Footsteps draw closer and closer. A door creaks open. The whining wind winds up to a scream. Then, thunder rumbles — and there’s the sharp bang and whistling ricochet of a gunshot!
Here’s how sound-effects wizard David Ian, the not-so-secret weapon behind Willamette Radio Workshop’s diverse soundscapes, might create the above illusion.
The footsteps are just what they sound like: shoes clapped together in a careful heel-toe pattern while being carried near to the microphone. Ian’s custom-built miniature doorway includes a knob and chain to produce satisfying clicks and rattles — but for really creepy creaking, he’ll select either a homemade wood-tile sandwich that protests noisily as its layers are turned around a dowel, or the real deal, a good old rusty hinge that Ian affectionately calls “Mr. Squeaker.”
The wind whips up as Ian hand-cranks a small barrel — like a raffle-ticket drum — with a piece of heavy fabric strapped over it. The faster he cranks, the higher and louder the wind cries. Rumbling thunder can be generated by shaking big metal sheets, but they’re hard on hands; most sound-effects makers prefer plastic these days, and even better is a convenient, hand-held “thunder tube” that produces more or less the same effect with an easy wriggle of the wrist.
The gunshot bang is a “slap stick” — two hinged slats of wood that smack together with a startling clap. Last but not least, the whistling ricochet comes from Ian’s own pursed lips.
“Sound effects put you inside the story,” said Ian, who also works as a voice actor, writer, director and fight choreographer. Sometimes those effects are basic backgrounds, unremarkable but essential, like footsteps and doorways that help listeners track the comings and goings of characters.
Others aim to be exotic and attention-grabbing for their own sake — flying saucers, laser beams, ghostly chains. Watch any spaghetti Western and you’ll hear countless whistling ricochets that wouldn’t really be there, Ian said — but movie audiences have been trained to expect them.
What they don’t expect is the mundane sources of some of their favorite sounds, Ian said. The piercing twang of a “Star Wars” laser blaster is a great example of a famously appealing sound effect; it’s actually a recording of a plucked metal cable — a vibrating guy wire attached to a radio tower on a mountaintop — that was discovered by a movie sound designer taking a hike, Ian said.
“I do a lot of listening to real sounds,” Ian said. That’s how he determined that a distant freeway sounds just like a rushing river. And that an umbrella flaps just like the wings of a bird. And that the resonant gong of a grandfather clock can be reproduced by tapping a dense stainless-steel mixing bowl.
You should see Ian visiting the hardware store, he said — testing tools and gadgets for their acoustic properties. That sure gets some attention, he laughed.
The Hillsboro, Ore., native traces his peculiar passion back to the amazing vocal trickery on his parents’ Jonathan Winters comedy records. Like many boys, Ian loved entertaining his friends and family with funny and mysterious sounds — and he just never grew out of that adolescent habit, he laughed.
Sound effects wizards like Ian are called Foley artists because the pathfinder in their field was Jack Foley, a Hollywood hanger-on and stunt man who found his true calling when enlisted to provide crowd sounds and hand claps for the 1929 movie “Show Boat.”
As in the movies, Ian noted, sound effects are usually supposed to be genuine and convincing illusions — but he and his audiences both find extra fun in exposing the magic as part of Willamette Radio Workshop’s stage presentations.
“We’re opening a door for the audience to see what’s usually hidden,” Ian said. “People really enjoy watching sound effects.”