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What Does a Sound Designer Do?

Sound Designer sitting at a digital audio workstation and mixing a project

The role of a sound designer is important. They are the professional responsible for creating, editing and mixing layers of countless elements that go into a professionally mixed production. Sound design can be a multifaceted and holistic skill.

One of the sound designer’s roles may be to find, record and edit the sound effects to be used in production and post-production. Most often, the sound designer does their work digitally behind a soundboard, cueing up pre-recorded sounds and timing the sounds with the visual narrative to provide maximum impact.

A sound designer may specialize in a specific type of production, be it live or pre-recorded. It’s necessary to pick up numerous skills for each unique setting and it takes the average sound designer most of their career to get a firm handle on all of them. Only a highly experienced sound designer can successfully jump between different types of productions.

Timing is an important element of most productions, whether it is a live performance, film or video, so having everything timed and synchronized perfectly is at the heart of successful sound design. Specializing in digital video production can provide a lifetime of creativity and opportunity, allowing sound designers to use their technical and story-telling skills to shape any kind of creation. Film specialists can use their multi-functional skills to work as part of a team in post-production and editing, design or recording.

The Sound Design Equipment

Given that we now live in a modern high-tech world, sound designers need familiarity with their own tools and equipment. The world of sound can be chaotic, and extremely varied. A sound designer must adapt to their surroundings, responding to what they hear and making the appropriate changes on their playback device or effects.

Sound designers must communicate their ideas clearly, efficiently, and respectfully. Without an open line of communication, the overall crew won’t function properly, and the end result will be far from what the sound designer wants.

It’s fairly easy to spend a lot of money on the industry-standard equipment necessary for professional sound designers. Learning how to use these tools to their full potential is something that usually requires formal schooling. Without proper guidance, it’s all too easy to get lost and overwhelmed in this complex field.

Sound Design Creativity

The human ear is exceptionally good at picking out sounds. If a vehicle makes a sound that simply doesn’t match, the audience can be taken out of the story. Even if most people don’t usually notice it, everything in the world has a unique sound with numerous elements that make the entire vibration.

Sound designers can take advantage of pulling pre-existing sounds from numerous sound effect libraries. Many beginning sound designers build their own libraries by downloading from online bundles where they can pay by download or join a monthly subscription. Foley artist use real objects to create sounds, which can be a learning experience in itself. Part of the sound designer’s job is to decide which sounds to use during the production. Some seasoned sound designers can internalize this process because they’ve listened to so many sound effects throughout their career. Others have to pour through libraries of different sounds, usually starting with existing archives that are publicly available. If this doesn’t yield satisfactory results, however, it might be the sound designer’s intent to go outdoors and experiment with creating their own sounds.

Finding the perfect sound for fantasy or sci-fi productions can be a highly artistic and a creative process. In some cases, like Star Wars, the distinct sound of the various spaceships is so memorable and recognizable that just hearing them will make the listener think of Star Wars. Their unique characteristics grab the viewers’ attention and help to make that movie stand out.

Other elements of a story that need distinct sounds are animals, aliens, and their specific environments. It is not always acceptable to plug in a sound cue to represent a rocket taking off or a lion roaring. Audiences have come to recognize canned sounds, such as prerecorded laughter and other crowd noise. It’s therefore up to the sound designer to carefully select from existing sound banks or, more likely, record something brand-new to perfectly suit the unique situation.

The most effective and interesting sounds often come from mixing two or more sounds together. With fictional creatures that are supposed to make noises that no real creature naturally makes, mixing together two dynamically different but strangely compatible animal sounds can result in creating a totally unique sound that seems both organic and natural.

Audio Manipulation in Sound Design

Audio manipulation is also a valuable tool for any sound designer. All it takes is changing the speed or pitch of an effect to make it unrecognizable. By tinkering and experimenting in their audio workstation, these sound designers can make unexpected sounds from household objects. It’s always interesting to find out just what the sound designer did to make a certain creature or vehicle sound.

One of the essential skills for any sound designer looking to enter into this line of work is confidence. Sound designers must have the hands-on entry level skills to being their career. And need to keep honing those skills in order to have a long and successful career. One of the best ways to get started is to search for a Sound Design Program at a local creative arts college, where you can learn from experienced artists in the field and work with industry standard equipment.

Working with the Sound Team

In any production, teamwork is essential to make the finished product a dynamic and well-rounded work of art. An important part of the sound designer’s job is to communicate with everyone else working on the project to ensure that what they’re doing aligns with the ultimate goal. The sooner any miscommunications can be cleared up, the less expensive the end result.

The first person that the sound designer usually has a meeting with is the director. The director is the person who gets the final say on big decisions and shapes the overall direction of the project. Going over the script together, the sound designer and director can determine where challenges may lie, and which ones will require changes. They will also identify places where they need to expand on ideas or answer any questions that either party might have. These preliminary meetings are invaluable for production heads; it’s much easier to put out fires in the early stages before deadlines start looming and things become much more hectic.

The Cue List

The sound designer’s meet with the director to create a cue list, a compilation of every sound effect in the entire production. For larger, more complex projects like movies, this cue list can be extensive, and complicated. For large productions, the cue list is usually broken up into different categories and includes multiple indexes for easy reference.

Once everything is compiled and categorized into a cue list, all the different production heads can easily refer to the list and go over anything they might have a conflict with. Assignments can be doled out to different departments once it’s clear what will be needed for each individual effect. In this way, an organized cue list helps to ensure that the potential of every member of the team is utilized.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes it takes considerable deliberation to decide whether a certain effect should be captured using sound effects or music. Sound designers obviously work closely with the composer of the score, and these decisions are made by the two of them. It’s easy for sound effects to clash with music. These problems don’t necessarily make themselves obvious until everything comes together in the mix, so it’s critical that the sound designer listens with a fresh set of ears every time.

Film and Sound Design Program

The Film and Sound Design program offers an occupational degree that immerses college students in the world and industry of film and sound design. IPR’s condensed program allows students to earn a multi-skill, multi-functional Occupational Associate of Applied Science Degree in as little as two years.  Students learn hands-on, entry-level skills in every aspect of the film business: recording, post-production, and design. Work as a part of a team to produce your own film- from concept and storyboard, to production and editing – you’ll graduate with a portfolio of work to showcase your creativity and launch your career in the exciting Film Industry.

If you are interested in a career in audio production and engineering, you should tour our Minneapolis creative arts college, see the labs and meet our staff. Call 1-612-351-0631 or contact admissions to make arrangements.