Find/create sound FX for your game

Sound is one of those things game developers rarely talk about. Whenever you watch a devlog or tutorial, it’s always about the code, the idea, the visuals, but never about sound!

And that’s quite strange, because every game needs sound. In fact, bad (or no) sound effects can completely ruin any game. It’s often seen as this annoying thing you’ll have to do at some point. But after making loads of games … this means I’ve probably spent 100+ hours on sounds alone.

As such, I had to learn how to find sound effects (or create them myself) all on my own. Below I’ll share what I’ve learned.

Before we start: when I mention doing something in a “DAW”, I refer to a Digital Audio Workstation … which is simply software that can manipulate audio. If you’re a game developer, you probably already have one installed and used it before. If not, the free Audacity (TO DO: Make link) can do all of this easily, and I use it 99% of the time.

Step 1: keep a list

It’s easy to miss opportunities for sound effects. Especially if you’ve been developing/testing the game for a long time without sound. After a while, the silence feels like the natural way to you, and you just forget sound is an option.

(For example, there have been many games where I completely forgot to add sounds to the interface, or when the player is walking.)

As such, when I create a game, I also keep a list of needed sound effects. (If possible, I already write the line of code that calls the right effect by name. During early development, the “audio manager” simply ignores those calls. But when it’s time to add the effects, I turn it on again.)

For most games of mine, this list ended up being 1 or 2 pages in a Word document, saying things like:

  • Trampoline => needs bouncy effect

  • Player => needs repeating footsteps

  • Buttons => need satisfying “click” or “pop” sound

When it’s time to do the sound, I can just go through this list one by one, and find what I need.

However, you’ll notice these descriptions are a bit vague (“needs bouncy effect”) …

Step 2: clearly define what you need

With my first games, my descriptions were even worse!

I would literally say: “Trampoline: needs trampoline sound”

This is extremely vague and doesn’t really help you when searching for sounds. What is a trampoline sound? Different trampolines sound different. Do you want the sound of someone jumping on it, or someone entering it, or someone slapping the outer ring (that most big trampolines have), or kids cheering and having fun?

Make it concrete. At first, this can still be a bit general, like my list above. “Trampoline: needs bouncy effect.”

But as soon as you start to search for the actual sound, you need a clear picture. Try to imagine what works best for your game. Try to associate what kinds of sounds could “simulate” a trampoline bounce.

And then use something called the internet to find them. There are many websites with free sounds that are fine. (ZapSplat is a popular one that comes to mind now.) Most of them also have premium sounds, which are also fine (if you’re able to pay for those).

However, there are two rules:

  • You will never find the effect you need by simply searching for the obvious terminology.

  • And you will never be able to immediately use the effect in your game.

If you search for “trampoline sound effect”, you get a few results that either sound way too realistic to be used in a game (they were literally recorded by someone jumping on a trampoline and holding a microphone), and a few cartoon ones that sound like they’re from a bad kids’ TV show.

It’s highly unlikely this is what you need. It’s also highly unlikely that you can just download these, put them in the game, and it’s perfect.

Instead, try to define the effect you need in terms you can search for.

For example, I want my trampoline sound to be:

  • A bit cartoony, but not too much

  • To have real weight to it, a real oomph

  • To be quite long, so it needs a tail that lasts until the player has landed again

Step 3: Combine multiple sounds

These are things you can search for. You can associate real-life objects or sounds with these ideas.

And then? Then you can search for each individual association/sound … and combine them in your favorite audio editor.

Why would I go through all this trouble? As I said, you will never find a single pre-made sound that has all these properties you need and fits exactly into your game. No, such a sound has to be designed by yourself.

Additionally, if you use sounds from the internet 1-on-1 in your project, it’s likely the identical sound is also part of many other games. Your game will get a bad reputation, it will sound unoriginal, and people might even subconsciously associate it with those other games.

