Let me try explain the sound, it's sounds to me like distortion and/or saturation. I have noticed this esthetic developing, it's come up in a few movies lately. I just watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it had a good example of this. The apes were smashing stuff but then they highlighted a few key ones by adding this distortion/saturation - super effective.

Am I dreaming or is it really becoming a signature sound of our times? Thoughts? Examples? Maybe the cinema's speakers are crackling?

Or have you noticed other techniques for evoking a loud sound.

11 Answers 11


I remember reading an interview with Ben Burt about working on a film/doco about Space Shuttle Launch and how no matter what he did the launch wasn't convincing until he added a distorted element. Will see if I can find where I read it....

  • I use it a lot on explosions, so I can see where Ben is coming from. Aug 15, 2011 at 21:19
  • +1 Distortion is the secret sauce, albeit when used sparingly and appropriately like with said shuttle launch or initial explosive blasts Aug 15, 2011 at 23:44
  • Burtt used the sound of wind distorting into a microphone held outside of a car window on the freeway. He talked about this last year at AES.
    – Justin P
    Aug 16, 2011 at 2:04

I have a theory about this. It goes back to the caveman days when the most everything thing (important, scary, useful, revered, &tc.) was fire.

When you distort something, what you're really doing, aside from destroying the waveform, is messing with its harmonic content. Depending on what kind of distortion you're using the harmonics that get added in can sound a lot like fire. In particular, if you use enough of it, it'll start to sound like a forest fire or a brush fire chasing you down a mountain. Now put yourself back in Neolithic times and imagine being in that situation. That's what our ape brains associate with that sound, uncontrolled and unrelentingly wild destructive POWER.

  • The more I think about this theory, the more sense it makes.. I want to believe it's the truth! Nice observation, man.
    – lucafusi
    Aug 25, 2011 at 16:11

I also remember reading about Walter Murch describing layering sounds (in a factory or something) and after a certain point it wasn't getting perceptually louder, and then he added an interior reverbant recording of someone shouting from a distance and suddenly it all felt TOO LOUD. Which speaks of making scale apparent - you can tell if someone is shouting, and if you struggle to understand them then that says a lot about the relative perceived level of the other sounds....

  • Contrast, contrast, contrast.
    – Utopia
    Aug 16, 2011 at 17:50

We have an instructor up here at VFS that dropped this tip on us earlier in the year, I think distortion is one of those psychoacoustic tricks that 'hints' at a larger sound as you mentioned. I feel like it's been around for a while, but maybe it's on track to become the Stutter Edit of 2012!

Seen it anywhere else? Only thing that comes to mind immediately is the bathroom scene in Punch Drunk Love, where it's used to aweeeeesome effect.


In The Dark Knight, there's a scene where the Joker bursts in on a party looking for Harvey Dent and then squares off against Rachel. As the camera spins around the both of them, we hear this string pull that doesn't seem to stop. It get modulated and sounds like a sine tone sometimes and siren at others. The tension is at its highest when this little gruff distortion is introduced. It's like the sound itself (if it were a reflection of Rachel's mental state) is barely holding it together and on the verge of cracking. Pretty damn awesome effect that acts as a precursor to Batman's entry.

  • That sounds awesome, gotta rewatch for this.
    – lucafusi
    Aug 16, 2011 at 1:23

The trend may be a reflection of what we have come to expect from common audio and video recordings. Take most any video on YouTube related to explosions and other loud sounds, and there is going to be distortion. Even though this is not how it sounds in the real world, it may be what we have come to expect. Same as what Tim brought up about Burt's rocket engines. Every official recording of a rocket launch that we have seen has that huge, chunky distortion sound. Trying to make it sound clean and "real" would be like replacing a cow's moo with a "quack"; it just wouldn't sound natural to our trained minds.


Distortion is a good way of suggesting danger. The extra complex harmonics created when you distort a sound create a displeasing sound which sounds threatening. The more complex the sound the more dangerous it sounds.

The most common technique for evoking a loud sound is to drop the general level just before the 'loud' sound so that it sounds louder by comparison.

Another technique is to artificially boost the sub bass, as well as 'flash' the surrounds. Think hearing fireworks echoing off buildings.


Perhaps it's also a crossover from the world of music production. Distortion/saturation is pretty widely used to get that sense of loudness, regardless of playback volume, in music these days.


One of the most interesting articles I have read recently is the link textinterview with Martin Andersen about the sounds for Limbo, I guess a lot of you guys have also seen it. From what I understand - he creates all his games sounds at their relative volume, then runs all his them through the same analogue gear with the same settings. This means the louder the designed sound is the more it distorts which means it is also perceived as louder still, and vice versa for quiet sounds. Great way of creating 'dynamic range'.


Hi Andrew!

I think it's a great way to make something appear louder.

I was assistant engineer on a rock album and I turned to tell the mixer that the level went into the red in Pro Tools while we were running off and he laughed and said "That's great! Extra harmonics!"

I think tastefully done distortion can add extra harmonics and appear louder to the listener when it wasn't before.

I also loved the interview with Greg P. Russell where he talked about Salt and that to have a movie volume at 10 just makes it sound like a wall of sound with no dynamics. But if you drop it down to about 6 or 7 for the majority and the really loud parts go to 10 or 11 even, that will create a much bigger impact and sound much louder than trying to have everything as loud as it could possibly be.


MTV uses it on al their programs to create more drama and impact. Or they just have bad sound guys :p

  • 1
    or bad sound girls
    – ChrisSound
    Aug 15, 2011 at 21:58

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