How to Record Foley at Home

Foley Artist

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Some people work their whole lives at their craft. They dive deeply into it, and live and breathe it, but if they’re too anonymous, when they die, their name goes with them. Relegated to a tombstone in some small-town cemetery. Then there are people like Jack Foley, who was so influential that his name became synonymous with his specialty. Yes, the job of creating and processing sound effects for film and TV is still called a “Foley artist!”

History of Foley

There have been many approaches to the foley craft over the years. Check out the forgotten fotoplayer, used to add sound effects to silent film screenings! These days, modern technology has made a much greater degree of… shall we say, realism? Possible. Essentially, most sound captured on a movie set (with the exception of dialog) is actually discarded, or covered, with foley. Sound effects recorded separately in a controlled way. Interestingly, though, to achieve a realistic experience, sound is often created in bizarre and unrealistic ways!

Why Foley

Movie sets are designed to control and enhance many qualities, but acoustics is not usually one of them. Therefore, the sounds recorded on-set tend to be disappointing. They can ruin an otherwise immersive experience. By using foley, artists essentially create better-than-life sounds. Furthermore, this gives the production team the power to decide exactly how the sound will be executed- what should be emphasized, and how much. It’s all part of the bigger picture in movie making- to control every element of the sensory experience.

You Can Foley

Foley ArtistThis all sounds a bit abstract and intimidating. But the truth is, if foley interests you, it’s easier than you might think to get started. Just look at websites like SoundBible, ZapSplat, and my personal favorite, FreeSound.org. These community-created sound effect libraries are vast, and offer sound effects anyone can use for free. On the flip side, many sounds on these websites are poorly recorded, sometimes on smart phone microphones, sometimes, unrealistic, sometimes with distortion or unrealistic reverb.

There are many great reasons to start recording your own sound effects. Maybe you’re working on a project and you can’t quite find the sound you are looking for. Maybe you want truly custom sound for your production, something that matches on-screen action precisely. Or maybe you want to eventually go pro, and you want to start building experience and a portfolio. Either way, read on!

Best Mics and Gear for Recording Foley

Allow me to emphasize that foley is very much an art of details. The human ear is much more sensitive to infinite levels of variation in sonic detail than you may think. As a foley artist, your goal is to capture this detail and variation. So you will do well to use a good-quality small-diaphragm condenser mic (or two!) to capture high-fidelity high-frequency detail. No, a Shure SM57 will not do the trick…

The industry standards include the Neumann KM 185, OKTAVA MK-012, and Audix SCX-one. If you buy a pair of the same model, you can record stereo sounds for truly massive immersion! Note that these are pro-level and have pro-level prices to match. You’ll need an audio interface like the Universal Audio Apollo Twin or Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 to connect the mic(s) to your computer.

If you want to get started without such a hefty investment, there are plenty of “dip-your-toe-in” options. Check out a handheld stereo recorder like the Tascam DR-07X or Zoom H1n. They are not quite as high-fidelity, but for the price difference and elegance of user experience, they will do fabulously! And realistically, the difference in quality will not be noticeable until you are much further along with foley. These handheld stereo recorders can certainly record effects at a higher fidelity than many sounds on those free sites!

Home Foley Soundstage

To record great foley, you need a controlled environment to capture sound. That’s the whole point of recording the sound off-set after all! Fortunately, even with a typical bedroom and surprisingly minimal setup, you can go to great lengths towards a workable soundstage.

The main issue with recording in small rooms like bedrooms is, if left untreated, the bedroom will be recognizable as such. With four parallel hard surfaces as walls, like most bedrooms have, sounds recorded in a bedroom will maintain that soft “small room reverb.” A slightly claustrophobic and boxy sound. For best results, I recommend doing a variation of the DIY home vocal booth which essentially involves using heavy cloth to shield the mic from the room sound. Construct a setup that suits your needs, and your recordings will sound very dead. Dead is good, because now you can add digital reverb and control the perceived environment.

Home Foley Materials

Foley ArtistFoley artists have developed a laundry list of relatively common household items that do great work standing in for other sounds. This article lists a number of them, including wooden dowels, staple guns, and phone books. You will wind up doing some strange and funny things in the process- For example, by balling up old magnetic tape from cassettes and VHS tapes, then walking over it, you can record realistic grass footsteps! Or place corn starch in a leather pouch for footsteps crunching over snow.

Processing Sound

Once you have recorded your raw sound effects, your job is not finished. Effective digital reverb and EQ use makes all the difference between total immersion, and being jerked out of the experience. You don’t think about it consciously, but you hear different types of reverb and echo constantly, and use that to understand what kind of environment you are in. Ergo, effective use of reverb truly makes you feel like you are in a given environment.

Reverb

First of all, while there are some fabulous free reverb VSTs (like my personal favorite, Voxengo’s OldSkoolVerb) a foley artist should invest in a great reverb plugin and learn to master it. I’m happy with Waves H-Reverb which I purchased recently. Keep in mind that Waves’s official retail prices are often nonsensical, and if you’re willing to wait, most of their plugins go on sale for about $29 sooner or later.

Different plugins have different parameters to adjust, but you will probably find yourself playing with the wet/dry mix and reverb tail length first and foremost. Larger spaces have longer reverb tails. A relatively wet reverb with a short tail sounds like a small, intimate room. This is one of those skills which is intuitive, because you are trying to create an effect that’s felt intuitively, so trial-and-error is your friend! And don’t be afraid to learn by simply paying attention to real life.

EQ

Finally, we experience something called the “proximity effect” meaning sounds that are close by tend to be more bass-heavy. Since you will be recording your sound effects in relatively close quarters, you may need to address this for sounds that are meant to sound farther-away. Try using EQ to cut bass and low-mid frequencies, when processing sounds that are meant to be more distant.

Layering Sounds

Another exciting tool available today is the ability to easily layer sounds. Some complex sounds, like explosions, are best realized by not simply recording an imitation sound- but by layering different imitations on top of each other. Experiment and see! You can create sounds with more depth and power this way, but it will not work as well for highly detailed or delicate sounds.

Conclusion

When it comes down to it, foley is impossible to fully teach. Just watch videos of foley artists getting creative. We will always find new ways to manipulate materials, to imitate and enhance movie sound. But with the tools I’ve presented here, anyone can get started being creative. If you are having trouble with the processing side of things (after all, nobody’s going to be impressed with badly-processed sound effects!) consider reaching out to a professional mixing and mastering service for assistance. While foley is typically not their specialty, they can certainly help with basic tasks! Keep working and enjoy!