For example: in an older game of mine (Square Ogre), I ended up creating a trampoline sound this way:

  • I took a cartoony “pooooiiiiingggg” sound (cartoony)

  • I took a low “thump” sound (weight, bass frequencies)

  • I took the sound of a (panicked) bird flapping its wings (gives a tail and extra power to the sound)

Overlaying these sounds and lining them up (so none of them starts too late or lasts too long) created a sound that was exactly what I needed and just sounded awesome in general.

Here’s the trailer for “Square Ogre”. From 00:38 seconds, you can hear a few trampolines after each other:

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If you play the trailer from the start, you can also hear other sounds, such as footsteps and a “success” (or “failure”) sound. You guessed it: these aren’t singular sounds. They are multiple sounds, layered on top of each other. You can hear this especially in the “success” sound: it has three different parts that quickly fire after each other.

Remark: the actual background theme for this game was not made in Audacity nor with the techniques discussed here. These techniques are for sound effects. That’s different! When I record a theme song, I use real instruments, music theory, practices from mixing music, and I record it with Studio One.

So, in conclusion, that’s how you need to think:

  • What properties do I need?

  • What (real-life, existing) sounds have those properties?

  • Search for those sounds until you find those that fit the best

  • Combine them into the perfect sound for your game

Step 4: Normalize

Sound sources from the internet, or even those you recorded yourself, will have all sorts of different volume levels.

One might be rather quiet. Another might be as loud as is physically possible.

If you combine these in your game, it will sound awful. The quiet effects simply fall away and can’t be heard, the louder ones make people scared and annoyed (and take over the whole soundscape).

Instead, once you have all your sounds, normalize them. Put them all in your favorite DAW (“Digital Audio Workstation”) and find the button for “normalize”.

This brings them all to the same volume at the maximum possible loudness.

(At least, that’s the goal. Your DAW might mean a slightly different thing with “normalize”, in which case you’ll have to manually do some extra steps.)

In most games, having all sound effects at the same volume is the way to go. There will be some sound effects that need further tuning (just a little softer, just a little louder, etc.) You can do that in your game engine by tweaking their specific volumes.

By having everything at the same base volume, it just makes those tweaks much simpler (and faster to execute).

Step 5: Standard edits

Besides normalizing, there are some standard edits I’ve learnt to do. Believe me, I tried to ignore these (as they can be boring and time-consuming), but it just makes a big difference.

Those edits are:

  • Make the effect as short as possible. Usually, you can cut some at the start (before the sound really starts) and loads at the end (when the sound is already softening or barely audible).

  • Apply a “fade in” at the start of the effect.

  • Apply a “fade out” at the end of the effect.

Be generous here. Rarely does a game benefit from overly long sounds. Especially if you have many sounds at the same time – it just becomes a confusing mess. I’ve found that ~0.3 seconds is the sweet spot for most of these.

Applying the fades ensures there’s no “sudden stop” or “pop” when an effect starts or ends.

Additionally, these are some things I’ve learnt:

  • Shortening existing sounds, to shorten the overall length of the effect, is usually fine. Most software can do this easily without making it sound weird.

  • In general, just don’t be afraid to take existing sounds and completely destroy them. Change their pitch, add effects, cut them into pieces, reverse them, whatever it takes to get a certain sound!

  • The shorter and more impactful the sound, the less recording and editing quality matters.

  • Try to avoid sounds with lots of reverb (or other effects) built into them. Instead, get dry/clean sounds, and add the effects yourself if needed. (If your game engine supports it, add those effects in real-time in the game. Take the trailer as an example again: the slight reverb you hear there is all done by the game engine.)

  • If you need a big sound, don’t just make it louder, or combine two similar effects. Instead, I usually layer three effects that are as different as possible. One is the “main sound”, one is pitched lower, and one is pitched higher. (For example, take three explosions, and shift one downwards in pitch, and another upwards.)

Step 6: repetition is annoying (and unrealistic)

If a sound effect happens often in the game, make sure it’s not just a single effect repeating constantly.

The first thing, which most game engines support, is pitch shifting. Any time you play the sound, randomly shift the pitch up or down. (Maybe even change the speed or other properties.) If you do this slightly, it remains the same sound effect, but also has variation and surprise.

