7 Things You Should Know About Sound (for designers)

Benjamin McCulloch
Feb 7 · 9 min read
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Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash

Sound brings the world to life. We listen all day (even when sleeping). Even people with partial or total hearing loss still respond to vibrations.

I wrote this article as a quick introduction to important principles of sound, and why you should care about them. It’s for designers who are new to sound but perhaps veterans will also find something useful here.

Let’s get started!

1) Sound is emotional

We constantly use our ears to listen for threats. It’s a survival mechanism. For example we listen to find out; Is that person angry with me? Is that growling dog close by? Is that car in good condition or not?

Consider another example; it’s daytime and you’re in a busy foreign city crossing the road at traffic lights. The lights are green so you’re good to go BUT as you step out suddenly you hear a siren wailing. Although you haven’t heard thisforeign siren before, you’re still alerted by it. It sounds close and you instinctively turn towards the direction of the sound. It’s only at that moment that you see the ambulance and this gives you the feedback that it’s driving towards you. You step back to safety.

Your ears told you that there was a danger, it was close and which direction it was coming from. This emotional response caused you to look for the source of the sound, and that was when you saw it and understood the situation suitably enough to act.

That’s just one example. Other examples of sounds we respond to emotionally are; our alarm clock, the sound of the voice of someone we love (or someone we hate), and music. There are many more sounds in the world which we respond to emotionally!

Why should you care?

Expect that your users will respond emotionally to sound — whether it’s voice, sound design or music. If designed well the sound will lead them towards a certain emotion and this will be what they remember.

2) Sound is linear

Sound doesn’t exist without time. We only understand the information contained within when we experience it in full. If we miss the start, middle or end then we might not get the entire idea that is being presented.

Why should you care?

  1. Consider every single sound you add. That droning voice, that annoying sound effect or that terrible ‘hold’ music we hear on telephones. Every single extra second of annoying material is going to affect the user experience. Sometimes a sound effect is quicker and more effective for confirming a user input than words. Sometimes music is quicker and more suitable for creating mood than a voice.
  2. You can expect that you begin with the user’s full attention. After repeated uses they will learn where are the moments that need their focus and moments where they can relax.
  3. You need to reward the user for their attention! You’re in control of their time; if you waste it then they will probably never return.
  4. Don’t count words. Count syllables! Counting the words doesn’t tell you how long a text takes to say. Counting the syllables does. For example “today’s astrophysics exam” and “go on mate” are both three words. Do they take the same time to say? No way!

3) Great sound is curated

Sound brings the world to life but we need to make sense of all the noise. That’s why our hearing focuses on just one thing at a time.

Think of how your favorite radio show sounds. It’s likely that the audio is a composite of voice, sound design, music and commercials. Did you notice that the music gets quieter when the DJ speaks? Why did they do that? They’re helping you focus your ears on the most important sound at that time — the DJ’s voice. You might still be aware of the music but you’re only actively listening to one thing — the DJ’s voice.

Podcasts, films, videogames, radio and tv shows are all designed with the same principle — the most important element is the focus and everything else goes into a supportive role. This process is called ‘mixing’. It is where all the sound is sorted so that we hear what is most relevant . The challenge is to decide what is most relevant.

Why should you care? You always have to consider what the user needs to hear at a particular moment.

4) Sound isn’t always identifiable

Previously I said sound needs time to be understood. Sound also evolves over time. Let me expand on this idea further.

Take a look at this car:

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Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Ok, let’s imagine that this is your car, currently parked in the street outside your home.

Can we agree that this car will continue to look the same over the next 24 hours? If you (carefully) drive it the car will still be the same orange color and the same shape with all elements in their correct place — inside and out. It’s just another normal day for you and this car, so you can be sure it will look the same all day.

Now please tell me — how does this car sound?

Think about it. There is no obvious sound you can use to differentiate this car from another similar car, even though it makes a LOT of interesting sounds:

If it’s switched off then it’s silent.

If I switch it on then the engine makes an ‘idling’ sound.

If I put it into first gear and drive then it has a low rumbling tone, plus the tire noise and other sounds.

If I drive it fast then it has a high whining engine tone.

And we haven’t even started yet; the car will sound different if I drive it aggressively or carefully, it has various different sounds for all the mechanisms on-board (windows, buttons, radio, seat-belts etc), the brakes make their own sound.

And all day it looked exactly the same.

