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How To Effectively Use Dramatic Sound Effects in Film

By Ezra Sandzer-Bell

Dramatic sound effects are used across every genre of film to build tension toward a climax. Their timbre, pace, pitch register and volume work together to underscore the situation. A low and distant boom could signal that trouble lies ahead. A terrifying climax in a horror film is marked by shrill noises. Every story and genre has its own sound design vocabulary.

To illustrate the range of dramatic sounds that exist, our team rounded up 20 royalty-free sfx, including dramatic music cues that you can use in your own projects at no cost. Have a listen to them in the embedded audio player below and hit download to access them for free.

Need a bigger collection to draw from? Sign up for Audio Design Desk and access our library of over 70,000 sound effects and music cues.

dramatic sound effects album art

Dramatic Sound Effects

Sound Design

Released 05/20/2024 · 20 Tracks ·

#Track NameGenreKeywordsDuration
1Hit 1Sound DesignHit...
2Hit 2Sound DesignHit...
3BoomSound DesignHit...
4Rise 2Sound DesignRise...
5Rise 3Sound DesignRise...
6Rise 1Sound DesignRise...
7Clock TickSound DesignPulse...
8Synth Pulse 2Sound DesignPulse...
9Synth Pulse 1Sound DesignPulse...
10Strings Pulse 1Sound DesignMusic Loops...
11String ChordsSound DesignMusic Loops...
12String StabsSound DesignMusic Loops...
13Strings Pulse 2Sound DesignMusic Loops...
14Drone 1Sound DesignDrone...
15Scifi DroneSound DesignDrone...
16Drone 2Sound DesignDrone...
17Drums Ending 2Sound DesignDrums...
18Drums Ending 1Sound DesignDrums...
19Stinger WhooshSound DesignTransition...
20Normal WhooshSound DesignTransition...

Movie trailers are one of the best places to go hunting for dramatic sound design examples. Their sole purpose is to capture and hold the attention of an audience, so producers pull out all the stops. Let’s take a listen to a few examples below and we’ll break down some of the epic sounds that we’re hearing.

The intro to this 2019 Jumanji trailer features a series of nine cinematic impact sounds back to back. Notice how they leverage visuals of massive objects like stampeding rhinos and helicopters to make the sound feel even bigger. A riser can be heard behind the impacts, acting as a through line to build to the final crashing arrival of the film title.

At the one minute mark, the trailer’s view enters a jungle and dramatic drum rhythms come into the mix. This helps to place the viewer’s imagination into the environment. At the two minute mark, the characters dodge gun shots and run for their lives. Whoosh and impact sounds of the bullets flying by and hitting the earth contribute a secondary layer of foley that add to the drama.

Loud and intense sounds are just one way to build suspense. The next trailer from the 2024 film Monkey Man shows how a “low and slow” approach can be equally effective.

Monkey Man Trailer: Gradually building suspense

The opening cut shows an arial view of a bedroom, shot from above the ceiling fan. Notice how the ambience of its rhythmic whoosh couples with the whisper of a narrator saying “Close your eyes”. A single, dramatic drone lulls the viewer into a kind of hypnosis, with the low bpm pulse of the fan acting as a kind of sonic pendulum.

As the trailer continues, the sound design becomes more intense. Risers are still heard at a relatively low volume and warm synth stingers are used to punctuate the each “beat” or visual moment. When they finally do use impact sounds, each bang has a much more pronounced, dramatic effect. By the end of the trailer, they’ve reached the same epic, high intensity audio levels heard in the previous Jumanji example.

So far we’ve focused on sound design in cinematic trailers. Next we’ll take a look at the use of orchestral soundtracks to build tension in a more nuanced and emotionally complex way.

The Shining: Dramatic background music in horror

Movie scores adapt to the emotional cadence of a scene in ways that licensed music tracks from a library cannot. They tend to work alongside diegetic sound effects, or foley, to create a unified whole. For example, as the background music builds toward a dramatic climax, sounds from within the movie scene may enter in sync, at the perfect moment.

Take this classic example from The Shining (1980). Rapid staccato in the string arrangement don’t describe any kind of melody or conventional chord progression. Instead they serve to build tension through a gradual rising motion. This orchestral effect was later replaced by stock risers in sound design libraries. Both are effective but this approach lends a more organic feel to the scene.

Foley is used sparingly to accent the terse, dissonant swarm of notes in the background. We hear the clang of a knife against the porcelain sink. This is met by the much louder pounding of Jack Nicholson’s axe as it pounds and crackles through the wooden door. In sync with the axe impact, a second layer of orchestral strings comes in at different pitch register to underscore his victim’s screams.

Just before Nicholson’s famous words “Here’s Johnny”, the strings perform a short, sweeping arpeggio upward to indicate his breakthrough. After that, the composer borrows an iconic, dramatic sound effect from an earlier film Psycho. Each high-pitched violin stab foreshadows her fear of a gruesome fate.

