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Cinematic SFX

When you watch a film at the cinema, you don’t just hear the sound, you feel it. From the impact of a car crash to the intimacy of a couple’s first meeting, sound effects are key emotional drivers in a film’s story. A cinematic sound design doesn’t just underline visuals. It enhances and elevates each moment of a narrative. 

Recreating this effect in video content for YouTube, social media, or adverts is a fun challenge for any ambitious creator. To help creatives use cinematic sound effects (SFX) and boost the emotional impact of their videos, we got in touch with expert Rob Nokes. He advises finding and using the best SFX to make any project Oscar-worthy. 

Rob Nokes is a Sound Recordist and Supervising Sound Editor who’s worked in the industry for over 30 years. Having moved to Ontario hoping to make it big, he discovered his love for SFX design. He has since worked on cinema and TV projects such as Snow White and the Huntsman, Prison Break, and X-Men: First Class.

What are cinematic sound effects?

Cinematic sound effects are music or audio tracks specifically produced to enhance the storytelling of a film. When creating a movie, the task of a sound department (which includes recorders, designers, and mixers) is to enhance a piece's overall narrative and emotion. 

From making a scene feel more natural by integrating background noise or enhancing the impact of specific moments with particular effects. Several different types of cinematic SFX can be used to build a film’s overall sound design, including:

  • Ambient noise, which adds a sense of realism to a scene without disrupting the clarity of any foreground action or dialogue. Examples include the murmuring of a crowd, the audio of a bustling coffee shop, or the sound of passing vehicles on a street
  • Spot effects that match an event or moment of on-screen action. This could include the starting of an engine, the smash of a glass, or the opening and closing of a door
  • Foley effects (created to replicate everyday sounds). These are created during post-production to replace audio recorded on set but not high-quality. They match up to the on-screen action but are created in a studio for better clarity
  • Production SFX, which is audio recorded on-set alongside the visuals of a film. Sound crew (including assistants, boom operators, and mixers) will be present during the shoot to capture these tracks, which often include dialogue or action noises
  • Musical scores which underline the visuals of a film and are usually composed and recorded for specific projects. They don’t match any particular actions but help to capture and enhance a film’s emotion and narrative

When asked to define cinematic sound effects in his own words, Rob says, “It’s a single sound that tells a story by evoking a visual in your mind's eye. In the selection process, we want to pick great sounds that tell a story and avoid muddying up a mix with unnecessary effects.” 

How can using cinematic SFX benefit content?

Using cinematic music and sound effects rather than standard audio adds extra emotion and storytelling to video content. As these SFX tracks are recorded for film production, they’re high quality and easy for creators to use and edit. Or, as Rob explains, “They’re great sounds, well recorded and carefully mastered for sound designers to drop in and cut right away.” 

For Rob, the best sound designs (whatever medium they’re being used for) should enhance the action and narrative of a piece. “Apocalypse Now, for me, was always the best-sounding movie, he explains, “I could close my eyes and visualize the action. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is the greatest-sounding album because it’s so emotional. The depth of the sound effects and voices and their room placement tell a great story.” 

Though sound effects can make content more powerful when used effectively, Rob warns that this isn’t an easy result. He explains, “A great social media post and a great sound recording are two different things. When focusing on capturing and recording good sound, you can’t think about shooting images and video simultaneously.”

However, by finding and using quality libraries of royalty-free cinematic music and SFX, creators can achieve an immersive experience similar to a film without worrying about capturing quality audio.

Tips for using a cinematic sound pack

Immerse your audience in your YouTube vlog, capture their attention on social media, or captivate them with your advert. Here are some tips from Rob on using cinematic sound packs to create a film-like effect. 

Practice your skills

Pinpointing effects to specific actions, mixing tracks, and designing music alongside dialogue are all skills that take practice to perfect. To achieve cinematic quality sound on their content, creators need to spend as much time learning and working on their techniques as possible, says Rob. 

“When I was in my twenties and just starting, I took every opportunity I could get,” he explains. “Creators who want to improve sound should just sit and cut sounds to pictures. They just need to build stuff. Whether you follow a YouTube tutorial to see how certain people work or try to replicate your favorite movie, if you’re passionate, you should always be creating.”

Focus on frequencies

To make a sound design consistent and impactful, Rob recommends looking at a scene's main dialogue or audio and basing the mix of effects around this frequency range. For example, if there is lots of low-end frequency in a music track, look for pockets where you can integrate an effect of a similar range to make it sound like part of the score. 

Another tip Rob offers is “when you have an object moving on-screen, take a low frequency or subsound, and lay it over this action. Add a volume graph to it, and adjust the sound to match the movement. These low-frequency ‘sweeteners’ give the illusion of weight in an object.”

Test out layering

As creators start to build full sound designs, creating layers within an edit will help achieve a final result that’s more professional and effective. “All the best sound designers use three layers or more,” Rob explains. “Typically, these layers are for low, medium, and high sounds, which mixers can blend to create the desired effect.”

Don’t rely on level

Although adjusting the sound level can sometimes be helpful, Rob explains that creators will achieve a better finish if they don’t rely on this in their design. “Sounds themselves need a start, middle, and end. If you choose a thin sound and try to adjust the level, all the crackle or buzz will come with it. Level is never the answer to solving design problems. The sound itself has to be good.” 

Know your libraries

One of the biggest frustrations for creators or sound designers is not finding the quality sound they want. As a designer, Rob has helped build an “unparalleled” selection of SFX in Universal Music For Creators. This library has also been made with creators’ needs in mind, including search tools that make finding the effect they’re looking for easy.  

When explaining how to start using the catalog, Rob says, “The library is enormous, so sometimes you have to try different keywords to find the sets you are looking for and then drill down deeper. Also, some sets have 10 channels; maybe the seventh channel has what you need. 

This is common in car sets. For example, on a hood shot of a car, you need the sound of an intake pumping and gasping. You need to know where to find that sound in a 10-channel onboard car set.

To help creators get a head start using our catalog of more than 200,000 SFX, Rob recommends “searching for renowned sound designers, such as George Watters or Craig Henighan, and listening to some great tracks.” By starting with these top-spec sounds and following the tips above, creators can make feature-quality content for their channels and clients.