This episode was written & produced by James Introcaso.
Cartoon sound effects are some of the most iconic sounds ever made. Even modern cartoons continue to use the same sound effects from decades ago. How were these legendary sounds made and how have they stood the test of time? Featuring Oscar-winning sound designer Mark Mangini of the Formosa Group, and Advantage Audio’s Heather Olsen.
MUSIC IN THIS EPISODE
Still Good - UTAH
Wait and Without - Steven Gutheinz
On Paper - Steven Gutheinz
Allen Street - Steven Gutheinz
Younger - Tony Anderson
The Story Never Ends - Chad Lawson
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View Transcript ▶︎
[SFX: Wile E Coyote clip with fall whistle]
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.
[SFX: Crash from fall]
If you watched cartoons as a kid, you probably knew instantly that the sound you just heard was from Looney Tunes. You probably also know that sound meant Wile E Coyote failed to catch the Road Runner...again. It’s pretty crazy how we can fill in the whole scene based solely on the sound effects. Even without a single “Meep Meep” from the Road Runner.
[SFX: Meep meep]
Wile E Coyote started falling off cliffs in 1949. Yet we still hear that falling sound effect in modern cartoons like Teen Titans [SFX], here it is in Justice League Action [SFX], and here it is even in Family Guy [SFX]. It’s been almost seventy years since the first Wile E Coyote cartoon - and that sound, along with many other cartoon sounds remains constant.
Mark: The beauty and the joy of cartoon animation is that the characters do not have to obey the laws of physics. They also don't have to obey the laws of logic. Therefore, sound doesn't have to obey those laws either.
That’s Mark Mangini, an oscar winning sound designer who works with the Formosa Group.
Mark: I don't very often get to talk about my early days… and cartoons.
Mark doesn’t get a lot of question about cartoons, because he has an impressive resume designing sound for Hollywood blockbusters.
Mark: I've worked on 142 live-action films. Most recently Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, which I won an Oscar for and I'm very proud of. Warrior, Gremlins, four Star Treks, a Die Hard, a Lethal Weapon, the Green Mile...
But before Mark did sound for films, he worked for one of the most famous cartoon studios in the world.
Mark: My first job in sound was at Hanna-Barbera studios in their sound department. I started as a track reader, which is a subset of sound editing where you're charged with transcribing the recordings of the voices, so that the animators know when to open and close the mouths of the characters [SFX: cartoon dialogue]. That led to subsequent promotions to becoming a sound effects editor in that department at Hanna-Barbera, and an apprenticeship with a number of really amazingly gifted sound editors. Back then, this was 1976. I didn't know anyone who was called a sound designer, but I would argue that everything that we were doing at Hanna-Barbera was every bit as designed as maybe something more profound that was being heard in a motion picture.
Mark worked on some of Hanna-Barbera’s most famous cartoons.
Mark: … the Flintstones...
[SFX: “C’mon Barney. Let’s go” and crash]
… some Huckleberry Hounds...
[SFX: Ringing phone and “Fireman Huckleberry Speaking”]
... a whole raft of Scooby-Doos...
[SFX: Running feet and “Scooby Doo! Where are you?”]
... the Super Friends…
[SFX: “Their mission, to fight injustice! To right that which is wrong! And to serve all mankind”]
... and my personal favorite because it starred Mel Blanc, Captain Caveman.
[SFX: The BOING followed by “Captain Caveman!”]
Long before Mark worked for Hana-Barbera - and even before Wile E Coyote was falling off cliffs - [SFX: Steamboat Willie] Walt Disney made history with Steamboat Willie in 1928.
This was the first cartoon with synchronized picture and sound.
Mark: Walt and Roy and Ub Iwerks themselves would be the sound effects guy in their live orchestral recording sessions for those early Steamboat Willies.
In the early days before there was multi-track recording or mixing, you had to perform the sound effects live with the orchestra in one straight pass. So, these sound effects guys had to assemble props, put them in front of microphones and perform anything that they could acoustically, live and in sync with the orchestra.
