In its simplest form, the goal of sound design is to sculpt audio in such a way that it achieves a specific creative vision. Whether you’re conjuring up the eerie ambiance of a haunted house for a horror film or crafting a pulsating synth pad for a dynamic EDM track, the canvas of sound design extends across mediums, from music to film to video games and beyond.
Sound designers are a lot like sonic alchemists, taking the idea of what something might sound like and using the proper tools to bring that sound to life.
Imagine a scene in the latest sci-fi flick where an alien creature takes its first breath. It would likely be an otherworldly exhalation that would send shivers down your spine at the theater. This haunting yet beautiful sound wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for the sound designer breathing life into it.
Today, we’re going to take a deeper look at the intricacies of sound design and explore ten professional techniques and tips that can help you make the most out of the sounds you create.
The History of Sound Design
The evolution of sound design is closely tied to the evolution of media and technology. The very first instances of sound design, however, appeared thousands of years ago. The Greeks and Romans built unique mechanical devices to incorporate sound effects into their stage performances, such as wind machines, made of fabric-draped rotating wheels, and thunder machines, which consisted of brass balls dropped onto stretched cowhides.
However, by the early 20th century, when engineers finally had the ability to synchronize sound in films and radio, they began creating live sound effects during film screenings and radio broadcasts using various mechanical devices.
"The Jazz Singer" (1927), which was the very first “talkie” film, played a significant role in popularizing synchronized sound in cinema.
By the 1930s, sound designers began to use recorded sounds for specific effects in films and radio to make media more believable. Jack Foley was an early sound effects pioneer, developing the technique of creating and synchronizing sound effects in real-time with the action on screen.
This gave birth to the term "Foley," or the process of adding custom sound effects in films.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, technology evolved rapidly, giving sound designers more creative control. Magnetic tape was one revolutionary element of sound design, as it allowed people to edit and manipulate recorded sounds.
The art form was coined “Musique concrète.”
It wouldn’t be long before synthesizers hit the market, thanks to pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer and Robert Moog, allowing us to create film and television soundscapes like never before.
Of course, what truly changed everything for the modern producer today was the advent of digital technology in the 1980s. With a combination of digital audio workstations, samplers, and synthesizers, the sky became the limit for sound design integration.
What Does a Sound Designer Do?
Sound designers sculpt, edit, create, and manipulate sound for various forms of media, including music, film, television, gaming, and UX applications. Depending on the type of project they're working on, the scope of what they do can change. Let's take a look at a few examples of roles a sound designer might play.
Sound Design in Music
In music production, the role of sound designers can vary heavily.
They’ll often navigate the wildly complex world of instruments (real or virtual), field recordings, effects processors, and DAWs to compose, create, and manipulate sound for their tracks.
For example, a sound designer might want to create a unique synthesizer sound in their DAW to act as the main melodic element in their latest deep house track. They might use a synth like Xfer Records’ Serum to craft a unique lead with a combination of wavetables and effects or use a collection of custom-recorded samples run through a granular effects engine to create something more organic.
Flying Lotus (Steve Ellison) is an excellent example of a producer who uses sound design for his genre-defying music.
"Cosmogramma" is one of my favorite 21st-century electronic albums, as it blends elements of jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music. While recording the album, Ellison’s mother became gravely ill. While she was in the hospital, he decided to bring a set of microphones and a recording rig to his mother’s room to record audio samples from the vital signs monitors and respirators, which he would go on to use on the album’s final track, “Galaxy in Janaki.”
While it was certainly an unconventional (and potentially strange) thing to do, he noted that he did “not want to forget the space” while grieving his mother’s eventual death. These sounds became a significant part of that track.
Sound Design in Film and Television Productions
In film and television, sound designers play a pivotal role in enhancing visual narratives.
Whether it’s the creak of a door that heightens the suspense in a horror film or the distant rumble of thunder that sets the tone for an impending storm, professional sound designers carefully create and curate sounds to synch with the on-screen visuals.
One great example of this comes from the 1993 hit film, "Jurassic Park," in which sound designer Gary Rydstrom brought these prehistoric creatures to life by creating realistic dinosaur roars. According to Rydstrom, the iconic T-Rex roar was a composite of various animal sounds, including the snarl of a tiger, the squeal of a baby elephant, and the gurgle of an alligator.
Sound Design in Video Games
In the video game industry, sound designers have to build entire worlds from scratch to provide players with immersive auditory experiences.
From the echoing of footsteps approaching the explosive rumbles of an 18th-century ship cannon firing in the distance, every sound is a building block.
