What is sound design? Elements & practices of sound design

Sound designer in studio creating sounds for film with monitors

A film can have beautiful visuals, but to really immerse the audience in the drama, it has to have good sound. The sounds of film and television productions include anything from snappy lines of dialogue to soaring film scores to a careful mixture of in-scene music and sound effects. That mixture is called sound design.

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What is sound design?

Sound design is the craft of creating an overall sonic palette for a piece of art, especially media like film, TV shows, live theater, commercials, and podcasts. It can also apply to multimedia visual art forms (video art) and even music recordings that incorporate ambient sounds or sound effects.

6 applications for sound design

Sound design can pop up in many forms of art, but it’s particularly essential to six specific types of media.

  • Film. Film sound design mostly involves creating sounds that mimic real life. If a scene takes place in a field in Oklahoma, the film’s sound designer might create a sound tapestry that incorporates the rustle of wind, the chirping of crickets, and maybe an idling truck. If a scene takes place in a diner in the 1970s, the sound designer might combine the sounds of a kitchen, the clinking of glassware, and some era-specific music drifting from the jukebox. Film sound designers rarely compose original underscore; most movies have a separate composer for that portion.
  • Television. The duties of a TV sound designer are pretty close to those of a film sound designer. The one main difference with TV is that many shows have episodes that return to the same location time and again. As a result, a TV sound designer might design a core template for scenes shot in those locations so they can create consistency from one episode to the next.
  • Advertising. If you listen closely, you can hear all kinds of sound effects in TV and radio commercials. Sound designers create sonic palettes that transport audiences to the various worlds where those ads take place. The goal of most commercial sound design is to blend in without being distracting. In most cases, you should barely notice the sound.
  • Music. You can find examples of sound design in music recordings, particularly when you delve into the works of avant-garde composers. Mid-twentieth century classical artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Steve Reich made good use of field recordings and special effects as part of their works. Sound tapestries have also taken hold in more recent eras of music history. Artists associated with rock music like Brian Eno and Jim O’Rourke have released many albums that combine sound effects with musical instruments.
  • Podcasts. As a purely sound-based storytelling medium, podcasts require careful attention to sound design. This particularly applies to narrative podcasts, where the right sonic textures can transport a listener into the world of the story. News podcasts and chat shows may not require sound design and get by with basic sound mixing and some theme music.
  • Live theater. Sound designers make immense contributions to live theater. Theater sound design may include sound effects, pre-recorded voiceover, and music coming from an onstage radio or television. In live theater, sound designers also oversee sound mixing and reinforcement, which is particularly necessary when staging musical productions. Sound designers might also compose incidental music that pops up at different points in the play.

What does a sound designer do?

In most cases, the creative sound design on a film or TV project is overseen by a professional sound designer. This specialist is part of a project’s design team, along with a director, a production designer, a lighting designer, and other design roles. Films and TV shows typically have dedicated composers whose sole duty is providing the musical underscore. For example, John Williams wrote the famous film score to Star Wars but he didn’t create the beeping sounds of R2D2 or the electric hum and clash of the lightsabers — that was sound designer Ben Burtt. Sometimes a sound designer doubles as the composer and contributes both music and sound effects to the finished product, but that’s more common in live theater and podcasting. Here are the main tasks on a sound designer’s plate:

  • Recording. A sound designer may be the one to record sounds for use in a production. These can be studio recordings or field recordings, where the designer brings a recording kit to an outside location.
  • Mixing. Sound designers mix audio in two ways. Nearly all create studio mixes of sound design palettes and individual cues beforehand that are played during a production. In live theater, a sound designer (or a crew member supervised by the designer) may be in charge of mixing all audio elements of a show live, including music cues, sound effects, and the actors’ microphones.
  • Sampling. Sampling is the art of taking an individual sound and allowing it to be triggered by an outside device. For example, a sound designer could sample a car horn by recording the sound of a car horn and then programming it into a MIDI sequence so the car horn sounds every time they strike a certain key on a MIDI keyboard.
  • Modifying effects chains. Sometimes a sound designer processes audio recordings using different types of effects. These effects include audio equalization (EQ), compression, reverb, delay, distortion, phasing, flanging, vibrato, and ring modulation. A sound designer works to create an effects chain that manipulates raw recordings in just the right way to mimic the sound they might be hearing in their head.
  • Sound editing. Sound editing describes the entire process of editing audio. Mixing, sampling, creating sound effects, splicing, and manipulating audio all fall under the umbrella of sound editing.
  • Underscore. In podcasting and live theater, sound designers often contribute original underscore and incidental music, in addition to handling sound effects and microphone mixes. In filmed entertainment such as movies, TV, and televised ads, the design team typically includes a separate composer whose entire job is to compose original music. The team might also include a music supervisor who finds (and secures the rights to) pre-recorded music by other artists.

6 elements of sound design

Typical sound design includes these six elements.

  • Voice-over. Voice-over is pre-recorded audio, typically provided by one of the actors in a production. It can serve as a narration or come from an off-stage (or off-screen) character. In many productions, the sound designer is in charge of recording and editing voice-over audio.
  • Ambiance. Ambiance describes the sonic tapestries created by a sound designer to create a sense of time and place. Ambient sound design contains all the real-life sounds of a setting in order to transport an audience to any sort of location, from a medieval castle to a present-day train station to a futuristic space capsule.
  • Foley sounds. Foley involves using physical objects to create sound effects, such as using a pair of coconut shells to mimic the sound of galloping horses. Foley artists played a huge role in sound design during the Golden Age of Radio. Today, most sound designers use pre-recorded digital sound libraries, but a small number of Foley artists still work in film, television, radio, and live theater.
  • Audio effects. Audio effects consist of various sounds related to specific objects — like a ringing telephone, a firing gun, or a revving motorcycle. They can also describe standalone audio cues that layer on top of ambient soundscapes. Audio effects can be recorded as Foley cues, designed from scratch using synthesizers, or sourced from vast libraries of pre-recorded sound effects.
  • Music. Sound design often involves music — both preexisting music licensed for a production and original music created specifically for the project. This music can appear in a film or theater scene as sound heard by the characters, such as music from a radio or a song a character sings. It can also be underscore, which is textural music that the audience hears but the characters don’t.
  • Live microphones. In live theater productions, a sound designer is often in charge of sound reinforcement, which involves miking actors and projecting their voices through a theater’s speakers. The designer might mix live microphones themselves or they might hire a soundboard operator to handle the live sound mixing.

Sound design vs. sound mixing: What’s the difference?

Many sound designers engage in sound mixing, but the role of a professional sound designer is a little bit different than the role of a professional sound mixer. Sound mixers, sometimes called sound editors or engineers, specialize in taking pre-recorded audio tracks and balancing their levels to create a clear and aesthetically pleasing final product. Live sound mixers balance the sound coming from on-stage microphones and any pre-recorded audio tracks.

Sound design, on the other hand, does involve a degree of mixing, but it also involves creating or sourcing the audio tracks that form the bedrock of a sound mix. Sound designers create sound effects, source pre-recorded songs, create original music, and build layers of ambiance through their designs. They’ll often do sound edits and create sound mixes in the course of their work, but they play a more integral role in the creative process than your standard sound mixer.

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