The old idiom states that ‘silence is golden’, though there are some rooms in the world that truly put that value to the test. Anechoic Chambers are specially designed rooms that are mostly utilised for technology testing, with a few other interesting a noteworthy applications, that are affectionately dubbed as ‘rooms where sound goes to die’. This goes well beyond soundproofing rooms, these soundproofed walls seem to smother sound!
But how can a room be created where sound is made obsolete? It sounds like something straight out of the realms of science fiction or quantum physics, and yet across the world, there are such rooms that conduct experiments, research and tests every day. There may be some thinking that these kinds of rooms are the perfect answer to the question of how to reduce noise through walls, but they’d be wise to hold off on instantly installing soundproofing foam and other soundproof technology on this level.
So what creates these soundproofed rooms so effectively? Is it ingenious engineering? Incredible tech? Black magic? Below are answers to this question (spoiler: it’s not that last answer) as well as several other questions you may have about them. All of the following explores the wonderful world of sound engineering in a way that, on paper, sounds like an impossible feat.
The Guinness World Records had previously stated that the anechoic chamber within Orfield Laboratories in South Minnesota was the quietest room in the world, registering at a baffling -9.4 decibels, yet as of 2015 this way no longer the case. Usurped by Microsoft’s Building 87, this Washington based building is host to an anechoic chamber used to develop new equipment and technology.
This is no DIY soundproofing; this anechoic chamber is formed by using ridiculously intelligent engineering. Microsoft’s quiet room managed to smash the previously held world record, with background noise being recorded at an almost impossible-to-comprehend -20.6. To put this into some form of understandable reference, the average background noise of a bedroom at night is around 30 decibels, the Orfield Laboratories’ anechoic chamber was quiet enough to hear your own heartbeat after half an hour, and Microsoft’s quiet room was too silent that you could hear your own bones grinding together as soon as you set foot in it.
Even crazier is that the sound of air molecules colliding with each other, known as the Brownian Motion, is estimated to be at about -23 decibels; that’s only 2.4 decibels less than Microsoft’s quiet room’s background noise. As far as removing office noise goes, this office is so far removed from noise that the team often say that opening the door and going back into the main building feels like being hit by a ‘waterfall of sound’!
LaSalle Munroe, Director of Electrical Engineering at Microsoft, makes use of Microsoft’s quiet room with his team testing new electronics and technology, with the utter, dead silence helping them look for the likes of tiny vibrations produced by capacitors on electric circuit boards. These vibrations are what many would register as ‘irritating hums’, and so Munroe and his team set out to fix these identified issues.
They also test out the likes of keyboards, trying to determine which materials look and feel best for the keyboard themselves as well as which spring mechanisms mix with these materials to create the most pleasant sounds. Another clear answer for how to effectively utilise anechoic chambers is also the testing of sound systems and speakers.
Coincidentally there are alternative uses for the anechoic chamber that may surprise some. Steve Orfield, Director & Owner of Orfield Laboratories, has been researching how the prospect of utter silence can serve as a therapeutic experience for people with conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and even autism. Certainly, a worthy cause that most wouldn’t assume soundproofing could help with!
In his own words, “It’s a fascinating experience; gentle introverts will find it much more pleasurable than an extrovert.” Orfield is suggesting that those more capable of self-reflection and internally thinking may find the idea of “finding themselves as the noise” interesting, whereas some think that the experience of being in such silence that hearing their own heartbeat might be too scary.
Explaining how an anechoic chamber works is difficult without treading into the realms of degree level music studies, but essentially the padded, triangular fall fittings trap the reflections of sound waves, which then dissipate via the air’s molecular viscosity. Simply put, the energy in sound waves that allow them to travel through the air and into our ears is dulled considerably or quashed completed by the specially designed walls.
Alternatively, there are RF anechoic chambers, those designed to hamper or eliminate radiofrequency. These adhere to a similar design as acoustic and semi-anechoic chambers, though the interior is padded with RAM, radiation-absorbent material. Like the standard types of anechoic chambers, RF anechoic chambers can vary in size depending on their purpose, with some being large enough to comfortably host fighter jets.
