How to use car sound effects to enhance a story
Society’s relationship to cars is so personal that we’ve adopted phrases to make them seem biological. An engine is “purring” while it idles, “guzzling” gas if it requires more fuel than average, “squealing” when its tires turn a corner quickly, “hugging” the side of the road as it reaches an edge, “roaring” down the highway when it speeds, “jumping” when it gets a shock of electricity, “running” when it goes through a red light, and “crawling” through traffic when it moves slowly.
Media theorist Marshal McLuhan described cars as technological extensions of our feet, similar to the way the internet acts as an extension of our collective mind.
Sound designers understand that car sounds are more than atmospheric and diegetic elements. A single sound effect can be the centerpiece of a scene, resonating deeply with our emotional centers. In the following sections we’ll provide some concrete examples that illustrate this point.
Nobody (2021) – 17 sound effects from car chase scenes in action films
Every adrenaline-fueled car chase is supported by a sequence of intense sound effects that pair closely with the visuals. Let’s have a have a listen to this scene from the 2021 film Nobody.
Here’s a full breakdown of the sounds featured in this scene:
- Car door handle: The click-clack sound of the door’s handle signals that the character is opening the door. It loosely resembles the sounds of a loaded and cocked weapon, with its two-step high-register timbre and anticipatory function.
- Car door slamming: This impact sound startles the viewer into the moment and signifies that the scene is about to start.
- Car ignition: The soundtrack drops out to make room for the sound of the car engine starting. The character looks out at his targets, marking the beginning of the chase.
- Cassette tape, volume knob, and the diegetic soundtrack: The sliding sound of a tape into the cassette player is followed by a forceful crank on the volume knob. The music comes on full blast, matching the volume of the prior soundtrack. This sound design trick places the audience directly into the car and deepens their immersion in the scene.
- Squealing tires and acceleration: Reversing out of his parking spot, we hear the car engine roar to life as the tires squeal from the friction of the sudden movement.
- Driving sound: While the vehicle rolls down the street, it makes an ambient “tires on concrete” sound resembling white noise.
- Gunshots and shattered glass: A villain fires at the vehicle and shatters his windows. Notice that the glass breaking effect has a long tail of tinkling glass. This is less realistic, but contributes to the dramatic effect.
- Engine with doppler effect: Cars zoom by the reference angle of the camera and their engines create a doppler effect, to give the audience the feeling of being situated in the space, if only for a moment.
- Ambient car honking: Civilians honk at the speeding cars as they put everyone’s life in danger.
- Screeching brakes: Escaping momentarily, the character pulls of the main road onto a side street and grinds to a halt.
- Banging on dashboard: In a moment of frustration, he bangs on the car’s dashboard. A muffled impact sound syncs up with his striking hand.
- Car crash impact: A car crashes directly into the vehicle. The sound design combines a low end thud effect, more glass breaking, and a metal impact.
- Ricocheting bullets: Villains shoot at the car with machine guns and some of the bullet make a metallic “ping” sound to signify impact on the car’s body.
- Pulling the clutch: Reversing out of the situation, he grabs the clutch and shifts at the last possible moment. This small sound effect syncs with a critical moment in the chase where he escape once again.
- Car shutting off and diegetic soundtrack ends: Having escaped, the car arrives in a lot and is shut off. The music ends (because it was all coming from his tape deck). This makes room for the sound of his keys being pulled out of the ignition.
- Car door swings open: The beat up car door creaks open with what sounds almost like a wooden door sound effect.
- Car keys jingling into pocket: Marking the end of the scene, a very subtle jingling of car keys can be heard as they drop into his pocket.
As this example illustrates, a good chase scene is comprised of several sounds linked together. The most common sounds, like squealing tires and accelerating engines, are reused several times with any problem. Their redundancy is easy to overlook because of the high-intensity visuals.
Fight Club dialogue – Designing a car’s interior ambience with EQ and sound effects
Car interiors are a private place where intimate conversations can be held safely. Movies can dwell in this environment for several minutes to allow important dialogue to play out, without the usual visual distractions. Special acoustic treatment is required for car interiors.
