Realistic gun sound effects in war movies
Firearms come in all shapes and sizes. Details about the weapon will shape the timbre of the sound effects that accompany them.
The realistic gun sound effects in Saving Private Ryan (1998) contribute to the film’s authenticity and historical accuracy. Each soundscape draws viewers in the heat of war, from explosions and debris to the multitude of gun sound effects experienced by the army.
In the presentation above, sound designer Gary Rydstrom provides a list of military gun sound effects commonly used for these kinds of classic war films:
- Bullet bys – Rydstrom coined this term to describe the sound of bullets whizzing by. When shots are fired from far enough away, the whirring bullet bys may be heard on their own, independent of an actual gunshot sound.
- Bullet impacts – The sound of a bullet flying by is often accompanied by an impact sound. Those effects are highly dependent on the impact material. Bullets that strike a dusty desert battlefield sound different from shots bouncing off of metal or striking glass.
- Gunfire – A single gunshot lasts 1-2 seconds. After the shot is fired, sound designers factor in the scene’s acoustic properties to determine reverb levels and other layers of atmospheric ambience. Sound selection is guided by the pace of the shots. Sustain and decay on a machine gun differ substantially from single rounds from a pistol.
- Emptying cartridges – Sniper rifle shots are often coupled with the sound of empty cartridges popping out and landing on the floor. These rattling sounds plays a secondary but important role in the realism of the scene.
- Distant guns – When an audience can’t see the source of enemy fire, sound designers tone down the intensity of the gunshot effect.
- Underwater – Characters could be swimming underwater and dodging bullets, in which case filters are applied to the acoustic environment. We’re more likely to subdued bullet bys and squishy sounds if character is actually hit. Above water, you hear higher frequency splash sounds when the bullet strikes the surface.
- Shell Shock – The loud bang of a gunshot can cause physical trauma to the character’s ear, causing the entire ambient environment to become muted and filtered.
Science fiction: Guns, blasters & laser cannon sound design
War is a common theme in science fiction, so it’s no wonder we find so many imaginative gun sound effects in the genre. Sound designers have to find a balance between fantasy and reality, blending strange worlds with real world, military gun sounds.
Star Wars: Origin of Ben Burtt’s laser cannon sound effects
The unmistakable zap of a Star Wars blaster, developed by Ben Burtt, emerged accidentally while he was hiking through a mountain. His bag was caught on a guy wire dangling from a radio tower. It made an otherworldly sound after being yanked off and inspired Burtt to take a field recording.
Burtt later went searching for a similar kind of wire in California and found an abandoned tower. The wind dampeners, or styrofoam balls that prevent guy wires from vibrating, had been removed. He banged on the wires with different pieces of metal and recorded the sounds to produce the iconic Star Wars laser cannons.
Star Trek and War of the Worlds: Phaser gun sound effects
The Star Trek phaser is another classic weapon from science fiction history. Frank Serafine, sound designer for the original motion picture, was less transparent that Ben Burtt. Fortunately, the Motion Pictures Editor’s Guild interviewed Burtt in 2009 and pulled out some great insights about how the original phasers were created. Have a listen to them here:
According to Burtt’s interview with TMPEG, the phaser was a derived from the Martian war machines in the 1953 film War of the Worlds. You can listen to the original gun sound effects below. The single plucked harp sound that he describes can be clearly heard in the mix. Film theorists have speculated the Martian laser was a Les Paul guitar with full reverb.
Burtt explains that a similar laser gun sound effect can be achieved with a Moog synthesizer, by modulating a steady sine wave with pink noise.
Halo: Creating otherworldly sci-fi gun sounds for video games
The impact of these early sci-fi gun sound effects can be heard in equally important games like Halo. Movie Insider interviewed Halo’s sound designer Kyle Fraser and senior sound designers Robbie Elias and Jomo Kangethe to learn more. They break down their philosophy to creating sound effects for weapons in the following excerpt:
Here are the categories that they think about when designing a new weapon:
- The “punch” of the gun: A low frequency thud that gives the sound force and power.
