When you walk out of a theatre, you and your friends can probably recount for hours the sights you just witnessed on the big screen. But if you were ever asked to describe the particular sounds used, you’d likely draw a blank. Would it surprise you to know just how many of the sound effects used in TV and cinema today have been recycled over many decades?

That sound of a truck passing, a floor creaking, or an incredible explosion? Yup, you’ve heard all of those sound effects before whether you realize it or not. Sound engineers have been pulling an artistic fast one on our ears and re-using audio bites over and over and over again. Why? There are many reasons, but generally it’s because the sounds work well and the majority of us would never be the wiser.

Let us pull the proverbial curtain back on some of these oft-used sound effects that continue to be pulled out of the foley toolkit again and again over the years.

 

EAGLE SCREECH

The gorgeous eagle that has awed us on-screen is an imposter. Let me explain: that sound that everyone associates with an eagle as it soars into view in a movie? Yeah, it’s actually not an eagle at all. That screech that the sly eagle has been passing off as his legendary call is actually the screech of a red-tailed hawk.

 

bald eagle

 

The sound that the eagle actually makes is…well, let’s just say it’s far more adorable and not nearly as impressive as that of the hawk. Which is why it’s been traded for an eagle call in movie scenes; filmmakers have all agreed that it just sounds cooler and goes with the impressive beauty of the soaring eagle. Poor hawk though.

YouTube Link Red-Tailed Hawk Call

 

TRUCK PASSING

You’ve heard hundreds if not thousands of trucks passing by in real-life but never have you heard one like this. It’s history is a bit of an enigma but it’s arguably the #1 sound effect for whenever a truck passes by our characters. Often used as a jump scare for how the horn suddenly blares as it speeds by, it has also just been used to death as a regular stock sound to blend into the background of traffic ambience.

 

TRUCK PASSING You’ve heard hundreds if not thousands of trucks passing by in real-life but never have you heard one like this. It’s history is a bit of an enigma but it’s arguably the #1 sound effect for whenever a truck passes by our characters. Often used as a jump scare for how the horn suddenly blares as it speeds by, it has also just been used to death as a regular stock sound to blend into the background of traffic ambience.

 

YouTube Link Truck Passing

 

CASTLE THUNDER

If you grew up on movies that depicted a dark wizard or evil witch who resided in a shadowy castle or a haunted house with a terrible past, you probably heard this sound effect as the camera zooms in on the evil lair for the first time. To really accent the evil nature of this place, it came with its own well-timed thunder strike (as evil lairs do). And this was the sound effect that went with it.

Used first in the original Frankenstein (1931), almost every cartoon with a dark villain has used it. Nowadays it’s not heard from as much due to the original recording being analog, it just doesn’t stand up well in today’s sound mixes.

YouTube Link Castle Thunder

 

castle thunder

 

GABRIEL’S HORN (aka BWAAM from INCEPTION)

Time to set the record straight here. Christopher Nolan was not the first filmmaker to make this sound effect popular. Yes, the specific and BWAAM sound effect made famous since it first shook our eardrums in the Inception (2010) trailer is definitely his baby. But the use of a deep, reverberating horn to sound the arrival of something wicked has been around before Chris came along.

It is described as a bassy sound of a horn giving us one long, low note. And it’s sometimes called Gabriel’s Horn because it is reminiscient of the horn the archangel Gabriel might use to signal the beginning of the biblical apocalypse. Nowadays it means something equally devastating is about to go down, like Superman and Zod are about to throw down.

YouTube Link Gabriel’s Horn from Legion (2010)

 

WILHELM SCREAM

The most abused sound effect on this list is more of an in-joke in movies. This iconic scream has been a cliché of action/disaster/horror scenes since its first use in Distant Drums (1951). It was eventually named when it was used in the next movie, The Charge at Feather River (1953) by the character that gave the scream as his death shriek.

 

wilhelm scrream

 

It’s the one sound you probably recognize the most because it tends to be tossed into scenes for a little comedic nod. The audience chuckles a bit when they hear this high-pitched shriek. Filmmakers actually WANT you to recognize this scream. Maybe it’s because it’s so recognizable it’s impossible to not hear it stand out in the middle of dinosaurs stomping and buildings crumbling. Think of it as an audio version of Where’s Waldo. It’s been used in over 300 films including Star Wars: A New Hope, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Titanic, My Little Pony Lord of the Rings, WALL-E, every Toy Story movie ever made and just about every low-budget filmmaker’s opus, as well. Seriously, everybody who’s anybody has used this sound and they will continue to for the rest of time.

YouTube Link Wilhelm Scream Compilation

 

IN CLOSING…WHY DO THESE SOUND GET RE-USED TO DEATH?

What’s the point of recycling easily recognizable audio rather than creating all-new foley for a Hollywood-level feature film? Because even in scary or intense scenes, it’s funny how much recognizing a staple sound effect can lighten the mood. It adds a moment of levity for the audience and also makes them feel keen for spotting the audio cliché in your scene. Plus if the sound effect works so well already, why re-invent the wheel?

When you listen carefully and break things down, these sounds stand out like a sore thumb and make the scene feel unnatural. But when used with subtlety to help build the scene, our ears don’t notice that we’re being served audio leftovers again. Still don’t believe me? Check out just how many sound clichés have gotten past you.

Although care really should be taken to use a common sound effect in your scene as it could also pull your viewer out of the moment and shatter that precious fourth wall that you’ve been working so hard to create.

Whether it is to add a brief chuckle or pay homage to the myriad of classic films that also made use of these sounds, they belong in every audio engineer’s toolkit and will definitely be continued to be used for years and years to come.