The second thing is to simply have multiple effects for the same thing. One of my games has four different sounds for coins. My “button click sound” in the interface is usually a list of 5+ sounds that are slightly different. Whenever I need to play such a sound, it just selects randomly from the list.

(There’s a danger here of being too varied. The players should still hear the sound and know what it means, instantly. If they’re too different, you lose this connection, which means you lose 90% of the reason why you’d add sound effects in the first place.)

And if you think about it, this is only logical. Sounds in real life are never 100% identical. Hitting something twice in a row will never produce an identical waveform. So add that variety to your sound effects as well.

Step 7: Record them yourself

If you can’t find the sounds you need, if you can’t make it work … well, no issue, you can always record your own!

Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds the past ten years, and microphone quality has advanced with it. You can record effects with your phone, your laptop, whatever and it will be fine 99% of the time.

(Although I’ve noticed that most game developers also have an interest in music, or recording devlogs, which means they already have a good microphone! Use that instead!)

For these sounds, all the same steps still hold. Most games are not the same as reality and thus do not want sound effects that sound very realistic, so you won’t find the perfect sound (which you don’t need to edit) in the wild.

The main point, though, is that recording sounds is free. You can literally walk around the house for an hour, microphone (or smartphone) in hand, and make all sorts of noises. Hit stuff, jump, slam doors, start a blender, anything.

Later, you can throw away the 55 minutes you don’t need, and keep the sounds that ended up being great ideas!

The end

That’s it!

Whatever sound you need, you can usually get it (for free). But don’t assume you will just be able to search for it, then plop a .mp3 into your game and be done.

Design your sounds. Define the characteristics you want, find sounds that have that, then mix them together into your ultimate sounds.

Do this in a few different ways to get variety (or just to experiment and find the best one).

Rinse and repeat.

Whatever you do, don’t settle for the exact same sounds in all of your games. I see many game developers using a tool like Bfxr to get a few similar-sounding arcade sounds, which they use for absolutely everything. Most of the time, the sounds just don’t fit, and their use sounds clichรฉ and amateur to me.

Sound is important. It’s a huge area of expertise. Even my smallest games can have hundreds of sounds. So design your sounds and give it the attention it deserves.

Hope this helped, until the next one,

Pandaqi

Some remarks

Remark 1: This idea of “layering existing sounds to get what you want” isn’t just restricted to games, of course. It’s used everywhere. It’s what your favorite musician uses to get their own distinct sound out of basic instruments and stock plugins.

(Off the top of my head, I recall Finneas saying this exact thing: when he needs drums for a song, he takes a few stock drum samples and then lays them on top of each other to get a unique drum sound.)

Remark 2: I mostly make local multiplayer games (sometimes with a solo mode, sometimes not), which means there are usually multiple characters on a single screen, which all need sound feedback.

At first, I used default “static” sounds for that. But that was a mess. If a player was in the left corner doing something, you don’t want that sound effect blasting full-volume through the center, confusing everyone else.

So I switched to (mostly) “positional” sounds. (This is a built-in thing in most game engines.) Now, when a player does something in the left corner, the effect will sound like it’s coming from that corner. (It only plays in the left speaker, perhaps with a softer volume.)

But this still wasn’t enough! Because when you have a single screen, there might be loads of things happening … without any player nearby to see it.

(For example, in my game “Company of the Tackling Tourists”, the screen is a full map with hazards appearing and disappearing all the time. It would be absolute chaos to play the sound effect for each one of them, even if nobody even saw it happening!)

As such, I learned to make most sound effects “distance based”. For those, I calculate the minimum distance to any player. If this is too large, the sound isn’t played at all. Otherwise, the volume is scaled according to that distance. (The closer the player gets, the louder this sound effect becomes.)

Granted, this is a specific issue with local multiplayer games. If you’re making a regular single-player experience, there’s only one player, and the camera focuses on them – so no need to do any of this!