Sound Designing & How To Think About Sound
by Mark Kerins
“Sound designer” first came to prominence as a film crew credit in the 1970s. If today it retains a bit of political baggage in the hierarchical film industry (thanks to inconsistent application, especially in comparison to job descriptions like “supervising sound editor”), it has nonetheless left an important legacy. For the phrase, “sound designer,” unequivocally claims the soundtrack as a designed element of the movie. It says there’s a thought process behind all the elements we hear and how they’ve been combined.
All too often (particularly in low-budget filmmaking), we only think about sound from a “fixing” perspective. In other words, we pay attention to the soundtrack when there’s a problem (a missing effect, too much background noise, illegible dialogue) but rarely think about its overall structure the way we do with other elements. And even those of us who labor over the particulars of the sound edit or mix for a given scene often neglect to think about the “big picture.”
Unfortunately, this means we often limit the soundtrack’s capabilities to do more than just supporting the images onscreen, particularly its ability to help us tell our stories. In a nutshell, “sound design” is nothing more or less than thinking about this ability and constructing a unified, planned soundtrack that tells the movie’s story as well as possible.
In this sense, sound design is much like production design (what sets, costumes, and props will best tell the story?) or cinematography (what shots, lighting schemes, and colors will best tell the story?). And, just as with these crafts, the earlier in the production process you begin thinking about sound design, the more effective the end result is likely to be.
So, how does one begin “designing” a soundtrack? The good news (particularly for those who assume anything to do with sound requires a lot of technical expertise) is that well-crafted sound design has much more to do with your creativity and how you think about sound than with using a lot of fancy gear. I’ve had students create really compelling soundtracks using nothing more than their camcorder’s on-camera microphone and Final Cut Pro. Of course, higher-end tools will both make your audio work easier and provide you with additional functionality, but the point is that whether or not you have access to a recording studio or a Pro Tools rig, you can construct a solid soundtrack.
The fundamental sound design question, then, is: how should you think about sound? As with many aspects of filmmaking, a variety of paths can lead to the same result, and you’ll ultimately learn through practice what approach works best for you. That said, to get you started, here’s a simple ABCD strategy that’s broad enough to apply to a range of projects and levels of expertise:
1. Assess the story.
2. Build your sonic palette.
3. Create your arc.
4. Develop the sounds.
Let’s walk through each of these steps in a little more detail.
Assess the Story
No one type of sound plan will work for every film. Whether you’re in pre-production studying a script, or are in post-production with a complete rough cut of the film, the overall feel and structure of the movie must guide your sound design choices. Are there important thematic elements that sound can highlight? Do the story and/or genre call out for a music-heavy soundtrack, or one driven primarily by diegetic sounds? Should the soundtrack be heavily naturalistic, or is there room for more over-the-top sounds?
At this early stage in the process, you’re essentially looking for clues to the style of soundtrack that will work for the project at hand. The flashy, in-your-face sound effects of The Matrix are a perfect fit for that film’s visual-effect-heavy, attention-grabbing fantasy world (its digitally-processed-sounding effects likewise fit the “we’re all inside a computer” plot), while the subtle but ubiquitous background city noise of Seven creates a dirty, claustrophobic feel that matches the movie’s gritty procedural style. In both cases, the films’ sound designers created soundtracks that help set the films’ moods and push their stories forward in ways appropriate to their subjects.
Build Your Sonic Palette
Once you’ve figured out the style of soundtrack to create, determine its principal components. This isn’t to say you need to list every sound you’ll use in the movie. Focus on the few that will form the foundation of your sound design. The analogy here is to a painter deciding on the overall color scheme for a new piece; even though he may end up using dozens of different colors in the course of completing it, that overall scheme will guide each of these paint selections.
Be as specific or general as is useful to you at this point. Just remember that you’re still at the “thinking” stage, so you don’t yet need to worry about the particulars of how you’ll create each sound effect. My own tendencies are to stay pretty broad. In other words, I’ll think about my palette in terms of a couple specific effects, voices, ambiences, music, and silence (one of the most useful and under-used elements of the sound designer’s palette) without focusing too much on the particular characteristics of each.
