The Secrets of Sound Design: Essentials for Film & Video [2024]

sound design

Key Takeaways:

  • Definition: Sound design is the art of creating the sound experience for a film or video.
  • It’s arguably just as important as visuals for effective storytelling.

  • Sound designers don’t usually do on-set recording – their work is more in planning and post-production.

  • Sound designers and sound editors use tools such as DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation), Foley work, and field recording.

  • For a successful sound design career, you should pursue building your network and portfolio while also getting formal education and on-the-job training.

As a movie lover, have you noticed that when you watch a movie like Jurassic Park, the roar of the T-Rex makes you jump out of your seat?

Or, have you ever flinched at the hum of a Star Wars lightsaber that seems to swing right above your head? I know I’ve jumped when I’ve been frightened by a good jumpscare in a movie!

We can all thank a film sound designer for those unforgettable aural experiences.

Sound design is crucial to effective storytelling in film, television, and immersive video. Sound designers pull together dialog tracks, Foley work, music, and sound effects (SFX) to create the auditory experience for viewers of a film or video.

In this article, we’ll explore the art, importance, tools, and techniques of sound design and the steps to be successful in this fascinating field!

What is a Sound Designer?

sound designer definition infographic

A skilled sound designer shapes the overall sound of a film – they meticulously plan and create the necessary elements to effectively convey the intended message and atmosphere of the movie or video. They create, edit, and mix sounds – including dialogue, music, and special effects – to enhance storytelling, evoke emotions, and establish tone. 

Sound designers work closely with directors, composers, and other team members to ensure that the auditory experience suits the film’s visual elements and overall story. They also possess technical expertise in audio equipment and software and know how to be collaborative and creative.

In small independent productions, the sound department may handle everything from sound effects to dialogue mixing to music creation. But in larger studios, the sound designer does not compose music or do final mixing and mastering. 

In almost all cases, the sound designer does not record on-set audio. That’s a job for the production audio team.

The Elements of Sound Design

Some film sounds, like the boom of an explosion or the clash of steel swords, can take center stage, but many are less obvious and sometimes even subliminal. 

More subtle sound effects may include footstep sounds on concrete or gravel. It could be the hubbub of background conversation in a coffee shop, the bubbling of a faraway stream, and the twitter of insects in a forest scene. You don’t notice these sounds – but you would notice if they weren’t there.

The role of a sound designer is to fill the movie world with carefully designed sound elements. This not only enhances the viewing experience but also extends the scope of each scene beyond what is visible on the screen. It’s a friendly reminder of how important sound can be in making a movie come alive!

Sound effects may be curated from SFX libraries, custom recorded in the field or the studio, or even created from scratch using a synthesizer. 

Types of Sounds in Films

If you want to get technical, there are five main types of sounds in films that sound designers need to pull together.

  • Acousmatic sound can be heard by the audience, but the source of the sound is not visually present on screen. It may be revealed later, creating a sense of mystery and depth to a scene. 

  • Diegetic sound encompasses all sounds that both the characters and the audience can hear. This includes environmental noises, character dialogues, and sounds originating from objects in the scene. It’s like the “real” sound within the story’s setting

  • Non-diegetic sound can only be heard by the audience and originates from outside the story space. This includes film scores, exaggerated sound effects, and narrator commentary. It’s essential for setting the mood and atmosphere.

  • Empathetic sound is used to reflect the overall mood of a scene. It’s often non-diegetic – but doesn’t have to be. Examples include a dirge playing during a character’s death scene (that only the audience can hear) or a cheerful song at a wedding (played by musicians in the scene). 

  • Anempathetic sound, in contrast to empathetic sound, appears indifferent to the scene’s mood and can even be jarring or contradictory. It’s usually non-diegetic and can be used by directors to provide insight into a plot point that the main characters may not be aware of. This type of sound creates a unique storytelling effect by juxtaposing the audio with the scene’s emotional tone.

