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How to Record Foley at Home
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Ah Foley—the unsung art of creating bespoke sound effects for movies, TV, and other visual media from scratch. In recent years, this practice has fallen victim to sample replacement. I must confess, as a post-production sound designer working from a home studio, I’ve certainly found sound effects libraries to come in handy on many occasions.
But these libraries can’t do everything, and they certainly don’t come close to giving you the individuated touch of homemade sounds. That’s where being a recording engineer comes in handy: many are the times I’ve throttled myself, banged on pots and pans, slid rolls of nickels over a placemat, and generally embarrassed myself on mic in the search of some good Foley to drop into a scene.
Now, you should know that top-notch Foley artists work on treated sound-stages and studios, with cherry-picked props and wooden planks beneath their carefully trodden footsteps. In these environments, the sound is kept pristine to engender hi-fi results. Mixers will have the freedom to manipulate the effects later into specific contexts, but nevertheless, they are presented with stellar sounds. Foley Artists also tend to work with video screens and aural systems that provide visual or auditory cues, so that they may better time their work.
Me? I work out of my house. While I have an acoustically-treated room in this apartment, it’s not a Foley stage. I’m willing to bet that your situation might be similar. But don’t let your environs dissuade you for capturing Foley at home, because these days, the difference in quality might not be as wide as you’d think.
First of all, if you’re working on a scene shot indoors, the sound of your home might blend in just fine with an interior location. Also, a generation of ears raised on YouTube and web-series is likely more forgiving of grittier sounds. And, never forget that you, oh loyal iZotope reader, probably have something like RX on hand—a technology which can save you from excess noise, sixty-cycle hum, and other intrusions prevalent throughout your home.
So fear not! Go forth and Foley.
Home is where the Foley is
As this article is centered around recording Foley at home, we’re going to treat the subject as literally as possible, splitting this piece up among the various rooms of your house.
Before we enter the kitchen, it’s wise to advise the procurement of some sort of mobile rig. It doesn’t have to be expensive. I’ve caught some my proudest Foley moments with a Zoom H4n Pro, a Rode shotgun mic, a mic stand, and a pair of headphones. That’s a handy combination to be sure, though plenty more options abound. For one, Spire Studio makes it easier than ever to record high-quality audio in the moment, wherever you may be; it features a rechargeable battery that provides over four hours of continuous use—handy when you’re on the go!
You might be wondering how to time your recordings—how to perform the Foley at the exact moment it’s needed. Do you need some sort of visual rig to cue yourself? In my case, the answer is no. I rely on the timing I’ve developed as a recording engineer; I believe you can too. If you’ve ever punched in an overdub, you can probably coordinate your own sound effects.
A little prep can go a long way though: it pays to make a small export of the scene’s audio and practice along with it. You can loop the sound ten or so times in a row and try to nail it, and usually, by the fourth take, you will! You can even superimpose four beats to cue yourself, using any sampler or even a soft-synth piano for this purpose. Or, you can play it free, relying on your editing skills in post. All approaches are valid.
So, without further ado, let’s take a tour of your house and all the juicy, recordable sounds therein in, starting with:
The kitchen is chock-full of sounds to grab. A lot of it is simple enough to put together: a water faucet for, you guessed it, the sound of a water faucet; glasses clinking together for a bar scene; if you’ve got a clock radio in your kitchen, you can capture bespoke AM radio static (yes, you can get probably get that for free online—but this is about authenticity!).
In addition to the mundane, you can also capture more cinematic sounds in your kitchen: scraping knives together can, laid into the mix correctly, mimic the quintessential sound of unsheathing a sword, parrying a rapier, or other fight noises. Of course, be safe when engaging in knife play.
We can get even more creative: inside your refrigerator are sundries that approximate all sorts of gory, ghoulish sounds. Have a piece of rotten fruit? Don’t throw it away—record yourself squishing it with your hands (as close to the mic as you can get without splattering it). I myself am partial to pears and berries.
Two summers ago, my wife and I bought a farmer’s-market watermelon that we never got around to eating. Did I throw it away? Not before I took a good whack at it with a hammer, giving it best my Gallagher as I recorded the results. Pitched down a little and combined with the sound of a hand slap, it laid very well in a battle scene for a Viking movie.
Here’s another one: a recording of water hitting an oiled frying pan can be used to approximate the sound of a sword being forged in fire, or the exaggerated and excruciating sound of flesh sizzling.
If that’s a little too grisly for you, let’s calm down with the sound of walking across freshly driven snow! First, dump a giant bag of flour into a Tupperware container large enough for your foot. Then record yourself placing a large boot in the flour, one “step” at a time; it’s quite convincing. Try to capture no fewer than ten steps in total, as I find you’ll need between three and five unique steps in a row to thwart the brain’s rampant quest to spot fakery; ten steps should give you plenty of bandwidth. If you don’t want to make a mess, you can pour cornstarch in a spare mic bag (the leathery bag of a Shure SM57 works fine) and crunch it around. Do note that you’ll probably never be able to use the mic bag for its intended purpose again.