Consider the post-apocalyptic game "The Last of Us," which uses the subtle echoes of distant wildlife and the haunting ambiance of abandoned cities to create a horrific atmosphere. Of course, those who have played the game know that even those sound effects don’t hold a candle to Gustavo Santaolalla’s spine-tingling guitar theme.
Sound Design in User Experience (UX)
Sound designers also work with product developers to create sounds for UX and other real-world applications.
That little whoosh you hear from your smartphone when you send an email is the work of a sound designer. The same thing goes for physical environments, such as elevators, where you hear a small chime to indicate that you’ve arrived at a floor or that it’s time for new passengers to enter.
Sound Design in Theater
Last but not least, we see sound design in live theatrical performances. As I mentioned earlier, stage sound effects have been around for thousands of years, though with better technology than ever before, live sound designers have far more flexibility than the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Beyond Elton John and Tim Rice’s iconic score in the Broadway production of "The Lion King," you’ll hear the use of immersive African savannah soundscapes and animal sounds, which come together to create a world for the audience to step into.
Creating Your First Sound
Great sound design requires an intricate dance between different sound design elements.
To become a master of sound creation and manipulation, you have to understand how these elements play off of one another. Let’s explore a few of the building blocks of sound design and different sound design tools you can use to create new sounds.
1. Choosing the Right Sound Design Tool
As you get started on your sound design quest, the first thing you’ll have to do is find the tool that best suits you.
Once you figure out what kind of sound you want to make, you can ask yourself, "What audio source can I use to create this sound?"
Synthesizers are indispensable in the world of sound design.
With the power of waveforms, oscillators, and effects, you can shape and reshape sounds to your heart’s content.
There are several styles of synthesis too, each of which has a unique timbre best suited for different projects.
For example, there's a certain warmth you can get from analog synthesizers that’s hard to replicate elsewhere. Sounds from a Minimoog or a Juno-60 beautifully capture the essence of a bygone era, perfect for when you want to impart a “vintage” tone to your custom sounds.
Check out Kraftwerk’s groundbreaking 1974 album “Autobahn,” in which the band used a mixture of analog synths, including the famed ARP Odyssey and Minimoog, to create a 22-minute piece of music that simulates the experience of driving on the German Autobahn.
Norwegian ambient electronic artist Geir Jenssen, better known under his pseudonym Biosphere, incorporates raw field recordings from the natural world around him into his compositions.
His acclaimed 1997 album "Substrata," weaves together atmospheric soundscapes with natural world recordings, including wind, water, and birdsong, to create a uniquely immersive sonic experience.
For a more modern example, Ableton music producer Rob Late uses sampled recordings of elements in his studio around him to build complete tracks.
Venturing beyond the confines of a studio isn’t for everyone, but using custom field recordings in music is one of my favorite ways to add and organic and authentic three-dimensional characteristic to music and underscore.
British sound recordist Chris Watson is one of the most influential field recording pioneers in history, best known for his immersive recordings of the natural world. He was one of the founding members of Cabaret Voltaire, an experimental music project from the 1970s and 80s.
Take a look at the video above to see how Watson approaches capturing ambient sounds and using them in his work.
2. Tweak the Foundational Elements
Once you’ve found your desired sound design tool, the next step in your alchemical journey is tweaking those sounds to meet your goal.
In the labyrinth of synth-based sound design, choosing the right starting point is critical.
You’ll want to pick a waveform with a similar timbre to your desired end result.
Whether you're aiming for the soft punch of a clean kick drum or the modulated whirr of a laser gun, having the right foundational waveform will set the stage properly.
I was once tasked with creating a distant, otherworldly ambient sound for a short sci-fi film, and I decided to start building atop a sine wave. Sine waves are known for their purity, making them perfect foundations for other layers, especially when you want something more mysterious sounding.
Of course, all basic waveforms - sine, square, sawtooth, and triangle - are different.
Each has a distinctive sonic signature, and as a sound designer, it’s important to learn how to discern their unique qualities.
I recommend taking some time to immerse yourself in the pure tones of each waveform so that you can begin picking them out in sounds you hear in your favorite songs or soundscapes.
Triangle waves are much mellower than square waves, though a bit richer than sine waves. Sawtooths provide a nice in-between, and so on. Think of the process as if you were a painter learning how different primary colors go together to create more refined textures.
Deconstructing Complex Sounds
The real challenge comes into play when you’re faced with reverse engineering complex sounds, such as the sound of a futuristic laser gun.
