Pulse Energy Weapons – a blog post

This library started as a deep dive into energy weapon sound design. 

From the first pew, it quickly got out of hand, becoming an obsession that ended in a collection of over 5,000 sounds. Along the way, there were a few unexpected discoveries. These are some of the coolest things I learned:

1. “Worldizing” through plasma

While working on the “charge up” category, blindly hunting the internet for inspiration, I came across plasma speakers. 

Plasma speakers or ionophones are a form of loudspeaker which varies air pressure via a high-energy electrical plasma instead of a solid diaphragm. Connected to the output of an audio amplifier, plasma speakers vary the size of a plasma glow discharge, corona discharge or electric arc which then acts as a massless radiating element, creating the compression waves in air that listeners perceive as sound.” 

Uhhhhhh, yes please… I purchased a kit online. I also read that neodymium magnets could modulate the plasma arc, affecting the sound, so I grabbed some of those too.  

“Worldizing,” a term coined by the legendary Walter Murch, refers to playing back existing recordings through a speaker in real-world acoustic situations, and recording that playback with microphones so that the new recording takes on the acoustic characteristics of the place it was re-recorded.

I’d done this several times before, but I was curious how it would work with synth source through plasma. 

Once the plasma speaker kit was constructed (and two high-voltage hand shocks later), I routed a mono output from my design setup into the input jack. I decided to design into the live arc and see how it behaved with different frequencies, adjusting my content in real time. The arc itself, especially when modulated by the magnets, imparted cool, randomized sonic instabilities to the sound. With each crackle and jump of the plasma, the synth signal fluttered and modulated in unison. This created a sense of realism and believability by grounding the synth content in reality. Here’s a video of the plasma in action.

2. Airsoft – not a toy

Until recently, when someone mentioned airsoft guns, I’d immediately think “toys.” Apparently I’d been out of the loop for a while; I soon discovered that these modern weapons are astonishingly diverse and complex. You can now buy guns that are nearly identical to their ballistic counterparts, or ones that are constructed with completely unique mechanisms and materials. For my purposes, the most important difference between airsoft and “real” guns is that the firing mechanism can be operated by gas or electric power. This gives you an isolated recording of the mechanism devoid of any explosive bullet sound. 

As all good sound designers do, I turned to YouTube. I consumed hours of clips familiarizing myself with the different guns, then headed to Facebook where I posted on a local airsoft enthusiasts group looking for someone with a substantial arsenal. Over the years, my favorite part of field recording has been finding people who are incredibly passionate about the thing I’m trying to record. Without fail, these people are just as excited to share their passion with me as I am to record it, so I wasn’t surprised when 24 hours after my post, I got a message that included this picture.  

After a couple days of recording with Dan and his guns, here are some of my favorite isolated mechanisms we captured.

And here’s a video of my favorite gun… for obvious reasons.

    3. Slinky – go big

    I’ve recorded a bunch of slinkies in my time. This has resulted in a small piece of my brain becoming solely devoted to the search for a bigger slinky. My first taste was a smallscale, mini-slinky. Easy to work with, highly portable, and providing a decent pew with a quick decay. A great gateway slinky. Eventually I upgraded to a classic standard scale slinky. Its sound was different in the ways you’d expect, with a deeper pew and a longer decay. I had “ol’ twangy” for years before it no longer provided the fix I was looking for. Then I found out about the king of branded springs, the Giant Slinky. 70% larger and coming in at 3.5 inches in diameter, it proved even more satisfying than the classic. It gave me a deeper, punchier transient than I thought possible. Because it was more an increase in diameter than length, it was still easily suspended from an extended mic stand without touching the ground, allowing me to strike it in isolation. Eventually, the addiction grew, and I had more lasers to make. The Giant Slinky wasn’t scratching the itch anymore. There had to be something bigger out there…There was. 

    Bow before the Super Ultimate Waveform Helix! 50ft of pure wobbly insanity. Its length made it essentially unhangable, so I had to find another way to suspend it. 3 hours, countless hanging attempts, and a 50 foot long living room finally gave me the pew I’d been jonesing for. 

    4. Light modulation

    A personal philosophy I follow when using synth sounds is this:

    If the sound is meant to represent energy that exists in a physical space, modulating/morphing it with an organic source increases its believability. 

    When creating sounds for the library, I had generated some synth content that I wanted to organify, so I had to decide what characteristics to impose on it. 

    A few years ago, I got introduced to the Light2Sound synth (shout-out to Robbie Elias at 343 for the tip). Its basic mechanism is a photo-diode that senses light spectrum and intensity, which it converts into an audible signal. The applications of this are pretty mind-bending, and it has become one of my favorite exploratory audio tools. 

    I knew I wanted the weapons I was creating to be beam-energy based, so I was looking for something that would provide an organic, fluctuating, “energy beam-like” modulation. Several failed experiments later, I added a powerful green laser to an amazon shopping cart. My idea was to shine the laser through a stream of water coming from my sink faucet, capturing the modulation of the stream using the Light2Sound synth. Controlling the water stream intensity allowed me to find the sweet spot of stream modulation, creating a sink-synth hybrid or synkth (sorry, not sorry). 

    The audible signal produced by the Light2Sound synth was used to modulate/morph the original synth source, making it more believable as an organic energy beam.

    The resulting modulated synth sound would then be used as a basis for creating energy pulses, which I’d either do with Serum wavetables or by using steep pitch drop and time compression automation with a ‘Pitch and Time’ plug-in.

    My hope for this library is that it will be something that grows with you. The depth and diversity of content is meant to inspire exploration into the world of energy weapon design, giving you the opportunity to make your own discoveries and end up with unique, compelling results. I can’t wait to hear what you do with it… no, really, please email me. I’m lonely, and I can’t leave the house.