[SFX : bump out]
Music and sound effects had to be performed at the same time in the same space. Musical instruments were used to make the effects because they were easy to find, and easy to manipulate. In this Tom and Jerry clip, the sound of a frying pan hitting Tom’s face is played by a cymbal crash.
[SFX: Tom and Jerry hit]
And that falling whistle from the beginning of the episode? That’s played on a slide whistle.
Mark: The percussionist would probably have it as part of their kit, and it was just natural to convey going up [SFX] or down [SFX]. You could manipulate them in any one of a number of ways, very quickly [SFX] or very slowly [SFX].
Sound effects played by musical instruments became an iconic part of all cartoons.
Then, new audio technology in the 1930’s allowed sound editors to add sound effects after recording the orchestra. They could use any prop to make a sound, but often still chose musical instruments.
And because sound effects and music were tightly linked, they worked together to create unique soundscapes. Listen to this audio clip from the very first Bugs Bunny cartoon called, “Porky’s Hare Hunt,” In it, you can get an idea of how effects and music can come together.
[SFX: Porky’s Hare Hunt]
The sounds for “Porky’s Hare Hunt” were created by an editor named Treg Brown. Treg worked on Looney Tunes for decades and created many of the iconic cartoon sounds we still know today.
Mark: Once we divorced ourselves from the need to record live to picture, Treg had this fundamental understanding of how to de-contextualize a sound, how to take the sound of your finger in a coke bottle and make that the sound of the Road Runner tongue flip.
[SFX: Road Runner Tongue Flip]
Mark: Or, why the sound of an inertia starter, the sound of this motor that makes a biplane engine start, why that's the sound of a spinning Tasmanian Devil.
[SFX: Tasmanian Devil] [Alt sound]
Mark: He learned to be a genius at taking sounds out of one context and placing them in another context. That's what made him so amazing, and when you listen to those Looney Tunes shorts, there isn't a lot of cartoon sound in those. There isn't a lot of comedic sound. It was in his ability to take a sound from somewhere else and put it where it didn't belong, creating this bizarre juxtaposition that made it funny. I don't think there was anybody better than he was at that.
Around the same time Treg was working at Warner Brothers, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were creating the Tom and Jerry cartoons at MGM. Mark’s mentor Greg Watson was a sound editor on those early Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Mark: When I met him, he was in his 60's, late in his career but immensely proud to be still working in cartoons. He still saw it as an art form, something he was very proud of.
He would never take credit for anything unless I asked him, "Hey, Greg. Where did this come from?" And he said, "Oh, I remember back in '51 when Bill did this one funny scene with Jerry and we needed a funny sound, and we thought it would be good to do this." He was a man that was just thrilled to be a part of the process.
Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbara eventually created their own studio. ...and during their 30 years of making cartoons they created a massive library of totally classic sounds.
Mark: I think they're unique, at least because of their own merit they're just silly. So many of them even out of the context of the cartoon just sound like that's the silliest thing I've ever heard. But then, within the context of the cartoons and the way that they were used and the life that they brought to those cartoons, they just get better basking in the limelight of the animation.
For instance, this sound is pretty silly on its own.
Now imagine Tom hanging from his whiskers, and the unavoidable fall as each one is plucked from his cheeks.
There were hundreds of familiar sounds like this created at Hanna-Barbera studios.
Mark: They had such a signature quality to themselves that it made them stand out as a unique piece of quality artwork, or sonic artwork.
In the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera started selling their sound library. Other production companies, like Warner Brothers, use these sounds to this day. The popularity of the Hanna-Barbera sound library has given cartoons an almost universal sound-language. But, Mark feels some sounds are overused.
Mark: I was on a one-man campaign to eradicate head take.
[SFX: Head Take]
Mark: It was this inane noise that, again, I think was a recording accident that you would use whenever a character all of a sudden caught themselves in the midst of thinking or experiencing something bizarre, and it was way overused.
