People often ask why I’m a sound designer and how I ended up with an active career creating sounds. It’s not something I specifically sought out but now that I’m a dozen years into doing it professionally, I’m really happy that I’m here. I actually started as a composer with the dream of scoring blockbuster Hollywood films but with the unpredictability of life, I ended up on the video game side of the industry instead and haven’t looked back. I was hired for my first game project in 1995 to create music but as the ‘guy with the microphone’ and the developers need to keep his audio team small, I was asked to create the sound effects as well. In an instant, I was given the moniker of ‘sound designer’ and a new career was born which, coincidentally, now provides 75% of my business income. Yeah, being a sound designer isn’t such a bad thing.
Every sound designer I’ve talked to over the years has their own story – most fell into it by accident, others followed a calculated path – but they all have the same things in common. ‘Sound’ is all around us and humans share the sense of hearing, but those whose careers focus on all things audio have an incredible personal bond with it.
What is a ‘sound designer’?
‘Sound Designer’ means something a little different depending on which industry you are working in. Film work is compartmentalized with very specific tasks dealing with audio and the sound designer can either be the person who works directly with the director to shape the overall soundtrack of the film or a person who actually creates specific sounds, such as creature roars or sci-fi sound effects. These folks focus on their particular assignments and bring in other experts to create Foley, edit and mix and record in the field as needed. The workload can vary from project to project, big action dramas need more sound than a low-keyed love story and compressed schedules can really add pressure to the already hectic production. The bigger the production and tighter the schedule, the more audio specialists will be brought in to make it happen.
Games are a completely different animal. The term ‘sound designer’ can mean pretty much anyone on the team who isn’t a ‘composer’ or an audio ‘programmer’. From a historical perspective, a game’s sound used to fall to one person who did everything relating to audio. Small to medium projects still typically use a single person to keep costs lower and simplify the separation of duties, so if you are one of those composer/sound designer types, you would be running the audio show for these. Larger projects usually require a few more boots on the ground with a separate audio director, composer, sound designer, field recordist, audio editor and other specialists as the project dictates. What a lot of people don’t know outside of the games industry is that sound designers are still expected to not only be able to craft appropriate sound effects but to also:
- be a field recordist to capture specific sounds to use as elements or as realistic sound effects,
- be a Foley artist to create specific movement and object handling sounds to follow gameplay or for a games cinematics,
- be an audio editor to edit and manipulate audio elements as needed using multi-track and 2 channel audio programs, and
- perform post production duties such as synchronizing sounds to their corresponding actions in the game or cinematic.
‘Sound designer’ skills
With such a broad scope of possible duties for a ‘sound designer’, how can you tell if you even have the right talent and knowledge to be a good one? Having a passion for sound is a great start and chances are, you’ve probably already amassed a nice collection of sounds you’ve either collected, recorded or created yourself – and that’s a huge indicator you’ve got it in your blood. Before I officially became a sound designer, I used to collect sound files as a hobby. I’d grab them from games, the Internet, friends, anywhere I could find them. After I realized my microphone cable could reach into both my kitchen and garage from my studio, I started recording them myself and that’s when I knew I was hooked. I’m not sure why but it was really fun to me and it continued to grow from there until I was asked to do it for my first game project.
If you’re a musician like me, you’ve already got a enormous head start. I dabbled in creating my own instrument patches and instrument samples way before I ever considered creating sound effects and I discovered that I unknowingly had a hidden sound design skill ready and waiting. Managing the attack, decay, sustain and release of a keyboard patch has already exposed your mind to the basic anatomy of a sound. Creating instrument samples is the next step, especially if you’re recording them from scratch. These are really just ‘musical’ sound effects and the same steps and guidelines apply. For those musicians who are adept at recording and engineering themselves, you have other hidden expertise such as operating various recording hardware and software, engineering, mixing and producing – all helpful skills for sound design.
For those who don’t have a musical background, don’t despair, the most important skill or talent is having what we call a ‘good ear’. While hearing IS important, having a good ear is something a little different than having decent hearing – it’s the ability to recognize and be able to distinguish various elements of a sound. Clapping your hands together in an enclosed space will generate 4 distinct ‘sounds’. The ‘attack’ which is the sound of the hands coming together, the ‘body’ where it intensifies and reaches its maximum volume, the ‘echo’ as the sound bounces off another surface and returns to your ears, and the ‘decay’ where the sound decreases in volume to nothing. Tuning your ear to detect and analyze each of these types of sound is part of what makes up a ‘good ear’. Other qualities include the ability to hear beyond the sound and to be conscious of background noise, distortion, phasing issues and other details which could detract from the wanted audio. If you’re starting with a ‘good ear’, you can learn the rest and be successful as a sound designer.
