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Tuesday, 02 November 2010 17:20

Tools for Sound Design

Written by  David Hurd
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No matter what types of projects you produce, audio plays a big part in the overall impact that your content will have on viewers: Clean dialogue lets viewers hear what’s being said, a good soundtrack helps to control the mood of the piece, and sound FX can sell the visual images that you’ve shot so carefully. Here are some tools that I found helpful in creating my own sound design toolbox.

Getting Set Up

To get started, you’ll need a couple of things. Number one is a nonlinear editor in which to composite all of your various audio tracks. The most popular is Avid Pro Tools software, which is pretty much the standard of the industry. It will allow you to interact with other Pro Tools users –– and that’s very handy when you’re working on your project in other people’s facilities. Pro Tools is also great if you’re a musician and want to record your original tracks. If you lack a large budget, you can start out with Pro Tools M-Powered 8 and a small M-Audio interface, and then move up to a Pro Tools HD system when you get more work.

Sound design isn’t exactly easy, so to beat the learning curve I went to and used their Pro Tools tutorials on sound design. It’s a really quick and inexpensive way to get started, and you can learn at home at your own pace. The other thing that you’ll need is a set of audio reference monitors to accurately hear your mix. Headphones lie, and there is nothing worse that spending days on a mix only to later find that your mix sounds bad everywhere outside your studio.

You’ll want to get a set of bi-amped studio monitors for several reasons. Hi-fi speakers add bass and high end that make your CDs sound good, but they don’t work well for mixing. Also, by having built-in amps for the speakers, you’ll avoid all of the tonal problems that can be caused by using external amps to power your monitors. I’ve been using the same pair of Genelec 1029A monitors for over 10 years now. They are utterly transparent and have never given me any problems. The best part is that my mix sounds the same when I watch a broadcast of one of my shows on TV.

To set your small “near-field” monitors correctly, you’ll need to create an equal-sided triangle between the two speakers and your head. This wasn’t possible on my small desk, so I used a Monitors in Motion extended Copperhead dual-arm audio stand, which was made to my specs to correct the problem. (The design has been placed in their product line, so you can get one too.) Now my two monitors hang over my desk instead of taking up desk space. They’re mounted about 40 inches apart and are both aimed down at my head, which is also 40 inches from each monitor. This configuration allows me to listen to my mix in the “sweet spot” and properly mix my tracks in Pro Tools, knowing that they’ll sound good when played back in other venues.


Many times dialogue isn’t enough and you’ll be in need of a soundtrack. If you’re a musician, you can use Pro Tools to record and edit your own soundtrack. But for most of us, using a premade music sound library is both easier and faster.

There are a lot of music sound libraries out there that will charge you every time you use them. The good news: They’re not used as much as royalty-free libraries and they’re good for national clients who can afford them. The bad news: The tracks are fixed in length and you’ll have to fade them in and out to match the length of your video clip.

I use Sonicfire Pro 5 from SmartSound. You can bring in a video clip of your project, select a style of music, and Sonicfire Pro will automatically cut the music to fit, adding both an intro and outro. You can also control which instruments will play, change the feel of the song, and add hit points to highlight the action. In 10 years of product reviewing, there is no other music software that I have ever found that delivers the speed and quality of Sonicfire Pro 5.

Now that we have the soundtrack music, let’s move on to sound FX.

Sound FX

If you want to gather your own sound FX for a special project, the Zoom H4n is a very handy tool to have around. This device has a built-in stereo mic, as well as two ¼-inch XLR inputs with phantom power. It also has compression to avoid distortion when recording in loud environments, and it can even record four channels of digital audio at once, making it an inexpensive recorder for use with your DSLR camera or mixer.

For most projects, it’s much easier to use sound FX libraries that have already been recorded by others, and just add in any special FX that aren’t available elsewhere. On the inexpensive end of the scale is the Digital Juice Sound FX Library, offering 50,000 sound files that work well for what they cost.

