristics of a ship hull resonating from tension.

What it mostly goes to show is that you don't necessarily have to use recordings of traditionally creepy things to use as creepy sounds (ie: literal or cliche). In the case of my daughter laughing and rambling on in the way a 2yr old randomly does when they're happy it was just the opposite. It was now the context I used it in and the repetition that bred familiarity. So over the course of the film, once you start to hear these similar sounds happening you subconsciously started to associate them with the fact that some evil stuff was about to happen. As is very often the case, sometimes creepy and dissonant sounds can represent love better that lush warm synth pads or wind chimes. Mostly because it typically better represents the feeling of longing and depth better than the aforementioned cliche sounds. Sometimes it might require using those cliche sounds in a new way or context like I did with the creaking door sounds (which are admittedly a bit cliche for a horror film) and processing then using analog or spectral timestretching. The important part is that I just didn't use the door sounds for a physical door being shown on the screen. I used it as a tension sweetener.


A good Hollywood example would be the "Chi chi chi, ha ha ha" vocal sound effect from the Friday the 13th series. You hear that specific sound and you know what's up. Of course it'd be really silly if Jason went around making that sound with his mouth, thus it's a subconscious sound and informs the listener about the emotion they should be feeling through it's repetitive usage and it's selective placement. Unlike using Darth Vaders iconic leitmotif style breathing as an example, which is very well a sound that is supposedly actually happening due to a breathing apparatus in his suit and therefore not a subconscious sound that doesn't actually happen in real life (like Jason making funny breathing delay effects with his mouth).

Hope that helps!

I can't necessarily think of any other examples off the top of my head right this second and sorry for only using horror films as my reference (it's just that they're typically so damn good at stuff like this). I'm sure some other people will have some other examples of subconscious sound effects.

  • Some really original effective sound design. Nice work! Looks like a really fun production. I live for creepy sounds and telemetry samples. I love that you hand created the time stretching. This makes a really excellent use of time stretching without that metallic aliasing that comes from the overuse of time compression/expansion plugins. Feb 26, 2011 at 6:01
  • Thanks for the compliments! Yeah, I was given total freedom to be as crazy as possible so I definitely took advantage of it. I did indeed have a lot of fun with this one. That clip is just a stereo fold, but you should hear the surround mix some time. I really pushed the limits with that aspect as well. Mar 1, 2011 at 3:02

Any sound can evoke an emotion. You could look at it from the perspective of a sound + a mood = a sound that expresses a mood just like sound + image = the audiovisual tone.

  • Relative volume of sounds can evoke many emotions, too.
    – Utopia
    Feb 15, 2011 at 1:15
  • Not disagreeing - just saying seeing a guy pull out a gun and hearing gun foley or sfx makes me go, hey thats a loaded gun ready to be fired. Then coupled with epic hero music makes me go "this guy is good and he is gonna win!" And hearing dissonant evil music makes me go "oh snap, this guy is gonna cap you! RUN!"
    – C3Sound
    Feb 15, 2011 at 2:10
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a psycho, or put yourself in the shoes of someone who loves guns. Maybe it is at a gun range. Good and evil are all very subjective.
    – Chris
    Feb 15, 2011 at 5:33

One of the things I really try to consider as part of my sound design process is the use of sounds that express the prescence of emotion themselves, not just the literal scene and object oriented sounds within it. Although, I do believe all literal based sounds can and often should be created with the influence of a subjective emotion in mind as well. Think about how many foot steps on concrete you have heard in films. Some clearly convey the lonely defenseless victim and some describe the commanding detective or confident hero. Remember the "Unusal Suspects" scene at the end of the film when Verbal changes the pacing, weight and drag of his footsteps after leaving the police station? It was clear in those footsteps alone that he had just changed personas from a crippled desperate con man to a confident slick mastermind. And yet, they are still just more footsteps.

At times, a less sonically leading approach is specified or desirable, which can also be a subjective choice. But I recommend always taking a look at the story and opening up your mind to the potential of not only adding literal but also any emotionally evocative sound design elements that you can incorporate in a non object oriented manner. Some of the pieces I am most proud of are effective because they are able to reference an emotion quickly with the help of a reoccurring subjective sonic element that essentially embodes "fear" or "delerium" for that particular narrative.

I would start with "who's eyes" the story is being seen from. How would he personally define these emotions? You could also use cultural, geographical, and generational cues for inspiration and style. You can have your subjective ambience elements reflect a force that is outside of the main POV. For example, you could use them to play the force of the world against the struggling protagonist.

The possibilities are really endless. And especially with a director that is specifically looking to hear these types of sounds incorporated into his story, it sounds like you are about to have a lot of fun.

I would love to hear what you come up with.

  • @MixingManiac - Good call on the Usual Suspects scene as an analogy. I've always really loved that scene for the exact reason you mentioned. Feb 15, 2011 at 19:44

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