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Sound Design For Trailers: Hits, Rises, Drones & Pulses

By Ezra Sandzer-Bell
06/08/2024

Sound design plays a vital role in the way an audience perceives cinematic trailers, TV episodes and feature films. It begins as an activity for sound engineers and results in audio artifacts used by video editors, podcasters and the supervising sound editor for video games.

In this article we’ll take you on a tour through the core principles of sound design including hits, rises, drones, pulses and transitions. We’ll share real-world examples and expert tips to help you create compelling audio-visual stories of your own.

What is Film Sound Design?

At its core, sound design is the art of shaping audio elements for media. That can include work on the sound effects, dialogue, music, and ambient noises that contribute to the auditory environment. Diegetic audio like character voices, footsteps, and other in-world events require mixing and audio manipulation.

However, most audio professionals use the expression to refer to the creation and implementation of non-diegetic sounds that exist outside the story-world itself. In that context, “sound design” shifts from a verb to a noun, embodied by special audio categories like hits, rises, drones, pulses, transitions and more.

As an aside, sound designing may also refer to the video editor’s task of sequencing sounds in sync with video, using a workstation like Audio Design Desk. These activities include triggering unique sounds that support the emotional arc of a scene and cycling through several options to capture the perfect mood.

Sign up free with Audio Design Desk and start adding sound design audio files to your videos today.

Cinematic Trailers: Rises, Hits, Drones, Pulses and Transitions

Within the realm of non-diegetic sound design, there are at least five major categories; Hits, rises, drones, pulses, and transitions. We use these same labels to organize our collection of 70,000+ royalty-free sounds in the Audio Design Desk library. Here’s a quick definition and overview of each category, to make sure we’re on the same page.

Rises: Thor V, Tenet

Rises are escalating sounds that build anticipation, often times before a climactic hit. They create a sense of impending action or tension, heightening the emotional experience and preparing the viewer for significant plot developments.

Gradually increasing in volume and intensity, they set the stage for significant moments. Coupled with visual cues, rises amplify emotional buildup, making the eventual payoff more impactful. For instance, the rises used throughout the “Thor V” trailer are varied in speed, character and duration, each helping to accent the moment and push the sequence ahead.

The “Thor V” trailer is a good example of using a variety of rises throughout a busy sequence. Because so much tension and anticipation has been built-up during the montage, no additional riser is necessary for the main title reveal at the end of the trailer. The absence of additional intensity at the crescendo provides a great feeling of release.

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” trailer uses rises, and a bounty of reversals, suck backs and pitch bends masterfully to build anticipation. The rising sounds are paired with the movie’s complex visual sequences, creating an escalating sense of tension and urgency. From short little rises that take just a second to unfold, to longer, lingering tonal creepers that grow alongside fluttering arpeggios. It all culminates in a towering crescendo of epic proportions.

Hits: Alien Romulus, John Wick

Hits are sharp, impactful sounds that punctuate key moments, emphasizing transitions, climaxes, or dramatic reveals. These auditory exclamation points are essential for grabbing the audience’s attention.

They’re ideal for punctuating action scenes, montages and accenting important moments in dialogue. Synchronized with visual impacts like transitions, explosions or fight scenes, hits add a visceral punch that can be overt or understated and still have a tremendous impact emotionally.

Layering hits with sound effects like gunfire or bones breaking creates a dynamic and immersive experience. Filtering out part of the sound can create a sense of restraint. In the “Alien: Romulus” trailer, hits are perfectly timed with visual cues, enhancing the visceral gravity of each moment in the sequence.

This trailer uses hits to build suspense leading up to key moments in a montage sequence. The hits are perfectly timed with intense visual cues, making each passing scene more impactful. Layering the hits with the sound of ribs breaking and flesh tearing really pulls the audience deeper into the moment in a dramatic way.

The “John Wick” series is renowned for its intense action sequences, amplified by the strategic use of its rather iconic melee hits. The hits are synchronized with gunfire, foley and fight choreography, enhancing the visceral impact of the scenes to a heightened level of bone-breaking intensity.

Drones: Moana 2, A Quiet Place

Drones are continuous, sustained sounds that create an atmospheric backdrop. They add depth and tension, subtly influencing the mood without distracting from the visuals, maintaining a sense of unease or suspense.

Use them as a background layer that can evoke a sense of relaxation, happiness, dread, mystery, tension, wonder, excitement or awe. In many trailers, drones underscore scenes to maintain a specific mood and atmosphere.

The subtle use of drones in this trailer adds to the movie’s homecoming atmosphere. The slow and nuanced evolution of these unique sounds invites the audience to come closer and experience wonder. After the first 30 seconds, the drone shifts from gentle to more fierce as conflict and challenge are introduced. When the drone is stripped away for a dramatic reveal, the audience is left waiting in great anticipation.