Bored with snow? At a loss for a convincing explosion? Fill a big garbage bag with your bottles and cans, then record yourself doing various things to the bag, like dropping it on the floor, or hitting it with a broom. Get yourself several hits and you’ll have a lot to play with: the slappy sound of the broomstick can give you immediate impact, while the clinking of bottles and cans can provide the debris. Pitch some of the hits down, distort them, and layer them for a grander feel.
It has often been said that a snapped celery stalk can approximate the sound of broken bones. Also, rotten meat slapped/punched with a bare hand can simulate various punching and slapping noises.
The list goes on. But keep in mind how your kitchen is situated: you must mitigate and minimize all potential problems. First and foremost, unplug your fridge and any other noise-generating appliances for the duration of the recording session; you don’t want any hum or mitigable noise in the recording. Secondly, set up a mic position that minimizes the often harsh, fluttery conditions of a kitchen. This usually entails getting as close as you can get, often with a directional microphone.
If you’re worried about splatter—and rightly you should be—cheap, disposal windscreens come in handy. You’ll wind up shaving a little high end and muffling the sound somewhat, but buried in the mix, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
Also, make sure you monitor everything through your headphones while you’re recording. But that goes without saying, doesn’t it?
The most prominent feature of the bedroom is, of course, the bed—and here we shall set up our home base of operation. First of all, if you’re not fed up with the sound of bodily harm, more can be done on the mattress to achieve the sound of a punch, specifically its “thud,” rather than its “crack.”
Once again, a broomstick is our friend; simply beat it against the bed. Try to do one hit and let it die naturally, so you can have a few fully-captured hits. The closer you mic the point of impact, the more of the bass and low-mids you’ll capture, whereas if you give the sound a little more space, the thud will have a more rounded sound; it’s not unlike miking a kick drum.
Once you have that out of your system, grab your clothes from the closet and lay them on the bed. With the microphone about a foot away from a piece of clothing, scrape one item along another. Flannel against denim works very well. Satin across a hardcover book is also good for a more delicate sound. Simply running your nails over your bed sheets is valuable. Other combinations elicit different timbres, and many of them will find their way into your scenes.
Why are we doing this, you may ask? Because one of the easiest ways to sell a scene—to make it sound real and cinematic all at once—is to add appropriate cloth movement and clothing rustle. Such sounds are often difficult to cull from sound effects libraries (you’ll be hunting, pecking, and editing for hours). With bespoke Foley, you have more control.
It might seem like a small-fry sound to capture, but try it for yourself and see: take a scene you’re working on and add the sound of cloth-rustle as a character moves around. Note the realism this imparts. Now remove the effect; notice how your brain misses the auditory cue and immediately spots the fake. This is indeed a handy way of imparting verisimilitude to many scenes. It’s also hard to grab these sounds from a library, and it’s very easy to create them yourself. Need I say more?
Whap! Pow! Back to the blows! Need the sound of a body being tackled? My brother-in-law (also a sound designer) just tried this one, and it recently worked for me: take all the shoes in your room, put them in your laundry hamper, and then dump from the hamper onto the floor. Place the mic a foot away from the impact location, angled downwards at about forty-five degrees from the floor. That’s another bedroom based sound easy achievable, though it might bother your neighbors.
This is a tricky environment to record in. For one, the materials of construction and the shape of the room can add a lot of reverberation (though RX 7 can come in handy for curtailing the ambiance). A fan might be connected to the light-switch, meaning you’d have to record in the dark to get relatively noise-free recordings. Still, the bathroom affords us opportunities to study one of the most challenging and rewarding elements to record: water.
In the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve often had to deal with water; people love to send me movies where someone’s washing dishes in the middle of a scene. In these situations, stock sound effects have only gotten me so far. Timing becomes an issue: a character might be washing for a few seconds, then putting a dish away, and then turning on a different tap.
Believe it or not, it’s often faster to record the foley for this than it is to edit these sounds together from a sound effects library. Of course, you could try to grab audio from the scene itself, but this doesn’t always work. On the web series BKPI, for example, two characters spoke while the third stood off in the corner doing dishes; there was no usable water to speak of coming off their lavs, and the boom had blemishes rendering it impractical to use. Foley came to the rescue!
In recording water, you’d think that getting as close as possible to the source—without damaging your mic, anyway—would yield the best results. But this is not often the case, as it tends to produce a sound far more roaring, rushing, and harsh than you’d usually need.
Backing off a little bit might capture a some of that undesirable room tone, but it may be worth it; as long as I keep the mic’s capsule focused on the water, and not positioned off-axis, the majority of the sound will be usable. Layered in the scene, perhaps the onset of room tone will be indistinguishable, or barely noticeable.
Some tweaking may be required. I often find that the instantiation of the water noise—i.e., turning on the faucet—and the conclusion of the sound (the closing of the taps), will carry more tell-tale atmosphere than the duration of the water-blast. Here I might turn to RX for noise reduction, but only subtly, and for these specific moments, leaving the rest well-enough alone.