We can probably tell that it’s a car from the sound it makes, but to say specifically that it’s the exact car in the image above? Probably not. Do you think you would be able to recognize your car by its sound alone?

Why should you care?

Many things aren’t easy to identify by sound alone, perhaps because they create such a rich variety of noises. Visuals are often much better and quicker for identification.

This doesn’t apply to all sounds though; we’re very good at identifying people by their voice.

5) Sound can be abstract

You might have seen this example before, where the sound of bacon and the sound of rain are basically indistinguishable:

When a sound is removed from its original source it can become many new things. Sound designers for film, TV and games regularly mix and match seemingly unrelated samples to create one cohesive final result. What is Chewbacca’s roar? A mixture of bears. How many gears does Batman’s motorbike have? One, but it’s ALWAYS accelerating. Those are just examples from movies. Humans and many animals are capable of mimicry, which can surprise, delight and confuse!

Why should you care?

In sound production we’re often doing fake things to get a believable result. We replace badly pronounced words to improve an actor’s diction. We remove insects and add an icy wind to give the impression that a scene is set in winter even when it was recorded in July. Anything can be changed, but you need to have a strong concept of what you want to achieve.

6) Sound surrounds us

Why do you think a cinema has only one screen but many speakers all around the room? It replicates the way our senses work. While our eyes are limited to scanning the field of view in front of our face, our ears hear EVERYTHING. Every sound that is possible to be heard above, below, beside, in front or behind of you will be caught by your ears. You don’t even need to turn your head to know where the sound came from.

Here’s an example. You’re in a train station waiting for your train’s platform number. A voice comes over the public address system; “the next train for London will depart from platform 2”. You understood it despite the hubbub of footsteps, chatter and machinery all around you. You look for a sign for Platform 2 and go to catch your train.

Think about this — you got the information from a disembodied voice that could have been anywhere. It triggered the start of your action (to catch the train) but it wasn’t enough for navigation. You then looked for a visual clue to continue (the sign for Platform 2).

Why should you care?

When the user is seated you might be able to give instructions like “the controls are on your left” but this isn’t for certain. Up, down, left and right are all relative concepts depending on where you are located.

You could consider this a limitation but it is actually a massive benefit! With sound we free up our senses and our movement. We can look where we want and go where we want all while continuing to listen. Remember that your users might be anywhere when they use your design.

7) We’re not good at talking about sound

I’ve been in countless project briefs where the client couldn’t find the words to describe the sound they wanted. No matter how articulate the person or how detailed their vision this was always a challenge.

Sadly, there just aren’t enough words to describe sound. This is one of the hardest aspects of sound production — agreeing on the result we’re aiming for before we actually start creating.

What can you do?

Describing sound is hard but not impossible. These are the details the sound designer will need:

  1. What is the object or situation I’m designing for?
  2. What qualities does it have? Big or small, new or old, material etc.
  3. Where will the sound be used? Consider limitations — how long should it be, will it compete for attention with some other element etc.
  4. What is it doing? What’s the start, middle and end? Describe the action with verbs if possible — for example, is it growing, opening, receding, climbing, falling etc.
  5. How is it doing the action? Adverbs — for example, is it rising or ?
  6. How do you want the sound tofeel? What emotion do you want the user to have from this sound?
  7. Should the user get a clear message from this sound? This is often the case with UI sounds.
  8. Do you have any references you like? Make clear why you think the references are suitable for this new design.

The sound designer will have to consider all of these — that’s part of their process. They may have to ask you to fill in some of the detail. Kudos to you if you’re already prepared with answers!

Conclusion

So that’s my list of 7 things you should know about audio. There are many more I could have included, but this is a good starting point for anyone starting to think about sound in their designs.

Let’s summarize:

  1. Sound is emotional — what emotion do you want your users to have?
  2. Sound is linear — don’t punish the user when you have their attention!
  3. Sound is curated —it brings the world to life, but what should we hear right now?
  4. Sound isn’t always identifiable — the richness of sound can mean it’s hard to identify objects
  5. Sound can be abstract — when you remove a sound from its original source it’s malleable like clay
  6. Sound surrounds us — it can free up our other senses and act as an invisible guide
  7. We’re not good at talking about sound — go beyond subjective descriptions and consider the practical needs of the final result as well

Thanks for reading. Now I recommend you go and listen to the world!

Voice Tech Global

This is a blog about voice.

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