Whenever I’m given the task of creating a specific sound, I like to think of it as a puzzle. I’ll try and identifying and isolate the key individual layers responsible for the attack, sustain, and release of the sound.
For example, let’s look at how sound designer Ben Burtt made the iconic Star Wars lightsaber sound.
The idling hum, which is the main noise from the lightsaber, came from two interlocked projector motors and hum from an old picture tube on a TV set. As for the clashing sound, when the two lightsabers came together in battle, Burt needed an attack, sustain, and release.
For the attack, he used the sound of a stick thrust into dry ice, while for the sustain and release, he used the effected sound of a vacuum cleaner.
3. Shape the Envelope
Once you have your raw materials, you can start playing around with the amplitude envelopes .
The amplitude envelope of a sound is how it evolves over time, including the attack, decay, sustain, and release.
When you’re crafting a new sound, you’ll have to ask yourself questions like:
Do I want the sound to hit hard with immediate impact, or do I want it to unfurl gradually?
Should it vanish quickly or gently fade out?
The way you set the amplitude envelope will determine the answers to these questions.
Let’s briefly look at these major envelope characteristics:
- Attack - The attack time is how long a sound takes to reach max amplitude. The attack of someone hitting a snare drum and bowing a violin string is very different. If you wanted to recreate the clash of two swords, you might consider a sound with a sharp, metallic attack.
- Decay - The decay phase sets in directly after a sound reaches that max amplitude and dictates how long it takes for it to descend back to its sustain level. I like to think of resonance here. For example, if I played a note on a small, saloon-style piano and then played the same note on a large grand piano, I’d get more decay from the grand piano, thanks to the added body resonance.
- Sustain - This portion of a sound focuses on the volume level it maintains when held. Going back to the sword-clashing example, the sustain would be quite quick unless there was a long ‘ping’ from the vibration of the two metals hitting each other.
- Release - The release is how long it takes for a note to decay from the sustain level to complete silence. Do you want a sound to linger or punctuate percussively?
Understanding ADSR is key when creating sound effects and sonic textures, though it's not the final step.
4. Add Modulation
In the living world, sound isn’t static. It moves and modulates. The same should go for any music and sound effects you create.
The best way to take static sounds and make them more interesting is by adding modulation .
In essence, you want to vary one or more properties of a given sound or waveform over time, whether subtle shifts in pitch or evolving frequency content.
When listening to sounds that you want to recreate, you have to discern what elements of that sound are changing over time.
Do you hear changes in pitch?
Is the volume changing from moment to moment?
Are there filters or harmonic generators introducing new frequency content?
The modulation process doesn’t have to be glaringly obvious either. You can subtly introduce pitch and frequency changes by adjusting knobs or sliders on your synth or effects processors. This can either be done manually or with Low-Frequency Oscillators (LFOs), which offer a more rhythmic and predictable style of modulation.
As a sound designer, you can use parameters like rate, intensity, or waveform type to change the way a sound evolves over time.
To put this strategy into action, I recommend experimenting with automation in your DAW. You can take a sound and draw custom modulation envelopes to give it movement and energy.
5. Apply Effects
The final and often most exciting part of the sound design process is adding effects. Here is where you completely transform the audio you’re working with to create something truly special.
Most sound designers have massive arsenals of effects, both in hardware and software form, and many have built unique signal chains to deliver different styles of depth, space, and texture.
With a carefully curated sequence of effects, you can turn a single audio signal into a full-fledged experience.
The main purpose of audio effects is to recreate psychoacoustic phenomena. Think of taking a place or experience and think of all the elements that work together to create the sounds within them.
The vastness of sound that you hear in a canyon has to do with the distance between the hard surfaces and the number of echo repeats you hear, while the sound of a voice talking to you on the other side of the phone has to do with the resonance of a band-pass filter and a slight bit of saturation.
There are four main types of effects we use in sound design, each of which offers distinct capabilities.
- Time-Based Effects: Reverb and delay shape the temporal dimension, giving listeners the illusion of space and depth.
- Modulation Effects: Chorus, phaser, flanger, tremolo, and auto-pan effects add movement and character to sounds.
- Filters: Low, high, and band-pass filters allow us to shape the frequency spectrum of sounds.
- Dynamic Effects: Compression and saturation allow us to control the dynamic intensity of sounds while adding unique timbre characteristics.
Let’s say we wanted to create a spacey, sci-fi-style atmospheric sound.
