Quicker, Easier, Clearer Sound Design

When I first attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, I was excited. I was especially looking forward to the school’s professors and curriculum to teach me as much about music as possible. I had a lot of holes in my musical knowledge to fill, after all.

I was Soma from Food Wars ready to go to Tōtsuki Culinary Academy.

Only one year in, though, and my dreams started to falter. I just wasn’t getting it. No matter how many times a professor explained a concept, or how much extra homework I did, nothing was making sense. In fact, even though I had a great time at Berklee, there were still a lot of basics I just didn’t understand after graduating.

Even at the time, I knew it wasn’t the professors’ fault. They were doing their best. It wasn’t the school’s fault — so many other students were doing great using the system that I struggled so much with. Instead, I blamed myself for not being able to learn.

Over 6 years after graduating, though, I now have a solid understanding of music and sound. How? I looked for different angles. I learned that blaming myself was unproductive. Instead, I learned to blame the systems I was taught and decided to learn about music and sound from angles different than what Berklee used. This led to huge leaps in knowledge in super short periods of time.

It’s easy to think that, if something isn’t clicking, we must blame ourselves. Providing you’ve been putting the work in, that usually isn’t a good idea. As sound designers, we too need to approach sound from as many angles as humanly possible to make sure that what we’re creating is as good as it can be.

In this article, we’re going to dive down the sound design rabbit hole and cover:

  1. How to approach sound design from multiple angles
  2. Determining the needs of each sound element
  3. Creating sound using an additive process

When I mention multiple angles
I don’t mean recording your sounds from various microphone positions. Not in this case, at least. What I do mean is that many of the sounds you create need to have multiple, seemingly unrelated, elements associated with them.

Take, for example, the sound of a door being closed. Many beginner sound designers will simply record a realistic door closing, sync it up with their film or game project and call it good. While this will sound perfectly realistic, there are almost no pieces of media (other than documentaries, and even then, not all the time) that sound exactly the way the real world does. We as players and viewers want our experiences to go beyond reality, even if it’s done in a subtle way.

So, as designers, it’s up to us to determine what each sound needs
So if purely realistic sounds aren’t always the right choice, then we need to determine what extra elements are needed for each and every sound. Each of these elements could be a newsletter in and of themselves, so we’re not going to go super deep into each one.

Instead, I’ll introduce the concepts of each, then explain them much deeper in future videos and posts. Sound good?

We have to think about:

Firstly, we must take the emotional context into account
What’s the emotion of the sound we’re trying to create? Yes, even if we’re simply creating the sound of a creaky door, we need to consider the emotional impact we want to make. Is this a horror movie? In which case, the door should be ominous, and possibly sound heavier than it actually is.

We also need to consider what, if any, impact the sound should have
Sticking with the door example, it could be that this horror-movie-door gets slammed shut. In which case, what sort of impact do we want that door to have? Again, it probably shouldn’t sound completely realistic. This is a horror movie after all.

And speaking of enhancing, we can also use “sweeteners” to upgrade the sound
A sweetener is generally a sound that, on its own, doesn’t sound like much, but when layered underneath other sound effects, subtly enhances the core sound that we’re working with.

When this door slams shut, for example, you can add the sound of a large bass drum being struck. On its own, it would sound out of place, but in the context of the movie, a big bassy thud will definitely make this door sound like a big deal when it gets slammed. But there are other elements as well. We can’t just focus on the shutting of the door itself.

So, we move on to the coverage elements
Not only do we need to focus on the creaking and slamming of the door itself, but we must also focus on any sounds that happen before and after the on-screen event. For example, does the door crack and moan before it gets closed, as if in anticipation? After it gets closed, does the house shake and shudder in response? These elements allow our sound to fit

And lastly, we move on to the tail of the sound
What happens after the main chunk of the sound stops? In the real world, there isn’t usually much of a decay. Many sounds start and end somewhat abruptly. That being said, if you start and stop sounds abruptly when working on any piece of media, then you’ll find that they just don’t blend into the scene as nicely as you would like.

You’ll need to follow an additive process with these elements
Which means you’ll need to add each element one by one. For example, you could start with the initial impact, then add coverage, then a tail. Lastly, you could add a sweetener as well. You don’t need to do these in any particular order. So long as the final sound is good, then you’re set.

Note that each of these elements can (and likely will) be made up of more than one sound. A door slamming shut in a horror movie may feature the sound of a door, cracking wood, and a bassy boom, all as a part of the impact element. Layering various sounds in each of these categories will make a huge difference for your sounds overall.

You may be thinking “that’s a lot to think about for every sound I ever make”
Thankfully, you do not need every element for every sound. Some sounds will work just fine with an impact and a tail (such as a simple gunshot.) Whereas others may need more of these elements. It’s up to you as a designer to use your ears and determine what’s working best.

You now know how to avoid a common sound design mistake
Many people will ask other sound designers “how do I make X sound?” but that’s a very limited way of thinking about sound design.

Think about it, you wouldn’t ask an artist “how do I draw a dog?” would you? There are thousands upon thousands of ways to draw a dog. Is the dog big? Is it happy? Is it half-hippopotamus? The question itself doesn’t lend itself to a good answer… only more questions.

Instead, you can (and should) think of sounds in terms of various elements. “This door should have a lot of impact. What sounds can I record that would have a lot of bassy thuds to it?” is a far more effective question “How do I make the Resident Evil 2 door sound?”

We’re absolutely going to cover this all more in depth
But for now, here is a recap of what we’ve covered:

  • Using purely realistic sounds (usually) isn’t going to lead to satisfying sound design in your projects
  • It’s a good idea to consider the emotional context of the sounds you create. Are they horrific? Is the character evil? Take this all into account!
  • You’ll need to add multiple elements to many of your sounds, including impacts, sweeteners, tail, and coverage elements.
  • Not every sound needs every one of these elements. Some sounds are simpler than others. Some sound, like ambiences, stand on their own without any of these sorts of elements.

My time at Berklee taught me the importance of approaching things from multiple angles
And how that mindset can really apply to anything. When we’re working on sound, we certainly can just rush into creating our effects and hoping it works out, but it would be far more effective to consider what each sound needs from multiple points of view.

One of the hardest things about working in game audio is the lack of direction
It can be a gargantuan task just to break into this industry and an even greater challenge to start making an income as a composer/sound designer.

If you’d like to master these skills, then sign up for my newsletter, where you’ll get access to two free courses and a free eBook that will help you find game industry work, network with fellow developers, and get paid well for what you do.