Let’s say you’re working on a dramatic piece about a conversation in an apartment. What might the major elements of your palette be? Obviously, you know you’ll have the character’s voices, but what else? Is there going to be non-diegetic (score) music, or diegetic music playing on a radio in the apartment, or no music at all? Is the outside environment (a busy street outside, sounds from a neighboring apartment, etc.) an important element, or do you want to limit the soundtrack to elements inside the apartment’s walls? Are there any sounds within the apartment that might help tell the story or set the mood, such as an air conditioner or fan, a refrigerator hum, or a radiator rattling?
Notice that I haven’t mentioned Foley or basic room tone. This is not because these are not important or shouldn’t be used in a soundtrack but rather because usually these elements are not fundamental to the creative design of the soundtrack. If, however, these are important elements for your own sound design, by all means think about them at this point.
As you’re creating your palette, keep in mind the onscreen spaces. What sounds would be natural to each of them? But at the same time, don’t limit yourself by what’s onscreen. Part of the sound designer’s charge is usually to create a world larger than the onscreen visuals. So think about the larger world at play. A street in rural Kansas will sound very different from one in downtown Chicago, and neither will sound like a street on the moon might in a sci-fi movie. And, don’t forget about non-diegetic sounds! Do we hear what a character’s thinking, or bits of sound from a previous or future scene? What about music? Many of the best soundtracks I’ve heard derive power from some non-obvious choices. Again, be willing to think “outside the frame.”
Create Your Arc
With your sonic palette in hand, you’re ready for the most important part of the sound design thought process: devising the soundtrack’s arc. Essentially, you’re writing a script for the sound. What are the loudest parts? The quietest? Busiest? Simplest? What are each of the elements of the sonic palette doing at each point? What’s the most important sound at each point? As mentioned before, your guide at all times should be serving the film’s story and themes, so let your thoughts from the “assess the story” phase inform whatever structure you devise.
A literal “arc” is often an effective starting point for designing a soundtrack. In the simplest case, the movie may start out softly with a single effect, then build so the soundtrack’s loudest, fullest point occurs at the climax, and then quiet back down by the end. You need not, however, use an “arc” per se; the goal is merely for the soundtrack to have some sort of progression.
A project on which I’m currently working, for example, opens with a busy, noisy environment, but then allows different elements to gradually fade out. By the climax, only the lead actors’ voices remain, so that the filmic world has literally shrunk down to just the two of them.
A helpful way to approach this stage of the process is to literally “graph” the soundtrack, with a different colored line for each of your key sonic elements (for a more complex version of this strategy, see David Sonnenschein’s 2001 book, Sound Design). This visual approach can help you see at a glance which elements are in play at any moment, as well as which are getting louder and/or bigger, which are fading away, and which are staying constant. If you notice that all your elements stay fairly constant through the whole movie, for instance, then you may want to develop your sound plan a little more.
As you build this graph, a useful pair of terms to keep in mind is figure and ground. The “figure” includes the sonic elements changing or vying for our attentions at any point, while the “ground” is all the other elements of the soundtrack that are more or less “background.” Speaking very generally, an audience can only process about three “figure” elements at a time, and anything more than this is perceived as part of the “ground.” Of course, which sounds are “figure” and which are “ground” can (and usually should) change over the course of the piece. As a very simple illustration, the background hum of a plane flying overhead would generally be “ground,” but if it starts getting significantly louder, at some point it may become “figure” (and likely draw our attention away from the film’s other elements), as we grow anxious about the apparently-very-close aircraft.
One of the most important decisions to make in the “create an arc” stage is where music will be used. Music (whether score or diegetic) can do a lot to enhance the emotion and intensity of your movie, and is a valuable tool to have in your sonic palette. But it also can be a crutch, as many beginning filmmakers (and even some experienced ones) rely on wall-to-wall music dominating the soundtrack to cover all manner of mistakes, and their films tend to suffer from this approach.
As you’re building your “sound script” then, use music where it can help, but don’t be afraid to go without it where appropriate. Also remember that ostensibly non-musical sounds can be used in “musical” ways. On a project I edited several years ago, the sound designer created a great sense of tone for the piece by combining a couple of simple effects and heavily processed voices in rhythmic ways. The result was a soundtrack that felt “musical” in a subtly eerie way that fit the movie’s tone much better than a traditional “score” would have.
