Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Practice Makes Prefect

No matter what discipline you want to be good at: athletics, writing, singing, sound design, etc., then you will need to practice.   Contrary to popular opinion, natural ability will only get you so far!!!  No one gets to the top of their game on talent alone.  David Beckham, Michael Schumacher, Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton, Ben Burtt - all had to practice their craft.  Becoming a Sound Designer is no different - you will have to practice.  This will do two things: first it will let you hone your technical skills and second it will allow you to train your creative skills and ears.  In other words, the "how" and the "why" of sound design.  So you need to practice generating, synthesising recording and manipulating sounds.  Then practice some more.  Practice, practice, practice!!!!

How you practice will depend on the kind of sound design that you are interested in.  If you want to be a synth programmer then practice creating patches on a broad variety of synthesizers and samplers.  (Do not ignore the manipulation of acoustic sounds.  Working with real sounds is invaluable for learning "how sound works" - an important aspect of being a sound designer.)   Then once the patches have been created, integrate them into productions of some description.  These could be musical compositions, soundscapes, sound sculptures or preferable a mixture of all three.  These productions will give you practice of not only creating sounds, but will also demonstrate how the patches could be used.  This is vital knowledge and will greatly improve your sound design skills.

If on the other hand you want to get into sound design for moving images then take a video clip (film, TV or game), remove the soundtrack and create your own.  Again, not only create the sounds, but integrate them as a new soundtrack so that even if you don't want to work as a sound editor you will be fully aware of the whole post-production process.  You could even practice being a Foley artist.

Not only will these productions be invaluable practice, but they will give you a portfolio of work to show potential clients.  This is always useful as it will allow you to actually demonstrate what you can do across the entire production process.  What is more, as you will have full creative control over the productions it should be a fun and inspiring experience!  So if you are starting along the path towards a career in sound design, then get practicing.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Sound Design: To Tweet or Not To Tweet

Now this post might be a bit off topic, but if I'm honest I've never really understood the point of Twitter in any context.  Why would someone want to hear sound bites from me?  Why do I want to hear from others?  For me, what is the benefit?  It is going to cost me time and effort.  Important news is almost instantly lost in a timeline that continually updated.  People seem to tweet so often it just becomes noise (when I hear noise, I just want to process it into something interesting).

However, while on the Social Sound Design site (http://socialsounddesign.com/) the other day, someone asked which sound designers tweet.  To be honest I was amazed at the response.  Within a very short space of time several pages had been filled by fellow sound designers, not only saying they used it, but strongly singing its virtues.  So convincing was it, I started to wonder if I was missing out on something?  Is there more to tweeting than I realised?

At about the same time, on a forum I'd posted details of this blog, someone expressed their frustration that they could not follow the blog without having a Google account.  It struck me that Twitter might give me an opportunity to keep interested parties updated about content on the blog.  So off to Twitter I went and setup a @SoundSculpting account and I followed all the sound designers that had left their usernames on the Social Sound Design post.  This instantly put me in direct contact with other like minded people working in the same field.  Now I'm not saying I'm a complete convert (there is still a fair bit of noise - some of these people need to spend more time working and less time browsing), but I'm starting to see the benefit.  As I've just said, I have instant access to the sound design community.  This means I'm now getting updates of articles, job opportunities, new tools, projects others are working on and just general sound related musings.  This can be important for two reasons: first if you are new to the field and are an aspiring Sound Designer then it is a good way to build-up contacts and find out what others that already work in the area do.  Second, if you are already working in the field and tend to work with the same people, it is easy to become very insular.  Talking to others in the field gives the "cross-fertilization" that can be so vital in getting the creative juices flowing.  Find out what others are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it.  This can be a truly liberating experience and even if you have years of experience, you may learn something new.  You are never too old to learn.

Now as you may have noticed I have added a Twitter follow button to this blog.  If you want to be kept up-to-date with the blog and what I'm working on, then press the button.  Now I'm really keen that I don't just end up generate needless noise, however I will tweet about updates to this blog and other sound design related stuff that I think will be of interest to blog followers.  Equally if you have comments or sound design items I might be interested in then I look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Leave Presets Behind

If you are going to "make it" as a sound designer then you have to be prepared to leave presets behind. This can be a daunting prospect, especially when you are fairly new to sound design, but in my view it is a necessary step.  When you are starting, think of your synthesizer or audio effect as a "system", what an engineer will call a "black box".  The system will have some input information that it will processed in some way, in order to generate some output.  In this area the inputs and outputs will probably be with audio or MIDI information.
Then research the operation of this particular "type" of system.  For example, if it is a delay effect then learn "how" delay effects work or if it is a subtractive synthesizer then learn "how" they work and their basic operation.  Although you can do sound design purely by ear, in my experience if you learn and understand the lower level technology it will give you more possibilities and when you combine this with your ears, you'll have a lot more flexibility and potential.

