Quiet Planet®

Sound Designing with Waves

album cover

Waves come in all sizes and sounds, from the gentle wash of spring tide that gently tinkles coastal seashell shards to winter’s thundering onshore stampede of white-maned giants. All report weather history both near and far. Waves embrace us even on dry land. We unconsciously synchronize our breathing, our thoughts, and our moods to their rhythms. No wonder sunny beaches provide popular vacation spots and the best selling nature albums. When used intelligently, waves can inform, entertain and relax an audience, but that is only the beginning. What lies beneath human consciousness unlocks the true power of waves for the creative sound designer.

Case Study

In the nineties, I was hired by a video game producer to decipher the language of crowd and fan reactions at stadium sporting events. Since the circumstances present during user game play would be unique at any given time, a wide variety of emotions needed to be expressed with quickly flowing accuracy, recorded, edited and implemented. Since I was not then much of a sports fan, it surprised me to discover that information such as who has the ball, score margin, elapsed game time, and more, could be quickly indicated by a single shout! Basketball is faster than football, hockey is even quicker, so vocal tone proved especially useful in gauging enthusiasm. Surprise, delight, glee, disappointment, and anger were among some of the files that offered a primal lexicon whose intelligent use would provide a running commentary that any person in the world would understand. However, one file fell short of the mark: “home team unexpectedly wins in last few seconds of game.” I had the sound, perfectly recorded, but it lacked something. What, I did not know. I began to think about how architectural structures often sound unnatural. How could I fix this? Evolution tuned our ears to the natural world, so why wouldn’t nature sounds help built environments sound more appealing?
football stadium

“The sea of humanity,” came to mind. I smiled and tried to move on, but the thought did not leave. I had more than a thousand surf recordings, so it was no big effort to do a quick test and forget about this far-flung idea. As soon as I engaged Track 5 Driftwood #19, Denver’s Mile High Stadium was transformed into a Roman arena. Deep warm tones, rich harmonics, and a deep booming roar filled my deficit.

The Ocean is a Drum

woman and man on log

Changing global weather systems set up relatively huge vibrations or waves of energy that travel outward across seas and oceans. These swells commonly travel hundreds of nautical miles before reaching the shore, where the sinusoidal shape of the energy wave begins to drag on the bottom, causing it to change form. The top of the energy wave now crests forward, breaks, and rolls toward the shore. In this way the approaching swell height reveals water depth, and we can look at the surf and know the location of outside reefs, bars, channels, and other features of the underwater topography.
wood cut Because global weather includes multiple systems, the actual sea conditions of large oceans may be formed by multiple swells, each traveling without interference to the other. For example, a six-foot swell might come from the west with spacing 10 second apart (its period) along with a two-foot southwesterly swell, 12 seconds apart. The results will be one beat every 10 seconds, with occasional extra large beats occurring when the multiple swells coincide.

Sound designers will be more concerned with wave period than wave height because the beat determines how your audience will measure their experience--it is their metronome. The longer the wave period the more relaxed it feels. The shorter the wave period, the more tense. I seem to gravitate toward sound designs with beats every eight to 12 seconds. I reserve very long periods (15 seconds) for powerful experiences.

Separate from swells are wind waves. These form locally on bodies of water whenever winds are present--not just on large bodies, as is the case with swells. Wind waves originate from the direction of the wind itself, which can include offshore. In this case the wind waves oppose swells, causing them to peak up, blow back, and sometimes show spectacular white manes. Wind waves have short periods, often less than one second, and except when small and delicate, such as simple lapping water, sound chaotic. The value of wind waves to sound design is to express time of day, as the wind is often present during the day and absent during the night (see additional reading).

A confused sea exists when multiple swells arrive from multiple directions, often in combination with wind waves. You can think of a confused sea as what you would hear if several drummers perform simultaneously while unable to hear the others. In sound design confused seas is exactly that--confusing. This is only a good choice if you wish to convey risk or uncertainty.

