The Art of Futzing (Processing Examples Included)

 In TSM Studio Blog

If you’ve ever watched a movie and heard a conversation take place over a radio transmission or telephone, then the odds are you’re already quite familiar with the concept of futzing.

By definition, futzing is the intentional processing of a sound in order to fit a particular scene and its surrounding environment. The most common examples include the nasally sound of a voice transmitted over cell phone, the boxy tone of an astronaut’s voice contained within a space suit or perhaps even the iconic timbre of Darth Vader’s voice from the Star Wars film series.

Although futzing is one of the most commonly used post-production effects, when a novel approach is taken to root the dialogue in a particular environment, it can substantially increase a listener’s immersion whether they’re actively aware of the sonic integrity or are simply subconsciously enthralled by the audio-visual experience.

How to Approach Futzing

In order to further engage the listener, it’s often necessary to first take into account what emotions you’re attempting to convey in a scene before focusing on the technical aspects.

By allowing a scene’s story to influence the sound designer’s approach to futzing, a more concrete and focused implementation of effects processing can be carried out to augment the scene.

For example, imagine a post-apocalyptic planet Earth airing a radio broadcast through an old, faulty television set with disfigured antennas and an intermittent signal. To properly futz the dialogue of the broadcaster and curate a more grounded scene, some common questions that a sound designer can ask themselves include:

What is the purpose and intent of the dialogue within this scene?
Where is the source transmitter (in our case, the news broadcaster) speaking from?
What type of device is the listener hearing the broadcast dialogue from? A Hi-Fi stereo system? A cheap phone speaker? A faulty television set?
What is the current tone and sentiment of the scene? Is it serious, isolating, amorphous, disorienting, sinister or perhaps all of the above?
What type of room is the listener hearing that broadcast within? Is it large or small? Are there wood or concrete floors? How would sound propagate and reflect in this environment?

All of the questions stated above are deeply assessed and pre-meditatively discussed before a sound designer decides how to approach futzing the production dialogue or ADR.

A Practical Application of Futzing

To demonstrate what tools a sound designer may reach for when futzing dialogue, we’ve gone ahead and created a chronological chain of plug-in effects that emulate the sound of dialogue that’s being processed through a faulty speaker over a long distance. The effects used were chosen in order to add artifacts that cause the source audio to sound mangled, dirty and distorted.

The source material used to construct this effect was a voiceover performed by Jason Ross and recorded by Anthony Turi at TSM Studio in Orlando, Florida. However, any dialogue recording can follow this signal chain to produce similar results.

Ring Modulation

Ring Modulation is an effect that’s been used for decades to create metallic, robotic and sci-fi-esque tones by multiplying both a carrier signal and a modulator together to create frequencies that are the sum and difference of the source frequencies present in both signals.

Equalization

Equalization is the process of adjusting the balance of different frequency bands in order to adjust tonal quality or volume level. In this particular case, our intent is to simulate the sound of a faulty speaker that may have a reduced low frequency response and a harsh midrange that amplifies the most audible resonant frequencies (1 kHz ~ 5 kHz).

Distortion

Distortion is used to simulate the sound of a source audio signal that may have deviated from its original, perfect form. Although a very generic term, its effect is applicable in order to degrade the original source material to fit the transmitting radio device. This particular distortion effect is lightly simulating both input and output stage distortion characteristics.

More Distortion

This stage of distortion, as the name implies, is being used to “trash” or creatively mangle and overdrive the source signal to add a bit of bite. This creates a more aggressive, harsh tonality by reducing the signal’s dynamic range while also further deviating the waveform from its original construction.

Chorus

Chorus effects essentially construct a copy (or copies) of the original input signal, slightly delay the copy/copies by a set value and then modulate that delay time by the rate of an LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator). The copies are then mixed in with the original signal to result in a cluster of sounds that vary over frequency and time. The chorus effect was utilized in our futzing application to add subtle variety between pitch and frequency to impart a vintage, detuned quality to our sound.

Bitcrushing/Downsampling/Distortion

Bitcrushing is the effect of reducing an input signal’s resolution and bandwidth resulting in less dynamic range that’s often accompanied by slight distortion artifacts. Downsampling is the process of reducing the sample rate of a signal and often implies bit-depth reduction, a more limited frequency response and a smaller, more compressed file size. These two effects were used in conjunction with added distortion to simulate the bandwidth limitations that a transmitted signal may have.

Gate

A gate functions by reducing or attenuating a source signal by a fixed amount, as defined by the range. Simply put, gates can be set to decide at what point to allow or not to allow a signal to become audible. Our final plug-in in the chain was a gate in order to cause our affected signal to cut in and out, similar to a transmission with bad wiring or physical obstruction.