Sound Effects: Radio's Problem Child

by John Pellegrini

Okay, I'm finally, for the first time, really gonna bitch about something, because if there's one thing I cannot tolerate, it's poorly used sound effects. You know the kind I mean. In script form, it looks something like this:

ANNOUNCER: Bob knocked on the door.
SFX: (door knock)
ANNOUNCER: Julie opens the door.
SFX: (door opens)
JULIE: Bob! I thought you were dead!
BOB: No. I was driving my car.
SFX: (car running)
BOB: I heard a shot.
SFX: (gun shot)

And so on. So what's wrong with this? Simple. The way most people would produce this spot is, you get a spoken line, then the sound effect, then the spoken line, then the sound effect. The result is something that sounds forced, and totally unnatural. In short, BORING!!!

These are the '90s! It is time that we get out of the prehistoric age of radio and start creating spots that are true to life. Look at the above script both in terms of performance and realistic illusion. Nobody in real life talks like that, and sound effects don't occur that way, either.

Sound continues all around us without interruption, without explanations, and without cue. Sound effects should never be used as sound effects because there are no sound effects in real life. There are only background noises, and they happen all the time. If you are using sound effects, always use them in ways that resemble natural occurrences. The special effect cue that you need should blend in naturally to the background of the scene.

Think of your production in terms of movie value. Notice that, in movies, no one ever calls attention to the sound effects the way they do on radio. The old thinking on this would be, "Well, listeners won't understand the use of the effect because they haven't got a visual image to relate to." If that's true, then why do we call what we do, "Theatre of the Mind?" Everyone has a visual image when they hear something. If you hear a sound effect, you immediately know what it is. You don't need to be told what a chain saw, or a blender, or a police siren sound means. Each is perfectly explanatory by itself. The people who truly believe in that old "listeners won't understand" routine are telling me more about their own incomprehensiveness than they are about their listeners.

We have a tendency to forget just how quiet our sound-proof rooms are. Real life is not quiet. Real life isn't sound-proof. Real life has noises going twenty-four hours a day. You need to get out of your recording studio and just mentally take note of how many different sounds you hear in all your different environments. What do you hear when you walk through a busy office? What do you hear out on the street? What do you hear in the park on the weekend at a softball game? If you want to re-create that in the studio, then you've got to make your environment a continuous thing because sound is a continuous thing, and not something you just turn on and off.

Sound effects should always be there. If you're doing something involving a scene at a department store, then the sound of the store should be audible through the entire spot, until it is obvious that you're no longer in the store. Likewise at an airport, in a restaurant, in an office, at the movies, at a nightclub, wherever. Sound effects that show up completely on cue are a tune-out factor because they don't sound "real." Your listeners will hear your spot that way. They perhaps won't be able to put a finger on why they didn't like the spot -- they may not have the correct terminology for the reasons -- but they won't relate because the spot didn't sound real. A fake sounding spot is perceived as a phony spot, and that means your message will be ignored.

The key phrase is "Natural Environment." It's your job to make the listener perceive that they are in the exact location being portrayed. Just like acting, sound effects must come off as naturally and realistically as possible. It's all part of your believability and credibility factor.

One of the most important things I learned while studying at Second City is, never think for one second that you know more than your audience. No matter what your subject, always remember that the majority of your audience knows more about it than you do. You must be as credible and believable as possible. Otherwise, the listener thinks you're condescending and pandering, and nobody likes having their intelligence insulted. Sound effects are all a part of your performance, just like the acting and the script writing. Sound effects should be used to enhance your credibility, not disrupt it. If you cannot find a way to bring in the effect you need in a believable way, then don't use it. You'll find when you start approaching sound from a more realistic and natural perspective, you won't need most of the sounds you thought you did.

Thankfully, most sound effects companies are making more realistic sounding effects. I've heard some samplers and demo disks that are as realistic and natural as possible. We need to take these great sounding effects and make sure that they are used as naturally as possible. The days of Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet are over. They were gone a long time ago. Just keep asking yourself, "How would it sound if I was actually there?" Make good use of your environment sounds, and the volume knob. If you hear it, it will happen.

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