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18 commonly used sound terms and what they actually mean

Story & Heart
November 18, 2015 by Story & Heart PRO

Creating videos is half about the visuals and half about the sounds. But when you’re just getting started, there is a ton to figure out just on the visuals side, and when you add in audio, it can be overwhelming to say the least.

This month, we’re on a mission to help you get your audio bearings in the world of filmmaking. To kick it off, we created a tutorial about capturing amazing natural sounds with minimal gear. Now, we’re diving into common audio terms that are important for all video creators to know. While this isn’t an exhaustive list (there are a lot of audio-related terms!), it’s a great primer on some of the more prevalent phrases for you to tuck away in your knowledge bank.

Natural sound (also called “nat sounds”) are sounds that are produced in their actual setting — a.k.a., nature. They’re the sounds of wind, tree branches, animals, insects, cars whizzing by, horns honking, etc., all of which add a layer of realism to your films. 

Foley is the recreation of noises synced to picture. This can either be made from the objects that appear in your film, or from completely different sources. For example, a bag of corn starch rustled in your hands hands sounds eerily similar to footsteps in snow — and now you don’t have to stand out in the cold to record that sound.

Sound effects, unlike foley, aren’t recorded to sync directly with picture. They are either created artificially or by enhancing existing sounds. Think explosions, mechanical sounds, or made-up objects (light sabers!).

Walla is background sound, which typically captures the noise of a crowd or conversation. Walla adds a foundation to your films, particularly in scenes where you’d expect to hear distant ambient conversations, such as a couple dining at a busy restaurant. Pro tip: if you’re directing your extras and trying to record walla, ask them to describe what they ate for lunch in the last seven days ... all at the same time.

Diegetic sounds arise from the subjects or objects that appear on screen, or are implied to be present within your film’s world. These can be the actors’ voices, sounds of footsteps, or a tinkling piano.

Non-diegetic sounds are the tones emitted from subjects or objects that do not appear on screen, nor have they been implied to be present within your film’s world. A voice-over or a soundtrack (where the music is not being performed within the film) are solid examples of this.

Microphone polar (pickup) patterns are how different microphones pick up sounds around their central axis. In other words, this is the audio the mic captures in relation to where you’re pointing it. Though there are several different types of patterns, three common examples are (from most to least focused) are shotgun, cardioid, and omnidirectional. Now, perhaps it would be helpful to overview those terms ...

Shotgun microphones are highly-directional microphones that reject sound from other directions. These mics are great for recording focused audio when you want to focus in and eliminate the extraneous, such as in an interview. 

“Polar pattern directional” by Galak76 - self-made, Adobe Illustrator. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons  

Cardioid microphones are best explained by their shape: a heart. This is roughly the shape of this pickup pattern. Cardioid microphones will pick up most of their signal in one direction, rejecting most of the noise in the other directions but still picking up some ambient audio around the scene. These are great for speech-related uses, either for voice-overs or — everyone’s favorite — podcasts.

“Polar pattern cardioid” by Galak76 - self-made, Adobe Illustrator. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons 

Omnidirectional microphones are directional mics that pick up sounds from all directions. When you either don’t want highly-focused sound captured, or are trying to record audio in an unpredictable setting, these are a great option. For example, most lavalier microphones (often called “lav mics”) are omnidirectional which, when clipped to your talent’s lapel, allows you to capture what they’re saying even when they turn their head and their mouth isn’t pointed at the mic.

“Polar pattern omnidirectional” by Galak76 - self-made, Adobe Illustrator. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons  

Lavalier microphones are small microphones generally placed on the body, such as on the lapel of a jacket, in your talent’s hair, or underneath clothing. Paired with a wireless transmitter and receiver, lav mics can be used to record audio wirelessly while staying mostly or completely hidden if need be.

Wireless transmitter and receivers get a little nerdy, but here’s the basic breakdown: the transmitter takes your audio signal and converts it to radio waves, and then sends those to a receiver that does the opposite, and converts your radio waves back to an audio signal. This allows you to wirelessly record audio from a lav mic during a walk and talk interview, for example.

Peaking/clipped audio is, in short, no good! Clipped audio is just liked clipped highlights in your video — once they’re gone, they’re gone. In the case of audio, it will result in distorted sound that’s virtually unusable. To avoid this, turn down your levels (usually -10db is a good place to start to provide a buffer for the unexpected), or turn on a built-in limiter in your audio-capturing device (most cameras have this ability).

Phantom power is 1. power sent through microphone cables, and 2. an awesome name. This phantom removes the need to power your mics individually, allowing your camera or audio recorder to act as its power source.

Sync sound are sounds that were recorded directly into the camera. An example would be plugging your shotgun mic directly into your camera.

Dual-system recording is sound that was not recorded directly into the camera. You could use another sound recorder to capture the audio separately from the visual shots, for example. The result is having to sync sound in post, which can be done either manually, like with a slate marker, or by using software, like Red Giant’s PluralEyes.

Timecodes are used for syncing multiple media tracks (video and audio). In the case of audio, using timecode is another way to sync dual-system recording. Timecodes can either be set in-camera manually or “jammed” into the camera via a separate audio recorder (to ensure both are set at the same value).

Room tone is the sound of a space as a result of where your microphone is placed. Generally this is recorded after filming has stopped but before tear down has begun. This is used in the final edit to smooth out any sound edits, such as between interview sections.


p>Carry this glossary around and your videos will hopefully come along quite harmoniously! Did we miss any of your favorite sound words? Have other noise-related questions? Let us know by popping a question in our comments section below, and we’ll do our best to answer or point you towards a helpful direction.


Ice Block Plus

Just a couple more terms that you might want to know:

Senny - the squarest way to prove you're too hip to say Sennheiser.

Ben Burtt - The grand-daddy of modern sound design and one sonically cool dude.

Wilhelm Scream - That scream that was dropped into one action film... then another... then another. Before long, it became one of the best Hollywood in-jokes. Once you hear it, you can't un-hear it.


"Add a bit of wet" means reverb

Alan Barker

When recording interviews or using a microphone on a boom pole supercardioid microphones are preferred over "shotgun" microphones by professionals. Shotgun microphones pick up excess sound from the rear of the mic which can be seen in the polar pattern above. This can get nasty in an interview for example if there is an AC duct on the ceiling over the subject. The term "sync sound" refers to any sound that is synchronized to the picture whether it be "dual system" (traditionally called double-system) or in-camera sound. In-camera sound is traditionally called single-system sound if defined at all. Time code or timecode is not referred to as timecodes except in a sentence like "The timecodes do not match."

CF Studios

Source and score sound for diagetic and non-diagetic. this is the very Nice comment.
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