One of the learnable skills which make a huge difference in the profession is the ability to ‘capture’ quality audio. While we do make copious use of sound libraries when creating sound effects, there are more times than not when recording fresh, original sounds is best. And how you accomplish that is a matter of your specific background and the sound that needs to be recorded. In-studio recording under controlled conditions is one method and when this is impractical, which it is for the majority of big ticket items, field recording is the only other option. Either way, having the ability to operate the gear and record cleanly and correctly is key. Having a background as a studio engineer or field recordist is perfect for this but it’s not a total deal breaker. Definitely put it on your list of things to become proficient at sooner rather than later.
The final ‘must-have’ skill is where the rubber meets the road. You can’t create sound effects unless you master the ability to manipulate individual audio elements, craft them into a finished sound and edit them appropriately. This activity makes use of several tools and the good news is, you can use whatever method works best for you, as long as the final result shines. Creating finished sound effects using 2 channel editing software is one way. Layering and manipulating elements on separate tracks in a multi-track program is another. Loading individual elements into a sampler and ‘performing’ a sound or triggering them via MIDI is yet another. Whatever you feel strongest with and whatever allows you to create expressive and emotional sound effects is what you should use and this all depends on your background and what skill set you bring to the table.
Equipment and software choices
Your choice of tools depends on what you’re already familiar with and what you ultimately want to do in the business. A robust computer that can handle large, high resolution audio files of at least 96k, 24 bit is a must. It should have at least something in the Pentium 4 range as a minimum but Dual/Quad Core CPU’s will ensure a much smoother experience. 2Gb of RAM, a hard drive speed of 7500 rpm’s and a recent sound card will all produce good results. MAC users can plan on the G4 and G5 as acceptable platforms. A break out box of some sort which allows XLR, ¼”, SPIDF and Firewire connections will give added flexibility when recording or transferring files. And, obviously, trusted monitor speakers are essential to keep tabs on all of the audio goodness you’ll be creating. Because I never know what type of speakers game players will have, I use several sets of them including el cheapo, bargain bin models as my worst playback case.
Once you’ve got your computer equipment fully sorted, adding appropriate software tools will complete the package. First and foremost, an audio editor is crucial. Sony Sound Forge and Adobe Audition are solid bets, both full-featured with plenty of horsepower. If you’re a bit strapped initially, there are freeware programs which aren’t too shabby that can get a good majority of the work done. Audacity is a favorite and well worth a look. No matter what you choose, an audio editor will allow you to create sound effects, edit, EQ, add effects and save in a variety of formats. Even if you have a multi-track program, you will always open your rendered files in an audio editor for the final clean up and review before sending them on to the client.
If I was to prioritize, a multi-track program such as ProTools, Nuendo, Vegas Video or SONAR would be next on my list of software tools. Similar to music production, sound design can be from simple to totally complex with dozens of layered sound elements. While this can be done with a 2-channel audio editor, multiple tracks allow you to manipulate each layer separately, adjusting for volume, EQ and effects processing, panning and a myriad of other possibilities until you’ve got a effective sound. Once you’re happy, render it to a new file and then make final adjustments to the overall sound in an editor. The beauty of this type of program is it enables the sound designer to easily revisit the sound if there are problems or other ideas which might be worth pursuing and make easy adjustments. Adobe Audition has both multi-track and 2-channel editing capabilities as well, a nice ‘all in one’ package. My preference is for a variety of software for their different features and actually have several multi-track and audio editing programs available for my needs.
There are also a plethora of plug-in programs which work with your host software for additional capabilities – everything from morphing to mangling to acoustic modeling. Most are extremely handy which help keep your sound design ideas fresh and unique but as with everything else in audio, they can be incredibly expensive and hog up valuable CPU resources when too many are running simultaneously. The best bet is to find the ones which will inspire you, give quality results and not break the bank.
If field recording is something you think you might want to try, a portable recorder, such as the Zoom H4n for example, is an affordable start. It has 2 built in microphones which are decent quality plus XLR and ¼” connections for any mic you may want to connect. Eventually, recorders like the Fostex FR2, Sound Devices 702 or Edirol R44 will appear on your radar as the next logical step depending on where your career is pointed.
