It’s easy to forget about the simpler tools in any bag of audio tricks. We all want to reach for a nice distortion plugin, or an expensive compressor, or some complicated EQ sculpting, but sometimes all that’s needed is basic volume envelope editing.
Sounds for user interfaces only have to obey one rule – thou shalt not be obnoxious. Practically speaking, that means they should be neither too loud nor too long, and both these goals can be achieved with dynamic envelope adjustments.
I’ll start with pitched sounds, since they’re a bit friendlier and more colorful.
You can use any sound that has a clear pitch, but those with short attacks are easier to work with. Marimbas, mbiras, and celestas are common, but pianos, plucked string instruments, music boxes, even struck bowls or wine glasses can work well.
You can force non-percussive samples to work using simple edits. Cut off the beginning of the sound and the rest can be used as pitched material that retains some (but not all) of the original instrument’s character. You can have the mellowness of a flute or the complexity of a guitar chord without the listener recognizing the sound as a flute or guitar.
-Acoustic Guitar playing a C6/9, start point moved forward 5500 samples-
(Since this technique gets rid of the sound’s natural beginning, I used a short Attack and Hold to shape my own.)
A lot of modern games avoid pitched UI sounds, using metallic or wooden clicks instead. It’s an approach that suits a minimalist style.
For sound sources, you can use pretty much anything that wouldn’t work for a pitched sound. Impacts, noise, and percussion instruments are good starting points.
-Battery pipe hit-
(The tambourine’s original attack had a slow buildup, so I moved the Start point to the sample’s peak, giving it a proper click)
To prove you can find material anywhere, the following is an edit from a sample of footsteps on broken glass.
The original attack is quite loud. It could work well in some mixes, but I chose to tame it with a fade-in, which functions here like a dynamic envelope’s Attack control.
There’s No Onomatopoeia for an Outro
I’ll eventually do another article on some more techniques for polishing UI sounds, but sample choice and volume edits will typically get you at least 90% of the way to a finished sound.