While the design for anechoic chambers is roughly the same, it’s the special features that set each one apart from the other. Microsoft’s Building 87, for example, was designed with the anechoic chamber being surrounded by six separate layers of concrete, each 12 inches thick, and rests on a ‘foundation’ of 68 vibration damping springs, which are in turn resting on a separate foundation slab. Most soundproofed rooms, such as when soundproofing a room to transform it into a music studio, merely settle for utilising soundproofing foam, acoustic panels and SBx boards, so to go through the lengths of building a ‘concrete onion’ is no small feat. In fact, Munroe says that deciding where they could build this building, and consequently the anechoic chamber, was a particularly arduous task as they had to find somewhere naturally quiet to begin with.
Hundraj Gopal, Principle Human Factors Engineer at Microsoft (and the man who spearheaded building their anechoic chamber), joked that “The chamber doesn’t make direct contact with building around it at point,” and stated that the insulation of the chamber ‘makes a huge difference’, going so far as to claim that even if a jet engine was taking off just outside the building then barely the sound of a whisper would penetrate the chamber itself.
There isn’t just one anechoic chamber, but most people will probably think of the Orfield Laboratory as the anechoic chamber as it was previously the Guinness World Record holder for the ‘quietest room in the world’ and received a lot of publicity from the likes of the BBC and NBC. The full list of anechoic chambers is elusive though as some facilities, such as universities, don’t exactly advertise them to the world.
A good list of those that can be rented includes the aforementioned Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, the Faculty of Brain Science at UCL in London, the Acoustics Lab at the University of Salford in Manchester, the Faculty of Humanity and Theology at Lund University in Lund, the NTT InterCommunication Centre (ICC) in Tokyo, the EMC RF Anechoic Test Facility in Sydney and the current World Record holder of Microsoft’s Building 87 in Washington. Each and every one of these facilities has gone above and beyond to ensure that the art of soundproofing is pushed to its limits; so much so that most of the time only the most important of academic purposes can be used to justify these incredible rooms.
These facilities do state that they can be rented, though mostly for academic purposes. The most accessible facility is the Orfield Laboratories, which opens the anechoic chamber as well as Sound 80 Studios, known as “the world’s first digital recording studio”, to small groups of tourists throughout the year.
As most of the anechoic chambers around the world are based within company headquarters or universities it’s generally stated that, no, the general public can’t visit them. However, this isn’t the case with the Guinness World Records’ old holder; the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories. Reportedly still accepting tours, Orfield Laboratories will showcase their acoustic marvel to the general public, with tours ranging from two to ten people at around $125 per person.
Of course, there’s always the option of enrolling at one of the universities that have their own anechoic chambers if you really want to experience or use them. Some universities offer exceptional sound engineering courses that make good use of anechoic chambers, such as the University of Salford, so those that are genuinely intrigued in these phenomenal rooms could certainly satisfy their curiosity whilst improving their higher education.
As for the rest of us, we’ll simply have to view anechoic chambers as enigmatic mysteries, those that we’ll never encounter or unravel. Then again, after hearing reports of the deathly silence instilling dread and fear in those that venture into these chambers, perhaps it’s best that they remain a mystery.
What are your thoughts about anechoic chambers? Would you want to experience the utter silence within their walls? How long do you think you could last before having to get back into the noisy outside world? And could you imagine having soundproofing this potent in your home or office? Let us know in the comments section below and be sure to check out the rest of our articles here on our blog!
Foley sound effects are specifically recorded sounds for synchronising with actions on screen. Performed by a foley artist, these sound effects can be created in a myriad unusual ways. What’s particularly unusual about these sound effects is that many times, the manufactured sounds seem to be more convincing than their genuine counterparts.
It’s safe to say that the methods in which these are created, and the history of them, are both wonderful and weird. Some experts reading this may be aware of how sound effects are designed, especially if they work in music studios, though most will likely be surprised by how even the most simple of sounds are crafted for their favourite films and shows.
