Where Do Anime Sound Effects Come From?

by Justin Sevakis,

Joel asked:

I assume you're familiar with the original Mobile Suit Gundam series? The sound effect used for the “new type flash” is very iconic, and it—and its accompanying visual “lightning” effect—has been reproduced (often as parody) countless times over the decades. But what strikes me as peculiar is that most of the time, to my ears, these reproduction use the exact same audio for the effect as Tomino did back in 1979. So: is the effect in some kind of public domain database that all Japanese anime producers have access to, similar to the “Wilhelm Scream,” is it simply licensed out from whoever owns it (presumably Sunrise)? How?

Anime production, especially for television, is notoriously low budget and rushed. The audio part of production is no exception to this. Rather than expensive "foley" sessions that are often used for Hollywood movies (where engineers punch turkeys and wave brooms around in a recording booth to record new sound effects), anime production is almost entirely dependent on pre-existing sound effects libraries.

From the early days of audio tape, audio engineers compiled their own libraries of effects to use in radio dramas, comedies, and to be synchronized to picture for movies and eventually TV. Many studios around the world compiled vast libraries of these sounds, including most of the major movie, television and cartoon studios. These sounds range from different types and speeds of footsteps, to explosions, to stabbings, to ambiance in various different places. Each studio that specialized in this sort of audio work uses a combination of their own sounds and ones purchased from other sources. From that point, they're free to use them in anything and everything they work on. That's true of production around the world.

In 1971, a company called Ishida Sound Production (now known as "Fizz Sound Creation") was founded to produce sound effects for Japanese productions. Ishida not only worked on a ton of shows (Mobile Suit Gundam among them), but also incubated several prominent of engineers that went on to start their own studios: Anime Sound Production, Suwara Production, Harada Sound, and JetSoundEngine among them. Each of these studios were drawing from their own libraries of samples to produce their respective shows. And since all of these companies started from the same place, it's quite possible that many of their sounds all came from the same original well.

This is why anime from each era all has a very distinctive sound. Anime from the 80s has a bunch of synthesized bloops and beeps. Anime from the 90s sounds slightly more realistic, but with very distinctive "appearance of evil guy" and "boob squish" cues. In the 2000s we started getting better recorded sounds that weren't so tinny sounding. Also, the sound effects studios started buying libraries from the West starting in the mid-90s, resulting in some familiar Hollywood sounds finding their way into anime.

Sound effects are kind of a strange thing, legally. They're definitely NOT public domain -- they're all copyrighted. However, in order to be useful they have to be copied and integrated into new works. Commercial packages of sound effects -- which contain hours of audio samples and a searchable database -- can cost thousands of dollars, but include the right to use them in whatever you want (as long as you're not selling the isolated sound effects) with no further royalties to pay. The best known sound effects libraries are sold by a Toronto-based company called Sound Ideas, who has partnered with studios ranging from the BBC to Hanna-Barbara to Universal Studios. Many of these sounds are clipped from original productions, and are many years old. (The famous Wilhelm Scream, as heard in everything from Star Wars to Disney cartoons, originated from the Warner Bros. library after being isolated from a film in 1951.)

Mobile Suit Gundam is now known as a seminal work, but when it was being produced it was just another show, and is not likely to have gotten special treatment from the overworked engineers working on it. I could be wrong about this, but the "NewType Flash" sound effect, which is indeed quite distinctive, sounds to me like several stock sound effects layered together in a creative way: a slide whistle (sped up), an alarm bell or a chain clatter, and a faint synth "phaser" sound in the background. Whatever it is, that combination is now part of the "secret sauce" owned by Fizz Sound Creation, and unless Sunrise specifically arranged for it not to ever be used in another production (which I doubt anybody thought to do), they're free to use it in whatever other jobs come their way. And if another studio knows how to produce the sound (and owns the required source samples), they'd be free to re-create it.

While I'm not generally too distracted by overly-familiar sound effects, there are a few that completely distract me: one particular sound of a baby crying is used in EVERYTHING, Japanese AND American. There's also a squeaky hinge sound that I once fussed over in a student film years ago that I now can pick out of just about any production. There's a surprising amount of crossover now between anime sounds and live action film sounds from around the world. But as anime budgets remain eternally stretched thin, we can rest assured that most of them will be coming from a library of some kind.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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