Moving on: if you have a cat, and if you keep your litter box in the bathroom, then the water-closet is an excellent opportunity for obtaining the sound of footsteps on gravel. It’s rather like the snow trick, but instead of flour, you’re stepping in the litter box. Fresh Step’s non-clumping litter works best (I’m sorry to say that I know this from experience), and obviously, you’ll want to use a clean litter box—or a very dirty shoe. Again, angle the mic approximately forty five degrees from the litter box, about a foot away.
Other esoteric sounds can be captured in the bathroom; sliding the rings of your shower curtain around creates a variety of sounds that can either be used realistically, or manipulated for sound design purposes; if you have metal rings and a metal curtain rod, even better—you can approximate the slow sound of two swords uncrossing in the middle of a fencing match.
There’s more run-of-the-mill audio to found here too; peruse your bathroom-books on mic for the sound of page turns. Record the sound of the door locking, if it does indeed lock. Brush your teeth on mic (I had to do so for a short film called Sumi).
The living room
(Or the bedroom again, depending on your situation.)
If you’re like me—living in a one bedroom apartment—then your living room doubles as your studio. This is a boon, as you can forego the remote setup and record with your chosen interface, your collection of microphones, and a variety of props found throughout the house. If, like many young people with roommates, your home studio is situated in your bedroom, the following still applies.
Perhaps the setup here includes a guitar amp. If that’s the case, mic your amplifier as normal, turn the volume low, and instead of plugging in a guitar, hold your finger down on the lead of your instrument cable. You can use this to approximate a variety of electrical noises. You can also layer this sound into any scene to create an instantly seedier atmosphere.
If you have an older television, mic that oh-so-specific, high-pitched whine of a TV turning on (use a microphone that goes up to 20 kHz for this). In your living room, there’s bound to be a table or desk for your coffee mug or water glass; mic yourself putting the glass down. Any everyday occurrence can be obtained in your living room, and might very well come in handy.
Here are some more freebies: Set up a microphone as you would for a singer, only you’ll be the performer. Is someone drinking a glass of water in the scene? Drink the water on mic, getting all the guttural sounds, if that’s what the scene requires.
Your voice is actually an incredible tool in Foley. A growl pitched down can be layered with other noises for a monster’s roar. Zombies can be created by gurgling, breathing, and situating your voice into your adenoids, or doing whatever you can to project sound through your nose. And yes, it’s always fun to make your own Wilhelm screams.
In this better-miked environment, you can also get creative in sound design, and here’s an example:
During a short called Hudson Valley Boys, a scene took place in a seedy, crummy room. I found needed something to really sell the depravity of the location. So, with the director’s consent, I staged an argument to layer in the background: my wife and I stood far away from the mic (getting plenty of room tone in the process) and went about having a spirited discussion about the dishes. Mixed to sound like it was coming from an adjacent apartment, the quarrel didn’t distract from the goings-on (there was little dialogue anyway; it was a shakedown scene). The sound of the argument, coupled with a little guitar-amplifier electrical hum, brought the squalid environment to life.
Moving on. Swing a drum stick past a microphone, as though you were micing a drummer from the side. This can create a realistic whooshing sound, useful in all sorts of situations. In fact, here we can dive into mix-layering by giving you a three-sound guide for approximating the impact of a bullet:
Record the whoosh of a drumstick. Next, capture the sound of one fist punching your opposing, open hand. Finally, grab one of those kitchen sounds above (squishy fruit if you want gore; rotten meat one if you want a thud). Layer and time align all of these together, EQ to taste, add the appropriate ambiance, and you have a convincing sound effect.
Now, in case you think I’m totally macabre, these practices don’t all cater to violence. Scratching your cheek on mic, rubbing your shirt, raising or lowering a pneumatic chair—all of these sound come in handy, and can be convincingly achieved in your home setup.
This article represents only a small fraction of what you can do around your house. It’s meant to get you started, designed to inspire ideas, and intended to diminish any fears surrounding the enterprise.
You might notice that this article is a little light on technicalities. That’s because the standard miking technique is, to a large degree, standard miking technique; if you’ve miked a drum, you can mic a punch, and if you’ve miked a singer, you can mic a zombie's voice.
I will add two technicalities to round out this piece:
First, it’s a good idea to record at 48 kHz sample rates. Nearly every film I’ve worked on has utilized 48 kHz, so why set about making an extra step for yourself by doing otherwise?
Secondly, do not forget the power you wield in post-production. Many of these sounds will work fine as is. However, unlocking their creative potential often requires manipulation. Slowing down the time, dropping the pitch, going crazy with ambiances, and adding subtle harmonic distortion can go along way in securing otherworldly tones or big cinematic explosions.
Don’t be afraid to get creative. Because after you’ve tried recording and mixing your own Foley, you’ll feel a creative satisfaction unlike anything else. Indeed, nothing makes you feel more like MacGuyver than finding a way to MacGuyver your own sound effects!