VideoHelper recording techniques

VideoHelper, a sound production house, has a new library of sounds they call “narrative sound design,” a combination of “experimental” sound designs. You may have already heard some of the sounds from the two-disc collection, “Modules”, as the sounds have popped up in trailers for the likes of Spiderman 3, House of Wax, and Transformers. Since we love strange sound design techniques, though, I was just as interested in the techniques used to record the library, so I asked the boys of VideoHelper to share some of their favorite recording techniques. Sure enough, they’ve got some great examples — ones that might inspire you to go grab your mobile recorder and see what damage you can do.

Chris from VideoHelper searched his memory and mentioned these techniques, some of which even have subliminal political messages (hey, sound is powerful stuff). Some techniques you’ll no doubt know well (BANG THING! BANG THING RECORD WITH MIC! being one of my personal favorites to use), while others may be new. Chris writes that his favorite tips are:

  1. Hitting and smashing everything. Mailboxes, dumpsters, whatever.
  2. Homemade contact mics. $2 worth of parts from Radio Shack and some duct tape. They are piezo mics that can be wired to a 1/4” output and taped to an object.
  3. Dry ice. We’ve bought dry ice and recorded the contact between it and metal cymbals and whatever else is laying around. Makes a squealing sound not unlike fresh sausage hitting a hot skillet.
  4. Recording silence in acoustic spaces. I do this a lot…I’ll record in a big acoustic space (like a subway corridor) and use the files for ambient recordings/sound design. It’s cool b/c it’s not really silence, just nothing in the foreground…also I record at 96K so I get some really subtle sub-harmonic material.
  5. Leave beats on my answering machine and re-record for a breakdown.
  6. If I’m recording a trip-hop track around 100 bpm, I may record 3 half-steps slower, so I can re-pitch up to original tempo.
  7. For my POLITIK score (SH02) I got to plunder our vaults of news music for sampling. The score is a political trip-hop score using some orchestral sounds, concrete elements, fair use bites etc. I used Bush’s 2000 ring modulated acceptance speech as an impulse/input (ala Paul Panhuysen) to a prefaded verb for the ambient element of the piece BIRTH OF A NOTION. I inter-cut Hilter speeches with the cheering from the 2004 RNC. Grabbed audio from protesters in Miami (anti FTAA) and cut up into rhythmic bits…did turntable cuts on police siren “records”. The last piece depicting 9/11 has design made of box-box recordings (CVR) which was difficult to listen to. ENERGY CRISIS has all sound to do with gasoline and auto maintenance. The piece AFGHANI HEROIN has concrete elements from the the floor of the NYSE, as well as Hamid Karzai’s acceptance speech.
  8. Maybe my favorite: I have 1/4” blank audio tape that I buried in a graveyard in Sleepy Hollow over Halloween of 2003. The tape was washed and re-spooled and now I use it to lay off tracks to…also I recorded it back (blank) to a file so you can hear all the dents and pits and whatever other hallucinations you can find on it.
  9. Oh and one more thing talking of acoustic spaces…Flavio and I got the opportunity to record in an empty water tower in my hometown of Hampton Bays (my father-in-law works for the water authority)…the tower was being filled that week but we got to crawl around in it while empty…

VideoHelper has full details on the Modules series, with searchable sounds and previews, at their website. The library includes “modular” cuts that can be edited into full designs, with individual and annual blanket licenses.

VideoHelper Music Production Library

VideoHelper sound design, hitting a chair

  • This is great. I love tips in this vein. If only I could land a job in the field…

  • Wow! Might of gave away too much…thanks a lot guys!

  • Gustin

    Good stuff!

    Keep the sound to picture and sound to game stuff coming Peter, a couple or your articles have really made me start looking at this field for future employment. Thanks.