Drums of different sizes

The greater the size of the water body the greater the size of the period, or spacing between the waves, at least potentially. The Pacific Ocean is the largest of the world’s five oceans, hence it has the longest potential period and also earned its name derived from the Latin, “Tepre Pacificum”, or peaceful sea. It is followed by the Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Arctic.

Sound designers intent on really relaxing their audience will seek waves from the Pacific Ocean.

Drums with different shores

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There are two kinds of shorelines--high energy and low energy. High-energy shorelines receive the full brunt of wave action. A perfect example of this would be Hawaiian Islands exposed to large storm swells. Low-energy shorelines include protected harbors, inlets, lakes, and ponds.

High-energy shorelines often experience large amounts of beach substrate movement and relocation in a seasonal cycle. For example, a location with a sandy beach in summer might months later become a rocky beach after autumn and winter storms have pulled the sand off shore. The lack of storms in spring and summer allows the sand to return.

Beach substrate (sand, pebbles, cobblestones, boulders, solid rock) dramatically influences the kind of sound that the audience will experience both on wave crash and then again on wave retraction, which, in the case of non-sand beaches, is usually louder. Familiarize yourself with the different sounds of waves striking different substrates. In brief, the smaller the beach substrate the higher the pitch. Consider the stones musical notes, the waves are fingers that sweep across a rocky keyboard. Study this keyboard and you can see the work done by the waves. Beaches with mixed substrates will naturally sort out by size into clusters and also bands. The largest stones are only moved by the largest storms and therefore remain far up the beach away from the waterline. Lesser storms transport smaller stones more easily. On a well sorted beach, the stones shrink from larger to smaller the closer you get to water’s edge.

first beach winter classic

Experienced sound designers know to answer just a few simple questions to imagine the correct sound. Is the shoreline protected? What substrates are reached by waves at this time? Is the weather stable? Everything then falls into place rapidly.

Up until now we have concerned ourselves primarily with literal sound design--finding the correct waves to match our setting. Now we want to consider creative sound design where we will do anything to arrive at the desired result--audience satisfaction.

Drumming from the Center

golden quiet ripples to NE corner

Deep in the safety of the womb we hear our first concert--a beating heart. Our emergence from this neonatal sea begins with a breath that becomes our spiritual metronome, like waves pounding the shore, reminding us of our essential primal being.

Whenever an audience perceives slow, repetitive sonic events, even at low levels, they will unconsciously synchronize behavior. If you walk past a storefront emitting the Rolling Stones’ Time Is On My Side, your footfalls will naturally sync. Subliminal wave sounds are likewise very useful for achieving audience moods, especially in problem areas that remain after other solutions have been tried. But there’s an art to working with waves. Simply turning down the volume level on a relaxing surf recording will not turn you into a sleep-hypnotist. You must find the right tonality. A large selection of waves is useful for this purpose. You’ll know it when you find it.

To do this most efficiently, I recommend you first complete your sound design without considering the power of subliminal waves. Then locate any problem areas that need more depth, presence, or are simply wrong. Now load Quiet Planet® Waves files labeled subliminal in metadata into your session. Toggle mute on/off for these files one at a time while also listening to the sound experiences you wish to improve. You can leave the volume up relatively high while you do this search. Select the file that feels the best (don’t think about it) and now reduce the volume to the point that the loudest wave breaks are barely audible. Drop the volume down three more dB. Maybe up two dB. Play around with it. The resulting experience should be warm and harmonic. This same file may be extended to include nearly the entire sound design and especially to remove any digital silence.


Waves are among the most universally appealing of all nature sounds, arguably because pulsing beats remind us of the security of the womb. There are two kinds of waves: swells and wind waves. And two kinds of shores: high-and low-energy. Selecting the right shoreline and wave period and beach substrate are all critical. Use this primal rhythm as you would a metronome to loosely orchestrate other events. And don’t forget to consider using subliminal waves to strengthen weak points in your sound design.

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Additional Resources

  1. How to Record Waves
  2. Sound Designing with Winds
  3. Wave propagation
  4. Shoreline types
  5. Seasonal beach changes

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