In the entertainment and arts world, recorded sound remains one of the pillars of the industry. No less important than our other senses, sound is so often overlooked by the casual observer because it’s such a universal constant that we may not even notice its effect on us. This makes sound a remarkably powerful tool for creating and directing emotion for any listener.
So who is orchestrating all these sounds in movies, radio, video games, music, and more? These are all meticulously crafted by a Sound Designer.
In this blog, we will look at what sound design is, what work a sound designer does, and where their work shows up in our everyday lives.
What is Sound Design?
The role of a modern Sound Designer could include several things. A sound designer’s primary goal is to shape and create each sound to have an emotional and storytelling function within a larger piece.
They are professionals who work across various mediums — film, television, video games, theater, virtual reality, and music. This may include sound effects, ambiance, musical instruments, dialogue, and more.
While music involves many sound design elements, most of this blog will focus on creative sound design for other applications since we have discussed mixing extensively.
A sound designer will often collaborate closely with creatives from visual disciplines, like a tv/film director, producer, or even whole creative teams, to develop a shared vision for a larger project. In other cases, a sound designer will work on a purely audio project —carving a new path and designing spaces and effects never imagined.
Creating these works will require a deep understanding of technology, audio tools, great intuition, and “golden ears.” By understanding how we listen to the world around us, a sound designer can select, manipulate, and blend sounds to evoke emotions, build tension, and transport the audience into their virtual soundscape.
What does a Sound Designer do?
A sound designer working on a large project will have several stages to work through. They must start with pre-planning, then recording or creation, then editing and mixing. Let’s take a close look at each stage.
For any large project, it will be necessary to develop a plan. Through pre-production, a sound designer will meticulously analyze the script, storyboards, concept art, or early copies of the work they are enhancing.
During this process, they will be looking for a number of specific features:
- And sound effects.
Dialogue recording is sometimes a much more complicated task than most people assume.
While actors in a scene are likely recorded with a combination of boom mics and tiny hidden wireless microphones called lavalier mics, many movie sets are too noisy to be able to capture the best-sounding audio.
In these situations, a process of re-recording the dialogue in the studio, called Automated Dialogue Replacement or ADR, will need to be planned. In the planning stage, the sound designer will need an accurate script marked with the exact time for each line of dialogue. This timecode marking allows the actor to recreate their dialogue quickly and efficiently, and in an ideal environment.
Ambiance is the sound of the spaces that they will need to create. This might include simple spaces like a city street or a forest, or wild spaces like a spaceship or a fantasy dreamworld. Planning and discussing these sounds with the director can help ensure the proper mood and context are set for the emotion and storytelling.
Some films or video games will have their ambiance featured prominently, while others will starve the audience of this information to create tension or unrest. Check out the first scene in Saving Private Ryan to see how the sound of the character’s surroundings can evolve through the story.
Foley is a process of recreating the natural sound events in a scene. Planning out foley sounds ahead of time is crucial, so the sound designer will mark the exact timecode of each sound. These sounds might be as simple as footsteps, but they must still be accurate. They need to determine the type of shoes, type of floor, how heavy is the person walking or running, etc.
For video games, the sound designer may need to create foley that evolves along with the action on screen. For example, the character may transition from walking to running or sliding, which may happen while changing environments from a gravel road to sand and then concrete sidewalk.
Some sounds are not exactly natural or easy to record in a small foley studio. These are generally just referred to as Sound Effects. These often require lots of planning and may involve traveling to unique locations to record or create.
Sound designers for video games need to record things like the sound of a race car shifting at 200 mph. Or may need to find a way to create the sound of a laser in space, even though everybody involved knows there wouldn’t be any sound at all.
After planning these elements, the sound designer will create a Sound Design Proposal. This document will outline the vision for the soundscape and list all the special tools, locations, or audio effects which will be used. Not only does this help create a budget, but it also ensures that the collaboration with the other creative team members will be effective.
Sound designers will use several methods to create the sounds they need. The obvious first method is using professional microphones and recording equipment to capture sounds. While they may record exact replicas of sounds like footsteps, they may have to get creative with others.
Often some medieval armor or a space suit may be difficult or even impossible to acquire, so the sound designer must recreate those sounds using other elements.
They make something that sounds even better than the real thing. For example, a space suit sound might be made with separate recordings of a scuba mask, some old fabric, some squeaky rubber, and a tool belt. The foley artist recording those sounds can customize and perform the sounds to match the screen action exactly.
Famously, the laser blasts from Star Wars were made by putting a microphone against the guy wire holding up a power pole and hitting the cable with a wrench. And the lightsaber sounds were recorded by pointing a microphone at a broken tv set.
Many sounds don’t need to be quite as unique or would be too time-consuming and expensive to record for every project. In these cases, sound designers rely on Sound Libraries. These are vast collections of pre-recorded sounds that they have curated and organized to pull specific sounds from quickly.
They could easily pull up the sound of two swords clashing or a chair scraping across a wooden floor. Some sound designers build their own, buy collections, or even design and sell their collections to other sound designers.
Another element of creation may be using electronic tools to generate sounds. These may be classic sci-fi sounds from synthesizers —think classic episodes of Dr. Who. Or they may be ethereal soundscapes generated by modern virtual instruments like Serum, Omnisphere, Kilohearts, and hundreds of others. These can create moods and tension that may not have been possible through more traditional methods and can also give a production a modern and cutting-edge sound.
3) Editing and Mixing
With modern sound design, all the individual elements will be captured in a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW. This DAW allows extensive manipulation of the sounds.
The first step, typically, will be editing them to fit the desired timing. By carefully adjusting their start and end times, the sound can be precisely locked to the action in the scene. One effect could be copied and used many times throughout the film, video game, or theater production.
The editing process could even include changes like pitch shifting. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were unique combinations of multiple sounds, but the giant T-Rex was a small baby elephant sound that had been slowed down to make it deeper and more prominent. Similarly, Star Wars’ giant “rancor” was a chihuahua sound slowed down.
After all the sounds are lined up and ready, it’s time to mix. Most of the sound mixing work will involve just getting the volume, or balance, right between all the sounds.
However, the six mix tools include balance, pan, tone, dynamics, saturation, and effects.
- Balance is the volume of each element.
- Pan, or panorama, is the location of the sound between all the speakers. In modern Atmos and spatial mixing, this may include many speakers all around and above the listener.
- Tone is adjusted through equalization to make each important sound clear and powerful and each background sound to support the foreground.
- Dynamics is how the volume will change throughout the piece, allowing contrast between sections.
- Saturation is distortion, which allows sounds to be energized and excited.
- Effects could include different sound changes, like pitch modulation, delays, reverbs, and more.
Sound designers are the architects of entire worlds built out of sound. They use knowledge of how sound works, how the listener reacts, and how they can manipulate the audio that they have created to immerse their listeners and captivate them.
So, next time you watch a movie, play a game, listen to ambient soundscapes while studying, or watch a Broadway theater production, take a moment to appreciate the dedication and craftsmanship these sound designers have brought to your world.
If you are interested in a career in the music industry, Dark Horse Institute’s music programs: Composition and Songwriting, Audio Engineering, or Music Business, are a great way to take things to the next level!