The eerie, detuned drones in the “A Quiet Place” trailer underscore the film’s silent terror. The continuous, haunting sounds maintain a high level of suspense, keeping the audience on edge. Sometimes being revealed in fleeting swells, and other times in relentless, unending dread, these drones conjure DEEP feelings of unease and pull the audience further into the immersive details of the world around them, and a persistent heartbeat pulse that runs throughout the trailer.

Pulses: Deadpool & Wolverine, Retribution

Pulses are simple, repeating rhythmic elements that are typically a single sound, propelling the moment forward, adding a sense of time and tension. Examples include a clock, the slow and steady pounding of a distant drum, or an understated bass note repeating every second.

They’re often feature at the beginning of an action sequence, but the cover song itself plays a crucial role as the original tune dates back from the original Wolverine X-men era being referenced in the dialogue.

“Deadpool & Wolverine” An accented bassline acts as a pulse to help drive the scenes in this action trailer forward, adding tension, a playful pace and a sense of nostalgic light-heartedness because of the remixed retro musical score playing throughout the sequence.

Pulses are used with brutal precision in the “Retribution” trailer, driving every sequence to heightened levels of unparalleled intensity. As the challenges continue to increase in number and quickly grow out-of-control for the characters on the screen throughout the trailer, new pulses are introduced adding a sense of piling-on, creating a surge of overwhelming tension as the final crescendo is reached.

Transitions: Beetlejuice, Guardians of the Galaxy

Transitions are sounds that smoothly connect scenes or moments, ensuring audio flows seamlessly and maintaining narrative rhythm and continuity. Effective transitions prevent jarring shifts, keeping the audience immersed. maintain flow between scenes.

Transitions are used liberally throughout this trailer to accent visuals and transitions, and to help ensure the narrative flows seamlessly. The result is a bit like an amusement park ride for the audience as they are taken swiftly though a dizzying montage of exciting scenes that bring a beloved epic take to life once more in this highly-anticipated sequel.

Transitions in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” trailer ensure a smooth flow between the quirky, action-packed scenes, maintaining the film’s energetic and humorous tone. But accenting dialogue is where we hear many of these ephemeral elements being used in clever fashion. At 0:33 we hear a suck back transition leave the characters completely without sound design for a tense moment until it is brought back with another transition effect at 0:40. Both the audible and inaudible have a profound impact upon the scene.

Pro advice for creating the best sound design

We’ve gone deep into the five cinematic sound design categories, with examples from some of the biggest Hollywood films. To round things out, we have some tips to share from one of a professional sound designer, Chris Gear. He’s worked in pro audio for several decades and teaches music production classes on the subject.

Here are some guiding principles that he shared with us:

Timing is Everything

The placement of hits, rises, drones, pulses and transitions should be meticulously timed with visual elements to maximize their impact. Consider the pacing of your trailer and how these sounds can enhance the storytelling.

Drones lay the foundation, setting the mood and aesthetic. Use a pulse to create a sense of urgency and root your scene in time. Hits and transitions can be used strategically to accent dialogue and pivotal moments. Hits can also be used as emphatic punctuation at the end of a rise, while transitions can help gel and bridge scene changes.

Align the character of the sounds in your palette to help reinforce the intention you have for the scene. When your sounds are aligned both in time and character, the sound design becomes fully-supportive of the visuals and storytelling the audience is tuned into, making it all the more immersive.

Layering for Depth

Layering of sound is everything in the sound design world. Combining sounds is how we achieve incredibly rich and convincing soundscapes. Combining a drone with a pulse is a simple example of this. But layering a deep, tense bass drone with a bright, piercing drone a few octaves higher creates a more interesting and nuanced experience for the audience, pulling on different emotions and senses.

Now consider layering hits with sound effects that align with the subject matter of the scene and/or object being brought into real life. For instance, a hand punching a piece of raw meat may provide a sharp slap kind of sound. When layered with a small whoosh, a little sub impact, and a simple noise-based sound design hit (or even an effort vocalization like an ‘oomph’), the once-simple sound of a hand hitting meat is transformed into something far more impressive and intriguing.

EQ your sounds independently so they layer nicely together, with each sound’s key characteristic prominently on display. Use compression to gel the sounds together and bring texture to the surface. Saturate the sounds to generate more harmonic expression to exploit and give it a little reverb so the sound has some room to fully develop and resonate more fully in the scene.

What was once a simple sound of hand hitting meat, is now a finished melee sound effect worthy of being used in a blockbuster film.

Experimentation

Experimentation is the lifeblood of sound design. Without the opportunity and freedom to explore potential outcomes, we do not know what our sounds are capable of. Whether it’s trying to layer sounds together that normally wouldn’t be combined, changing the order of plugins in your signal flow to achieve subtle variety, or completely transforming sounds through granular synthesis, spending time seeing what can happen is important.

With so many tools at our disposal it’s hard to imagine an end to sound design. Each sound holds unlimited potential, and once you begin combining it with other sounds and ideas, a universe begins to unfold. The big take-away here is that narrowing your focus to a specific goal will help you attain better aligned outcomes.

