Know Your Sounds

Best Practice Series

Know Your Sounds

What's in the File?

This Sound Effects Solution Center gives you everything you need to know about the importance of sound effects and how they are essential to any multimedia project. The main article in this Solution Center, Best Practices in Utilizing Sound Effects, provides important context for the entire topic.

We have already established that sound effects are an absolute necessity when creating any multimedia project. Now, does that mean that simply downloading the top five most popular sound clips from your favourite production media site is going to rocket your project to superstardom? Absolutely not. In fact, you’re better off having no sound at all than throwing in random sounds that don’t align with the project. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of choosing the right sounds for your project, as choosing the wrong sounds can significantly compromise your storytelling.

This article is going to highlight different types and formats of sound effects, and how to choose the right sounds for your project.

Sound Effect Formats

When choosing your sound effects, it’s important to know a little bit about audio formats to ensure that you get what you are looking for. There are a few key terms to consider when choosing your audio format; we’ll start by looking at general categories. All audio files fall under one of these three categories: Uncompressed; Lossless Compressed; and Lossy Compressed. Here’s a quick primer on each:

  • An Uncompressed file is exactly what it sounds like. You get the full file and don’t run the risk of anything being corrupted or lost. The downside here is that the actual size of the file can be quite large, so it will take up a lot of storage, take a long time to download, and consume a lot of bandwidth in the process. Large files also become more difficult to share online, as in addition to taking longer to upload and download, they may exceed file size limits within different apps and services.
  • A Lossless Compressed file is a large audio file that has been compressed for the purpose of sharing or downloading. A software application compressed the complete audio file in its entirety, leaving something much smaller in size and easier to share. Once you have the compressed file, that same software application will extract the information from the compressed version and recreate the original file. The compression ratio is typically 2:1 with these files, meaning there is no risk of data loss. The tradeoff for this convenience can be slightly reduced sound quality when the file is in its compressed form. Unlike lossy compressed files, lossless files can revert to their original form when uncompressed.
  • Lossy Compressed files have a greater compression ratio than lossless, which varies from file to file. In this instance, Large files are compressed down to substantially smaller sizes by actually removing information from the file and simplifying data. This, of course, leads to lower quality files - as well as an outright inability to revert to the original uncompressed form of the file at some future point in time. However, these files are easily shared and highly available. A popular example of a Lossy Compression file is an MP3.

There are lots of different file formats out there for you to choose from when it comes to production media. Knowing which category your audio file falls under is a quick way of knowing what you are going to get before you purchase or download. Here is a brief list of some of the most popular file formats, all of which are supported by either Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, or both:

  • MP3: By far the most popular audio format available. A lossy format playable on almost any device/program
  • WMA: Microsoft's lossy audio format, playable in Windows Media Player
  • WMA Lossless: Microsoft's lossless audio format, playable in Windows Media Player
  • WAV: The default uncompressed audio format on Windows, playable in most programs
  • AAC: Apple's lossy audio format, the format of music purchased in iTunes
  • ALAC: Apple's lossless audio format, playable in iTunes
  • AIFF: The default uncompressed audio format on Mac OS X
  • OGG: A lossy audio format developed to be an open-source alternative to MP3, playable in many open-source programs
  • FLAC: A popular open-source lossless audio format, playable in many open-source programs

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Finding the Right Sound Effect

So now lets talk about how to choose the best sound effects for your specific project.  The following exerpt was published on Premium Beat’s website. The article highlights three factors to consider when choosing your sound effects:

Accuracy is not the most important factor
This might sound odd, but it has long been a convention recognized by sound effects experts. For example, various firearms make vastly different noises, depending on the type of gun, the caliber, the direction it’s fired in and the type of ammunition being used. However, most members of the audience will be unaware of this. Use the sound effect that the average layperson will most associate with the action being shown or implied.

Sound effects communicate more than actions
They can be just as important as music in setting the mood for a particular scene. For example, consider how many tones can be conveyed by the noise of a shutting door. A soft “click” indicates that the person entering is intent on being stealth. This can induce a feeling of suspense. On the other hand, a loud slamming instantly creates tension in the viewer’s mind, as the person entering is expressing strongly negative emotions.

Sound effects obey the “less is more” principle, unless the intent is comic
A classic example of this is how the Three Stooges comedy team used loud and exaggerated sounds in their short films. This is wonderful if you’re producing slapstick comedy. If you’re trying to convey a serious tone, however, nothing will ruin it more than overindulgence in audio effects.

When it comes to choosing the right sound effect for your project, there is no tried and tested formula, and the above points are intended simply as guidelines. There are three key things that you have to know before you can choose sound effects, or anything else for that matter: Your brand, your culture, and your audience. Are you a serious organization whose audience is composed of high-level business professionals? Or is your organization a little more relaxed with a more flexible audience? The key to choosing the right sound is choosing something that aligns with your brand, your culture, and your audience.

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