What do sound designers do all day?

Recalling my adventures in sound design and music production

Can you imagine experiencing a brand new movie or game without sound? What if your smartphone only vibrated to let you know about all the important stuff that was happening — but didn’t utter a noise? Or, what about experiencing amazing, dynamic visual content on Vimeo or Youtube — but, in total silence?

If all that sounds not only boring but also actively weird, that’s probably because, short of blasting yourself into space, sound is pretty much unavoidable. And this is lucky because, without it, life would be pretty dull. And yet, people take it for granted — and this is what makes sound design and music production such a crucial, and yet under-considered art form in the modern digital world.

I started to express an interest in music and sound when I was about six years old, and since then it’s grown to become a complete obsession. One of my first steps was asking my mom to take me to music school, where I started to learn basic music theory, and also my first instrument — the dombra. After that I started to teach myself guitar, then added bass, before, growing in age and experience, I found out more about technology and began exploring the fascinating world of recording and DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations).

I’ve always found it difficult to explain precisely what kind of sound I want to deliver, so perhaps it was natural that I would ultimately move in the direction of recording, mixing and mastering — and eventually, later, sound design.

Vision

As time went on and I began transforming my ideas into reality, I came to realize that this could be a powerfully involving process. In my opinion, the most important thing for any musician or sound designer is to have a vision of what they want to create — because once you’ve identified your goal, you can then settle in and enjoy the process of getting there, and the challenge of achieving the best possible result.

Of course, knowledge and experience are also vital, but nobody can have them from the beginning — and if your vision is strong, you’ll acquire them along the way.

My journey to audio production

The first demos I created as a kid were made with a guitar and mic, and recorded into a cassette recorder — but then my parents bought me a computer, and that’s when everything started to change.

The first music production software I got my hands on was Ejay 4 — that’s where I started to learn how to make music on a computer, along with the basics of a music sequencer. Then, as a teenager, I formed a rock band with my friends, and I realized that in order to share my songs and arrangements with my bandmates, I’d need to write tabs. After a little searching I discovered Guitar Pro, which helped me figure out basic arrangements including guitar, bass, and drum parts. But the sound output offered by that platform — ’Realistic Sound Engine’ — wasn’t really good enough to make my efforts sound like true songs. The band already had a couple of songs under its belt, so we headed to a real studio for our first recording session — and that’s where I found out about Cubase software and live studio recording.

From then on, I hung out at the studio more and more, soaking up the world of music recording — amps, mics, effects, software, instruments, and all the rest.

Within a couple of years I’d gained a fairly solid base of experience, but I still wasn’t totally satisfied with the results I was getting in the studio — so I decided to teach myself how to produce, record and mix music completely by myself. The journey began with creating of my own home studio setup. Initially, I was overwhelmed and overloaded with information, but as time went on, I came to realize the value of keeping things simple (an insight that has really helped me a lot ever since), and eventually I was able to produce music that brought to life the vision I’d always had in my mind.

Collaborating with other artists was also hugely important, because the more you put yourself in contact with different personalities, styles, techniques and genres, the more parts of your own style and musical personality you discover. Working with other people is also simply enjoyable, and has helped me to take pleasure in the process of making music, rather than just focusing on the end result.

The market for audio production

However much you’d do it anyway just for the love, turning a passion into the mainstay of your life means ensuring it can also pay you a living. Luckily, these days an ever-growing number of startups, businesses, and creative producers use interactive content on their websites, apps, ads, and showreels — and sound design is an integral part of all these.

For example: whether it’s a Mac or PC, everyone knows what sound to expect when they turn on their computer, right? Or, when an ad for an iconic brand pops up on YouTube, it doesn’t matter if you’re distracted or looking away — you’ll recognise the unmistakable melody that accompanies its logo, even if you don’t see the logo itself. Your favorite messengers, like Telegram or Whatsapp, have different notification sounds to distinguish them from their rivals, while a few bars from the theme to a video game can be enough to identify it without any visual information being required.

All this adds up to a situation in which more and more prospective clients are out there looking for an able professional to help them bring sound to their visual content creations.

Tools

But, back to my journey!

At about the same time as I was making these first thrilling steps into the worlds of music production and studio recording, I was also getting acquainted with a bunch of other Digital Audio Workshops such as Logic, Fruity Loops, Cubase, Ableton Live, and Pro Tools. Pretty soon, though, I came to the conclusion that they all do pretty much the same thing, with the main difference just coming down to personal preference over user interface.

For my style of working, Ableton Live seemed the most comfortable and versatile DAW, because of how quickly it let me get my ideas out of my head and into the real world. But the other big draw of Ableton was the flexibility it gave to transform your linear arrangement into a live session and perform it live on stage. Oh — and there were also the built-in effects (along with max for live), and full third-party plugin support, which all added up to pretty much a one-stop shop for my needs.