If you spend a little time defining the type of sound you are aiming for, and the intention of its existence in the project, you are already more than half-way there. You already know the shape and purpose, and that gives you a basic recipe to follow. The rest is spices and methodology!

Let’s take a transition sound as an example. A simple whoosh will do. It starts as a nondescript little sound that could be heard in countless animated explainer videos and PowerPoint presentations. Now if we process that whoosh with a little distortion and reverb is quickly becomes a magic fire spell being cast, or could be used as a fiery transition in a Fantasy genre scene.

Take that same whoosh and put it into a granular plug-in like Output’s Portal and you quickly begin discovering tonal and even rhythmic outcomes that are entirely new. Use a plug-in like MeldaProduction’s MSpectralDelay to elongate the whoosh and give it otherworldly character.

Regardless of what audio production tool you reach for, remember to record your progress as you work, so you don’t miss anything good!

Thematic consistency

As mentioned earlier, cohesion and consistency in theme and aesthetic alignment is crucial for sound design work to be successful. We want to help the audience suspend their sense disbelief and indulge in our creative worlds. Sound happens to be the best tool we have to profoundly impact our perception of the things we are seeing around us. So, if we craft a believable soundscape, our audience can more easily slip into this new reality

One way to accomplish this kind of thematic consistency is to treat your sounds with the same, or similar, effects processing and sound editing. For instance if you are creating a dream or hallucination sequence, you may want to use time-based effects like delay and reverb combined with pitch-shifting to create a sense of floating or a warped perception. The more diverse and creative your plug-ins, the more interesting your results might be. Consider how Minimal Audio’s Rift (multi-effect distortion) might transform a sound, with its advanced filter and delay capabilities, compared to a more simplistic saturation tool, like an overdrive guitar pedal. Picking one and sticking with it will help you shape your sounds within a shared theme.

It’s not just how you process sound, but also the source sound itself that matters. If you are working on an industrial scene in factory that is highly reflective and resonant, you may want to use metallic source sounds for your hits, as they would probably align better aesthetically with the environment than liquid or wooden source sounds, for example.

Best DAW plugins for creating cinematic sound design

This is where the real fun happens! Using modern sound design tools and libraries to create something truly impressive is really why we’re all here. Software applications like Audio Design Desk, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Cubase, Pro Tools, Studio One, etc and subscriptions services like Epidemic Sound, Artlist, Motion Array, etc offer a vast array of royalty-free sound effects that can be customized to fit your project’s needs.

Regardless of what digital audio workstation you choose to use, you will certainly be reaching for a lot of different plug-ins to help you transform all of your sounds. Using the native utility plug-ins that come with your DAW can help you stay efficient, keeping CPU down and increasing opportunities to take advantage of built-in workflows.

But our industry runs on plug-ins! And there are countless options out there for you. Whether you have no money to spend at all, or you have an endless budget (What a dream!), here are a handful of our favorites from some really great companies.

Output’s Thermal and Portal. A match made in heaven. Thermal is a multi-band multi-effect distortion plugin that gives you precision control over wildly creative tools. Blend different types of distortion and wave shaping with other transformative effects, and morph your sounds in truly impressive ways. Portal is a granular delay plug-in that allows you to quickly shatter and warp your sounds into mind-bending outcomes.

MeldaProduction plugins are indispensable! With many free high-quality plugins, they are popular amongst those just starting out. But they are perhaps best known for their world class premium plugins that boast incredible, game-changing capabilities, like the unstoppable MXXX, widely seen as one of THE ultimate sound design tools, giving you modular control over routing of ALL of MeldaProduction’s effects in one place.

 

Native Instruments is one of the most influential and innovative companies making audio tools for creatives. Kontakt is by-far the most popular sampler around, and developers and artists from all over the world make impressive sample libraries to give users access to any instrument, or sound imaginable, and then transform it and perform with it in limitless ways.

Their tool Reaktor is one of the greatest things ever made for our industry. It allows users to create, connect and evolve any kind of instruments and effects they can imagine. From realistic emulations of beloved classic synths and effects units, to far-out imaginings that generate sounds from distant galaxies.

iZotope makes some of the best tools around for mixing, mastering and restorative engineering work. Use their RX suite of tools to repair and clean up any audio. Use Neutron to monitor all of your tracks together, and deliver superior intelligent mixes. Use Ozone to master your music and sound design with professional precision.

Conclusion: Creative sound design

To summarize, hits, rises, drones, pulses and transitions are essential elements in sound design, and crucial for creating memorable promos and trailers. Their strategic use can transform a simple trailer into an unforgettable experience. Start by finding a reliable source for your sounds, and settle on a software application that fits you and your approach to sound design well. For the very best in sound design, providing access to unlimited original sounds and music cues be sure to check out Audio Design Desk.

You can log into your favorite stock media accounts directly inside the application! It’s the award-winning tool created for the sole purpose of putting picture to sound in the modern age. Download it free and get started now!