Pure sound design, or the idea of designing without visuals or reference, is a unique experience facing many designers both professionally and personally. Sometimes we take on the challenge of pure sound design because we feel it will better ourselves or the pipelines that we create. Other times, it is sprung upon us, forcing us to react and adapt. To learn more about how pure sound design can function in our daily professional lives, I decided to catch up with Kevin Dusablon (Audio Director at Pullstring, Inc, formerly Toytalk), and Mike Forst (Audio Experience Designer).
In talking with Kevin and Mike, I learned how integrale pure sound design is to their development process at Pullstring, a process that was advocated for and created by Franklin Clary. Even though he is no longer with us today, it was through Frank’s vision and creative passion that Pullstring was able to adopt a pipeline that used pure sound design for everything from audio concept design and custom material building to storytelling and user experience. “He went out of his way to set that up at Pullstring,” says Kevin. “It didn’t feel like that was the way the show would have went without Frank taking the initiative to do that. Often at Pullstring, we’d get together and the Director would say, ‘Okay there’s this thing, a big, heavy monster holding maybe something like club, set in a Roman era by the ocean.’ And Frank would often say at that point, ‘Okay, we know what the directors want even if we don’t have any visuals yet.’”
In this creative space, Frank, Kevin, and Mike, were acting as more than just content creators; they were executing a vision on a high level. “There are probably a lot of sound designers out there who feel like the term ‘sound designer’ has been watered down,” says Kevin. “Today, people sometimes think a sound designer is a guy who makes tire squeals. No. A sound designer gets on the show early and is thinking about the audio experience of the product. Period. And that is sound designing to black. That’s them thinking without any sketches, having exciting conversations with the director or writer, thinking about what inspires them, and then formulating the sounds they want to do. In their mind, they’re making the design concepts.”
Once they had a chance to sync up with the director and talk about their vision, Frank would send off Kevin (with Kevin later sending off Mike) to capture raw recordings that would eventually be edited into the audio that became concepts and later custom library material. “Frank would say, ‘These are the things that I think I’m going to need: I need you to go out and find alarms, booms, heavy ratchets, creaking wood, and quiet wilderness wind,” says Kevin. “And I would have to go away, find examples in media, think really hard about who I can call and where I can drive to.
Once these raw recordings were captured, they could be edited into concept work and sound sets, allowing for custom designed material building. “So let’s say you’re in early talks about a particular project,” says Kevin, “and you know there’s going to be spaceships, and the esthetic for the spaceships is a particular thing whether it’s futuristic or retro. You can just go start pulling raw sounds from a library, do some source recording, and just design. Just design to no picture. You can build yourself a sound set that you can reach into later.” These sound sets are often so impactful that they are the source of early feedback and inspiration. “As a sound designer, if you get the opportunity to lead the charge and set the vibe, it’s really awesome,” says Mike. “The ability to create sound sets, so that people can look at them and say, ‘I really like this one, I don’t so much like this one, but I like this one thing about that one,’ is an incredible way to hone in your design for when you do get picture. Just as much as art influences us, audio can influence art. And I personally like the idea of influencing each other, all the time.”
The creation of Pullstring’s audio pipeline wasn’t the only situation in which pure sound design was used in their development process; sometimes the limited timeline or budget called for it. “During some of my experiences at Pullstring,” says Kevin, “we were in the position where we had limited visual resource and a little more resource on the audio team. So, rather than depict large establishing shots for our interactive skits using panning or elaborate title cards, we did audio ‘establishing shots.’ We used audio to give you your place, time, and set the scene. And that was a really cool way to lead into a picture. So, for example, there would be about 10 seconds of no visual whatsoever, where we would be establishing trees, birds, and wind. And we would focus on a granular feeling as if you’re looking at a tight shot. Then, you’d see the caption, saying ‘The Bird’s Nest,’ where we would drop in the bird chirping and fade up to a static shot of a bird’s nest.”
Other times, the nature of the product itself dictated the need for sound design to black. “Currently, I’m designing for hardware that is an audio only experience,” says Kevin. “In this case, it’s all black, even the UI. So how do you bring a user into this experience, make them feel as if they have control, set a tone for them, and then deliver a compelling story that is paced appropriately for the content?” “For the UI design, you’re just given a list of all these different feelings,” adds Mike. “What sounds like an error? What sounds like success? Did you turn the knob up? Did you turn the knob down? How can I explain with audio how you’re supposed to feel?”
But just because pure sound design isn’t the only sustainable form of audio design for film or games, doesn’t mean that it should be thrown out altogether. Sound designing to black has as real of an impact on the physical and emotional success of a product as cutting to picture. “Frank really helped me understand the idea of raw material as a rad step in the process that I never considered much,” says Kevin.
In memory of Franklin James Clary, and a big thank you to Mike Forst and Kevin Dusablon for contributing this piece.