Sometimes sets require soundproofing (to best get clean takes) whereas other times it’s impossible to set up the likes of acoustic panels and db boards. After all, you can soundproof a room but you can’t fill a park with soundproofing foam! With this in mind let’s look away from soundproofing for a while and towards how sounds can be created.
It all starts by discussing how one sound designer changed with the world of SFX forever.
First of all, it’s important to realise why the world of sound effects, particularly foley effects, are so important for films and television. Some may think that most modern sound recording technology would be good enough to pick up the likes of actors running in scenes (along with many other minor sounds we probably don’t even notice unless focusing on) yet this isn’t the case.
Even with the most advanced equipment, sound recording in films and television are usually specifically utilised to clearly record dialogue. This is why sound designers and sound engineers are so vital to film-making and creating shows, as their ability to designing and implementing convincing and synchronised sounds are essential to immersing audiences in the experiences.
Jack Donovan Foley is the man largely attributed to bringing sound effects to the big screen. Having spent his career working in radio studios, Foley was familiar with how to create synchronised sound effects for the likes of radio drama. In 1914 he began working for Universal Studios, though this was during the era of silent movies so the studio had little to no experience with utilising sound.
This was why when they began changing their upcoming ‘silent’ musical, Show Boat, into an actual musical Universal Studios scrambled to find any staff members with radio experience. Foley stepped up and, along with a small crew, he projected the film onto a screen for reference and began recording a single track of audio with synchronised actions.
As this was the only technology they could work with at the time the crew had to effectively record an entire film in one go, creating sound effects with whatever they could get their hands on.
‘Walla’ is the term given to the sound of people talking unrecognisably or unintelligently in the background, the kind of sound used when creating a scene in a busy and populated area. It may appear at first that this would be an unusual sound, though it’s one that most of us hear on a daily basis; especially anyone living in a city.
‘Selective Attention’ is the term used for how our brains’ auditory cortex focus in on a speaker’s voice & pitch to understand them. When we’re in a crowd full of an overwhelming amount of voices there’s no way our brains can comprehend exactly what each one is saying at once. Ergo, ‘walla’.
Still background noises, yet not literally in the background, are many small sound effects that rarely conjure any additional thought. These include the likes of clothes ruffling, made by rubbing two pieces of the same material (such as cloth or leather) together close to the recording equipment, and the ‘swoosh’ of clothing and weapons, often created by quickly waving a stick through the air.
Even more common than even background noises can be the simple running or walking sound effects. Foley artists often create what’s known as ‘Foley Pits’ for walking and running sound effects, these ‘pits’ can consist of small squares of different materials, such as gravel, stone and marble, and simply stepped on by the foley artists. There are also often plenty of different sizes of shoes for the foley artists to use, which often leads them to be dubbed ‘Foley Walkers’ during this particular sound effect sourcing process.
Now, onto the big effects; the sounds that really pop out of the screen and blast their ways into your home. Fight scenes in action films are often the ripped muscles on top of the frail skeleton of a plot, and the effective use of sound effects can really make or break these scenes.
Making guns sound punchy, sharp and powerful comes down to some fine-tuning with sound engineers, but the initial technique for adding these gun sound effects into a film is, unsurprisingly, with a gun; just not the kind of gun you‘re thinking of.
Heavy staple guns being fired often serve as the basis for foley gun sound effects, occasionally paired with small metallic objects for additional, immersive touches like shell cases falling to the ground.
Getting more physical, punch sound effects, as well as many combat and execution orientated sound effects, are created by using one surprisingly adaptable tool; a frozen Romaine lettuce. Anyone who’s been in a fight before will confirm that a punch doesn’t quite create the same, solid ‘whack’ sound that they do in the movies; these are merely exaggerated for the sake of dramatics.
Combining the sound of frozen Romaine lettuce hitting a wooden table with a big slap on some wooden slats should culminate in a fairly meaty sound. Some sound designers also use boxing gloves, hitting them against big, chunky phone books, the likes of which creates a big thud that can be a great basis for a punch sound effective.
