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Fireworks Sound Effects

21 10 2009

Fireworks are, without a doubt, an amazing and incredible sight, but how about the sound of fireworks. How can we recreate the sound of fireworks and what are some of the obstacles we might face when given the task of recreating firework sound effects.

The fire lights the wick and the tension builds. The time before the initial charge shoots into the air is like slow motion. First, there is the light, shortly followed by what can only be described as the most colorful sound imaginable.

What lays in this article not only encapsulates the creation of effective fireworks sound effects, but also the illustration of how powerful quality recordings can be for creating unique sound effects.

Recording Fireworks

The first stage of any kind of sound effect creation is the recording of a high quality sample. It is an incredibly important point to make, that recordings need to be the highest quality they can possibly be. Later, when you mix and add effects to these recordings, you will be seeking the greatest amount of audio information you can get your hands on. Take for example two pictures; one is a low light blur of a night scene, the other is a crisp, well lit picture with huge amounts of detail. Later, when you take information from one of the two pictures, it goes without saying that the second picture will give you more to play with, more to experiment with, and more to deliver with.

So here is the first part of sound effects creation; the recording. Recording technique follows the same principles, whether you are in a studio or outside in the rain. The most important factor in capturing a high quality recording is to get as close as you can to the sound source and to limit external noise as much as possible. You should always strive to find the best signal to noise ratio, that is, the lowest level of preamplifier gain for the sound source you are seeking.

In some cases, you cannot get close to a sound source, and in this case you may be better off to opt for a lower level gain recording to limit noise from the equipments preamplifier. Try to remember, that a sound effect may well be mixed with other sound sources in the final mix, and therefore your overall level does not always need to reach unity gain.

Always limit external noise as much as possible. Mixing techniques can always improve a well recorded sound’s perceived loudness, but noise in a recording can give you many troublesome problems, the most prominent being that noise reduction techniques can, and often do, alter the equalization and perception of your original recording.

To illustrate the differences in sound recordings, this article offers three sound examples. One is taken from a digital camera, the second from a MOTU Ultralite firewire sound interface, and the third from a portable hard-disk recorder; the M-Audio Microtrack II. It is immediate the quality difference between devices and microphones.

Recording Number One: Digital Camera Audio

The first audio example comes from a Canon Powershot A540 recording in movie mode. You can’t expect much from a digital camera microphone, combined with the format limitations of an 8bit, 11Khz sample rate recording. However, this sample has been included for comparison with the other recorded samples.

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It goes without saying that the sound lacks any decent representation of the original sound, but more importantly, leaves not much to work with when mixing or creating new sound effects. If you try to boost the frequency range of a sound that does not even exist in that range you’ll be boosting emptiness.

Recording Two: Takstar SGC568 Condenser Microphone and the MOTU Ultralite

The second audio example comes from a Takstar condenser microphone passing through a MOTU Ultralite recording interface. Immediately, it is noticeable the brightness and clarity in the mid-range, initially due to the wide response of capturing audio through a high quality preamplifier. Don’t be easily persuaded though, as the Takstar is missing some precious lower frequencies.

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Recording Three: Microtrack II

The third audio example comes from the Microtrack II, and even though the immediate picture is a much deeper, fuller sound, this is due to the microphone, which is a stereo lapel microphone. It has a much higher response to lower frequencies than the Takstar condenser and portrays the sound of fireworks in a different way to the previous recording.

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It is important to note, that different microphones capture sound in different ways, and as a sound engineer, it is your responsibility to know and understand the differences in a microphone’s ability to reproduce sound. In the most favorable case, you will have access to the best microphone you can, and it will capture the widest range of sound possible at the time.

Creating Sound Effects from Fireworks Samples

Moving on, we arrive at the next part of this article; taking sound recordings and using sound editing techniques to create new sound effects. Here is a sample that we will use to create a new sound effect. The sample was taken from the second sound recording and is very short in duration.

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By adding a basic reverb effect, some slight pitch shifting and time stretching, and multiband compression, the sample takes a whole new light.

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This is simply an example, and could have taken any direction; it could have become a sharp, fast drum sample or a high-pitched screech. This sample simply illustrates that by experimenting with a few basic sound editing techniques, new samples can be quickly and easily created.

By taking this second sample and then affecting it with even more time stretching and pitch shifting, a completely new sample has been created.

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Time shifting and pitch shifting are powerful sound editing techniques to use and should always be experimented with in the fullest. There are two important factors to pay attention to however, and they are unwanted pitch movement (when time stretching) and ‘flanging’ discoloration (both evident in time stretching and pitch shifting). Flanging, in the majority of cases is unwanted, unless of course you are seeking that effect, as it completely changes the sound from its original form.

It seems that when time stretching and pitch shifting, parameters need to be adjusted on a case by case basis, and that a large amount of tweaking is needed in all cases. Apply and undo with full confidence in experimentation, until you have arrived at the sound you are happy with for the task at hand.

Finding Sound Effects

It can be hard to find well recorded samples, to be used for manipulating and creating new sound effects, if you don’t know where to look. However, with the great expanse of the Internet, searches are more powerful and it becomes much easier to find samples. If you are looking online for sound effects, try to get the highest quality you can as this will make a huge difference to your final creations. You might have amazing icing for your cake, but if the cake is old and stale inside then it won’t take long before people find out!

Spencer Sternberg has fireworks sound effects available on Istock.

Final Thoughts

“Was I reading about fireworks, or about making sound effects?” you may be asking. The answer is of course, both. This article illustrates the importance of good quality recordings and how they improve the practice of making sound effects. Like all kinds of audio recording, having the microphone as close to the source as possible with the lowest level of external noise, is your primary goal. This allows your original recording to either be used as is, or also gives you powerful samples to work with in sound editing.


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