As for field microphone selection, a shotgun or general purpose mic is a good first choice and a stereo mic like the Rode NT4 will give you additional options and flexibility when out and about. You’ll eventually acquire a diverse collection of microphones such as contact mics, lavalieres and shotguns of every size and shape, so this becomes one of those lifetime undertakings. Don’t be too concerned with not having enough field equipment at first since you can always rent the gear you don’t have.
Creating a solid demo reel
Once you’ve got your gear up and running and an expanding personal library of sounds, your next task is to put together a solid showcase of your talent and skills. Unless you’re already a known quantity with a good reputation, most potential clients insist upon hearing examples of your work and what they can expect if they hire you. A demo reel is the way to show that you know your stuff. Your ‘reel’ can be anything from an emailable mp3, a CD or even a DVD if you’ve got some stunning visuals to grab their attention. Whatever shows off your work in the best light is the way to go.
Unlike music, sound effects are a bit more difficult to showcase on a reel. While you can play one sound, then another sound, then another, this isn’t very imaginative and will put your potential client to sleep fairly quickly. You’ll have the best impact if you can grab them immediately and take them for a ride! One popular method is to create a variety of audio ‘scenes’ with the sounds you’ve created or recorded. Tell a story using just sound effects, perhaps a medieval battle, 2 cars racing through city streets, a natural disaster or life on the farm. What you do is entirely up to you but telling a story is much more interesting and memorable than playing single sounds.
Audio that accompanies visual action is another great way to show that you know what you’re doing. Of course, this can also backfire if you’re lacking the right experience – getting the perspective wrong or using the wrong sound might raise some eyebrows. Until you have some actual projects to present, you can create visuals or put together a video of your own and then beef it up with your sounds. You can also ‘borrow’ a movie trailer or game cinematic, replace all of the audio with your own, adding an appropriate disclaimer that you did NOT do the original work but provide it as an example of your talent – being extremely careful not to imply you were involved with the borrowed project.
Finding the jobs
Odds are, you’re not going to get hired as a sound designer on a triple A game title or big budget movie project right out of the gate. My advice: start small and local then work up and out as you gain experience. Start close to home with small projects. Neighbors with film or game making hobbies need sound and you need experience. Why not start building your foundation with other folks on your level? Once you conquer that first project, start looking for a little larger project with an actual budget. Keep pushing toward larger projects and bigger budgets which will naturally take you a little further from home. Eventually, you can be working for any company in the world and naming your price!
Finding the jobs definitely takes a little effort. The Internet, Craigslist, trade websites and publications, headhunters – all great sources for work. But, don’t discount other sound designers who might need assistance on a project or even composers who might want to partner with a sound designer to strengthen their company’s offered services. Networking makes a huge difference and all it takes is getting out there and talking to people in the area you want to work in. Attend relevant trade shows, look for local monthly gatherings and hangouts, join groups or associations with focus on film or game audio – all in the name of meeting like-minded folks who speak your language. It’s pretty amazing how far meeting the right people can take you. So, get out there and be seen!
Sound design is an art. Crafting entertaining, unique and appropriate sounds takes definite skill but it takes something much more than that as well – talent. A ‘good ear’ is by far the most important ability, and if you’re blessed with that gift, you’ve got the edge. Like a talented musician or composer, a great sound designer can grab an audience and take them on an incredible journey. That should always be your goal, whether you are tasked with creating a simple button press sound for a game or an all out battle scene with weapons, explosions and the mayhem of opposing armies fighting for their lives.
How you acquire the skills and creative knowledge is important, learning on your own or attending a formal college program, both with their own advantages and disadvantages. If you go the formal route, break away from the force-fed ‘rules’ and think outside of the box and strive for uniqueness. If you forge a path on your own, stay away from sound libraries for the first couple of years and force yourself to learn how to create sounds from scratch. Learn from other sound designers and incorporate those skills which will make you even better. Always experiment and be willing to try anything – you never know when you’ll stumble across something completely new and get the right people’s attention!
Sound design has been an incredibly challenging and fulfilling part of my audio career and I promise that it can, and will be, for you too. If you decide it’s a logical step in what can be a rewarding life-long endeavor, then make a plan, grab the tools and jump in with both feet! I wish you much luck and can’t wait to hear what you’ve been up to!
Written by Aaron Marks for Designing Sound.