by Sonal D'Silva
A handy guide to sound effects terminology to help you select the best sounds for your project.
The world of sound effects has its own vocabulary which can be confusing if you’re just starting out. Need a “tense sound” for the climax of your horror trailer? You’re probably looking for a Riser. How about some background chatter to underscore a scene set in an office? You’ll find that in a Walla library. In order to find the right sound for a project, it helps to know exactly what you’re looking for. Here is a list of 10 key terms that will help improve your search for the right sound.
A whoosh is an effect that can be used to underscore movement of different kinds – a fist flying in a fight scene, a speed ramp in an adventure sports video, a stylized camera move in a fashion film… you get the idea. It is an essential effect that is incredibly versatile. Variations in speed, tone and texture generate whooshes that range from fast, ghostly, slow-spinning, rhythmic, noisy, and tense, just to name a few. Check out the Kinetic sound effects library, which contains an extensive selection of whooshes that would be perfect for your next project.
An impact is the sound of an object making contact with another object or a structure. A book falling onto a hardwood floor, a car crashing into a wall, a coffee mug shattering on kitchen tiles; it really is fun to go down the rabbit hole of how creative you can get with the sound of things colliding. Get started by exploring the Crashes & Impacts library to find the right hit, smash, or crash to craft your perfect sound design.
The most ubiquitous trailer sound of the past decade has been the Braam – a big, brassy, cinematic hit that conveys to the audience that they are about to witness something epic, grand, and exciting; something unlike anything they’ve seen before. The Colossal library features a selection of designed Braams, impacts, rumbles, and more epic trailer-ready sound effects to drop straight into your project.
"The most ubiquitous trailer sound of the past decade has been the Braam – a big, brassy, cinematic hit that conveys to the audience that they are about to witness something epic, grand, and exciting."
A pass by is the sound of an object passing by. A car, a spaceship, a bullet, a potted plant thrown at a character’s head… these can all be highlighted in your mix with a pass by effect to enhance the movement of the object on-screen. The Pass Bys library is the ultimate place to start if you’re looking for high-quality vehicle pass bys in particular - created by Oscar®-winner Richard King (Dunkirk, Inception).
Ambience sound effects help set the tone for the atmosphere of a space. The Odyssey Ambiences library contains realistic ambience recordings featuring cities, nature, and indoor & outdoor spaces. For stylistic, designed ambiences like sci-fi swells, horror drones, and cosmic hums, check out the Liminal Void and Cinematic Dread libraries. You can also explore musical ambiences in the Ambient Moods collection, which combines music and sound design to evoke a variety of moods. If you can imagine an atmosphere, there’s an ambience sound effect out there to help you create it.
A sound that steadily rises in pitch and ratchets up the tension – that’s a riser, and you’ve definitely felt its effects in the last horror film you watched. They’re also common during a particularly tense moment in a thriller, or in movie trailers just before the superhero flies in to save the day. The Interference library is packed with risers ideal for use in your next video game, trailer, or fiction project.
A drop brings the action to a dead stop – a deliberate pause emphasized using a sound effect. It releases tension and serves as a moment for the viewer to soak it all in. You can control how long you want to stretch out the transition by choosing a drop with a long tail or one whose sound decays quickly. Explore the Dark Matter library to find the best drop for your trailer sound design.
"A 'pass by' is the sound of an object passing by. A car, a spaceship, a bullet, a potted plant thrown at a character’s head… these can all be highlighted in your mix with a pass by effect to enhance the movement of the object on-screen."
This term is very specific – and it’s likely that if you’re not from the sound design world you haven’t come across it before, but you definitely know what it sounds like. Walla is the murmur of a crowd, the sound of people going about their lives while remaining firmly in the background. It adds character to the atmosphere, so much so that you cannot interchange walla on a whim and expect the scene to feel authentic. For example, walla of a street in Morocco would feel totally out of place if it were used in a show set in Sweden. Even though you can’t quite discern the language being spoken, the cadence of the speech and the energy of the chatter are what make one walla different from another and shape its distinctive characteristics. The buzz of voices, movement, distant traffic, laughter, sounds of cutlery, the hum of office equipment, footsteps, air conditioners, piped music, room tone – these are just some of the elements that go into the making of walla sound effects, as you will hear in this Sonomar Collection: Crowds library.
"The sound of a malfunction, but make it stylish" is a glitch in a nutshell. If it jitters, scratches, skips or otherwise moves erratically, it counts as a glitch. This effect can be used to great effect as a transition, to enhance a logo reveal, or as part of the soundscape of a sci-fi project, to give you a few examples. Get started with some great glitches from the Interference library.
A great way to add texture and atmosphere to your project is to find the right drone to underscore the scene. Drones are a natural fit for when you need to generate suspense or horror; they also work well with scenes of exploration – think of the sound of game play when your character wanders around a new environment, taking in the sights and sounds. A drone can be slow and continuous; bright, with a sound that evolves; or it can be musical, if a tonal drone is what you’re looking for. It is a great sound effect upon which to build your sound design with other elements to complement the steady foundation that a drone provides. Check out the drones in the Sonomar Collection: Bass Machine library to supercharge your next project.
While this is in no way a comprehensive list of terms that you will come across in your sound effects exploration, we hope this serves as a good place to start in order to understand the vocabulary. Look out for Part 2 in the series for a continued deep dive into the language of sound design.
Sonal D'Silva is a freelance sound editor and designer with a decade of experience working with music, dialogue and sound design elements for video projects. She also composes and produces music and is an alumnus of the Berlinale Talent program and the Red Bull Music Academy.