  • k1Ru

    i'm just surprised these methods are not openly used by more audio and visual engineers…it's not super science, it's really an activity that people with no experience or knowledge can parttake in…if anything, that's how you get really good sonic results

  • AeroPlain

    we use their library at my job. brilliant stuff.

    for anyone else interested in sound design, i urge you to find the 'toy story 2' 3-disc box set – the 3rd disc features the film with only sfx. it's amazing.

  • Thanks for sharing all of this information. There's a lot of creativity here. Keep up the good work.

  • Dr Fau5tus

    Cool stuff.

    I wasn't quite sure what they meant by this one though: "If I’m recording a trip-hop track around 100 bpm, I may record 3 half-steps slower, so I can re-pitch up to original tempo." Does that mean recording a verson of the loop playing back at a lower bpm so it can be pitched up?

  • flip

    @Dr Fau5tus:

    I think what they meant was: Record at a slower tempo 3 half steps (pitch) down. Then when you speed it back up to 100 bpm you'll be back (roughly) to the same pitch as the song was to begin with. It would also give it a formant shift, making it sound "sampled". Another cool trick for the same style is taking samples of yourself and slamming them onto 1/4 inch tape or cassette tape to give it some analog compression and harmonic complexity…then resampling it from there.

  • Dr Fau5tus



  • flip


    You'd be surprised how many professional sound designer and musicians think "outside the box". Usually the most successful sound designers and composers are the ones who aren't afraid to say no to a project or let their imagination be the only limit to what they create.

    In this case, these guys are very talented, but sometimes I fear that stock libraries kill the industry for those doing original work on a project to project basis. I know from experience that a library pull can kill a $30,000 to $60,000 job within a heartbeat of going final. In the end, I can't really complain though: Competition only makes everyone better.

  • voxish

    Awesome tips! I really like the photos, too. One favourite of mine is recording with the mic at the end of a length of tubing, PVC, or aluminum duct, or whatever you have available. Different lengths will give different resonant frequencies.

  • k1Ru


    setting the mighty buck and and market universe aside, i always find it a great gesture for audio specialists of all varieties to share their methods of producing sound. sometimes the passion behind our creations and the result is worth more than any material profit we can receive…(so cheesy)

  • @k1Ru: Well said & not cheesy at all. Personally, I don't fear sharing my tips with anyone. It's what you do with it that counts. I also don't fear competition (like I have a choice!) so I encourage it. May the best creation prevail. Funny thing is, most of my best tips are probably so absurdly geeky and complex, that most people probably wouldn't benefit from me posting them. Though, I would bet money that Peter K is 10 times the geek that I am and will laugh at me for saying so. I will say this: If anyone feels like they have something unique and original going on, I'm always open to sharing or helping someone out if they are trying to break into pro audio.

  • quite right – sharing tips benefits everyone! just because you teach someone how to play the chord of F doesn't mean they're going to write the same song you did using that chord… although production tips might be a bit more complex than this, the basic idea is the same.

    to wit, in the same vein as the hip-hop tip above, I sometimes bump up my sequencer tempo to 2x speed, create a loop and then play it back in a sampler at half speed, creating formant shifts that can be quite interesting on some material…

  • Stickly McSticklerso

    Nitpick: subharmonics are frequencies below the fundamental frequency, such as 110Hz, 220Hz for a fundamental of 440Hz, so a high sampling rate won't help.

    Awesome ideas, though… next step up from dry ice–liquid nitrogen.

  • @Stickly — yeah, should have caught that. But I wonder if he means higher frequencies causing sub-harmonics in the audible spectrum, which would be possible … hmmm…

  • Pingback: Stuff from all over at Audio Geek Zine()

  • Thanks for all these tips. There are some great ideas about sound design and it is definitely a source of inspiration.

    Great post..

  • nice stuff. It makes me want to walk around the house hitting stuff and recording it!

  • Wait; the water tower in Hampton Bays? Like on Long Island??

  • Wait; the water tower in Hampton Bays? Like on Long Island??

  • Wait; the water tower in Hampton Bays? Like on Long Island??