Sound sweetening in Backdraft

 Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)

In the previous article, we talked about a very powerful technique that is used in film sound design. In this article, we’ll talk about another technique which is equally powerful, but maybe little bit more fun to do.

Sound is all around us. Each human experiences sound every day, and learn about them, just like we learn a language (1). Most of the sounds have the ability to create an emotion or feeling inside us. For example, the air-distorted rippling effect you hear when a fighter jet flies by creates a sense of incredible speed. Or the sound of rattlesnake might create sense of fear, threat and anxiety inside you.

We could name thousand examples like this, but the important thing is that to each sound we hear, we usually connect some emotion or feeling. It’s really like learning a language; to every word (sound) you connect some event, space, thing, person, emotion, feeling etc.

Now, the job of a sound designer is to learn that language, transcribe it, understand it and enhance it (1).


Knowing what feeling and emotions various sounds evoke in us could be used in a very powerful way in sound design. In the video below you’ll see an example of car sweeteners created from animals. This gives the car an animal like quality; it creates the feeling of raw power inside you.

So sweetening is a process of subtly mixing an additional sound to a pre-existing sound to “sweeten” the pre-existing sound (2).

Now, the type of sweetener that gets subtly mixed into the pre-existing sound really depends on the story you are trying to tell.

Sound sweetening in Backdraft

If you ever tried to record something with a microphone, you’ll know that not always the recorded sound conveys the feeling and emotions associated/connected with the recorded element. Fire is a very good example, because simple sound record of a fire wouldn’t convey the threat, menace, danger or fear that fire represents. Fire itself is actually quite boring in terms of sound that it produces. But there is an “easy” solution.

Sound designer Gary Rydstrom used animal sounds like growls and coyote howls as sweeteners for the fire. You don’t hear them as animal sounds, but subconsciously it gives the fire intelligence or a complexity it wouldn’t normally have. A lot of the fireball explosions were sweetened with monkey screams and different animal growls (like cougars that make a great fire explosion sweetener) (3).

The video below shows, how Gary Rydstrom used sweeteners (animal sounds) to give a truly menacing quality to the fire, flames and explosion, enjoy!

I’d like to finish this article with words from a brilliant film sound designer Randy Thom. The following paragraph comes from his article written for

You begin by trying to forget for a while what the Nazi tank in an Indiana Jones film would “really” sound like, and start thinking about what it would FEEL LIKE in a nightmare. The treads would be like spinning samurai blades. The engine would be like the growl of an angry beast. You then go out and find sounds that have those qualities, or alter sounds to make them have those qualities. It makes no difference whether the sounds you collect actually have anything to do with tanks, samurai blades, or growling animals. The essential emotional quality of the sounds is virtually ALL that matters (4).



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