Tips from the past: Noise

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The art of noise

The modern film composers live in an era where not only they have to write great music but (most of the times) it also has to sound convincingly realistic, if not “human”. To fight the digital coldness we can look back at the past and bring in our scores the elements that made yesterday’s pieces so successful. Among them there is one element that stands out: noise. If used with moderation noise can be your best friend in balancing together the sound of your virtual instruments and create a track that sounds as recorded with a real orchestra (or band).

Different ways

You can use different kinds of noise at your advantage when trying to create a convincing mock-up. Let’s talk a little bit about the most effective ones and how to easily implement them in your templates:

Room tone

Even the quietest recording stage has a unique noise, or room tone. Adding this very subtle element can give your piece a boost in realism. You can simply add an audio track with a recording studio room tone in your mix, or use a virtual instrument and “play” the room tone along with the other instruments. The guys at Cinesamples made the very useful Sony Room Tone available for free. Alternatively, if you have 50 dollars to spare and are looking for an ever-changing sound get the experimental Room Tone Generator.

Chairs

One big component of just about any film score is the squeaking sound of chairs. As much as you try to hide them with advanced sonic manipulation the occasional squeak finds its way underneath the mix. Even if almost imperceptible, this sound tells our brains that real humans are playing the music we hear. This must be what the guys at Spitfire Audio have thought when they decided to add a very subtle set of chair sounds to their orchestral samples. Like the real thing they can be clearly heard only when a solo passage is taking place and the volume is considerably high. If the Spitfire libraries are not your cup of tea you can always head over FreeSound, download a bunch of squeaking chair sounds and manually add them to your track.

Breath

There is a considerable number of plug-ins that aim at getting rid of the sound of breaths from your mixes, but sometimes that exact sound can be very helpful. (Barely) hearing a breath before a flute line adds realism to the performance and subconsciously makes our brains less suspicious. A large number of orchestral libraries (including the wind and brass libraries from Spitfire) have breaths sounds built-in. Alternatively, as for the above paragraph, you can add your own breath noises to the performance.

Instrument-specific noise

Some instruments produce peculiar noises when played. When playing piano, for instance, you can hear noises coming from the keys, strings and pedals. Depending on how a bow is used, strings can produce a plethora of different noises along their notes. Even struck instruments produce noises that are so unique to them to be part of what we recognise to be their voice. Accordingly, virtual instruments often incorporate such noises. And the best part is that (in most cases) you can easily adjust the noise level from the vst GUI. Like in the very extensive “pedal noise” settings area on the Production Grand piano library.

Sound storage medium noise

Some sound storage mediums produced very peculiar noises along with the music that they carried. In some cases those noises helped them become legendary and stay relevant even after new and better technology was introduced on the market. Vinyl records with their familiar crackles and magnetic tape with its warm hiss are two notorious examples. Using storage medium noises can be a good way to make your music sound warmer and more natural. You should carefully choose what sound works best in any given situation/context. My advice is to always keep the medium noise at the barely hearable level.

Extreme experimentation

If you feel your cue is missing something, experimenting with some extreme sound effects might yield unexpected, but yet satisfying results. When trying this think creatively. As probably did the producers of this 10 songs picked by BBC.

Now go make some noise

There you have it, now there’s a new colour in your palette. Time to go make some noise!


Also published on Medium.

Giovanni Rotondo

Giovanni Rotondo is an experienced film and television composer based in London. He has scored many award winning feature films, TV movies, documentaries and video games. More info here: giovannirotondo.com

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