Sound Design Explained: The Ultimate Guide
April 3, 2022
Sound design is the process of creating audio elements for film, television, music, games and other media. Sounds are designed to convey meaning, create a sense of atmosphere, enhance storytelling, serve as sound effects or create authenticity.
This makes sound design a powerful tool in every kind of media production. Sound is often overlooked and undervalued in film, though it is just as important as the images we see on screen.
A good sound design can help tell a story the way it is intended and keep viewers engrossed. When it's done well, sound design can also have a profound impact on the viewer. The right sounds can help evoke emotional responses from the audience and change the way a story is perceived.
The sound design process involved creating audio for specific purposes. These are recorded and mixed into the final project in order to achieve a particular effect.
For instance, sound design is often used in film to portray time of day. You might have noticed that many films use the sound of chirping birds to portray early morning scenes, and the sound of crickets to portray late night or evening scenes.
This guide covers everything you need to know about sound design. From what it is, why it’s used, to how sounds are designed, and how to get started in sound design.
What do sound designers do?
Sound design involves a set of techniques and processes used to add, alter, or modify the sound used in film, television, games and other productions. Sound designers use a range of audio manipulation and recording techniques in order to create specific sounds. This is also sometimes referred to as post-production sound.
Create authentic sounds
The goal of sound design is to create audio that contributes meaningfully to the experience being delivered in film, television or game. For instance, game sound designers will manipulate the sound of character footsteps to sound authentic to the game environment’s terrain. For instance, if the game character is walking inside a stone cathedral, their footsteps will sound very echoed in comparison to the character’s footsteps when walking on grass.
This makes the audible aspects of the game more authentic and immersive.
Similarly, film sound designers will create sounds that add authenticity to film scenes. This practice is referred to as Foley sound design, where the main aim is to record sounds that match what’s happening in the scene. For example, the sound of book pages being turned in the background of a library based scene.
In essence, the scene should sound like what it's supposed to sound like. Authenticity matters because the audience should be able to hear what the characters can hear - a concept known as diegetic sound.
Create mood and atmosphere
Not only do sound designers create authentic sounds to enhance realism, sound design can also be used to create particular moods and atmospheres. The sound designer might be tasked with creating sounds that evoke feelings of tension, suspense or movement within the scene.
A great example of this is the horror genre.
We all know that horror movie cliche: the scene where the main character slowly tiptoes through the house, slapstick weapon in hand, with only one corridor left to explore. You can hear it now, can’t you?
These suspenseful scenes are enhanced with tense sound effects, layered and built up until the suspense drops. Sometimes, silence is enough to build tension here. Though even these scenes are rarely ‘silent’; sound designers add subtle effects, such as footsteps, creaking floorboards, or distant movements to add to the tension.
Example of authentic and atmospheric sounds
A great example of authentic and atmospheric sound design in action is the 2016 video game INSIDE, developed by Playdead. The clip below demonstrates sound design’s ability to create authentic elements such as footsteps, while enhancing the experience with mood and ambience.
The game’s sound design incorporates the sound of footsteps, which sound different depending on where the character is running. It incorporates this with ambient sounds across different rooms and levels. Additionally, the audio becomes more tense as the player reaches prominent points in the game level design, helping build suspense.
In order for sound design to be truly effective, it needs to enhance the story and not take away from the visuals. Keep that in mind as you create your next sound design project, video or game.
Notable sound design examples
Sound design is something that we mostly take for granted, as audio effects are something we have become so used to hearing across all kinds of media. Sometimes, it is only when we stop and wonder how a sound was created that we start to think about the underlying sound design processes involved in film and TV.
Here are some notable examples of sound design in film.
Star Wars: Lightsabers
One of the most notorious sounds to come out of Star Wars, other than its incredible score, is the sound of lightsabers. Even if you haven’t watched Star Wars, you probably know this famous sound, and if you aren’t familiar with this sound effect, here is a clip of what we’re talking about.
Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt used the audio recording of two Simplex projector motors running simultaneously, combining this audio with the transmission buzz from a TV set.
This design created the sound of the iconic lightsaber as we know it.
In order to add motion to the sound and create the effect of a whooshing lightsaber in battle, Burtt played back the hum sound on loudspeakers and swung an active microphone between the monitors. This essentially used the doppler effect to create a sense of motion when characters used lightsabers in action sequences.