I would start with a basic synth pad and apply a generous amount of reverb. Because we’re in space, the reverb tail would need to be quite long (I know, there’s not actually sound in space, so please bear with me here, and don’t be a keyboard warrior). You could even experiment with the diffusion parameter to blend the reflections together a bit more and make the reverb thicker.
You could then add a delay effect to further enhance the sense of space. The longer the delay time, the more expansive the sound will feel.
To make it sound more otherworldly, you can place a modulation effect, such as a chorus or phaser, after the delay and reverb in the chain, to give it some movement.
Of course, I also wouldn’t hesitate to change the order of the signal chain to see what other results I got or automate the parameters within each effect to add even more movement.
10 Additional Tips to Spice Up Your Sound Design
Now that you have a pretty solid idea of all the different strategies and effects a sound designer would use to design a new sound or soundscape for a song, film, game, or product, let’s look at a few tips and techniques that can take your sound design game further.
1. Stack Textures and Layer Sounds
Stacking textures and layering sounds is a great way to add depth to your sounds. By combining diverse elements, you can create composite sounds that are more than the sum of their parts.
The sound of a gritty, distorted, and octave-pitched guitar atop a subtle yet wide ambient synth pad can make both sounds more interesting.
2. Make Use of the Haas Effect
The Haas Effect is a subtle yet powerful way to impart the perception of width in a sound. When you slightly delay one channel in a stereo signal, it makes it sound wider. It’s a wonderful tool for taking otherwise centered sounds and spreading them “outside the speakers.”
3. Don't Keep Adding Elements If the Mix Isn't Working
In the pursuit of perfection, music producers and composers often find themselves continuously adding new elements if they find their mix isn’t working.
I’d urge you to recognize when you get this inclination and resist the temptation to bury your mix in junk. Instead, focus on refining and optimizing what you already have going. Quality over quantity is the mantra, which is why it’s so key to choose elements with care.
4. Silence Is Your Friend
We often underestimate the power of silence in sound design, which is ironic because it exists in our everyday language.
When we put a period at the end of a sentence, it gives the reader or listener a moment to breathe and reflect on what they’ve just heard. The same should go for music and sound design.
By strategically incorporating silence into our creation process, we can create moments of tension, making the main sounds seem more impactful.
5. Always Experiment With Reversing
While the reverse effect is easy to overuse, sometimes, it’s just the thing you need to make a sound more interesting.
Whether it's a reversed cymbal crash that represents the sound of an airlock door shutting or a reversed reverb vocal behind a dry vocal to give it a ghostly quality, there are infinite ways in which experimenting with reversing audio can open up unique possibilities.
6. Record Sounds as Much as Possible
One of the best ways to make your sound design more authentically you is by recording sounds whenever possible. You have a little recording device on you all the time (your smartphone). Why not make use of it by capturing the organic sounds of the world around you and manipulating them in your DAW later on?
In one of my recent songs, “Under the Sun,” I incorporated a recording of my next-door neighbor’s birds and doused the audio in a heavy dose of reverb to make them seem like they were flying through a canyon.
7. Take Advantage of Noise
Though we often think of noise as something we don’t want in our mixes, it can be an incredibly powerful ally in sound design.
Experiment with different types of noise - white, pink, or even granular noise - to add texture, character, and complexity to your sounds.
8. Use the Full Stereo Field
If you’re not maximizing your stereo field from right to left, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities.
Creating a three-dimensional space requires care, as it entails distributing elements in ways that complement, not mask, one another.
It also requires contrast. For a sound to give the perception of width, we need a sound that’s narrow to contrast it. Experiment with moving sounds around in the three-dimensional field and use effects like auto-pan to create randomness.
9. Contrast Is Key
Beyond the stereo field, contrast is equally important in all aspects of sound design.
Without soft, you can’t have loud, and without gentle, you can’t have harsh.
By using different flavors in your process, you can create a more dynamic recipe.
10. Stay Organized
This last tip isn’t a creative one, but more so a practical one.
The sound designing process can be chaotic, and the best way to maintain a sense of order is by staying organized.
Make sure your tracks and elements are labeled properly, organize your sounds and effects in easily accessible folders, and use templates and pre-built effects chains in your DAW so that when inspiration strikes, you can dive right in instead of wasting brainpower trying to look for that one distorted snare audio file you could have sworn you had in your arsenal.
Being a great sound designer takes years of practice, however, knowing the unique mixing and experimental recording techniques sound designers use, whether in music production, film sound design, television production, or video games, can give you a head start in producing your own original sounds.
There's an endless landscape of sound out there, just waiting to be mashed, manipulated, mixed, and mastered by you. Go capture it.