It goes further than coconut shells in the world of audio. Snapping frozen lettuce can mimic bones breaking, a heavy phone book sounds like someone being punched, cellophane crackles like fire…
Sound effects have been created since the discovery of the cupped-hand-owl-hoot and the armpit fart, but it was Jack Foley who in 1927 set up the first formal studio to record special sound effects to help help films overcome the problems synching early “talkie” films. He also gave the coconut-shell school of sound its first formal definition: “Foley is a sound effects technique synchronous effects or live effects”.
The Foley Artists website is great for telling you all about the history of sound effects, and has links to brilliant biographies and profiles of sound designers, interviews with Foley artists, and of course, a host of tricks of the trade and example SFX (as the lingo goes).
The blog associated with the site is just as good, although it hasn’t been updated for a couple of years. A tip is to follow the link to the YouTube videos of producer Roger Gregg playing with his collection of audio-creating toys.
And as an interesting case study of the use of sound effects, we can turn to a programme whose archive of 4000 sounds officially forms the most comprehensive library of farmyard noises on earth. Yes, it’s that bastion of the British middle-class kitchen – The Archers. Vicki Power had a good rummage into the programme’s secrets a few months ago in an article for The Telegraph on the 60th anniversary of the Anbridge radio soap. A yellow ironing board in their sound studio can be a creaking gate, though apparently you can’t fake boiling water with cold water – producer Kim Greengrass says “it sounds different”.
Oh, and for future reference – how to make a coconut shell horse.