The differences between Sound Design and Music Production

While the two have many things in common, there’s a distinction between sound design and music production. The latter is about creating some kind of musical form, for example a song — where the former is concerned with things like generating sounds, effects, SFX, environment recording, processing, layering, and synthesis. These differing processes mean these two disciplines also call for distinct approaches.

A sound design project begins from scratch, or rather from your library, from which you select elements to construct some entirely new sonic experience — usually as accompaniment to some sort of visual content.

Meanwhile, music production also often involves creating soundtracks for ads and movies or music for cinematic cutscenes and showreels — but refers more to when you’re working with musicians to interpret and crystalize their music, rather than building something from raw elements.

Music production and sound design can often intermingle within a single project, which is why it’s common to practice both — but it’s helpful to distinguish between them nevertheless.

Getting out there

My personal deep dive into audio creation came when I found out about Audiostocks. It was a revelation for me to discover that there is a whole community of people interested in audio production, many of whom are looking for music for their video projects — people like app developers or game designers in search of UI/UX sounds, SFX, and soundtracks.

From here, my interest grew more and more. I began doing projects for friends and for people I’d been introduced to because they were looking for sound elements for their visual creations. People were satisfied with what I produced, and things snowballed.

Here are some examples:

Process

The journey always starts from a conversation with the client about their needs, so that I can understand how to deliver a result that will satisfy everyone involved in the project. This can be tough, because people who aren’t musicians or sound professionals might not have much experience of describing what they want to hear, so I always tell people to use references to things they’ve heard before, and guide them through a process of talking about the sounds they hear in their daily lives.

Then it’s onto the work of preparing the project. Each one is unique and requires its own set of sounds and instruments, depending on precisely what we’re trying to achieve — but the first thing I always do is to create for myself, in my own mind, what the result is that I’m aiming to create. Then, using sounds from my library, I build a sketch project.

For me personally, the next part usually involves a lot of layering — and this is something that’s very important to my individual style. Layering involves taking two sounds and, using processing, EQ, compression and effects, turning them into one. I also record environment sounds, which I then completely transform according to the needs of what I’m creating, whether it be a sound effect or a transition (this requires a lot of imagination). Or else I might also use hardware synthesizers or VST (virtual instrument) plugins to generate the sound I want to achieve from scratch.

Once I have my project sound library all prepared, I start to work on editing, timing, and building an arrangement so as to have a structured form where each sound represents and matches the visual content in perfect time. I usually perform basic EQ and effects in the course of creating an arrangement, as this allows me to get closer to the desired result. Only after I have a completed audio track do I start to mix and master it.

Live Recording

I’ve spoken rather casually of ‘my library’, as though it were something I just inherited at birth — but in fact, learning how to record sounds in such a way that they retain their original essence is something that’s taken countless hours of hard graft.

Live recording is the key to producing a truly organic sound. I record a lot of traditional instruments, such as guitars, drums, and keys — but also non-traditional ones too, and even things that might not be regarded as instruments at all. By using, manipulating and recording a variety of everyday objects and environments, I create different sounds which I then process and sample — transforming them into something completely different. I love how much creativity this allows for: kitchen utensils can create the sound of a sword fight, or a bubble popping, or pretty much anything. Sometimes I just record common, everyday sounds from the street — but eventually, they’re always transformed into something unexpected.

Live recording is really an art unto itself, requiring not just creative imagination but also a comprehensive knowledge of the techniques and gear required to achieve your goals. If your dry recorded audio tracks are anything less than crisp and clear, they certainly won’t stand up to subsequent manipulation. But if what you’ve created already sounds good without any processing, you’re probably on the path to success.

Mixing

My mixing process encompases grouping, panning, routing, EQ, compressing, and effects (sounds complicated, I know — I hope to write more about this later). I’ll usually use a lot of plugins, but also hardware and analog effects. Once I feel like an audio track sounds pretty close to my vision of it, I move on to mastering — the process of polishing that moves us toward the final result.

Once again, my tools here are usually plugins, but I like to use hardware as well when I have the chance. The devices that I use most on a master bus are a compressor, pre-eq, exciter, imager, maximizer and sometimes a post-eq. In today’s digital world, you’ve got to be careful with volume: if you’re producing audio for computers and other devices with loudspeakers, your audio track should be around -10dB to -5dB, whereas for mobile devices it’s usually quieter — around -20dB (lower-volume files help reduce speaker distortion on mobile devices).

Final thoughts

I’m aware that as I’ve written this article, I’ve moved quickly from reminiscing about the origins of my journey into music production and sound design, and my broad motivation, to quite a technical and involved account of the processes I’ve since gone on to use as a professional operating in these fields. And I’m conscious of the fact that, when it comes to the latter, there’s a lot to unpack and explain. I know I may have used a lot of technical terms too. Please do let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to say more on.

For now, though, let me end with a few simple words: sound design is a fun, creative and exciting process of conjuring up a unique sonic experience and bringing life to our visual world. I’d encourage anyone to give it a try — and if you’d like our help with that, feel free to get in touch with us.


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