11 Secrets of Sound Effects Editors

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Sound effects editors assemble the noises that bring viewers into the physical world of a movie or TV show, whether it's the meaty sound of a fistfight or the ear-shattering roar of a T. rex. They're more important than many people realize—after all, sound is half of the viewer experience. Mental Floss spoke with three of these sound magicians to learn about creating the illusion of reality, going undercover to capture sound, and when a trip to the grocery story is sometimes necessary.

1. THEY DON’T JUST MAKE THINGS GO BOOM.

The phrase “sound effects” may conjure up thoughts of explosion-packed action movies or the buzzing and clashing of light sabers. But sound effects editors don't always work on noises that dramatic. “It can be as subtle as crickets,” says Ric Schnupp, a New York-based sound editor and mixer. “[Sound effects] can be super detailed or super huge.” Heather Gross, a sound effects editor on films such as Into the Woods (2014) and TV's Quantico, adds that this fact can sometimes be lost on the average person. “If something isn’t exploding they don’t think of it as an effect,” she says. “Those birds, the car that drove by in the background, all these mundane things that always surround us—people don’t think about them in life and they certainly don’t think about it when they’re watching something.” But these small sounds are still a crucial part of a sound effects editor’s job, helping to create the reality onscreen.

2. THEY’RE OPPORTUNISTS.

Young woman working in a recording studio
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Sound effects editors are highly attuned to their environments and ready to capture unique sounds at a moment’s notice. Fortunately, sound recording equipment has become so small and portable that an editor can carry a high-quality recorder with them at all times. That's handy, since some sounds you hear all the time in life are actually pretty difficult to find in a sound library. Gross, for example, says she's always ready with her recorder whenever an opportunity presents itself. “There are life things that you are always thinking about recording. Any time someone has a baby, I record the baby,” she explains. And while attending a recent U. S. Open tennis match, she didn’t lose a chance to capture crowd sounds: “That sort of crowd, you can’t fake that,” she says. “You’re never in a situation where you can get 10,000 extras to do crowd reaction.”

The small size of some modern sound recording equipment also makes it possible to collect sounds without attracting a lot of attention. Schnupp calls his portable setup “incredibly covert.” “It’s a little thing that looks like an iPhone," he says "so it’s very easy for me to look like I’m checking my email, when in fact I’m getting sound.”

3. THEY’RE LIBRARY PATRONS …

But not the regular kind of library. Capturing live sound adds authenticity to sound design, but sometimes it's much more time and cost-effective to use sound effects from an established commercial library instead. Case in point: Schnupp relates a story about working on a forthcoming documentary that needed the sound of women screaming at a rock concert, and making the decision to purchase a sound library specifically for that purpose. “I’m not going to go spend $100 for a concert ticket and try to sneak in mics that I’m not allowed to have,” he explains.

While a sound studio will typically purchase the rights to several sound effects libraries, individual sound effects editors often also amass their own personal libraries based on recordings they’ve done, giving them the ability to draw on multiple resources.

4. THEY HEAR THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY THAN MOST PEOPLE.

Smiling man holding his ears and looking up
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Whether due to natural inclination or years of practice, sound effects editors have a sharper sense of hearing than most of us, and a more imaginative way of listening to common sounds. Schnupp recounts sitting on an airplane while the stewardesses ran through safety protocols, and noticing that “that little seat buckle thing” evoked the metallic click of a gun. He somehow convinced the stewardess to give him the buckle. “I brought it into the studio and we used it for a ton of different shows and films ... When someone holds the gun up like they’re going to shoot someone and you hear a little ‘click click’ sound ... We use that for everything and everyone loves it.”

5. ONE PERSON’S JUNK IS ANOTHER PERSON’S SOUND EFFECTS GOLDMINE.

Schnupp says the studio where he works contains a number of physical objects used to create sound effects. This includes slabs of marble and tile surfaces for recording footsteps as well as wooden boxes and palettes that imitate the hollow sound of porches, docks, or boardwalks. Schnupp says that the studio also contains “a large pile of props that we use to make sounds. It’s sitting in the corner and we kind of look like hoarders.” In the pile: bins of different shoes, paper articles, ceramics, metal objects, and broken toys.

Using objects of this sort to create footsteps and other sounds falls more properly under the role of a Foley artist, whose responsibility is to create sounds intimately associated with onscreen characters—like the rustling of clothing or sound of setting down a coffee cup. There is a fine line between Foley and sound effects work, however, and depending on a project’s budget a single person might assume both roles.

6. THEY MIGHT HAVE TO MUTILATE A (DEAD) CHICKEN.

A raw, whole chicken on butcher paper
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Speaking of unique ways sound effects editors work their magic—horror movies sometimes require resorting to techniques almost as gross as the content of the film. Schnupp says that one of the best ways to mimic the sound of ripping flesh is to buy a raw chicken at the supermarket and tear it apart. “If you really want it to sound real, sometimes it’s got to be actual flesh,” he explains.

Of course, there are ways of imitating the sound of breaking bones that might not make a vegetarian wince. “Celery is really good for bone breaks,” Schnupp says.

