Recently, a Zapsplat member requested a bullet sound effect and I thought I’d give creating some a try. In this article, I’ll explore what makes a good gun-fight for me from a sound perspective, the role bullets play and my influences when trying to create my own bullet sounds. Then I’ll go through how I created the bullet wiz sound effects you can find on the site, including details of my process – the source material and plugins I used etc.
Growing up with Guns
There were two categories of sound design that really drew me to the art as a child. The first was the futuristic sound of children’s cartoons such as Defenders of the Earth and Thundercats, as well as the iconic sound of classic Doctor Who. Sometimes I would concentrate more on the sound effects than the program because I found them so fascinating. The second, when I was a little older, was the sound design that went into gun-fights.
The first examples to really catch my attention as a child were the gun battles in the 1968 movie, Thunderbird 6. While hardly cinematic by today’s standards, they had just the right amount of power and intricacy, replete as they were with ricochets galore, to capture the imagination of a child hungry for action adventure.
This hunger wasn’t satisfied by all the radio plays and audio dramas I devoured at that time. While they were excellent and I would still listen to many of them today, they lacked the nail-biting pace and immersive sound design that I was looking for without really knowing I was looking for it, which I caught a glimpse of in the Thunderbird films. I was thrilled therefore when director Derk Maggs realised a series of audio dramas featuring characters from Marvel and DC Comics which, as far as my experience went anyway, took the quality of sound design for radio to a whole different level – more gun Foley, oodles of ricochets and whizz-bys, which, crucially, made excellent use of the stereo field to make you feel like you were really there. I listened to
them over and over again and grew a desire to create such intricate sequences that would transport the listener and really elevate the tension of a production.
So What Makes a Good Gun-fight?
The key, I think, to a sonically exciting gun battle therefore, is intricacy. It’s true that the first sound you probably think of when
imagining a gun-fight is the “BANG” of a gun-shot or the vicious chatter of a machine-gun, but that’s true in the same way that it’s true to say that when thinking about drawing a person you might think of the arms, legs, head and body first. The stick figure that would result if you simply left a drawing of a person after drawing those first thoughts would no more be engaging art than would a battle scene, especially a prolonged one, that only focused on the sound of the shots. Good sound design brings in all the tiny little details that go way beyond first thoughts. It’s significant I think that many children armed with imaginary contemporary weapons will run around shouting “peeou, peeou, peeou”rather than “bang, bang, bang”. This “peeou, peeou, peeou” sound
gives voice to another character in the scene in addition to the voice of the gun itself – to the bullet.
Bullets as Characters
Battle sequences are basically conversations, very aggressive conversations. The more sound that is included, the more detail of the conversation we provide – the ratcheting tension of a cocking weapon or a safety catch, the explosive irrevocably of a gun-shot, which itself can be divided into layers and aspects so that the sound designer can achieve just the right characterization, and finally the journey and interactions of the bullet. The fact is that, to misquote a hackneyed catchphrase, “guns don’t kill people, bullets do”. Without including what the bullet has to say in our “conversation” we lose a lot of valuable detail, perspective and emotional impact; in short, we hear all this power hurled but don’t hear the effect it has.
Most gun-fights are between a small number of antagonists. A long sequence simply containing bangs from a small number of weapons, even if it contained subtle variation to avoid the shots sounding canned, would grow boring much more quickly without the extra colour provided by the rest of the elements in the scene that can make sound. A gun-shot, though a very cool sound, is quite a general sound. You can’t tell, just by the sound, who the target is. The sounds bullets make make it personal, whether it’s the clang as they hit metal, the shattering of glass, the wet thunk of a flesh impact, the patter of concrete chips or whizzes and ricochets.
Using the stereo field and perspective, wizzes and ricochets sell the chaos and unpredictable danger of a gun-fight without allowing the sound design actually to become chaotic. Every bullet whizz you hear from a character’s point of view represents a very close shave and highlights the absolute danger he or she is in.
Whizzes and ricochets are very interesting sounds because they are largely based on tradition. Very few sound designers, thankfully, have actually heard a bullet wiz past their heads so they must either follow tradition or reinvent the sound of a bullet in motion to capture the emotion of the event in a way that gels with the other sounds around it. Even more interestingly, at least to me, is the fact that many ricochets and whizz-by sound comical by themselves. The same sound that might be used in a life or death situation might just as easily be used in a cartoon.
So, with my love of bullet sound effects, the opportunity to create a sniper bullet sound for someone was too good to pass up.
Getting down to it
Of course, the influences on my conception of how a gun should sound didn’t end with Derk Maggs’ work in the 90s and the first film I thought of when I read the sniper request was, perhaps predictably, Saving Private Ryan. The sniper scene in that film is one of its high-points and demonstrates another context in which bullet whizzes become important – when a gun-fight occurs at such a distance that the shots themselves take a back seat.
Sounds like these were what I had in mind as a benchmark to aim for when I began work.
Choosing Source Material Turned out to be a Round of the Telephone Game
For a long time, it remained a mystery to me how bullet sound effects were created. I assumed hopefully that the sounds were real bullets passing by microphones. I am now very glad of course that this isn’t the case as capturing such sounds would currently be beyond my means. It wasn’t until I read Ric Viers’ excellent 2010 book the Sound Effects Bible: How to Create and Record Hollywood Style Sound Effects that I got my answer although, interestingly, finding the passage to quote for this article shows that I forgot it. The passage says:
There are several ways to create the sound of a ricochet. You can record
the real thing on a gun range with a microphone near the target. You can
also simulate the whizzing sound by using a slingshot to shoot quarters,
screws, or large washers over the top of a microphone. A sound design
technique is to take race car pass-bys, filter out the engine with
equalization and process from there.
What I remembered it saying was that racing car engines could be pitched up and then processed from there so that’s what I resolved to do. There was just one problem. I didn’t have any racing car sounds I could use in that way so I decided to use standard traffic sounds instead. I live near a main road and so have collected a number of traffic recordings. Although they’re not nearly as ear-catching as guns and many other types of sound, I do enjoy capturing them because in every recording you always get a few unique-sounding cars and ones with particularly tonal, powerful sounding engines. I planned to take a segment with a tonal car or bike pass-by, pitch it up and go from there.
So far, not so good
So I was using less than ideal source material in a forgotten way. It shouldn’t come as a surprise therefore when simply pitching up the sound by a significant amount didn’t produce anything like the desired result. I wondered what to do and was starting to think that this particular sound design technique might be beyond me when…
Enter Waves Doppler
What I needed to do, I decided, was to greatly exaggerate the pass-by. It wasn’t enough that the spliced segment be greatly sped up, but the change in pitch must also b increased because, the greater the change in pitch of the sound a passing object makes, the greater its implied velocity. The whole concept of sounds changing pitch as they pass you is known as the Doppler Effect.
Usually, I like to produce my own pass-bys, simulating my own Doppler effects. I’ve created a number of pass bys by automating pitch, volume and panning, sometimes adding a touch of flanging for added realism or other effects as these examples show.
However, I almost instantly dismissed this idea because I wanted to create a number of variations using different source material and manually creating envelope points across three envelopes for multiple time selections in multiple configurations would be very time-consuming, especially when there was a much quicker solution – Waves Doppler.
Waves Doppler is a highly configurable plugin that creates doppler-like pitch changes in the audio it’s fed far more closely in accordance with the laws of physics than anyone could simply by ear. It also adjusts the gain and air damping appropriately. It doesn’t stop there however. It also allows you to create hyper-real pass-bys with an exaggerated sense of speed.
