Welcome to the mysterious world of sound design – this is where the term “movie magic” really comes in useful. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re a bit foggy on the details of audio-related aspects of filmmaking.
The good news is that you’ve stumbled upon a tool to bring your film production to the next level. So, if you’ve ever asked yourself “What is sound design?” then keep reading – you’re about to find out.
What Is Sound Design?
In its most basic sense, sound design is the art of creating soundscapes. It’s an umbrella term for capturing, manipulating, or generating sound for film. It’s much more than just the score – sound design components include sound effects (SFX), blending, Foley sound design and dialogue.
If you’re new to filmmaking, you would be forgiven for being drawn to its visual side. After all, it takes a lot of creativity and hard work to create the right visuals to convey your message. But if you found your way here looking up sound design, we’ll assume you’re somewhat aware of its importance, which can hardly be overstated.
There were probably many times sound design influenced your mood or emotions during a viewing without you even noticing. This uneasiness, thrill or sadness you experience results from dozens of hours of work by a sound designer, often supported by a small army of artists.
Sound designers work primarily in post-production, enhancing the film with edits, effects and a music score. But sound design is such an essential part of the film that some designers are involved as early as the pre-production stage. For example, suppose the director has a very clear vision for the audio landscape of the film. In that case, the sound designer might be involved straight away, capturing the right audio alongside the production.
What Is Sound Design Used For?
Filmmakers use sound design to create depth in the world of a film, enhancing mood, manipulating emotions and setting the tone. It can also add layers and context to the scene that wouldn’t be achievable with visuals alone. Even the most striking, memorable shots can seem empty or diluted without it. It’s because music connects with the viewer on a subconscious level.
If you’re not convinced, here’s an exercise. If you’re watching a psychological horror, you might feel on edge when nothing unusual happens on the screen. We recommend you take a moment to notice the score and quiet, unassuming sounds, like the blowing of the wind. These so-called audience cues are the likely cause for your uneasiness.
Although composers often come to mind first when talking about audio in filmmaking, the score is merely a part of the overall sound design for the project. You’ve probably heard of Howard Shore, who created the iconic score for Lord of the Rings, but he wasn’t responsible for the soul-piercing shrieks of the wraiths or the sounds of epic warfare. Instead, the sound design team led by David Farmer created them to help translate the deeply immersive world of the books to film.
What Are the Best Practices for Sound Design?
The most vital part of creating influential sound design is adapting it to suit your project’s overall tone and context. It might go without saying, but the sound design for a period drama will be unrecognisable from that of a futuristic action movie, etc. It’s key for the sound designer to work closely with the director to best convey and enhance the desired setting and tone of the film.
When capturing sounds for your project, be it dialogue or sound effects, try to record pretty much everything, even if you’re just messing around with some underdeveloped ideas. Some seemingly throwaway lines or accidental freak sounds you create can be exactly what you need later. You can decide what is and isn’t useful in post, so there’s no point limiting yourself during audio recording.
Still, somewhat counterintuitively, one of the best practices for implementing sound design is adapting the “less is more” approach. There’s a vast landscape of sound options you can use to create a desired effect, but that makes it easy to do too much. Some effects are good, but upon closer inspection, they take away from your storytelling rather than enhance it. Not to mention the powerful effect stripping all sound can have when used correctly.
Another great tip for sound recording is to get creative and experiment. Play around with audio manipulating; reverse, stretch and pitch basic sounds; layer white, pink or other noise to thicken your sounds. If you come up with a vague idea, lean into it and see how far you can take it. Much of what you’ll create might not be useful long-term, but this innovation process can help you hone your skills and produce something unique.
The best sound design requires an ability to think both creatively and technically. Through being resourceful, you can solve many challenges, including those that stem from issues with your footage.
Martin Scorsese talks about a scene in Mean Streets, where the characters sit down at a table at a bar. He was forced to break the form with an ill-fitting jump cut since he didn’t record the right angle for a smooth transition between shots. To remedy this, he layered the sound of a chair being dragged back over the cut, cleverly making the viewer think they saw the characters sit down.
Sound design is a fantastic tool for creating atmospheres and setting moods that we love to experiment with at our video production company in Manchester. And, through some best practices and creativity, you can start using it to elevate your production, too.
We hope reading this post convinced you to explore sound design’s possibilities and pay closer attention to how it can be used in your own projects.