7. THEY SWAP SOUNDS.

Sound effects editors not only pull from commercial and personal libraries, but sometimes borrow from the personal libraries of other sound effects editors. As with many creative disciplines, the people in the sound effects field are both familiar with one another’s work and willing to help one another out. If a particular sound effect is missing, it can be helpful to think about sounds heard in the work of colleagues and to ask around. Roland Vajs, a sound editor and mixer known for his work on Green Room (2015), says he’s typically happy to share and that there’s no point in being stingy with sound effects since editors will alter them to fit their project anyway. “It’s what you do with the sound,” he says, “not what sounds you have.”

8. THEY HATE LOUD NOISES.

A "quiet please" sign lit up
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Along with heightened sound sensitivity, some sound effects editors have an aversion to loud or jarring noises. “Most sound editors hate noise and hate loud music,” says Vajs. “I am always covering my ears.” One of Vajs’s peeves is cavernous restaurants with concrete walls that amplify sound—an effect that a good sound mixer on a film would seek to avoid.

9. THEY LEND PERSONALITY TO INANIMATE OBJECTS.

Sound effects editors are not just concerned with sound effect accuracy—they also aim to strike the right tone and mood. According to Gross, automobile sounds in particular are more than just noise. “If you have a specific car or a car that is a character, then you always want to get your own library,” she says. For the Sophia Coppola film Somewhere (2010), which prominently features a Ferrari, she and her colleagues created a library of sounds recorded while performing various maneuvers in a Ferrari (tough job, but someone's got to do it).

10. THEY PLAY ON YOUR PSYCHE.

While audience members may be conscious of everything they see unfolding on screen, sound can work on a more subconscious level. Vajs argues that because sound is more abstract than visual information, it has the power to heighten emotion by working on a more intuitive, less literal level—it can “subtly influence how the viewer perceives the film,” he explains. “Psychology is always involved.”

Schnupp agrees, particularly when it comes to horror movies. “The sound is what makes you scared ... and that’s why it’s so crucial,” he says. “It can make a huge impact in horror, perhaps more so than in any other genre.”

11. EVERY SOUND IS THERE FOR A REASON.

Two professionals working in a sound studio
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From stray background noises to gunfights to subtle sounds, everything that the audience hears in a film or TV show has been put in place with intent. “Every single sound is there for a reason,” Schnupp says. “Nothing is by accident ... And even if something was there by accident it would never make it through the final mix.”

Many people, however, may not realize the extent to which soundscapes in film and TV are constructed. “Maybe 90 percent of what they’re watching has been replaced,” Gross says. “But if we’ve done our jobs well you can’t detect it.”

12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers

People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
hanusst/iStock via Getty Images

Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 5000 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. Getting strapped in might be the most exciting part of the roller coaster ride.

Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. Designers test roller coasters with water-filled dummies.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. Every foot of roller coaster track costs a lot of money.

Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Kirkikis/iStock via Getty Images

There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. Rollercoaster Tycoon brought a lot of people into the business.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. Paint makes a big difference in coaster speed.

A group of tin metal cans with colorful paint
scanrail/iStock via Getty Images

For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have gray or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A roller coaster’s skyline is key.

Brian Morrow, former Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. Some coasters arrive as giant model kits.

Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. Wooden roller coasters are weather-sensitive.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. The time of day can affect the coaster experience.

“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. Roller coaster designs can come from unusual places—like Jay Leno’s chin.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. Roller coaster riders double as performers.

A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
exithamster/iStock via Getty Images

For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. The future of coasters is vertical.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” The project is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kingda Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

This list first ran in 2017.

Here's Why You Should Always Tip Your Delivery Driver With Cash

Khosrork/iStock via Getty Images
Khosrork/iStock via Getty Images

In our microchip- and app-happy society, we’ve all but abandoned paying for things in cold, hard cash. And while that’s almost definitely more efficient for you, it could be costing your delivery driver their tip, Lifehacker reports.

Some food delivery services guarantee a minimum payment for their drivers, which seems like a good thing on the surface. Basically, the company will pay the driver the agreed-upon base payment, even if it’s a slow shift and they don’t actually reach that amount in delivery charges. But it also means that everything they earn, including tip, is going toward that base payment. In other words, your tip is saving the company from having to pay more of the base payment.

The best way to ensure that your tip goes into your driver’s pocket is to give them a tip that they can literally put in their pocket—namely, cash. If you don’t have cash around or like to keep your finances digital for credit card rewards or tracking purposes, you should choose a delivery service that promises to pay their employees the full amount of whatever they earn, including tip.

Take a look at Lifehacker’s handy breakdown below to find out which delivery services you can trust with your tips, and read the policy details for each service here.

Delivery Services That Give Tips Directly to Drivers

PostMates
Grubhub/Seamless
Instacart
UberEats

Delivery Services That Keep Drivers’ Tips for Base Payment

DoorDash
Amazon Flex
Caviar

Keep in mind that this is only for companies whose whole business is based on being the go-between for you and your favorite restaurant. If you’re ordering directly from a restaurant, make sure to ask about its own delivery rules, or just tip in cash to be safe.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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