An unusual side note but one worth referencing is that, for the most part, whenever a frog or a toad appears in a film or on television it is usually accompanied by that familiar ‘ribbit’ call. This may lead some to believe that all frogs and toads make this noise, much like all dogs ‘bark’ or all cats ‘meow’, yet it could not be further from the truth. Like many genera of animals, each individual species of frog is unique and therefore has its own unique call.
The ‘ribbit’ like call is unique to the Pacific Chorus Frog, or the Pacific Tree Frog, that is native to the West Coast of America, including Northern California. What with Hollywood creating more films than anywhere else in the country throughout most of the age of cinema and being located in California when Sound Engineers needed recordings of frogs they would simply go and find some in their area. Using their recordings in films so often meant that the ‘ribbit’ became synonymous with frogs.
While some foley animal sound effects aren’t well known, such as clutching a pair of gloves by the wrist and slapping them together emulating a bird’s wings flapping, some are surprisingly well-well. In fact, one of these sound effects may be considered, by some, merely a joke. Parodied by the likes of Monty Python & The Holy Grail, the sound effect for horses trotting, prancing and galloping genuinely are the clicking two halves of a coconut together.
Hilariously enough, sound effects have been designed for extinct animals, so really we couldn’t know what they sound like. That’s right, sound effects for dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park, these are foley sound effects created by combining various animals calls for mating, distress, and more.
The iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex’s roar was the distorted whine of a baby elephant and its growls can be attributed to an edited version of the film’s Sound Designer’s, Gary Rydstrom, own dog, a small Jack Russell terrier, growling. Somewhat to the embarrassment of Rydstrom is the sound of the Raptors’ barks; it’s actually the noise tortoises make when having sex.
Many professional Foley artists have argued that utilising a heavy car door and a fender can create most, if not all, of the essential car sounds in a studio. A heavy door can easily create a door closing sound effect, after all.
However, there’s the rather obvious argument to be made for having an entire car at hand for recording for films that require more specific car sound effects, such as the Fast & Furious franchise.
It should be noted that not all car sound effects are used to strictly showcase an automobile passing by at high speeds; they can also be more commonly used as background sound effects. These kinds of sound effects are used to create an atmosphere or set a scene, such as having car horns blaring in traffic or the general noise of a busy road.
The classic fire sound effect is simply created by crinkling cellophane, with the ferocity of the flames being reflected by how quickly the cellophane is felt. This technique is used for the likes of campfires, bonfires and straw catching alight; emulating the roar of a raging inferno is another beast altogether.
Less ‘towering conflagration’ and more’ soothing candle’ is the somewhat smelly solution to alternative fire sound effects. Cutting up plastic garbage bags into strips and burning these makes a convincing non-crackling fire sound, not unlike a candle, especially when the bag melts and drips.
Door sound effects, namely ‘futuristic’ doors in shows like Star Trek, are created by the sound of sliding a piece of paper out of an envelope. An oddly low-tech solution to something so Sci-Fi, perhaps, but this method perfectly showcases how foley artists work with the materials they’ve got to create something amazing.
Finally, this specific scream is possibly the most well-known sound effect, being used in hundreds of films, television shows and even video games. Even those who aren’t aware of the scream will have undoubtedly heard it, perhaps noting its unusual inflexion or how it’s oddly familiar.
Originally recorded by Sheb Wooley for the 1951 movie Distant Drums, the Wilhelm Scream was brought into mainstream media (and begun a staggering increase in popularity) when Ben Burtt, the Sound Designer for Star Wars, decided to use it in A New Hope.
Since then it’s been notably used in almost every Star Wars film and every Marvel film, though the list of films, shows and games it’s been in is incredibly high; so much so that it’s become something of an ‘in-joke’ for sound designers to input it into anything they’re working on.
And that unusual note is quite possibly the best way to portray just how odd work can get for foley artists! Do you know of any unusual movie sound effect techniques? Let us know in the comments section below and be sure to check out the rest of our articles here on our blog!