- Mechanical layers: High frequency, tactile sounds like loading and disconnecting a clip. These can come from the clicking and pulling sound of printer ink cartridges, industrial manufacturing machines, and clanking metal impacts.
- Empty clips: Typewriters are used to create a repetitive clicking sound effect when players try to fire a gun with an empty clip.
- Laser sounds: Halo’s sci-fi sounds are blended with conventional gun sound effects. To achieve this feeling, the team records the hum of electro magnetic fields and coiled metal slinkies (comparable to the guy wire technique that Burtt speaks about).
- Whizzing sounds: Between the gun shot and the impact sound, players might hear a momentary sound of the projectile flying through space. These high frequency squealing effects were created by placing dry ice onto piano strings and pressing into them.
- The “tail” of the gunshot: This tail is unique to video games because it requires adaptive audio engines that respond to the materials and acoustics of the environment. A weapon will be designed with a core set of sound effects that change based on where its fired and the surfaces where impacts take place.
- Plasma sounds: To achieve an organic, goopy sound for their plasma pistol, the team heated up pineapples and watermelons to temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the fruit to explode.
- Impact sounds: Objects that explode on impact need to feel realistic and otherworldly to fit the science fiction genre. Halo’s sound designers obtained an old piano and began destroying it with hammers, baseball bats and concrete blocks.
Sound designers manipulate and improve upon these initial field recordings and foley sounds using their DAW. Below you can find a tutorial explaining how plugins like Krotos Audio’s Weaponiser can be used to enhance an expand upon these initial samples.
Creating sci-fi gun sounds with digital synthesizers
Field recordings and foley can be time consuming and expensive, leading some sound designers to create sci-fi gun sounds from digital synthesizers instead. Early video games relied on synthesis exclusively, because their chips lacked the memory needed to support sampled audio files. The video below features an interview between Wired and a group of sound designers with expertise in retro games.
Gun sounds in this era were generally limited to shots and impacts, represented by square and triangle waves. Even ordinary action and war games sounded a bit like science fiction, due to their use of synthetic tones.
Over the years, as gaming consoles improved, these early limitations gave way to more advanced digital synthesis and effects processing. In the video tutorial below, digital sounds from the Omnisphere VST and multi-effect plugin Amalgame are used to create more gun sounds:
Within your DAW, essential tools like EQ, compression, and reverb play a crucial role in shaping synthesized sound. For example, EQ can be used to boost your low-frequency thuds or highlight the high-frequency crack of a gun shot. Compressors will help you to control the rapid attack and decay of the gun shot, ensuring it doesn’t overpower other sounds in the mix. Reverb can then be used to recreate the ambience of a space, like the echo of a gun shot in an alleyway.
Gun sounds are typically used for dramatic effect, so they should be prominent in the mix unless they’re coming from somewhere in the distance. This means that you’ll need to mix the volume levels carefully relative to the soundtrack. Volume levels for secondary gun sounds, like the clicking of empty clips or the sound of a reloaded guns, should be lower in the mix to maintain balance and give the gun shots a more prominent position in the sonic hierarchy.
Panning and spatial audio are another important element to consider for immersive sound design. When gun sounds are coming from beyond the player in a first person shooter (or the primary character in a movie scene), panning can help with left-right orientation while filters and reverb are helpful for defining the depth of field.
Mastering the use of gun sound effects is an ongoing journey of experimentation and learning. Conventional The guidelines provided in this article should serve as a starting point, but once again it’s up to you, to continue to explore and innovate.
Be sure to download our free gun sound sample pack and choose the content that makes sense for your project. You can also sign up for a free copy of Audio Design Desk to access an even more expansive sample library. If you’ve downloaded the pack and found these free sound effects helpful, we hope you’ll share this article with friends!