Jurassic Park: dinosaurs
Jurassic Park is famous for its CGI dinosaurs, which look and sound as we would expect dinosaurs to look and sound. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom was responsible for creating dinosaur noises using audio design techniques.
Of course, it would be impossible to conduct a live recording of dinosaur noises, since they are entirely extinct. To create dinosaur sounds, Rydstrom took sound inspiration from living animals. This included recording the sounds of geese, dolphins and horses to later manipulate into dinosaur sounds.
Sound design techniques involved slowing down, layering and pitching sounds down to sound as though they are coming from a much larger creature from the one in the original recording. This was a hugely successful example of sound design in film, winning two Academy Awards in 1994.
Dune sound design
Dune (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve, delivers a distinct audio experience. Alongside the film’s impressive visuals, Dune expertly weaves sound design and music into a fluid sonic world.
The film is almost entirely set in the desert, and so the sound team behind Dune undertook research into how different movements sound on and underneath sandy terrain, and how sounds travel across sand dunes. This gave the sound design team an accurate impression of how the sand worm would sound as it travels underneath the ground. Take a look at how the Dune sound team achieved this in the clip below.
The importance of authentic sound design
Authenticity is key when it comes to sound design. Even if you're making a film using entirely CGI, the final project will seem authentic if the visuals and sound design are realistic and immersive.
This involves the kind of everyday sounds that we usually take for granted, such as wind, rain and other background noise. You don't want the audience to feel confused or detached from the movie by using sounds that don’t feel natural, or don’t match the visuals.
This is one of the biggest challenges for sound designers, especially for CGI scenes where live audio recording is not an option.
Take this scene from The Lord of The Rings for example, showing thousands of CGI Orcs marching forwards.
The sound of their marching sounds authentic. But, this is CGI, so this is of course not a live recording. So how was this audio recorded?
In order to create marching sound effects, sound designers will usually begin by recording the sound of something hitting something else. For example, sound designers might record the sound of two coconut shells hitting together, or even the sound of a shoe hitting a hard surface.
Using these raw sound recordings, sound design professionals then layer the sounds, most likely with some small delay between each sound in order to create the sound of marching.
Foley sound design focuses around creating authentic sound in film production in order to enhance the realism of the scene. Foley artists will create and record sounds that match the visuals of the scene, making it more believable.
For instance, if the film scene involved a woman running down the street in high heels, foley artists recreate the sound of high heels on concrete flooring. These sounds are then synced with the scene’s visuals.
The importance of mood and atmosphere
Creative sound design can really bring a story to life and portray the emotions of characters more effectively, using audio to enhance the visual aspects of the story.
This can be especially powerful when combined with effective film scoring.
The importance of sound design cannot be understated when considering the mood of a film scene. Some of the most iconic scenes would be completely forgettable without it. For instance, the famous shower scene in Psycho (1960) uses jarring string staccatos to create a sense of horror and tension.
Similarly, the famous suspense of an impending shark attack in any Jaws movie would not be possible without its expert use of sound design. Both examples are still instantly recognisable today.
Sound design for mood is something that you'll have to experiment with, but it's a great way to add depth to your work and make it more memorable.
Sound bridges are used by sound designers to seamlessly transition film scenes. The sound from one scene might overlap into the next, making the change feel more natural to the audience.
The sound bridge might use musical sounds, speech, or foley sounds in order to make the transition smoother. For example, the background noise of one scene might feed into the next.
The sound design process
Sound design involves recording, acquiring and editing audio elements. It is used in filmmaking, television, theatre, music production, live productions, video game development, sound art, and more. The sound design process can differ depending on the type of production.
1. Recording and design
During this stage, sound designers record sounds using original audio recording, or audio libraries. For instance, sound designers might create original footstep sounds in a foley sound studio.
Once the audio has been recorded, sound designers edit sounds to refine the important details. For example, removing unwanted sounds in the recording. This ensures the audio is of a high quality, ready to be mixed into the production.
Sound recordings are often shortened during this stage, and certain sounds may need to be synced together to add an extra layer of effect. This is done using Digital Audio Workstations.
Sounds are then mixed into the production using a sound engine, a specialist software that implements audio from editing softwares into final projects. Sound engines are especially common in video game production, where the sound design process is a lot less straightforward than film sound design.