And did you ever notice how it sounds when a cartoon character runs??
[SFX: Blop Gallop]
Mark’s not a fan of that one either.
Mark: That running sound was called 'blop gallop.' And again a sound that was I felt overused and I tried to not use it as often as I could. That's illogical, but I tried not to use it as often as possible.
It's a testament to its effectiveness. But even in 1976, I was turning into an elitist, I suppose. How embarrassing.
Of course there are plenty of sounds that Mark loves. Like a tip-toeing xylophone.
[SFX: Xylophone Tip Toes]
Mark: Oh, that's a classic sound. I have actually used that sound. I did the two Flintstone live action movies, and I did use that in that because that was a sound that Brian Levant, the director and I just loved. We just couldn't avoid using that.
[SFX: Xylophone Tip Toes]
Mark: My favorite was The Jetsons's spaceships, and I never found out what those were made from, I tried to deconstruct them, I asked around the studio if they know who made them and nobody knew, but that sound always brings a smile to my face.
[SFX: Jetsons sound]
Sadly, some of the old techniques have been lost. But remember, this was a busy studio, and everyone was focused on getting the work done on time, and getting cartoons on air.
Mark: It was a real machine. It always started with track reading [SFX: track reading], which is to say the voices would be assembled in a studio with a script and storyboards. The director of that show would walk the talent through the recording session so that you captured all the voices, speaking all the lines that you needed for that particular episode.
Then, the animators would go off and then draw the characters doing these things, and then a month later, all the animation would come back in short rolls of completed scenes, then we and the editorial department would assemble them in their storyboard order, and then cut them down to show length.
There wasn't like animatics in between like we have in live-action. We'd assemble a show, then cut sound to it.
When Mark was working with Hanna-Barbera, they didn’t have a department dedicated to creating new sounds. If he wanted an effect that wasn’t in the library, he had to find it himself.
Mark: You were just kind of on your own. I was the most adventurous, especially for the Super Friends I would go across the hall to talk to the two composers Paul Decort and Hoyt Curtin and I'd ask them for musical sounds, and especially synthesizer sounds, so they would give me long recorded stretches of just weird noises they'd make with their synthesizers. And they would always be used as the science fiction components, if I had a spaceship or a flying saucer in an episode that's what I'd use the electronic sounds for, because that felt futuristic to me.
[SFX: Space noises]
And if Mark couldn’t find a sound he wanted, he had to create it, even if he had to use his own voice.
Mark: If you can't find it, you do it with your voice. It's the easiest tool to manipulate, you have total control over it.
I use it for creatures and animals and funny noises. I did a lot of gremlins voices for the Gremlins movies.
It's just something where you feel the character inside of yourself and you think, "I can do this better," and you just do it.
Mark also went on to work on some of the most classic animated films.
Mark: I did Beauty and the Beast…
[SFX: Opening line of Be Our Guest]
[SFX: Opening line of A Whole New World]
… and the Lion King.
[SFX: Opening line of Circle of Life]
Mark’s experiences with animated films were different from the grind of televised cartoons.
Mark: If nothing else, you get much better schedules. You usually get the time to design and create something that no one's ever heard before. Another sort of unique distinction is that you have the option to create sound first, and then have animation be done to what you did. It's not that often that we get to actually drive the image, and on the Disney animated films and the Pixar films and the Dreamworks films and others, they're smart enough to know the value of sound and how it can be the inspiration to the artist to draw something that they might not otherwise have drawn.
For example, in Beauty and the Beast Belle's dad was this inventor and he had built that funny ax chopping machine. That was a sound that we made before animation.
[SFX: Maurice’s Invention]
Mark: That's just pure design. That's when you get to let your imagination run wild. You can see a picture from a storyboard, and then you just get to dream up what it might sound like. That's just gold for a sound designer, when you're sort of allowed to design unfettered.
With all of the cable channels and streaming services available today, there’s more animation than ever before. So how does sound design work in modern cartoons? ...and which iconic sounds are still used today? We’ll get to that, in a minute.
