Sound effects & where to find them

Years before I progressed to musical compostion/digital constuction of music/sound for stage productions I had to provide sound effects for productions. When I directed for the first (and only) time, during my senior year of high school, we had to have the required sound cues (for Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair). Doorbell. Gunshot. Glass breaking.

A side note on timing

If a sound effect and a performed action need to be synced or timed with precision, using a recorded sound may not be the best option. in Ruffian we actually used a starter pistol on stage, rather than try to time the gunshot precisely with a recording. The doorbell was, actually a doorbell, bought at a hardware store and wired up on a board, with a button that a stage hand would press offstage–this way the sound came from the right place as well. Like the gunshot, this was not a panned sound coming through the stage right speaker, but the real thing. But breaking glass? That had to occur in tandem with a fish bowl tipping over on a table, supposedly caused by the gunshot. A stagehand was to — at the sound of the gunshot — quickly pull out the fishing line taped to the bottom of the bowl. The sound operator was also using the onstage gunshot as his cue, to play the glass breaking sound. Tricky. ‘Tragedy’ struck when the tape didn’t hold, and the bowl only wobbled. (Though worse was when the dead man started coughing after his demise.) This kind of thing HAS to be rehearsed in technical rehearsals (tech), multiple times, even it it means buying more fishbowls or whatever. (FYI no fish were harmed). Sometimes the answer is not to show it–just let the audience hear it and imagine. If the director is agreeable, that may create the illusion more convincingly. It’s all an illusion, after all.


But where do you get the right breaking glass sound? Or what if you need a particular gunshot sound (machine gun, cannon, etc.)? Animal sounds? Some sound designers will have Foley setups, record the glass–record at a firing range or at a zoo even with a portable recorder. But often we don’t have the time, equipment, budget, or experience for this approach. So we hunt down existing sounds. Thankfully today we have the internet, but you many not find everything for free. A few places to start:

Find Sounds is great in that you can narrow the search by format and quality, and that you can preview the sounds right in the search results. I haven’t looked at much, but it has a community based, creative commons approach–interesting.

Soundsnap was a free community, but has gone commercial. It looks like there are still some free sounds though.

Absolute Sound Efects
and on and on. Google is your friend of course. And then it’s up to you to make use of them. We’ll talk about free software such as Audacity in another post.

Old School
Then there are other places to hunt for your sounds. I tend to buy up old sound effects records (yes, vinyl LP records) at record fairs and thrift shops. Since these are NOT the Led Zepplin album that your uncle used to play when inebriated, they tend to be in good/decent shape, thus have minimal crackle/vinyl noise which you (usually) will not want (though they will need a cleaning). I have also bought cds, and environmental records at various points. I’ll do another post about my personal recorded library at another point. I seem to collect records for the strangest reasons…

Hope this helps you find what you need. Happy hunting.


2 Responses to “Sound effects & where to find them”

  1. […] Theatre Sounds sitting in the dark, just listening « Sound effects & where to find them […]

  2. just found this site as well, all kinds of stuff indexed:

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