Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dungeons, Dragons, Soundscapes: Sound Effects as a GM Tool

By Kyle O'Hara

It's an oft-repeated theme on many gaming forums – where does sound fit in with my game? Typically the topic of conversation is more background music and less sound effects, but the general consensus seems to be “Use what suits your group best”. And that's true. Music and sound effects aren't for every game group out there. But for those who choose to use it, sound is a powerful tool for setting atmosphere, highlighting important moments, climactic battles... the limit is your imagination.

Sound design is a weird and wonderful mix of technical dry work and pure creativity, and music and sound can skyrocket your game's feeling to whole new levels. In movies, it's the sound and music that sets the tone more than the visual aspect of it. You know what I mean – you're watching a movie, and slowly the music takes on a more tense tone, getting louder, and louder and louder, more tense until you're ready to snap, then BANG! A monster jumps out, or whatever. It wasn't the character walking down the empty hall that had you on the edge of your seat, it was the tense music making your heart race.

Using sound in your game is no different. Use it to underlie your BBEG monologues, to emphasize the mounting tension as the orc army draws near with wardrums pounding in the distance. It can be as simple as a nice long mp3 of foresty sounds you found on the Internet as background sound, you hit play, maybe set it to repeat, and you're good to go back to focusing on the game. That's fine. It can get a lot more in-depth than that, though – the more direct control you're willing to exercise, the more detailed you can get with your sounds in-game.

This talk is all fine and good, but what I hear you saying is, “Kyle, how do we do this? Tell us how we can make sounds our next big GM tool!” Well, alright, if you insist.

There are multiple ways of getting sound effects and background music up and running for your game, and I will be covering many of them in this series. Today, I'll be showing you how to build them yourself using free software and sounds, my preferred method. Over the course of this series I'll cover various other methods and resources as well.

For starters, you can just grab things off the internet. There are numerous places that offer royalty-free sound effects you can use, such as You can find all manner of … well, anything there, download them, and use them. They're created and uploaded by other users, with quite a good search function.

So, you've got yourself all the awesome explosions and fire sound effects you want, and you want to stick them together. Here's where you need another program. There are all kinds of them – any professional Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) will do the trick, but there are free alternatives. The best one out there is Audacity, available at for free. It does a lot of the basics of a DAW, and even supports AU plug-ins. For our purposes, though, it has pretty much everything you'll need to get rolling with sound for your game.

This week's theme here at the Flying Pincushion is Gilgamesh, so today we'll be putting together some sound effects for a forest scene such as when Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel through the forest to steal cedar trees. And we'll be using 100% free stuff to do it! I'll show you how to make this sound file:

Step 1: Decide which sounds you need.
To begin with, we need to figure out what sounds belong in the scene we're trying to build. A forest scene needs birds, leaves rustling, a river off in the distance perhaps. Lots of atmosphere and background noise. You can record the sounds yourselves if you have the gear for that, of course, but for those that don't, head on over to and find yourselves some sounds. You can search for specific sounds, but don't forget to try a general search for “forest” and see what comes up. As it happens, right near the top of the “forest” search, there's one called “Fryers Forest Dawn long version” which suits our purposes perfectly. Then search “river” and there's a file called Beek1.wav that's a nice high-quality recording of a river sound.

Step 2: Download the sounds and import them into Audacity
Okay. So, we've downloaded some sounds that we would like to put together. Open up Audacity, go to File>Import>Audio, and select the sounds – in our case, the forest and river sounds. When the prompt pops up, select “make a copy of the selected files”, which copies the files and edits the copies so the originals stay untouched. Now we have two tracks – the forest and the river sounds. You can just hit play and hear both tracks at the same time, but the river one is much shorter than the forest one.

Step 3: Fill the Gaps
We want the river to be a constant background noise that lasts the length of the whole thing. Fixing this problem is simple – double-click the river clip to select it, hit Cmd+C (Ctrl+C for Windows users) to copy it, click again somewhere after the end of the clip, hit Cmd/Ctrl+V to paste it. Now, at the top of the window you have the transport area (play, pause, fast forward, etc.) and to the right of that, a bank of six icons. These are your tools – you have the Selection tool active right now. Click the bottom middle icon (a line with an arrow at either end) to activate the Time Shift tool. Then click and drag the pasted clip to the left until it meets the end of the first clip. Then, click the darker line at the meeting point to fuse the clips together. Then repeat the process for the new, double-length clip you just made, and again until you've matched the length of the forest clip. If you've filled it up and the river clip is now longer, click on the river clip at the spot that the forest clip ends (the end of the forest clip will blink yellow to show that it's perfectly aligned), and hit Cmd/Ctrl+I to split the clip at that location, then double-click the extra bits you don't want and hit backspace. The bulk of the work is now done!

Step 4: Tinker with the Sound
Alright, we have our basic clip complete. But we wanted the river in the background, remember? We could just make the river quieter (the volume control is the slider with – and + on the base of the track, left side of the screen). That works just fine, if you want the river to sound like it's right nearby. If you want it in the distance, you will need to do a little more work. Double-click the whole river clip to select it, then in the top menu bar click Effect, and select Equalization. This opens an EQ tool that gives you control over the levels of any specific frequency in the clip. To make the river sound farther off, we need to sink off the higher frequencies. The easiest way to do this is to click the Graphic EQ button on the bottom left, and just pull down the sliders starting at the far right, all the way to the bottom. Click Preview to hear what it will sound like, and keep doing that until it's satisfactorily far-away-sounding. Then hit OK to apply the effect.

Step 5: Save the Sound
Save the session (File>Save Project). If you want to have this sound you've created as an mp3, use File>Export. It will default to .WAV, if you want it as an mp3 instead simply select that on the drop-down menu, and it will export the sound in that format. I recommend using .WAV though, as it is an uncompressed lossless format with much higher quality than mp3. Alternatively, you can just use Audacity itself to playback the sound when you need it. If you want it to loop until you say stop, select the entire clip by double-clicking and on the top menu, click Transport>Loop Play. It will keep looping the audio until you hit stop.

There we go! We're done. Your only limits in what you can create in this manner are the sound files you can find, and your own creativity in putting them together and editing them. 

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