Written by Paul Stoughton
Light cycle, pod racer, Nebuchadnezzar, spinner, tie fighter, USS Enterprise.
I’ve never been a car guy. I drive a Volkswagen because it gets pretty good mileage and it fits in most parking spaces. However, show me something that hovers, warps, tears through space-time, or can cloak itself, and I’m 100% in. A lifelong obsession with sci-fi movie vehicles followed me into the world of sound creation and has ended up as the focus of my most recent audio exploration.
The demo for Paul Stoughton’s excellent Advanced Propulsion SFX library
My goal in creating the Advanced Propulsion sound library was to let intuition drive me down the road of happy accidents. This time around, I had the most fun unplugging my synths and going on the hunt for organic sources. I wanted to answer the question: “What would make the most compelling and versatile source for creating sci-fi engines?”
These are a few of my favorite discoveries:
One of the first legends I heard as a new sound designer was how the original Godzilla roar was created. In 1954, during production of the film, the sound effects team tried unsuccessfully to design the roar using animal sounds. It wasn’t until Japanese composer Akira Afukube suggested a technique using a musical instrument that this iconic vocalization was born. The friction of a leather glove coated in pine-tar resin, rubbed against the strings of a double bass, gave them exactly what they’d been looking for.
I decided to follow in their footsteps and reach out to the musical side of sound, contacting a composer friend of mine for a double bass player recommendation. This would preferably be someone with their own recording rig so that we could do the exploration session over video chat (#quarantinelife).
As a master of his instrument, Sam Bobinski showed up prepared with a diverse collection of techniques to try. I was blown away by the sonic potential of the instrument, and ended up with a vast array of useful source material. One of my favorite techniques was the bowing of downtuned strings, which immediately reminded me of a purring engine. Here’s a video of the raw recording and one of the processed variations that came from it.
Bowing downtuned strings on a double bass
2. Fountain Slaps
An inevitable result of a career in sound design is that you become a constant listener. Whether or not you’re conscious of it at the time, part of your brain is always on the hunt for cool sounds. Anyone whose known me for a while instantly recognizes the look. Head cocked, body frozen, eyes wide…. basically a meerkat that sees a circling hawk.
This happened to me after I had recently moved and was eating my first lunch in the new town square. The wind picked up and I froze mid-bite of a B.L.T.. I had never heard this sound before, and the source took me completely by surprise when I saw where it was coming from. Like most sounds I find, I had no idea what I’d eventually use it for, but was absolutely sure it would be great for something.
Its core element, a rhythmic pulsing, proved to be perfect for creating evolving engine layers.
The first person to email me where this fountain is (SF Bay Area), I’ll give you a free copy of the library.
Fountain of inspiration
3. Harley Tubed
For about a year, I drove around with a long corrugated drainage tube in my trunk. Just one of those sound designer things I guess. I had been in a Home Depot perusing for Foley props when I stuck my ear into one of these tubes and instantly fell in love with its resonance. I dragged it out of the store and ended up recording a small library worth of sounds through it that year. Several of the synth engine loops in the library were worldized through the tube using a speaker at one end and mics at the other.
By far my favorite pairing with the tube was my neighbors Harley Davidson motorcycle. It had this throaty growl that lit up the resonance in a way I hadn’t heard before, creating something greater than the sum of its parts.
In the video below, you’ll hear the raw mic in the right channel and the tubed one in the left, then one of the processed versions I made from it.
Harley Davidson, tubed
Advanced Propulsion is a next-gen sound design toolkit built for creating dynamic sci-fi vehicle engines and pass-bys. The designed engine source assets are all seamless loops, making them perfect for use with various plug-ins and interactive applications. All raw source material used to design the engine layers is included in the kit.
“This library has some fantastic textures to work with. The source is so creatively recorded that it almost sounds like it was designed. So many novel sounds in this library and so much content that I would highly recommend it to anyone working in sound design. Can’t wait to see what’s next!”
– Juan Pablo Uribe
4. Eulers Disk
Eulers Disk, not pronounced how you’d think, is a physics demo toy that I bought a few years back. You spin the heavy disk on the flat mirrored surface and it goes through an uncomfortably long display of awesome sounding, logarithmically accelerating wobbles. This equation, likely some form of math, partially explains how it does some of the stuff it does.
My recordings with regular microphones were cool but lacked a bit of the weight necessary to make useful source for sci-fi vehicle engines. After some experimentation, it turned out that a stereo set of contact mics fixed to the mirror plate gave me much better results. One of the best parts about this source is that the full range of RPM’s the disk goes through gives you everything you’d need to build a set of engine loops covering various speeds.
Eulers Disk spinning
5. Paper Fan
A pocket fan is the swiss army knife of sound design tools. Whether you’re taping things to it for insect wing sounds, using it to create a constant flow of disruptive air on a gas burner flame for rocket thrust source, or using it against the strings of an instrument, it’s a cheap/valuable tool that everyone should have on hand.
Since these are quarantine times, I was searching for new fan techniques using common household items. Pieces of paper, while not the most exciting idea “on paper,” are actually versatile instruments when paired with a pocket fan. The size and thickness of the paper, the fan’s angle of attack, the pressure of the blades, and the location of the contact point are all useful modulators that can yield a wide range of source for sci-fi engine design.
Here’s a raw envelope recording and one of the resulting processed versions.
For all the fans out there
At the end of this deep dive into sci-fi vehicle sound design, the biggest takeaway was the effectiveness of organic sources in generating believable sounds. Synthesized source will always have a place, and I generated a large amount of it for this library, but there will always be a special part of our consciousness that more fully accepts sounds from real-world sources.
If you pick up this library, I’d love to hear what happy accidents you make while using it. Reach out any time to email@example.com
A big thanks to Paul Stoughton for sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the surprising sound sources for Advanced Propulsion!
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Looking for more inspiration for your sci-fi sound design? Check out these guides below:
• How to design futuristic vehicle sound effects
• Video: How to build 1000s of sci-fi weapon sounds – from a single sample
• How To Design Superb Sci-Fi UI Sound Effects
• How To Design Stellar Spaceship Sound Effects
• How To Design Supreme Sci-Fi Weapon Sound Effects
+ free sounds with every issue: