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So what is sound design? How is it used in different media, and what is the process by which sonic tableaux are brought to the big and small screens? In the broadest sense, the purpose of sound design is to augment or enhance the telling of a story. In most cases, that involves the creation, manipulation, and organization of nonmusical sonic elements. Those elements can include door slams, cricket chirps, or computer beeps.

Sound design is the process that turns James Earl Jones’s deep voice into Darth Vader’s evil growl, and it adds the swishes and smacks that pepper the combat scenes in Hong Kong action flicks. Sound design is the sound of lasers firing and ships exploding in science-fiction games or waves lapping gently against creaky docks in a pirate adventure. What do these disparate sonic examples have in common? They reflect the imagination and taste of the sound designer as he or she tries to enhance a story with sound.

The sound-design process is no real mystery. In fact, you can break most jobs down into seven key steps: determine what sounds are needed, collect the raw sonic materials, manipulate and edit the sounds, integrate them into the project, revise until satisfied or time runs out, mix the sounds, and deliver the finished product to the client. This article will look at each of these steps and define a number of common terms. (See for a great collection of articles about sound design, including a glossary.) By the end, you should have a solid understanding of the technical and artistic elements that go into successful sound design.

The sonic elements in a project can normally be broken down into several layers that serve different functions. Often, different people work on different layers simultaneously. The sound layers are combined with dialog and music during the mix, which creates the finished presentation. (In the case of interactive media, the mix consists of programming the volume and pan levels of the various elements in code rather than on a mixing console.)

Most projects begin with a spotting session, which is attended by the sound designer and film director or game producer. Spotting is the process of watching a scene, making a list of the sonic elements that are needed, and dividing them into their constituent layers. I’ll define the layers of sound by spotting the following scene.

It is a foggy midnight near the docks. Lapping against the pier, the waves are restless, and a light breeze is kicking up. In the distance, a foghorn blows. The hero stumbles into the frame, his old leather shoes scuffing and scraping the sidewalk as he struggles to keep his balance. He hears tires squealing behind him and whirls around. A half-empty vodka bottle falls out of his coat pocket and explodes like a grenade on the sidewalk. He turns and runs forward, right into a fruit crate that was home to an alley cat, which yowls in protest and runs off into the night.

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.

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