When you think about the sound of a blockbuster trailer, you probably imagine all kinds of exciting, high-definition sounds. These detailed pieces of audio punctuate the action on screen, specifically crafted to grab your attention and make you want to see the rest of the movie. It may sound like complex sound design work for high-end studios, but anyone with a DAW and some imagination can have a go at making their own.
Richard Veenstra of award-winning sound design agency The Solos is here to give you some useful tips on creating swooshes, braaams, hits, and impacts which you can use for a video project, or even in your own music. The Solos’ music and sound design has been used in movie trailers like 1917, Captain Marvel, Black Panther and more.
It’s not easy to describe every single sound you might need in a movie trailer, but there are some core terms which every sound designer or movie trailer editor is familiar with.
Hits, impacts or booms are short sounds that happen suddenly — the initial blast of an explosion, the impact of an object hitting something or a hulking superhero making a heavy landing. Following these types of sounds, you frequently get some kind of tail. In most cases, this is a huge reverb that decreases in volume over time.
Risers are popular in trailers as a way of building up the excitement in a scene. These long, drawn out sounds often pitch up or down and modulate over time to add to the tension, and they’re often followed by a hit, or even a brief moment of silence to keep the audience in suspense.
For objects, vehicles or anything else that moves on screen, a whoosh (or swoosh) can help bring that movement to life. These kinds of sounds can be short or long, depending on what kind of movement they’re amplifying.
The braaam is a sound effect made popular by Hollywood soundtrack veteran Hans Zimmer. It’s a low-register brass sound you often see punctuating cuts between different shots in a trailer. It’s a big, ominous sound that tells you danger, and possibly excitement, is just around the corner.
Seeing as trailer and movie sound design is ideally experienced over a loud and detailed cinema sound system, low frequency sounds can add a lot of impact to a piece. From looming sub drones to extra bass layered underneath a seismic hit, there’s a lot of power in sub sounds if they’re deployed in the right way.
Now we know what kind of sounds you’ll find in trailers and movies, let's look at some techniques you can use to create these kinds of sounds.
Layer different sounds
Trailer and cinematic sounds are normally made up from different sound sources, layered together to make for the biggest booms or hits. A simple approach to make an impact sound is to start with a kick drum or taiko sample. Cut the high frequencies off and start building your sound up from bottom to top. Try using metal sounds or orchestral percussion for the high frequencies. Experiment with layering different low frequency sounds as well, but make sure you EQ every layer individually to avoid clashes.
This sound consists of five layers. First you hear all five layers individually. Layer one is a distorted kick, layer two a high percussive element, layer three is a processed cymbal, layer four is a sub and layer five is an atmospheric sound. After the individual layers you hear the whole sound, first without reverb, then with reverb.
Stretch and pitch
A very easy way to make interesting atmospheres or drones is to time stretch sound files you already have on your hard drive. This works best if the sample frequency of the source file is high, so that the sound quality withstands all the pitching and stretching. A recording with lots of high frequencies will also sound better than one with lots of sub frequencies if you pitch it down two or three octaves. If you’re using extreme stretch and pitch settings, make sure to use the Complex Pro warp setting in Live, and experiment with different formant and envelope settings. Stretching or pitching a complete track can result in some happy accidents as well. Isolate the most interesting parts and layer them with other elements.
First you hear an original violin recording, then a heavily stretched version of the sound.
Record your own samples
For the most unique results, you can record sounds yourself. It helps to have a dedicated recorder to achieve the highest possible quality, but a smartphone can yield good results if you’re layering the recording with good quality samples. If you record a lot of background noise, you should filter this out using a spectral denoiser. It's also wise to EQ the recording before layering it with other sounds, especially when there's wind or other low rumble in the background. Recording percussive instruments like cymbals works really well for source material too. Use different exciters such as rubber mallets for a broader sound palette, and then layer these recorded sounds as additional textures in your booms or impacts.
Example of a recorded sound: the opening of a fridge door. First you hear the raw recording, second the sound spectrally filtered, third the sound heavily processed and stretched. In the fourth example, you hear the processed sound layered on top of a simple impact with some additional reverb and EQ.
Use movement and effects
Reverb is the obvious effect for cinematic sounds. Applying it to hits, booms and impacts can make them sound huge. But there are other effects that can have a dramatic effect, too. Distortion is very effective on all kinds of sounds — just make sure you EQ and compress the file afterwards, because distortion will introduce a lot of overtones to your sound. For drones and atmospheres you can use filter modulation to apply movement. Add an Auto Filter to a track and automate small filter movements, and your drone will instantly sound more interesting. This also works well for risers; use pitch and filter automation to make a sound rise in frequency and pitch. Increasing the speed and intensity of a LFO at the same time also works well on risers.
First you hear the dry sound, then the sound with reverb and distortion applied. A filter sweep has been applied too, which makes the sound even more interesting for cinematic purposes. The third sound is a riser with pitch, LFO speed and intensity leading up to a climax.
Go wide and deep
It's important to use the full stereo field when making sounds for cinema. You want the subwoofers to rattle when seeing a trailer or movie action scene, so make sure you are using the full frequency spectrum when designing a boom, hit or impact. Don’t forget to use panning when placing your different layers. If you can’t get an extreme stereo effect by using panning alone, you can use the Wide Stereo preset from the Utility device in Live. Lastly, do not forget to compress individual elements and limit the overall mix of your completed sound.
First you hear the sound without final processing. The second one goes through a stereo widener plugin and has the low frequencies boosted. Final mastering and limiting have also been applied.
It’s actually relatively easy to make the feted ‘braaam’ sound. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, you should start with a low brass sound. It's best to use an orchestral library for this. Record a long, loud and low note — the register between C1 and C2 works well. Stack multiple instances of brass sounds on top of each other, so if you started with a C1, add a C0 and a C2, for example. Make sure every layer has a slightly different sound, and try different intonations or playing techniques. You can also try adding synth brass tracks. Automate adding some distortion to one or multiple layers to create movement in the sound. If you have a MIDI keyboard or another controller, you can use a pitch wheel or knob to gradually pitch your brass layers down. Group all these tracks together and add some reverb, and you have your very own ‘braaam’.
A typical braaam sound. This sound consists of three layers, played back after each other. The mixed sound features automated distortion and reverb.