You don't need fancy plug-ins to make fancy soundtracks!

Premiere Unplugged

by Jay Rose

This article was written for Adobe's web site in 1996, when Premiere had very few native audio filters. The new version 5 of Premiere claims a full suite of these things, which I'll report on as soon as they give me a review copy. But the techniques in this article are still valuable.
Audio1 through Audio6 are clickable QuickTime audio-only movies with 4:1 IMA compression to save transfer time. They're playable on Mac and Windows machines.

Premiere users are lucky. Its plug-in format has become a standard for professional audio applications (including Macromedia Deck and BIAS Peak), so third-party manufacturers offer sophisticated sound design tools that integrate perfectly with the video editing program. Depending on the size of your budget and hard disk, you can add a full array of audio plug-ins from Waves, BIAS, Opcode, Invision, and other companies ... giving your copy of Premiere the power of a recording studio.

But if you don't want to invest in third-party extensions, you can still get some first-class effects by using the basic audio functions that come with every copy of Premiere. All it takes is a little time, and a willingness to experiment.

On the flange

Mix a clip with a delayed version of itself, and you get an echo. But if the delay is very small, the echo will reinforce or cancel individual frequencies. The delay time determines which frequencies are affected (this is the principal behind many digital equalizers). If you vary the delay while the sound is playing, the reinforcement sweeps up and down the spectrum. The result is the familiar wooshing or swirling flange effect heard in a lot of pop music.

While plug-ins allow more precise control and deeper effects, you can accomplish a basic flanging sound with nothing more than Premieres clip speed control and a couple of audio tracks. Compare example audio1 with its flanged version, audio2. We chose the steady sound of an airplane interior so the effect would be obvious, but sound designers often flange dynamic effects such as car passbys to give them even more motion.

The flanging you hear on audio2 is merely the original clip playing on two simultaneous tracks, with one tracking having its in point moved slightly to delay it, and its speed changed slightly from 100%. These changes have to be smaller than what you might expect -- about half a frame delay, at one-half percent speed -- and that takes a little trickery to accomplish:

  1. The Clip Speed percent control only accepts whole numbers, so a setting of 100.5% is impossible. Instead we slowed the clip to 50%, made a movie of the slowed version, and trashed the original. Then we put the new movie on two simultaneous tracks, used the clip speed setting to change the speed of one track to 200% (canceling the change on that track), and set the other track to 201% -- a net speed change, for that track, of 100.5%.

  2. Then we delayed the faster track slightly. Premiere is calibrated in whole frames, which makes sense for video. So we changed the calibration, opening that sound's Clip Window Options and setting the Rate to 100 fps. This made each click of the frame buttons move the cursor ten milliseconds, so we clicked twice: two-thirds of a normal frame.

  3. The final step was to preview the two clips together to check the sound, and then make a mono movie of it.

That's thick

Slightly larger delays can add interesting echoes. Delaying a copy of the track about a frame, and mixing it in at a lower level, can add strength to some announcer tracks. Adding a speed variation to that turns the dry voice of audio3 into the Doctor Who-ish creature of audio4.

The same voice clip was copied to three audio tracks, but the in-point was trimmed differently on each. Since we wanted more drama than a simple flange, we used larger speed changes: each clip was set 3% slower than the one above it. (A 3% speed change is roughly one-half-step musically, about the largest variation you can do to a voice without making it sound strange.) This change meant that track X1 took significantly longer than track A. To keep things in sync, we used the razor blade tool to split X1 and remove two frames. The entire effect was mixed down to a single movie, which we then imported to two tracks, flanged, and mixed again.

You can use this effect, without the flanging pass, when you want to thicken crowd scenes. Put the crowd on a few simultaneous tracks, and change the speed on each so they sound like different groups of people. Varying the in-points, and making tiny cuts within the slower tracks, keeps them in unison. It's a lot cheaper than hiring more actors.

Make it wide

Tired of wimpy monaural sound effects? You can make them fill the screen in glorious stereo... as we did, turning the stock glass crash of audio5 into the much bigger audio6. The procedure is almost the same as thickening, only we added the Fill Left and Fill Right filters as shown below.

The Fill filters direct a clip to just one speaker. (You can also use the Pan filter, introduced with Premiere 4.2.) The speed changes cause each ear to hear a sound thats different but related, and the brain tries to sort it out by creating a stereo image. It's not the true stereo of a music recording, but it sure sounds big. Since the changes are fairly large, mono listeners hear a thickened version rather than a flanging effect.

This compatibility is important in many multimedia and broadcast projects, where you cant predict how the audiences speakers are set up. Its a good idea to check stereo effects by previewing them twice: open the Preview Options window, and listen once in a stereo format and once in a mono one. If you don't hear a stereo effect either time, make sure Use Filters is also checked.

Since the clips are playing at different speeds, they end at different times. We added the fades shown at the end of tracks B and XI, to keep the crash in unison.

Make it big

In the real world, big things usually make deep sounds. So just adding a stereo effect might not make a sound large enough. Listen to the wimpy synthesized laser effect in audio7... Darth Vader would be ashamed. We wanted the force with us, so we turned it into audio8.

The stereo movement depends on Premiere 4.2s Pan filter and its ability to change over time. (Pan doesnt have the same Start and End sliders as filter like Camera Blur, but it does respond to the Vary Settings command in the Filters dialog.) The same original sound is on audio tracks A, B, and X1. Track A's clip starts with a pan setting fully to the left and ends 50% to the right. Track B's laser starts 50% left and moves fully right. We then changed the speeds radically, for a big stereo laser that moved from the left to the right. Fantasy sounds, unlike human voices, can take these larger speed variations since the audience isnt used to the sound's natural timbre.

But it wasn't big enough. Thats why we added a third copy of the original clip on Audio X1, playing at a third of the original speed. This lowered the pitch about an octave and a half. We faded both Audio B and X1 to match the faster Audio A, and previewed again.

It still wasn't big enough, so we grabbed all three clips with the Block Select tool and turn them into a virtual clip, which we moved down a little later on Audio A. Then we put a copy of the virtual clip on Audio B, at only 50% of the original speed. Both virtual clips -- or a total of six versions of the original laser -- combine to make a sound that stretches across almost four octaves. Some reverb and compression would have made it even bigger, if wed wanted to use third-party plug-ins.

Go crazy

This article should show you more than how to create a few sounds. Almost every feature of Premiere can be used in slightly non-obvious ways for interesting effects. All you need is time (considerably cheaper on your desktop than in a post-production house), an understanding of how the program works, and a willingness to experiment.
Jay Rose is a Clio- and Emmy-winning sound designer based in Boston. You can reach him .
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©1996 Jay Rose and Adobe; posted here 6June98 by permission of the author.
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