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The Basic Manual Sound Effects Kit

Hands-on Advice from Tony Palermo

On the radio drama list, somebody asked "What would you include in a good basic sound effects kit?" Here are my thoughts.

Of course, it all depends upon WHAT the radio play calls for. I work almost exclusively with live, manual (hand or foot operated) effects. I don't use sophisticated electronic samplers (devices that trigger pre-recorded sounds) much for live radio gigs--even though I host the Kurzweil Launch Pad, one of the world's most foremost websites devoted to the powerful Kurzweil samplers. In this article I'll stick with manual sound effects devices.

So, for a good SFX kit, I'd start with:

  • CRASH BOX --made from a metal Christmas popcorn container.  This is the single most useful device I have. See my "How to Make SFX" page for details on this and several other items on this list.
     
  • OLD DIAL TELEPHONE  - and ringer bell box -- the kind companies use for delivery doorbells. Don't bother trying to make the old phone ring--it'll cost for a step down transformer to deliver the 84 volts necessary to engage the phone ring circuit. Just build a $10 ringer box. (See my "advanced SFX" listing below).
     
  • THUNDER SHEET  - 2x4 foot 16th inch high-impact polystyrene. Look in your local yellow pages for "Plastics" and call around. It'll cost about $10.
     
  • WALKBOARD   - 2x3 foot doubled  3/4 inch plywood for footsteps. Put tile on one side to get a different sound.
     
  • SMALL DOOR   - Ideally, cut a regular door just after the latch and make a door frame to fit. I'll try to add a "how to make a door" tutorial for a much smaller unit to this site. Check back.
     
  • GRAVEL BOX  - Wooden drawer-type box with gravel--for horses/dirt. Also, coconuts and short 2x4s as "boots"--with spurs!
     
  • CAVEMAN CLUBS -- Large  hollow caveman style toy clubs--great for fights and bodies dropping to the floor. Contact Hollywood Toys & Costumes (800) 554-3444. If you call, they can ship them to you.  ($10 each--get two!) Their website doesn't list lots of small items, like phone toys and the clubs
     
  • STIFF PLASTIC BAGS  - For fire, static, even marching feet.
     
  • CLIP BOARDS  - For gun shots--but they need a resonator box under them to sound "bigger". I think a metal trash can might be the ticket.
     
  • TOY RATCHET  - Plastic New Year's noisemaker. Good for handcuffs, winches, drawbridges... ratchets.
     
  • VIBRO PEN  - A "Dizzy Doodler" pen that writes wobbly--for planes/jackhammers. Turn it on and apply the top (not the pen) to a cardboard box for a convincing airplane. Do the same on a stack of saucers and you'll have a great jack-hammer. The KB Toy liquidator chain sells them for $4.
     
  • TOY CELL-PHONE  - For radars, space beeps, even cell-phones! Lately, these have been really hard to find. Contact Hollywood Toys & Costumes (800) 554-3444. If you call, they can ship them to you. Their website doesn't list lots of small items, like clubs and phone toys They also sell toy beepers.
     
  • SLIDE WHISTLE  - Besides eeeeeYOOOP, it can also be quickly slid back and forth for radars and space sounds.
     
  • PLASTIC EGG MARACAS  - for jungles, rattlesnakes, weirdness. You could make some with plastic Easter eggs and rice, but many music stores sell them for $2 each and those have a finer gravel that sounds very good.
     
  • WIND MACHINE  - also useful for other mechanical sounds--machine guns, cars, rotors. See my "How to Make SFX" page for details on this and several other items on this list.
     
  • TEACUP SAUCERS - Good "dishes" sound. Apply vibro-pen to two stacked saucers for a great jack-hammer.
     
  • METAL SPOONS/SPATULAS -- Get a really big pancake flipping spatula and some large metal cooking spoons for great sword fights.
     
  • PLASTIC TUMBLER - For pouring water. Drop AA batteries in empty tumblers for ice cubes.
     
  • CIRCUIT BREAKER - A home circuit breaker (the kind that go in electrical panels) gives you that old fashioned, LOUD click of a light switch.
     

Advanced Sound Effects Devices
I'm also build more complicated devices. These are modeled after old NBC and CBS SFX from the golden age. At some point in 2005, I'll include "how to" instructions here on the "How to Make SFX" page and also offer them fully-built for sale.

  • GLASS SCRATCH -- A box with a 6x6 inch plate of 1/4 inch thick glass. It has a spring loaded X-brace with spikes in it. You  rotate a crank and it scratches the glass. Sounds like a train brake or fingernails on a chalkboard. Yikes!
     
  • DOORBELLS/BUZZER/BELL -- A wooden box with the typical ding-dong (and single "ding"--for hospital pages) and an office door latch buzzer, and a ringing bell to simulate an old style telephone--4 seconds on, two seconds off.
     
  • CREAKER BOX  - Cotton clothesline wrapped around a dowel rubbed with  violin rosin--sounds like a creaking door or thumbscrews.  It's rigged in a wooden shoe-box sized thing. Wow!
     
  • CREAKER DOWEL -- A 1/2 inch dowel wrapped by a rubber hose with a hose clamp. It's a different kind of creak.
     
  • BOING STICK -- A box with a plywood bow that has a banjo string on it.  You pluck the string and bend the bow for the famous "Road Runner" cartoon "beeeeyoooooooo" boing sound.
     
  • SCREEN DOOR SLAMMER -- a hinged door with a long screen door spring.

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TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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Last modified: 03/02/11