The Sound Ideas Sound FX Library is on the other end of the scale. With about 125,000 sound files, this library has enough depth to handle professional sound design for films. For example, let’s say that you can’t afford to fly to Paris for the train station shot. Simply find an exterior stock shot of a train station and use a local wall that looks similar for the background of your footage. When you’re finished, your viewer will see a train station exterior, and by adding the French train-station ambience FX audio track, they’ll see your actors against an interior wall that must be Paris because they hear the trains and French announcements. This works –– and you just saved $15,000 and a week of your life and paid for the entire library. If you want to purchase just a few of the tracks, they’re available at

I tried out the Premiere Edition Collection and new releases from the Hollywood Edge Sound Effects Library. The guys at Hollywood Edge are sound designers that work in the film industry. They’ve gathered and created thousands of sound FX for the movies they worked on over the years, and they’ve decided to offer their sound files for others to use. If you watch a lot of TV shows and movies, you’ll recognize some of their outstanding sound FX. I also tried out the Revolver Series from Blastwave FX. The cool swishes and drones are very usable for commercials, films and anywhere you want to add accents.

Databases for Sound FX Libraries

Soundminer Pro is a great tool for storing and auditioning your sound files. Most modern sound libraries contain metadata used for sorting different sound files that will load easily into Soundminer Pro. I have about 150,000 sound files, so if I want to find only bird sounds, I’ll type it in the search box and Soundminer Pro will make a list of bird sounds. I can click on the listed sound files to listen to them, and when I find something I like, I’ll just hit the “Spot to DAW” button and a copy of the sound file is transferred over to Pro Tools. This workflow saves hours of hunting for the proper files, making sound design a lot more fun. Some sound files can also be pitch-shifted in Soundminer, so when you find a pitch that sounds right, it’s saved when you send it over to Pro Tools. There are also controls to adjust the volume, loop the track, or sum a stereo track to mono.

Sound Ideas MetaDigger is a free database program that’s downloadable from the company’s website. It has the ability to let you randomly trigger several sound files at once. Let’s say that you want to add an audience track to a concert to add some excitement. You can take the list of applause sound files and click on them at different times (and in any order) to get an idea of how they’ll blend together in different ways.

When it comes time to work with two tracks at a time, Peak Pro 6 from BIAS can help a lot. Peak Pro 6 is a two-channel editor, like Sony’s Sound Forge or Steinberg’s WaveLab, and it allows you to have superb control over a stereo track. You can cache in RAM for ultrafast RAM-based editing. The Perpetual Looper DSP ensures perfect “beat-free” sustained loops on monophonic sources, which is great for creating instrument sample libraries. The Voiceover Ducking DSP dynamically lowers the music level during voiceover, which can save you a lot of time. Additionally, you can change pitch and duration, as well as mix, convolve, vocode, modulate and multiply virtual instruments, audio effects and live input for creative sound design.

BIAS also has some rockin’ plug-ins: BIAS Freq-4 is a four-band paragraphic EQ; BIAS Sqweez-5 is a multiband compressor/limiter/expander; and BIAS Vbox is a plug-in routing matrix. BIAS SoundSoap2 cleans up noisy audio like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and the interface lets you see the amount of noise as you make changes, making it easier to get it just right. There are also 32 VST effects, like delay, limiter, vocoder, de-ess, tone generator and more, from Maxim Digital Audio.

With clean dialogue, a good soundtrack and sound FX in all the right places, sound design really adds production value to whatever project you’re creating. And, as with any job, having the right tools makes getting professional results a lot easier –– and these tools really rock.

David’s review system consists of an 8-core Mac Pro, AJA KONA 3, NVIDIA FX 4800 card, ATTO SAS controller connected to 16 15K RPM SAS drives in two Ci Design RAID cases, a Logic keyboard and Wacom Intuos tablet. For audio: Mackie 1402VLZ mixer and M-Audio Solo. For monitoring: EIZO 24-inch computer monitor, TVLogic 17-inch broadcast monitor and Genelec audio monitors, all on Monitors in Motion stands. More of David Hurd’s reviews can be seen at

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