3 Key Audio Special Effects for Your Film

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Phoneizing Effect, Reversing Audio, and Reverb

by Bryant Falk

When painting a picture you normally take stock of all the tools at your disposal. Brushes, palette knives, and canvas, etc. As with painting, there are many audio sound effects tools available for use in your film. Like a painter, be careful not to use too much of one effect or another, or your project can become unbalanced.

The first trick of the trade is called phoneizing. This is a process of taking perfectly good audio and making it small and crunchy like it’s coming from the phone. This effect is placed in a subcategory of EQ, (short for equalizing). When working on the audio for the film “Blur,” I have an extensive phone scene which is key to the picture. I create a back and forth effect of characters’ voices sounding like they are “on the phone” one moment, then you hear clean audio the next moment. This effect can be used in your film when a character is talking on the phone or on a transistor radio.

There are also other applications where phoneizing comes in handy. Let’s dive into a fictional detective movie where our character has just uncovered a clue to a missing person’s case. He kneels down to pick up a hairclip when he hears this small “phoneized” girl screaming for help. He turns his head and spots a drain pipe. Now we change channels to a comedy where our leading character loses his “mojo, moxie, tough guy persona”. Maybe to represent this loss we phoneize his dialogue till he gets it back!

There are many different ways to create a phoneized sound, and the effect can be subtly altered into many different permutations. The girl screaming for help through drain may also have a slight reverb mixed in to create distance. Usually some kind of equalizer is used to create the correct tonal quality for the scene you are working on. Another effect is the reverse. Simply put, reverse the playback of the audio in a scene. This effect can be used, for example, in a horror film or used to create a demonic sound. This is also a way to create or show confusion in a character’s mind. While working on the “Blur” movie I experiment extensively with the drunk character by having his internal dialogue backwards and far away.

The reverse when sped up is a way to show time turning backwards in a story or scene. People associate this high pitched reverse with time travel from the earliest TV shows and films. The pitch or speed of the reverse and the way it is EQ’d decides whether it is humorous or not.

Let’s jump into another scene. A car crashes on an empty urban street, two cars are burning, and one man stumbles out of the wreck. We push into his eye and start rewinding the accident. To maintain the seriousness of the moment we can roll off the high end, (EQ out all the high frequencies) and push up the bass frequencies. This tends to bring out a heart beat energy, serious and deep. Push the rewind back even further in the same scene to where our survivor is back in his office cracking jokes with co-workers at the water cooler. On this second rewind as we are heading into a lighter moment we can return that high frequency and start pulling down some of the bass.

Keep in mind when creating a reverse effect, location sound may not be the perfect audio to start with. Some audio sounds the same backwards and forwards like noise from a fan or an A/C unit. It might be better to record your actors in the studio talking for an “office sound” and work with that in reverse. Add a few backwards phone rings, some coffee sip sounds, and typing against a computer keyboard. This is another effective reverse sound that can either be creepy or humorous depending on your necessity.

A third effect and one of the most powerful is reverb. Reverb simply put is the echo of a sound repeating so close in time to the source that you can’t hear it definitively. Just like yelling, “Hello!” in the Grand Canyon is the classic example of echo or delay, and singing in a large old church is a classic example of reverb.

On the “Blur” project, reverb was used extensively to recreate the alleyway sound for the actors. During shooting, the police officer’s audio was overloaded on mic and had to be re-recorded through ADR. He was about as far from an alley as you can be when we he was re-recorded so we had to create that alley sound with reverb. Reverb is essential in giving the listener a sense of space. Try blindfolding yourself in your house sometime, and talk in loud short phrases like, “Hello… The time is… Today is my birthday!” Listen carefully to the reverb or “the color of the room”. You will be amazed at how quickly you can delineate the kitchen verses the living room, and the bedroom verses the bathroom. All of these spaces have their own reverb due to the materials and shapes in the rooms.

So let’s quickly look at the three effects we talked about:

• Phoneizing Effect (this includes EQ)
• Reversing Audio
• Reverb

These three audio special effects are the beginning of many tools available in our arsenal. Keeping an eye on the alternative creative uses of these effects in helping to tell your story is the key in applying them successfully. But be cautious. As technology has allowed the easy and instant application of these effects and many more, this does not mean they are all effective in your film. Always keep the story your focus, and what your audience will hear a priority.

Bryant Falk has been a producer and engineer for over 12 years working with such clients as The Ricki Lake Show, Coca-Cola, Sports Illustrated, Valley National Bank, and MTV’s The Shop. His company Abacus Audio (www.abacus.nyc) handles many aspects of the audio production field from creative and production to mixing and final output.

Pictured above: Director Kevin Hall oversees the final audio mix at Sound One.