How to make a laser beam... out of soup.

· 741 words · about 4 minutes

Gathering Ingredients

Sometimes the best sources for sound design are right in front of you – in this case, in a pot, on a cooktop.

I'm always looking to record as much source material as I can, and decided thick, viscous soup bubbling away and a handheld stick mixer would make for some pretty great material to transform into sustained laser beam sounds for the upcoming Sci-Fi Weapons library.

Shapeforms Audio Sci Fi Weapons

The turbulent, tearing sound of the mixer blades ripping through the soup's bubbling surface parallel the piercing particles of energy at the point of impact of a high-tech, sci-fi laser beam.

Using my trusty Sony PCM D100 and a little tripod, I pointed the mics at the opening of the pot and hit record.

Once I'd finished recording (and the soup, yum) I brought the file into Reaper where I auditioned various sections of the file looking for a section with a nice, clean sustained sound. This was what I ended up isolating and looping:

Prim-audio-l soup

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Now for the fun part: effects! And lots of them.

One of the most enjoyable things about sound design is the sense of exploration and wonder at discovering new things – new sounds, new techniques, new processes. While there are tried to tested ways of achieving certain effects, often you're more greatly rewarded by experimentation, guided by creative intent but open to serendipitous discovery.

What follows is just one of a near infinite mix of aural ingredients and methods for cooking up spicy sci-fi laser beam sounds.

Recipe for success: the FX Chain

Reaper Sci Fi Laser FX Chain

Here's the FX chain applied to the stick mixer blending soup audio file in Reaper. Multiple audio files are layered and processed to create the final sound, and often groups containing these layers also have processing applied to 'glue' them together, commonly using compression, EQ, and reverb.

The first active plugin in the chain is a simple pitch adjustment, and lowers the pitch by 2 octaves, with the original audio blended in at -12 decibels for a mix of deep lows and the crisp, tearing highs of the original.

Next, I'm using Goodhertz's Midside plugin to force the lower frequencies to mono, while higher frequencies are spread out across the stereo field. This is to give the laser a focused sound, as this layer will form the crux of the effect, with other layers and effects embellishing it and adding extra interest.

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On the higher pitched of the two layers I added a number of effects, including the handy Serum FX plugin – a suite of effects from XFer's excellent Serum synth.

Serum FX settings laser sound

Here I've used a few effect modules to enhance the 'laser-ness' of the laser – the high end, resonant sustained sound that makes lasers… laser-y. Breaking it down, I've added a stereo delay with an extremely short (fast) delay time, and fairly high feedback approaching 50%. This is then filtered to remove some of the ultra low and high frequency detail and then it's mixed in at about 33% wet. The ultra short delay time and feedback accent any resonant frequencies, giving the laser its trademark high pitched whine.

To add to this, I've used a comb filter with resonant peaks that also accentuate various points along the frequency spectrum adding to the sustained whine. A low cutoff around the fundamental frequency in the bass seemed to give the most laser-like results.

Finally, I've added a multi-band OTT style compressor to bring out the frequencies I want to highlight and push back those I don't.

A dash of Compression

Since this layer is the foundation of the overall sustained laser beam sound it needs a steady, controlled flow, without being overly dynamic where it'd be less clear that the laser is active. To achieve this I've used some pretty extreme compression settings in fabfilter Pro C – ultra-fast attack and release, setting the threshold to the lowest trough of the original audio (shown as a dashed line below), and setting the ratio to infinite to bring peaks that exceed the threshold all the way down. You can see the flattening effect it has on the signal: the original audio is shown in faded grey, the new compressed signal in light grey and the peak reduction in red.

FabFilter Pro C Compressor settings

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Even the most mundane and everyday things can prove invaluable when designing sound. Record, and record often!