Countdown: Ticking clocks and imminent threats

Every great game show has used timers to create constraints for their players. The imminent sense of loss creates fear and in turn makes for excellent TV drama. Jeopardy managed to achieve this with background music alone, because people know that the end of the melody signals the end of the player’s turn.

One movie from 2019, literally named Countdown, played on this mechanism and built an entire plot around it. Characters gain access to a mobile app that knows the precise moment of their death. Have a look at the trailer below for an example of how sound design was used to makes the timer feel much more dramatic.

Break down the ticking sound into its parts and you’ll hear an ordinary click, a knocking wood sound, an cinematic impacts to accent transitions between cuts. As the trailer progresses, the same string stabs heard in Psycho and The Shining are used in conjunction with the clicking tock. This composite sound results in an even more dramatic sound effect.

Orbital: Growling synths and reverb in scifi films

Growling, one-note analog synth stabs are a staple of sound design in scifi trailers. They tend to be followed by a hollow acoustic space where the sound rings out. This effect takes viewers off world and into an environment where massive bodies move around at glacial speeds.

Take the example above, from the trailer for Orbital (2022). It opens with the trademark synth followed by another very common reverb-drenched “tuning fork” sound. Low booming sounds are heard faintly in the mix, as if representing the collision of asteroids far beyond the hull of the ship. This serves to keep the ambience of space in tact during otherwise quiet moments of dramatic dialogue.

You can find another collection of familiar scifi sounds In the video game trailer for Starfield (2023) below:

Behind the narrator’s existential monologue, we hear a sustained synth pad with orchestral textures and violin trills. This gives way to the trailer’s melodic theme and a full arrangement with vowel-sound vocalizations. Composers often use augmented triad chords to create harmonic symmetry and a sense of dramatic ambiguity.

Arrangements like this take the forefront while sound effects sit on top as secondary layers. There are a few dramatic whoosh and impact sounds, but most of the sounds are used dietetically, to create a bond with key moments in the trailer’s visuals. When the spaceship shakes, we hear a metallic rattling texture to for dramatic effect.

How to create dramatic sound effects in a DAW

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Detuning sounds from their natural state can help you bring about feelings of tension and unease. Incorporating infrasound (frequencies below the normal range of human hearing) around 20 Hz can trigger feelings of awe and fear. Combining these two ideas becomes quite immersive for the audience! Here’s a detailed guide on how to achieve this using specific techniques and plugins.

Step-by-Step Instructions:

1. Detuning Sounds

  • Detuning features in your DAW:
    • Some DAWs come with pitch shifting built into the feature set.
    • Ableton Live users can access the Clip View to adjust the pitch.
    • Logic Pro users can apply the Pitch Transpose or Flex Pitch features.
    • Pro Tools users have the Elastic Pitch function to draw from.
  • Plugin Recommendations:
  • Technique:
    • Select the sound you want to detune. This could be a melodic element, a drone, or any tonal sound.
    • Detune the sound slightly (by a few cents) to create a subtle sense of tension. For more pronounced unease, detune by larger intervals.
    • Experiment with both slight and extreme detuning to see what best serves your creative vision.

2. Incorporating Infrasound

  • Generating Infrasound:
  • Technique:
    • Generate a low-frequency sine wave at around 20 Hz.
    • Be cautious with the volume, as infrasound can be physically felt and may cause discomfort at high levels.
    • Blend the infrasound subtly with your other audio elements to enhance the overall sense of tension and awe without overpowering the mix.

3. Combining Detuned Sounds and Infrasound

  • Layering:
    • Layer the detuned sounds with the infrasound to create a multi-dimensional effect.
    • Ensure the detuned sounds are prominent enough to be heard while the infrasound remains a subtle undercurrent that enhances the emotional impact.
  • Automation:
    • Automate the volume and pitch of the detuned sounds to create dynamic tension. Gradually increasing or decreasing the pitch can heighten the sense of unease.
    • Automate the amplitude of the infrasound to coincide with key moments in your composition, emphasizing climactic points for greater emotional impact.

4. Enhancing the Immersive Experience

By combining detuned sounds with infrasound, you can create an immersive audio experience that evokes tension, unease, awe, and fear. This approach taps into both the audible and subliminal realms, engaging the audience on multiple sensory levels and creating a profound emotional response.

Audio Design Desk: Free dramatic sound effects

The playlist embedded at the top of this article includes 20 wav files, including sound effects and royalty free music cues. You can use them for anything from short films to memes and social media content. For more free dramatic music, check out the full Audio Design Desk library.

You’ll gain access to 70,000 sounds and rich audio templates grouped by metadata, saving your hours of time pecking manually through other libraries. ADD includes a video editor and a patented sonic intelligence system that hot-swaps samples based on anchors.

Get your free download of ADD here. You can also review our FAQ and pricing page for details.