How I Mix Audio For Horror Films
Using Logic Pro X Featuring Excerpts From The New SoundsCrate Horror SFX Library. While I use Logic Pro X you can replicate these techniques in other audio-editing software.
In this article, I’d like to highlight some of my favorite features and beneﬁts of Logic Pro X as it pertains to sound design, particularly mixing for horror ﬁlms with the new SoundsCrate SFX library.
Getting Started: Organizing The Session
To start I’ll set up some basic tracks starting with Instrument tracks for my MIDI and software synths, and audio tracks for my imported or recorded audio. For some of the screenshots in this article I’ll also enable the Quick Help button which is the question mark on the top left (right below where you close or minimize the session window). The Quick Help function shows which menus you’re looking at as you hover your mouse over them. If you’re less familiar with navigating Logic it can be very useful.
Let’s use the Horror Scene Setting SFX to begin building our ﬁrst mix. The sound effect called “Demons” is a good place to start. Pull it into an audio ﬁle by simply dragging it from the Finder directly into the session. If you’re trying to save time when building your session, one of the fastest ways to create new tracks is to simply right-click or two-ﬁnger click in the tracks view to the left of the main window.
Maintain consistency in your Logic workﬂow by saving your sessions as templates. Going further you can save your channel strip settings so that you can duplicate them across your sessions. This way you can spend more time browsing the SoundsCrate library and less time organizing (see the screenshot on the left)!
I want to spread out this stereo track to create more impact for the listener and give a sense of space. By navigating to the Inspector view on the left I’m able to access the track’s parameters; Channel Strip settings, EQ, input and output settings and Audio FX. Now I can choose the Stereo Spread effect, which is in the Imaging menu of the Audio FX.
It would sound better if I focused on the higher frequencies because I want to minimize low-frequency rumble across my stereo image, but I also want to emphasize the more shrill and unsettling sounds. I’ll leave the Order function at 12, which is the number of frequency bands the effect is divided into, in order to ﬁne-tune it more. I set the Lower Intensity to about 50% and the Lower Freq. to drop off at about 60hz.
There are also presets which can help get you started, and you can even save your own setting as presets.
(Before Stereo Spread)
(After Stereo Spread)
Looping And Duplicating With The Cycle Function
The “Demons” track is a little shorter than what I want. I’d like to make it a little longer but I also want a smooth transition into “Bending Trees”. Looping part of “Demons” will make it a little longer and make it a little weird and choppy. One of my favorite features in Logic is the ability to easily loop and duplicate sections of a track by using the cycle function.
When you see a yellow highlighted area in your Ruler, this means you’ve set a loop, or cycle. In this case I’ll arbitrarily grab a section of the track that wouldn’t have any harsh transients, so that it can be copied seamlessly. It’s important (and useful) to note that in this menu there are functions which seem similar but aren’t. Let me explain.
If I’d chosen to “copy” the section rather than “repeat” it I would have been able to then “insert” it anywhere I wanted. In this case the section I looped was close enough to the end of the “Demons” track that I used “Repeat Section Between Locators.” Keep in mind that this is a global function, meaning it will affect all of your tracks. It’s easy enough to delete regions that you don’t want to repeat in your other subsequent tracks.
Navigating The Track Editor View And Adding Plug-Ins
I’ll make about 30 seconds of this ﬁrst track and then add my next track, “Bending Trees.” It should fade in, so I can double-click on the audio region and then in the Audio Track Editor window I’ll create my fade by hovering my mouse over the start of the ﬁle until I see the Fade tool. Next I’ll just solo the track by clicking the S button (between Mute/Record) on the track header so I’ll be able to hear the fade by itself. I like this track as a starting point but maybe I want to add some reverb to make it sound even more disembodied and eerie. I’m also planning to add some music as well as some shorter effects. Thankfully, Logic has some really versatile and interesting built-in reverb plug-ins.
My favorite is Space Designer. It even has Surround Sound options as well as the ability to customize which “room” you were in and the behavior of the volume and ﬁlter/EQ envelopes. I’m tempted to play with the Warped Effects but I don’t want to take away too much from the original sound. Instead I’ll split the difference and used “Forest Echo.” In this particular instance I can apply the effect directly to the track instead of putting it on a bus, because this reverb was only to be used for this track.
I could also have placed it on a stereo bus and made it available to other tracks. (See screenshot). Reverbs such as these are great for ﬁlling out sparser, more subtle effects and still giving them some degree of transparency in the mix.
Creating Automated Effects And Types Of Automation
I’m around a minute into my scene I ﬁgured something happened terrifying happened! In my case I want to use a “Horror Hit” and a “Brass Hit” working together to create an impact through those “Bending Trees,” when my characters are attacked by demons in the forest. I’ll pull both regions in at once. When I drop them into the session, I get a prompt (see screenshot) as to whether I want to use the existing track or create new tracks. Since I would be processing these effects differently I can go ahead and make new tracks.
So ﬁrst I have my “Horror Hit” setting the mood, and then the orchestral hit just as the characters ﬁrst see the demon. The “Horror Hit” by itself is terriﬁc but I think it would be cool to pan it across from left to right, because the demon runs across the screen accordingly and I want the sound to follow the demon’s motion. Here’s where we can get to know Logic’s handy automation features. The most important difference is between Touch and Latch. For this particular sound it makes sense to use Latch because my automation event is happening at once and then resetting. since it’s so short I want to put additional effects on this track, which means I want my pan to go back to the center once the effect has played.
If I were handling more complex instances of automation or I knew I wanted everything on that audio track to stay panned a certain way I might want to use Touch, meaning that once I touch that pan knob it’ll stay wherever I put it. “Write” would give me full control, which for a short effect is not necessary. It all depends on how you arrange your effects and how you like to work.