Develop the Sounds
Finally, after you’re happy with your sound script, it’s time to get to work on the actual production phase of sound design. Quite literally, it’s time to “design your sounds.” Start with the key elements from your sound plan, particularly those that may be a bit unusual. Depending on the scale and budget of your project, you may not be able to create all the sound effects you need from scratch, so it’s best to ensure you’ve spent the necessary time on the most important effects first. In a worst case scenario, after all, you can always draw from libraries of stock effects for the backgrounds and other less noticeable aural elements. (It’s a great idea to keep a well-documented archive of your own sound effects. As you work on more projects, this library will grow, giving you a ready supply of effects to mine.)
A common novice mistake in creating sound effects is trying to capture every sound effect from its literal source. Be creative. Think about what you want the feel of an effect to be, and then create that feel rather than worrying about getting the “actual” sound. In fact, most of the time “real” sounds (what things sound like in life) are not as interesting, effective, or even convincing as sounds designed to match the “feel” of a real life occurrence. The realistic sound of a punch hardly conveys the power and impact that we want to sense when watching an onscreen fistfight, which is why a long history of filmmakers have created “bigger” punching sound effects that bear little resemblance to punching’s “real” sound.
A simple plate of food is a great place to start when looking for effects. Breaking a stick of celery might provide exactly the “bone snapping” sound effect your horror movie needs, while squishing pudding out of your hand provides a great non-specific “organic” sound. (Some students of mine used this as part of an “alien bursting out of a person’s chest” sound effect.)
Don’t expect to always find the perfect sound in a single recording. Instead, edit and process a variety of sounds together to get exactly the effect you want. Even something as simple as a “cityscape” might include at various times recordings of crowds, traffic, sirens, subways, and so on, all mixed together in the right proportions for the tone of the particular movie being made.
On one of my own films, a ticking clock was a central element of the sound plan. It would have been easy enough to simply find a stock “clock” effect, but this would not have yielded quite the feel I wanted. Instead, I recorded two different clocks, each from several different microphone positions. By then varying the proportions of (and processing on) each recording over the course of the movie, I made the ticking gradually grow more “hollow” and distinct as the story progressed, which fit the story much better than a consistent stock “tick” would have.
Finally, keep in mind the frequency and dynamic ranges of your project, using your sound plan as a guide. Psychoacoustics tells us it’s easier to hear two distinct sounds if they’re in different frequency ranges. Thus, if you know two distinct effects are going to be played together, pitching one higher and the other lower will give each room to “breathe.” Similarly, it’s worth spending a lot of time putting together a beautiful, subtle ambience that you know will be the only element in a quiet section of the movie, but your time may be better spent tweaking other elements if, instead, you know that background will always be playing under other loud effects.
Learn to Listen
One final tip, perhaps the most important one for any aspiring sound designer: LEARN TO LISTEN.
The next time you see a movie, try to identify the various sonic elements at play. What’s the character of each, and what’s it doing for the story? How is the soundtrack as a whole evolving over the course of the film?
Similarly, try just listening to everyday spaces. What sounds do you hear? What’s the aural quality of each – is it high or low, loud or soft, organic or mechanical, clean or dirty, close or distant? Which sounds draw your attentions, and which remain in the background until you really focus on them? If you were creating this space in a film, which sounds would you include and which would you leave out? The more you practice listening to the world around you, the better listener (and sound artist) you’ll become.
So there you have it: a simple, straightforward way to start thinking about sound design. Obviously, even after completing the steps here, much remains to be done with the soundtrack. You still have to record your ADR and Foley, edit all the sounds into their proper positions, and mix the whole soundtrack. But if you’ve taken the time to really design the soundtrack well, you can rest assured all the remaining work will be guided by a solid plan, and will ultimately lead to a soundtrack that services the story and makes the film that much better.
Mark Kerins earned a Ph.D. in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University for his project, Rethinking Film for the Digital Sound Age. His work continues to focus on sound design, surround sound, and building dialogue between critical studies and production. He currently teaches film/video production and post-production in the Division of Cinema-Television at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
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