3. Sound effects and mixing
When sounds have been edited, they are then mixed into the final project.
In film, sound effect mixers add the sounds where appropriate, balancing volumes and the number of sound effects used.
In app and video game production, sound effect mixing happens in real-time. Developers write scripts that instruct the game when to play certain sounds. For instance, sounds may be triggered by particular interactions such as running or driving.
Sound design tools
1. DAW software: Pro Tools
Pro Tools is the most common Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) of choice amongst sound designers. It is the industry standard for sound mixing and design, and can also be used for general music production.
There is a free version of Pro Tools available (Pro Tools First), ideal for anybody just getting started in sound design and looking for professional software to try out. It is important to become familiar with industry standard sound design tools.
This is one of the best free DAWs available, whether you are interested in becoming a sound designer or a music producer.
In order to record unique sounds, you’ll need a microphone. Sound designers use a range of different microphones depending on the needs of the recording. The two main types include omnidirectional and directional microphones.
Omnidirectional microphones are used in sound design to capture sounds from all directions. They record sound with equal gain in every direction, making them ideal for general sound design recording. An omnidirectional microphone can capture sounds that are created to the left, right, front and back.
Directional microphones are sensitive to audio in one direction. These are used by sound designers to capture audio incoming from one direction, preventing any input from other directions. Directional microphones are useful for recording film scenes that require isolated audio in one direction.
For instance, recording a lecture taking place in a classroom, where only the lecturer needs to be heard without any noise from the students behind the microphone.
How to get started as a sound designer
Sound design takes a lot of time and effort to master. It is quite a niche skill, and not many people specialise in this kind of art. Sound design takes a unique set of creative abilities that are very difficult to learn on your own.
- Learn the basics - The first step in getting started with sound design is to learn the basics. You can do this by reading books, researching online and using professional resources from credible sound design experts. There are also a range of sound design courses available at different levels.
- Become familiar with industry standard sound design software such as Pro Tools. This will help you understand what the professionals are talking about and apply your skills in a Digital Audio Workstation. This will also help you learn basic audio production and editing techniques, such as how to use EQ balance and how to master music.
- Experiment with different recording techniques. Use different objects, materials and spaces to design your own sounds. Try layering these to achieve specific audio effects. You can use your own voice for this, as well as find recordings from things like animals, cars and more. With a little creativity and experimenting, you can come up with some amazing sounds!
- Look for educational videos and tutorials, and get a mentor if you can. This can help you to understand the basics of sound design and where to start. Once you have grasped the basics, you can start to explore some of the more advanced techniques.
- Consider a degree in sound design. This will give you a professional qualification in this field, and help you learn sound design practices that you can later apply in your career.
Thinking about getting into sound design?
Discover the opportunities on the horizon in this related article and find out how much sound designers make.
Studying sound design
If you are looking to pursue a career in sound design, it might be useful to have an educational qualification in sound design.
In the US, top audio engineering and sound design institutions include:
- Fanshawe College
- University of Washington
- Musicians Institute College of Contemporary Music
- Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology
- Vancouver Film School
- Recording Arts Canada
- Metalworks Institute
- Full Sail University
- School of the Art Institute of Chicago
- Berklee College of Music
- Art Institute of Atlanta
- Los Angeles Recording School
- Media Tech Dallas
- Middle Tennessee State University
In the UK, top sound design institutions include:
- Royal Academy of Music.
- University of Cambridge.
- University of Oxford.
- Edinburgh Napier University.
- University of Manchester.
- University of Bristol.
- University of Winchester.
The future of sound design
The future of sound in media is very bright. Cinema and video game development are becoming more and more ambitious, with a wide range of advanced technologies that are improving the capabilities of film and game production.
There will be a heavier reliance on sound design in the creation of future cinema and game media.
Just like the advent of digital visual effects, it's key to make use of all the sound design tools that are available to you. It's important to remember that the audio should complement the visuals. This means that you don't want to overpower the visuals with the sound track.
You want to find a way to make the sound part of the scene, and not the scene itself. In order to do this, you'll need to understand the basics and how to use them. You'll also need to experiment, and find out what kind of sounds work best with your visuals.
In the end, it will come down to trial and error, but the result will be well worth the effort.