There are some great articles this month about people who utilize minimalism as a core to their design aesthetic, but what about the rest of us? Not every project demands or needs a minimalist approach, but there are aspects of minimalism we can learn from and use in our design that will hopefully result in cleaner, arguably better sound design choices.
To be clear I’m not after techniques such as the use of silence, which is a powerful tool in its own right; rather, I hope to explore how stripping complexity from our design can provide a fresh approach and a clean sonic palette without diluting the emotional impact of our design.
The Challenge of Minimalism
For many people who start out in the industry, their mindset is something akin to “I am Creator of Sounds. Without Me All Existence is Silent. I shall Bring Life unto the World with My Sound!” Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but I know my initial methodology for sound design was, “give everything sound and make it as detailed as possible,” and sometimes, depending on the project, this is still the case, perhaps even amplified as the technical bar continues to rise. While we may be tempted as sound designers to give voice to every nuance in a project for the sake of detail, it takes a keen ear to cull sounds which may be unnecessary or even prove detrimental to the overall design of a project. This isn’t minimalism per se, but rather it’s a broader sense of understanding your design’s purpose. We can see minimalism as one avenue design can take, but it’s really not so binary. Parts of a design can adhere to a minimalist aesthetic while others stray into areas of greater complexity.
Often when tasked with a large sound design project, focusing on the big picture is easiest. If you were designing for a battle scene, for example, there are so many facets to concentrate on from clothing and gear movement, weapon movements, projectiles firing and whooshing by, voiceover shouts and screams, possible explosions, vehicles, etc. Breaking down our design needs into groups like this makes it easy to generate a laundry list of assets, but stripping down to just the core necessities and designing for those can be a challenge. Each scene is different and may want to focus on different aspects of the design. Depending on the action on screen, we may not need– or want– all of these layers in our design, instead choosing to make a more personal, more dreadful, or more paranoid mix through our selective use of assets and even creating unique layers not tied to picture.
The beauty of creativity is its openness and flexibility, and a minimalist approach to a scene may not be overtly obvious. It often takes foresight and experience to take a step back from a literal interpretation of a scene and rethink what it is you wish to achieve with the sound in each given area of your project.
Clean Source Makes Life Easier
It goes without saying that recording clean source can take you a long way in crafting a more minimalist approach to design. It’s so obvious that it seems not worth mentioning. The cleaner our source recordings, the better our design will be, whether or not we’re taking a minimalist approach. With clean source materials, we can focus solely on the assets we are creating, and have a lot less required in the way of noise reduction or trying to cover up issues in a recording with other sounds. I’m not saying do not use noise reduction, but merely the cleaner the starting point for your sounds, the easier it will be for you to sculpt to your vision with as few additional layers as necessary.
The Simple Approach – Mute!
The easiest means to employ a minimalist approach to existing design is to just mute some channels in your DAW. Playing through an asset’s project file and muting individual channels can help gauge both necessity and utility. Sometimes design becomes bloated as you add more elements or receive direction for what a sound needs to be doing, and we often forget to take a step back and re-evaluate the entire sound at each step. Re-assessing your sounds is a great way to strip out any cruft and end up with a cleaner end product.
The same can be said for doing this process within an entire project. Try muting busses at your mixing desk or in your middleware to see what happens to a scene or slice of gameplay when you drop things out. This can not only inform and simplify your mix, but lead you on a path of more engaging and evolving sound design. When going for a minimalist design, be extreme! You can always bring elements back into your mix, but experimentation with stripping down to the core essentials is what you should be after initially.
With that said, you’ll get a lot more from minimalism in both your creative process and your aesthetic by approaching your needs from a minimalist standpoint as early as possible in the creative process. Stripping away cruft is a great way to clean up your mix, but to truly create minimalist design, it’s best to begin with an idea of how you want to achieve your goals and what constraints you plan to place on your design.
The Re-design Challenge
Another way to approach minimalism from a design standpoint is to throw your current design out the window and start over. It seems rather drastic, especially if muting a couple channels or re-EQing a scene can achieve so much, but starting from scratch can be a great way to approach the design from a completely different point of view, and can often lead to both new ideas and a cleaner design. Essentially what we’re trying to do is peel back complexity from our design methodology to craft cleaner sounds. Obviously in a deadline driven world this is usually not a realistic option, which is why it is best to take time early to experiment to figure out if a minimalist approach could work or would be right for your project.
When I say find inspiration, I don’t mean aping someone else’s design, rather I mean look for inspiration from others’ words, images and sounds. This is often a technique used for motivation and looking for an initial creative spark, and if you frame this search through the filter of minimalism it can be just as effective. For example, there’s a definition for minimalism that is “an avant-garde movement in music characterized by the repetition of very short phrases that change gradually, producing a hypnotic effect.” Now what if we took that sentence, perhaps discard avant-garde and replace the word music with sound design, and tried to fit our sound design for a scene or project within the confines of this definition; designing sounds that were small repetitive chunks that slowly evolved as the action in the scene(s) changed. This could produce a very unique and engaging sound design (or it could fail miserably), but experimentation by building confines around your design or searching for inspiration from outside of your project can help kickstart your brain into generating great new content.
Another way to look for inspiration is to concentrate your design on a single key aspect of your project. Whether you make the design for that aspect sparse, or you focus your design on that at the expense of other elements is completely up to you, but this focus can often help craft a more unique design. In his book analyzing photography Camera Lucida, famed philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes coined the term “punctum,” which is the element in a photo that creates the most visceral reaction from the audience. The punctum can be different for each individual, but I think it’s a fair analogy when approaching sound design as well. In the image at the top of this article, the punctum may be the window to some people, the contrast of the blue sky to others, and perhaps the little extrusion below the window or the shadow it casts to others. If we were to sound design that image, we could pick the element that has the greatest impact on us and let that be the focus of the design of the scene. By finding the punctum in our sound design and allowing that to carry the scene, we bring greater meaning to it while potentially stripping out elements which are unnecessary.
It bears noting that minimalism is not a cure-all for design woes. There will often be sounds or scenes that need to be complexly designed to support the action of the scene, the emotions of the characters, etc. The key is not to design minimally for minimalism sake, but to do so for express aesthetic reasons which will strengthen the overall design of your project.