The Ring, Unfriended: cinematic glitch in horror movies
Sound is a key element in every horror movie. It’s used to build suspense and tension toward a frightening climax. Glitch sound effects are particularly common when films are depicting the presence of supernatural forces. In The Ring, a cursed videotape is haunted by a ghost. The jarring mix of white noise and TV glitch sounds become synonymous with the malevolent spirit.
The 2014 horror movie Unfriended captured a similar camera effect in a more modern light. A computer glitch causes the signal of a video conference to become choppy during a heated conflict. As the tension ramps up, the angry character’s voice begins cutting out slightly while a high pitch tone fades in, culminating in a moment of peak violence:
A third horror film called Pulse takes the paranormal phenomenon off-screen and into the room of the main character. It flickers in and out of existence with glitchy sound design and a riser effect that signals the ghost’s gradual, terrifying approach:
V/H/S, Chronicle: Glitchy sound design in raw video
Scenes that feature “found footage” are a common, yet unexpected place where glitch transitions appear. Their contrast against the grainy analog video contributes to their surprising quality. When used sparingly, they can amplify important moments in a film’s plot.
This classic robot glitch scene from RoboCop used white noise and static with distorted camera imagery to represent the tension between the character’s human and artificial nature.
The 2008 science fiction movie Cloverfield used glitch transitions to punctuate moments of extreme tension. One of the most dramatic examples of happens near the movie’s end, as the main characters hide under a bridge while the city gets destroyed:
Hi-tech and sci-fi glitch effects
The sci-fi series Black Mirror highlights darker aspects of technology and how it intersects with human life. Glitch sound effects are a key feature of the series’ intro. Borrowing from the horror genre, the title sequence sets viewer’s expectations up for a blend between reality and something transcendent. Have a listen to what that sounds like here:
Hi-tech digital glitch effects are a common feature of films involving cybernetics, like the animated film Ghost in the Shell 2. In contrast to the previous horror examples, nothing supernatural is implied here. Instead, it plays on the notion of augmented reality:
You can hardly use the word “glitch” in the context of cinema without thinking of the classic sci-fi movie The Matrix. The expression “glitch in the matrix” became something of a catch phrase due to a scene where simulated reality breaks down and reveals its synthetic nature. The glitch sounds accompany visual distortions to signify a moment where the veil of the simulated world is lifting, and the underlying truth is exposed:
These instances of hi-tech glitch are defined by a shift of focus away from spiritual concepts like ghosts and demons to something more digital. Nevertheless, they represent a moment where mundane reality breaks down.
Arkham Asylum, The Observer: Glitch In Video Games
So far we’ve been focused on films, but video games are another common place where glitch sounds tend to appear. The game Arkham Asylum has Batman searching through a mental institution, where glitch sounds are used build tension during encounters with an adversary.
Here, the visual distortion disrupts gameplay for a long enough period of time to frustrate the player. It seems as if something could be wrong with the game and breaks the fourth wall.
The Polish psychological horror video game Observer incorporates futuristic glitches to disturb the viewer and create amore immersive ambience. These visual disruptions become part of an eerie atmosphere where technological decay and existential dread are part of everyday life.
Creating Your Own Glitch Sound Effects
Now that we’ve covered some of the most common scenarios where glitch sounds show up, let’s move on to a brief tutorial on how to create your own. You can check out the video below or read on for a step by step overview of best practices.
Step 1: Choose Your Software
As a sound designer, you probably already have a Digital Audio Workstation available to you. Ableton, Logic and Pro Tools are some of the most popular for audio engineering.
Step 2: Import or Record Audio
Open your DAW and load an audio clip, like a simple swoosh / whoosh sound, that you can apply the glitch effects too.
Step 3: Select a Plugin
Several plugins are available if you need help creating glitch effects like tape stop and stutter. We’ve tried Illformed’s Glitch, Sugar Bytes’ Effectrix, and iZotope’s Stutter Edit with good results.
Step 4: Apply Glitch Effects
Once you’ve picked a plugin (or three), apply them to your audio track. Adjust parameters like timing, pitch, and modulation to get the desired sound. Some plugins allow you to sequence multiple effects, and layering different glitches is the best way to craft a unique and complex texture.
Step 5: Export and Use
Once you’re satisfied with your glitch sound effect, export it in a suitable format for the video project.
If you already have video ready to go and want to pull from an existing sound library, try the free version of Audio Design Desk. You’ll get access to over 3,000 sounds and can upgrade to the full 70,000 royalty-free music and effects library if you need it. Use the sound layers with a video timeline to sync your sound effects with your scene.