[SFX: Quick montage of SFX we haven’t heard]
If you haven’t watched a cartoon in years, it might surprise you that sounds from decades ago are still being used today.
Heather: I use the older sound effects quite a bit still working in cartoons. The Hanna-Barbera library, the Warner Brothers library, it's still the go to for certain gags, and certain shows.
That’s Heather Olsen, an Emmy-nominated sound designer for animation. She works at Advantage Audio.
Heather: I'm working on Star vs. the Forces of Evil for Disney XD...
[SFX: “Rainbow fist punch!” and SFX]
… Trolls: The Beat Goes On…
[SFX: “DJ the party” and SFX]
… and Spirit Riding Free for Netflix.
[SFX: Horses SFX]
I worked on a lot of Butch Hartman shows, The Fairly Odd Parents [SFX], Tough Puppy [SFX], Bunsen is a Beast [SFX], Pig Goat Banana Cricket for Nickelodeon [SFX]. I also worked on The Adventures of Puss in Boots for Netflix [SFX], Gravity Falls for Disney XD [SFX], and The Boondocks for Sony [SFX].
Heather is an expert in modern cartoon sound design.
Heather: Cartoon sound effects are different from live action sound effects because with live action you start with production sound. You're recording a picture and they're recording the audio at the same time wherever the actors are. So if they're on a street you have cars going by. Whereas in a cartoon if you're doing a street scene, all I get is dialogue. It's just the actors who are recorded, and I get to start with a blank slate. I don't have to try to hide production backgrounds. I get to get the dialogue, and I get to create a world around it.
It's kind of the best thing and the worst thing at the same time to work on a cartoon, because you're not trying to hide anything, but you have nothing to start with, so in your head you have to think, what would this sound like?
Much like Mark’s time at Hanna-Barbera, Heather gets a fully animated show and often adds sound effects from a ready-made library of sounds. This includes many from the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers’ libraries. Here are some of her favorites.
Heather: It's called the tube thunk sound effect.
[SFX: Tube thunk]
I think everybody knows what this sounds like, maybe not what it's called, but it's that sound when a character gets their head stuck in a jar, you hear that thunk [SFX]. I love that old sound. It just so clearly conveys my head is stuck in this jar, and it's not coming out again.
And I also love all the old running sounds.
Heather: And I'm using the xylophone blink in Trolls all the time.
[SFX: Xylophone Blinks]
Heather: Those sounds I think have just persisted in everybody's mind and every show because that's a language that we've started to understand. So instead of blinks, you kind of expect to hear that xylophone at this point.
And of course, Heather uses the falling whistle.
[SFX: Falling whistle]
Heather: I think in our sound effects library it's called Bomb Drop, but it's the same thing. I mean it's another piece of the language that everybody knows.
Since some of the shows she works on are more realistic, Heather wants us to hear the sounds of the characters moving around and interacting with their world. Kinda like a live action movie.
Heather: The foley department really brings the show to life. They record footsteps [SFX], things characters touch [SFX], which we call props. They do more of the smaller sounds, and it's great to have foley doing that instead of a library, because then you're not hearing the same footsteps over and over. They really make it sound more real.
And just like in the past - if you can’t find a sound, you have to make it.
Heather: One of the stranger things I've actually recorded and done myself for a sound effect is we had a bit in Robot and Monster where everyone was in a crowded restaurant. So it was supposed to be this crowd of people gagging and grossed out by something, and that's not exactly an effect I had sitting around in my library. So I grabbed a bunch of people around the office, and we recorded ourselves gagging in lots of different ways...
[SFX: individual people gagging]
...and then I pieced it all together into a crowd.
[SFX: crowd of people gagging in a restaurant]
Sometimes layering multiple sounds together is the best way to create something new.
Heather: An odd combination that you might not expect and I did not invent this… animals and engines is a really great one. You put animal roars under engines, growls, it really kinda of brings a vehicle to life.