A sound designer working with audio effects to create sound effects for music production

The Evolution of Sound Editing

Sound design in film has come a long way since its inception in the 1920s. Before films had audio tracks synced to pictures, silent films had live musicians and artists using sound effects devices right in the studios to play along with the visuals. Sometimes, they even had live narrators.

The landmark film The Jazz Singer (1927) introduced synchronized sound recording, marking the end of the silent era. In the “early sound era” of the 1930s, sound designers focused on capturing dialog and adding music. 

But in the Golden Age of Hollywood up through the 1960s and 1970s, huge advancements in both technology – from multitrack recording to Dolby stereo – led to increasingly creative and immersive soundscapes. 

Blockbuster films in the ’70s through ’90s – like Star Wars and Jurassic Park –  showcased the power of music and sound effects in creating memorable cinematic experiences, especially as more theaters invested in surround sound.

Today, streaming platforms have led to a resurgence of interest in sound design as content creators explore innovative approaches to audio storytelling for online audiences.

A sound designer working with sound editing to create sound effects for a sound design stuido

Tools and Techniques

To create distinctive audio elements, sound designers employ a range of tools and techniques, such as digital audio workstations (DAWs), synthesis, sampling, and field recording. These tools allow them to manipulate and combine sounds, sculpting unique sonic textures that enhance the overall experience.

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)

Digital audio workstations (DAWs) are essential software tools for sound designers, enabling them to combine hundreds of audio clips in multiple tracks that are mixed together to create an expansive soundscape.

Most DAWs are packaged with specialized sound processing effects such as reverb, delay, echo, compression, and more, enabling a sound designer to transform recorded clips into the exact sound needed to tell a story.

DAWs are also used to assemble final mixes of dialog, sound effects, and musical scores. Popular DAWs include Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, FL Studio, and Cubase, each with its unique features and capabilities.

With the power of DAWs at their fingertips, a professional sound designer can easily record, edit, and mix audio tracks to create a polished final product. 

Synthesis and Sampling

Synthesis and sampling are two essential techniques in sound design, allowing designers to create or modify new sounds. In synthesis, sound designers generate sounds from scratch using custom parameters and synthesizers. These instruments produce audio signals from electronically generated waveforms like sine, square, sawtooth, and triangle, which can be combined and adjusted to achieve the desired sound.

On the other hand, sampling involves taking a portion of a recorded sound from one instrument and repurposing it as a new instrument or sound in a different audio recording.

Field Recording and Foley

Field recording is essential for capturing realistic audio elements and enhancing the authenticity of a project. Field recording involves capturing audio from external sources, such as the sound of rain, birdsong, or city traffic, and incorporating it into the soundscape the sound designer is creating.

Foley sounds, named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, are custom-created sound effects that mimic everyday actions, such as footsteps, door creaks, or glass shattering, to enhance the realism of a scene. These sounds are usually recorded in the studio as the foley artist watches a silent version of the picture while creating the appropriate sounds to match the picture. 

The foley artist may use such items as shoes and ground surfaces to record footsteps or even bashing a head of cabbage and cracking celery sticks to stand in for the sound of a hero’s punch connecting during a fight.

Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt crafted the iconic lightsaber sound using the hum of two Simplex projector motors and the buzz of a TV set!

sound design

The Sound Designer’s Workflow

To produce polished audial experiences, a sound design team follows a workflow that includes pre-production planning, recording and editing, and mixing and mastering. This process ensures that the final product is cohesive, engaging, and of the highest quality.

Pre-Production Planning

During the pre-production phase, sound designers collaborate with directors and producers to determine the audio needs of a project and develop a plan for creating the necessary sounds.

This may involve evaluating the script, identifying essential sounds and music, and brainstorming ideas for unique soundscapes that support the project’s vision.

Recording and Editing Sound Effects

Sound designers and foley artists record and edit audio elements during production and post-production.

This involves capturing dialogue, sound effects, and music using field recorders, microphones, preamps, and digital audio workstations (DAWs) and recording ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) and voice-over for dialog not sufficiently captured during production.