(After Automated Panning)
Using Logic’s Built-In Compressors
When the demon approaches from a nearby tree I want to add some brass. I find it’s a little too abrupt and actually clipped a little bit so I can apply a compressor to the sound. Again, this can be found in Audio FX under Dynamics. There are many presets available however I’ll choose Platinum Orchestral under Compressor Tools. It has a slightly slower and more forgiving Attack and a medium ratio, so it won’t be too extreme, allowing for the natural crescendo of the horn to build up. When I drop it in on the default setting with Auto Gain off it still clips a tiny bit. I can simply tweak it to about 2.5db instead of the default 3.0.
Notice how within your compressor you can choose if you want “Platinum Digital” or “Studio FET” or “Vintage VCA” and so on? These are all emulations of hardware compressors with various ‘colors’ and characteristics. In general, Platinum Digital will ‘color’ it the least (it’s Logic’s “default”) and the FET compressors tend to behave more like the UA 1176, whereas the Classic VCA is more like the DBX series.
I found an excellent article which explains the differences in greater detail, if you want to learn more check it out.
Selection-Based Processing + Working With Individual Audio Regions
Let’s move into some more musical and theatrical elements since we’ve introduced that brass swell. I want to incorporate some strings so I’ll use “String Swells” within the Horror Accents And Textures category. There are a few similar sounds in other sections of the library if you explore a bit but this sound works well for me. After I brought this sound effect into the session I noticed a couple of things. It has a pretty long fade-in so it’ll be helpful to set a marker as to where it “really” starts going. I don’t want to have to keep zooming in and out on the waveform (which, by the way, you can do easily by either swiping two ﬁngers out on the trackpad, or in the Track Editor view, adjusting your horizontal and vertical Waveform Zooms (see screenshot).
In the upper left-hand corner of the Track Inspector window there’s a little drop-down menu giving me Arrangement, Marker, Signature, and Tempo. I’ll just click the plus sign and create a new marker and name it “Strings Start Here.” (See screenshot)
You can drag the marker or delete it if you change your mind. It’s also worth noting that if you go back to that Cycle/Loop function and repeat or copy a section with a marker then that marker will be repeated/copied with it. This might be what you want but it might also get a little confusing, so don’t forget to name your markers accordingly.
The second thing I notice is that the sound effect isn’t quite as loud as I want. This is where Selection-Based Processing saves the day! This is really great for being able to change any number of parameters on a single region. This way my entire track won’t be affected and I can make the strings section as loud as I want without having to worry about any other regions I drag in being affected as well.
If you look at the screenshots you’ll see that I can add whatever plug-ins I want. In this case I’ll add Gain which is a Utility. I’m able to preview the effect to make sure that a 4db boost is enough. Now I just hit Apply and it’s as simple as that.
Built-In EQ And Adding Effects To The Output Track
Let’s finish this little piece. First I’m just going to EQ my strings to bring out the mid-range a bit. Logic has some new built-in EQs that are really amazing including Console EQs, which emulate classic hardware. In this case their default works because it offers plenty of ﬂexibility. I just want to give it a little bump in the higher end, so I used “Add Presence To Thin Sounds” in the Tools menu. As you get further into adding instruments or dialogue a lot of the presets will come in handy.
Remember that brass? It was such a quick little thing. What if I just want to make it pop out without messing with the EQ or compression? No problem, Logic has a built-in Exciter. It’s under the Specialized menu in the Audio FX. I want to give the brass sound a bit of an edge. This is easily done with a preset called Edge Addition. I can even select which frequencies I want to emphasize.
So how can we best process our ﬁnished product? I always like to see what I’m doing so I went to the Track menu and selected “Show Output Track.” In conjunction with this you can also view your Mixer window at any time by going to the Window menu and selecting Open Mixer or pressing the Quick Key Command + 2.
Now that we can see our tracks we can stick a compressor on there or the same default EQ we used before with any one of its Mastering settings. There’s also a great Multipressor under the Dynamics menu. As with the other features we’ve discussed it’s highly customizable. I’ll go with the Strings Compressor since most of my little soundscape contains strings. You can also get right into using one, two, or three bands of compression as well. It’s a subtle way of smoothing things out before you ﬁnish up. If you want to group your tracks and get them to sit more easily in the mix later this also allows you to ﬁne-tune all the different groups of sounds.
Putting It Together: Bounce And Export
I’m ready to put it all together and bounce it out so I’ll select an endpoint by grabbing the Project End Marker and dragging it accordingly. Alternatively if I just want to bounce a particular section I can use that Cycle feature again. Sometimes I use the Cycle feature while I’m still working on a project because it’s easy to see that yellow mark and I won’t accidentally cut off the end of my project. Not that I’ve ever done that! (We’ve all done it)
If you’re ﬁnished enough to put in a fade you’ll probably want to set the end marker properly. In addition to Bounce, we have several Export functions, including the ability to export regions to loop libraries. This is a useful way to keep track of your imported SFX that you may come back to later. It’ll bypass the need to stick them in a folder and click through the Finder because they’ll be available within Logic. You can also export to Final Cut Pro, which will really streamline your post-production process.
Looking at the Export options we can bounce it to almost any format we want, or even add it to iTunes so that it’s easy to reference later. We can also bounce it right back into the project which can be useful for reference mixing or simply for cutting down on track space as your session progresses towards a ﬁnal product. With the new Horror SFX library from SoundsCrate you’ll be scaring your audience out of their seats in no time!
Want to see more sound effects? Check these out