[SFX: TIE fighter]
A lot of shows do it, but Star Wars definitely the TIE fighters, there's some growls under there as they go by.
It's fantastic. Inspiration.
Another option Heather has, is to take a classic library sound and change its pitch to make a new effect. Take this cartoon boing sound effect.
she can pitch the sound up.
[SFX: Boing] (pitched up)
[SFX: Boing] (pitched down)
Heather uses a lot of classic - non literal - sounds while working on cartoons. But some modern cartoons are more realistic than slap-stick, her choices really depend on the show.
Heather: When we get a new show, we'll do what we call spotting the show, where the clients come in and we watch it together, and we talk about what they'd like where, and just the overall feel of the show. Is going to be a realistic show like Spirit, or is it going to be really cartoony like Fairly Odd Parents?
[SFX: Fairly Odd Clip about coming into room with crash]
Fairly Odd Parents taught me how to speak cartoon.
It's just not stop cartoon, cartoon, cartoon, whereas something like Spirit it feels more like you're making a movie with horses out in the fields with the girls…
[SFX: From “What’s the matter boy…” to horse’s snort reaction]
Because Spirit Riding Free has more natural sounds than a cartoon like Fairly Odd Parents, Heather needed some new sounds.
Heather: We got a whole new horse library, because in that show there's three characters who are horses. So, there are no actors voicing them and the each have a different personality. So, we had to find different vocals for each of the horses.
[SFX: Horse 1]
[SFX: Horse 2]
But even Spirit Riding Free still sometimes needs a dose of the vintage cartoon sounds.
[SFX: Ball scene]
Heather: A lot of times people will come in with their show and say, "I don't want to use those old Hanna Barbera sounds, I want to do something completely different." But they've kind of animated it the traditional way. So when you put new sounds to that, it feels wrong, and a lot of times they eventually go back to using the older sound effects.
When it comes to cartoon sound design, Mark and Heather both agree that the medium pushes the boundaries of creativity.
Mark: Characters stretch unnaturally out of their body shapes. Those are just of the simplest examples of visually what's happening with these characters. So, in a way it gives you permission to break the laws of what sound you should hear when you see something.
Heather: I really like working for animation because I like to build a world with sound from the ground up, because in animation the best part is you're designing a world from nothing, a world that no one's ever heard before. And sound design I think is a huge part of the process for animation because there's no sound except the talking, so you get to do that backgrounds and the sound effects, and the foley, and I think it all combines to really bring the animation to life.
Mark: So now, there's so many tools that anyone can get their hands on. You're really free to design sound in any way your imagination desires. It's important for us to follow our hearts. When we follow our heart and then we make a career out of that, we make a day-to-day avocation to something, that gives all of us purpose and it allows us to make a contribution to the world.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. If you do anything creative that also uses sound, go check out defactosound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by James Introcaso… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.
Thanks to our guest, Mark Mangini for sharing his stories. He designs audio magic with Formosa Group, a talent-based company that does amazing movies. Formosa created the soundtracks for Blade Runner 2049, Molly's Game, and Game of Thrones. And are staffed with Oscar-winning talent just like Mark. You can find out more about their work across the film industry at FormosaGroup.com.
Thanks also to Heather Olsen. Heather’s been designing sound for animation for more than 10 years at Advantage Audio where she has earned multiple Emmy nominations. You can learn more at advantageaudio.com.
All of the music in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed, and for the first time ever, they just announced a new subscription plan. So whether you’re Youtuber, a production company, a freelancer or even a podcaster, Musicbed has a plan waiting for you. Sign up at music dot twenty kay dot org and we’ll get a little finder’s fee. Again, that’s music dot twenty kay dot org.
You can sign up for our superfan newsletter at newsletter dot twenty-kay dot org. Also, we make this show for you, so don’t ever hesitate to drop us a note. And if you were as inspired by Mark and Heather as we were, be sure to share this episode with your friends.
Thanks for listening.
[SFX: That’s All Folks]