It basically works by treating the audio as if it were coming from an object moving along a track in front of you, the listener. You can set two-dimensional values such as designating how far away from you in terms of horizontal and vertical distance the object starts and ends its journey, how long it takes to traverse the track and how sharply the track curves. I’ve used it in the past and it is excellent for creating whooshes and really transforming sounds. It produces results that I can’t easily duplicate with automation, certainly not as quickly. It didn’t let me down. I was surprised just how great an improvement the use of one plugin caused.
Other than that I used very little processing for the 11 bullet whizzes I created. Sometimes I used eq to reduce the high end if it was too bright or the low end if there was an unrealistic amount of bass. I also used Zynaptiq Intensity in some cases to re-balance the sound and increase its perceived loudness and so increase its power. In one case, I used Zynaptiq Adaptiverb, not to add reverb, but to re-balance the sound in terms of harmonic versus harmonic content and to brighten the sound using its air boost, which is in effect, a harmonic exciter.
The following clip includes the original source material, which I had to edit to remove an engine cough, the same material in its pitched up form, then the result once first Doppler then Adaptiverb then intensity was added. There’s also a little volume automation at the top and tail of the sound so that it fades in and out smoothly.
The incoming sound of this particular bullet is achieved because the vehicle on which it is based accelerate as it passes and that acceleration is preserved because the Doppler effect hasn’t peaked yet. This gives the sound of its sense of approach. You could cut the tail off the sound and combine it with an impact to change it from a near miss to a hit.
As I continued to create whizzes, I was anxious to make sure I was on the right track. It’s easy to come to believe that a sound is fit for purpose in isolation, but there are two ways to check. The first is to put that sound into the context in wich it would be used, i.e. in this case, to create a shooting sequence and see if the wiz worked. The second is to use reference material, i.e. to listen to work that influences you, using it as a benchmark and see how well your material compares.
Since I was following a tradition of bullet wizzes that I had heard and admire, I opted for the second approach. I went back to Saving Private Ryan again, specifically the famous battle sequence that opens the film. I have never heard a more immersive sound designed battle. I was listening to check that the whizzes I was making conveyed the same type of emotion but didn’t resemble the sounds there too closely.
The Take Aways
My final significant influence when determining what good bullet whizzes sound like is the work of sound designer Charles Maynes. To my ears, his bullet whizzes sound a little different to all the others I’ve heard and have a greater sense of threat. You can hear a couple in this demo for his Signature series sound library, which is sold by Sound Ideas.
While I certainly feel that my bullet whizzes fall short of this final reference point, I am still satisfied with the whizzes I have produced. They are serviceable generic whizzes and that’s often all you need for a gun battle. Although including as much of what bullets have to add to the “conversation” is important, each bullet’s flight is, after all, usually only a bit-part. Not everyone can be a star and it’s the same with sound design in general and bullets in particular. Trying to make each sound the stand-out sound in a scene, especially when that scene might comprise thousands of elements, as in the battle scene for Saving Private Ryan, isn’t practical or desirable. You can’t have a foreground without a background.
This represents the start of another journey of growth in which I look forward to developing my own, distinct take on bullet activity synthesized from all the influences I have mentioned and more besides, plus my own experimentation. The most important thing to be reinforced for me by this experience is that there isn’t just one way to do things, which is the great thing about sound design as with so much else. You can still make great sounds even if you begin from a less than great starting point. The only place where you have to live up to your ideal is in the final result, not necessarily in the steps that get you there.
Ideally, I would have worked with very cleanly recorded racing cars with highly tonal, strident waspish engines and I would have followed the excellent formula in Ric Viers’ book accurately. Learning to make do with less than my ideal has been a very important lesson for me as I’ve progressed. There certainly would have been times when I might have dismissed the idea of making such sounds because I couldn’t get access to racing cars to record etc. Sticking to that overly restrictive model precludes the possibility of finding new ways to do things and developing your own techniques. Sometimes it’s all about just throwing caution to the winds and seeing what happens and this was certainly one of those times.