Mixing and Mastering

The final stage in the creative sound design process involves mixing and mastering the audio tracks, each of which is first made free of background noise and ensured to be of the highest quality possible.

What is Audio Mixing?

The mix engineer takes all the audio in a film and balances the tracks (sometimes there are hundreds!) so that what the audience needs to hear cuts through clearly. 

Most important is usually the dialogue since that drives the characters and the story. The mix engineer ensures sound effects and music do not drown out important lines

Using a combination of levels, panning, and effects, the mix engineer situates each sound within the film’s soundscape.

What is Audio Mastering?

Audio mastering involves combining all the tracks in the mix into a cohesive output in the final output format. The mastering process uses limiters to ensure the audio levels are maximized without clipping and may use a compressor, equalizer, and light reverb, among other effects, to sweeten the mix.

In short, mixing ensures that all audio elements, such as dialogue, sound effects, and music, are balanced and blend seamlessly. Mastering polishes the final mix, ensuring the audio is consistent and cohesive across various playback systems and formats.

Sound Design in Other Industries

Sound designers are needed in several industries – not just film. They are also essential for music production, video games, and interactive media or virtual reality experiences.

Music Production

The sound designer’s job in music production is to bring the artist’s vision to life. Creative sound design in music involves enhancing the sound quality of vocals and instruments and creating unique audio effects that set a track apart.

Sound designers work closely with musicians, producers, and engineers to craft the perfect sound for each project, whether a chart-topping pop hit or an experimental electronic soundscape.

Video Games and Interactive Media

Sound designers in video games and interactive media create audio elements that immerse players in the game world.

They create soundscapes transporting players to other worlds and insert subtle audio cues guiding gameplay. Sound editing and sound mixing for games and interactive media requires a deep understanding of the game mechanics and the narrative.

Building a Career in Sound Design

Sound design is a competitive field – but it’s also one of great creative range that gives motivated and talented individuals lots of opportunities to shine. Building a successful career in sound design usually requires formal education, networking, and a strong portfolio. 

  • Formal Education: An increasing number of universities offer sound design degrees, such as SCAD, which offers an M.A. in sound design. A bachelor’s degree in audio engineering or a related field can also lead to a career in sound design.

  • Networking: Networking with industry professionals at events, film festivals, and professional organizations is crucial for finding opportunities and staying up-to-date with industry trends. 

  • Portfolio: You will need a robust portfolio showcasing your sound design work, including recordings, mixes, and projects across different genres, to secure a job in the field. If you don’t have a portfolio, spend some time networking with indie filmmakers and offering your services until you have one. 

a foley artist for a film production

Final Thoughts

Sound design is a fascinating and ever-evolving field that offers a world of opportunities in both film and television, as well as other industries like gaming and VR.

Sound designers are more than engineers; they are auditory storytellers. They use creative skills and complex tools to deliver audiences a powerful emotional experience through the sense many take for granted: hearing.

Common Questions (FAQs)

What is sound design?

Sound design is the creation and sourcing of audio tracks that form the foundation of a sound mix, such as dialogue, sound effects, pre-recorded songs, original music, and ambiance layers. This process includes elements of mixing in order to create an optimal sonic experience.

How do you become a sound designer?

Becoming a professional sound designer involves obtaining basic industry skills such as sound editing and mixing, participating in internships, seeking freelance opportunities, creating your own sound library, and expanding your skill set. Most sound designers earn a bachelor’s degree in audio engineering or a related field. You’ll also want to create an impressive sound portfolio to impress potential producers!

What skills do you need to be a sound designer?

You need audio editing, recording, mixing, and sound manipulation skills to be a sound designer. Creativity, attention to detail, and a good ear for nuances in sound are also required. Finally, strong communication, teamwork, and technical proficiency with sound equipment and software are important!

What are examples of sound design?

There are five essential elements of sound design. These include music, ambiance, foley, audio effects, and voice over

Interested in sound and audio? Check out these other helpful articles!

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5+ Best Voice Over Software Tools: Reviewed

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