A step-by-step guide to sound design by Andrew Diey
New Talent winner Andrew Diey has written a fantastic 10-step guide for those who want to know more about the role of a sound designer.
1. Understand your craft
As a sound designer, it's useful to understand all the variations of your job and the different tasks you may be asked to perform.
At first, there are a few simple elements to the craft. But a good sound designer should be able to apply their work to almost anything.
The most obvious use of sound design is for creating sounds for picture. But it can also be used for: adverts, theatre, computer games, radio, film, TV, sculptures, music, and sound effects for machines, cars or electrical appliances.
Step 2. Being able to listen
2. Being able to listen
This is not as simple as you think! Listening is an art form that takes many years to refine. When was the last time you listened to the birds in the morning, taking in how intricate and detailed each song is? There may be hundreds of different birds in your area!
To take it a step forward you could catalogue those birds by recording them, and later use them as a sound effect, or mix them to create a new soundscape. When you become more advanced use them to create an alien language in a film or game environment!
Try to vocalise the sounds of the different birds or create your own method of distinguishing different sounds.
Step 3. Dedication to the art of listening
3. Dedication to the art of listening
The sound designer spends much of their time listening to sounds they hear around them - whether at home, on holiday, at the cinema or travelling to work. They're always listening and thinking about what kind of sounds make up what they hear.
The sound designer knows how to capture these sounds by recording them. So create a catalogue of the sounds around you. Washing machines can turn into spaceships, telephone rings into computer bleeps, creaking doors into huge dungeon trapdoors, whistling wind into eerie ambience for a scary moment in a film!
Most sound effects come from the real world, recorded using microphones by sound designers who then make them into the 'sfx' you enjoy in films, games and on TV.
Step 4. Gathering what you hear
4. Gathering what you hear
Microphones are one of the most important pieces of technology we use as sound designers. The ability to record, store and playback the sounds that we hear, create or originate, is essential to our work.
It's important to have a microphone that will record sounds in any condition, anywhere, anytime – just remember to switch it on when you want to record!
Listen to this clip which highlights the many different sounds that are used, and the quality of those individual elements:
'Battle of Falkirk 1298 AD' from Andrew Diey's show reel.
The microphone is only the first step in the chain of events that take place when you record sounds. Here are the different stages and the equipment you will need:
Microphone » cable to plug into microphone » cable plugs into tape machine (or PC recorder) » tape gets digitised » sound is edited using a computer.
Step 5. Dissect the sound
5. Follow a simple rule structure - dissect the sound
There are many different ways to create exceptional sound effects (your ultimate goal as a sound designer!). Here's an example of a simple method of creating effects:
- Make a list of what you will use the sound effect for – e.g. the sound of a giant slug-like creature in a Harry Potter feature film.
- Try to vocalise what the effect should sound like. Imagine the size of the slug and how it would move. This would be a key starting point.
- Try creating the sound with your mouth, how would it sound?
- Now listen to the sound around you. Is there anything that could make a similar sound? If there isn't, you may have to initiate the sounds from scratch.
- By breaking the sound into parts you can start to understand what goes into making it. This is called dissecting the sound. It's a very important early stage of making sound effects.
- Now you know what elements make up the sound, you can start to improvise. With the slug creature you might have these elements: slime, peeling, sludge, gloopy, sticky.
- Is there anything in the real world that makes these sounds? Have a good think about it. This is where experience, listening and learning become helpful. You could try wallpaper paste, meat on a surface, sounds of wet fabrics, or anything else that sounds like your description.
Step 6. Sound editing
6. Follow a simple rule structure - sound editing
Once you've recorded the elements that will make up your sound effect, you'll need to assemble them together.
This stage is called sound editing, as what you are doing is cutting and sizing all the individual parts together.
This can be viewed as a simple progression:
- Make each element a sound in its own right, then pair two elements together - how do they work?
- Keep pairing elements together until you have a few that sound great together.
- Now find a third sound element that brings out the best qualities in the two sounds. Work with the three and mix them together.
- Discard the remaining sounds, storing them away to use another time.
- Now create a mix of the three elements and save it. This is your first sound effect!
- Now do the same again, and repeat the processes until you have several different mixes, which you can then compare to choose the best effect to fit the visual / or sound.
Step 7. Refining your work
7. Refining your work
If you have time, you should refine your work so that it sounds as good as possible.
You should also consider creating an original library of sound effects. This is very important. You will want to create sounds from your library on a regular basis, and having an organised archive that you can access is essential for all sound designers.
Step 8. Presenting your work
8. Presenting your work
Now you need to present your skills and sound effects to the professional world - whether that's for TV, radio or computer games.
In order to demonstrate your skills to the people or companies that work within these fields you will need a show reel to show off your creative abilities. Many companies look for people with raw talent and passion which can count just as much as qualifications and experience.
A show reel should not only demonstrate creativity, but also attention to detail. It might include: a movie where you've replaced the audio with your own, ambient soundscapes built without picture, examples of sample manipulation using DSP effects or similar. Be creative and show off as many of your skills as possible.
Step 9. Develop your knowledge
9. Continue to develop your knowledge
Keep a healthy interest in technology, sounds within films, games, television, animation, multimedia, radio drama, new products and theatre.
Listen to music and read interviews with other sound designers (a useful website is: www.filmsound.org).
And remember rule 1 and rule 10!
Step 10. You're only as good as the sounds you listen to
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10. As a sound designer you're only as good as the sound you listen to!
Try to think about how the sounds you are currently hearing would fit within a project, or how you could catalogue the sounds by recording them and mixing them with other sounds.
Get involved with discussions about listening, write about it, refresh your ears every so often, go somewhere quiet and do nothing except listen to the silence - which is almost impossible, as you will hear the sound of your own body working - and come to realise that sound is everywhere in our world...
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