The scene below comes from Fight Club (1999). It marks a pivotal moment where several characters have a near death experience, lending extra psychological tension to the subtle nuances of the sound design.
Here are some of the sonic details that make up the scene:
- Interior ambience (mid-range frequency road noise): The sound of the vehicle’s tires on the road are heard from within the container of the car. High end frequencies from sounds on the road are rolled off.
- Raindrop impacts on the car’s exterior: The road sounds’ missing high-end frequencies create space for the pattering of raindrops, or in the case of this scene, the torrential downpour. Different water sounds are used to represent the glass windshield and the metal roof.
- Windshield wipers: The pulling sound of the wipers against the windshield are low in the mix, but if you listen carefully you can hear them. They only seem to appear when the wipers are visible in the shot.
- Tires against the rumble strips: As the car slowly veers off the road, the rumbling of the tires against the textured road contribute to the felt sense of danger.
- Truck horns: A special kind of car horn reserved for semi-trucks can be heard, indicating another “large threat” on the road.
- Passing cars: Subtle, fast whoosh sounds can be heard, signaling their presence on a highway
- Clicking seatbelts: As the characters let go and surrender control over the driver’s wheel, they simultaneously lock in their seatbelts. The road ambience comes down in the max to make space for the small clicking sound effect.
- Car crash: The scene climaxes with a slow-motion crash and a rich chain of audio effects than pivot between interior and exterior ambience. As the glass shield breaks, the sound treatment becomes exterior only to signify the “breaking of the container” both literally and psychologically.
A car dialogue scene doesn’t have to be dramatic to make use of these techniques. Filters are pretty much always used to create the interior space, and the sound of car accessories like pulling on seat belts, clicking of the locks, and interactions with the interior are equally common.
Tron Legacy, Total Recall: Science fiction car sound effects
So far we’ve covered sound design for the exterior and interior of ordinary cars, but science fiction films introduce a third class of car sounds that can’t be overlooked. The scene below, from Tron: Legacy (2010), utilizes sci-fi design techniques to make the car feel more futuristic.
Racing through the Grid, the vehicle’s sound design resembles a cinematic movie trailer with massive humming, whooshing, and pounding thud sounds that would typically be paired with spaceships. When a car crashes, it explodes into pool of plasma matched with wet splashing sounds and electric fizzles.
As they escape the arena, the car’s tires have a high end whirring sound that indicate the shiny surface is not an ordinary concrete road. The revving and acceleration of the engine sounds like a muscle car. The gear shift and tire exteriorization sounds fast and precise like an advanced military weapon.
The flying hover-cars found in scene above from Total Recall offer a similar kind of science fiction sound design treatment. Bound to ordinary driving conditions like roads and highways, they present familiar chase conditions despite floating above the ground. Here we find that classic chase scene sounds, like squealing tires, are deliberately missing. In their place, we hearing the stuttering cinematic sounds of engines that are foreign to the world as we know it.
Creating Your Own Car Sound Effects
Realistic car sounds can be captured fairly easily with field recordings. Stationary car sounds are easier to capture, for obvious reasons. You can set up a microphone inside or outside the vehicle without much trouble, whereas doppler effects and road sounds require more ingenuity.
Once you have your raw recordings, EQ can be used to boost or attenuate specific frequencies depending on where the scene takes place. You may want to roll off high frequencies and use dry reverb for an interior scene, as we pointed out in the Fight Club scene. Reverb is more useful when simulating the acoustic characteristics of outdoor environments like a tunnel or parking garage.
Mastering the use of car sound effects involves careful control of volume levels, skillful layering and sequencing, with precise synchronization to the visuals. Each aspect plays a crucial role in creating a believable and engaging sonic environment.
To get some practice, start by downloading the free car sounds we’ve provided in this article. You can also pick up a free copy of Audio Design Desk to access an even broader collection of sounds.