Next look up the exact operation of the system that you have.  It may sound obvious, but the best source of information is the manual.  Now believe me, I don't advercate reading the manual from cover to cover, but keep it close at hand for when you are unsure of something.  Manuals will tell you exactly what the system will do and will generally also explain how the system performs its operation (if you are lucky it will also contain a fair bit of background information).  I have to confess that I do find it frustrating when I am asked questions that clearly tell me that the manual has not been consulted, hence RTFM. (Look this up if you don't know what it means.)

As you gain experience with a particular type of effect or synthesizer you'll find that you will start to understand what the controls do, without having to consult the manual continually.  Having said that, when I pickup a new effect or particularly an advanced synthesizer I always tend to lookout for a "block diagram".  This will show the "signal flow" within the system and the connection of the systems sub-components.  In other words, it is what is inside the black box.  This for me is a vital asset in understanding the intricacies of the sound design possibilities that the system gives.  Block diagrams come in many different guises, from being a written description and/or a drawing in manual:
They might be given as a representation on the front of the device (hardware or software):
Through to a routing matrix that allows the user the modify elements of the systems interconnections:
These combined with my understanding of the operation of each block, helps me workout how my sounds can be generated and/or affected.  I can then use my ears to refine what is created.  This takes practice and is something I'll consider in my next post.

Before leaving this topic it is worth pointing out what may seem like obvious aspects of block diagrams, whatever form they are in.  First, the inputs are generally shown on the left and the outputs are on the right (occasionally they may go from top to bottom).  This then defines the normal direction of signal flow within the diagram.  If the signal flow is in the opposite direction (output to input) then it is called a "feedback" path.  The signal path may split into multiple paths, and equally, multiple paths maybe combined to a single path.  Each sub-component block will affect the signal at its input in some way and generate an output signal.  Often there will a hierarchical aspect to the blocks so each can the thought of as a black box in its own right and they themselves may contain a lower level block diagram.  The idea of using this hierarchical black box paradigm is that it gives a mechanism for managing complexity.  You can concentrate on what each blocks does without necessary worrying about how it does its operation.  This keeps happening until you get down to the low-level building blocks for the system.  The lowest level is where the engineers that build the systems, will do their stuff and the top levels is where sound designers and producers will work.  Now I have come full circle on myself where I said that an understanding and appreciation of the lower level operation will improve your sound design possibilities.  Keep going down as far as you dare, but take it slowly and don't be put off when at first you don't understand what is happening at a lower level.  Just do a bit more research and learning.

Monday, 6 June 2011

How is Sound Design Different to Sound Engineering or Producing?

On a forum recently I was asked to clarity the difference between sound design, sound engineering and production.  Were does one stop and the other start?  The flippant answer would have been that a sound designer is the person that creates sounds, but is not necessarily involved in the production process.  However, I think it is a bit more complicated than that.  There are two things muddying the waters here.  The first is the blurring of boundaries between job roles.  Back in the days of the "super studios" the roles had more definition and individuals would have specific jobs to do.  However, the advancement and affordability of technology have meant that today someone can realistically do sound design, recording, editing, mixing, mastering etc.  Today most people “producing” music and audio do undertake all of these things.  These people would probably call themselves “producers”.  The second factor is the common misuse of the terms "engineer" and "engineering".  This started in the 1980s, before this engineering meant what it still really is: "The application of scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design, manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systems." (dictionary definition.)  In the 1980s everyman and his dog started calling themselves engineers whether they did science and maths or not.  Plumbers became "Heating Engineers", TV repairmen became "Audio/Visual Engineers", etc.  This also happened in the music and audio sector and the term “Sound Engineer” became commonly used.  The term is usually used to describe a person that does recording, editing, mixing, mastering etc. under the direction of someone else, usually a producer.  I personally don’t like this term due the misuse of the word engineering, but I seem to be in the minority.  Having said that, as most producers work on their own these days it is a role that only survives in large studios, and there are not many of these left.
So back to sound design.  In my opinion, sound design is the creative construction and manipulation of sound.  As I’ve said, it is very easy for this to blur into production, although it does not necessarily have to.  For example, if I create a synth patch, that is a sound I have “designed”.  I might not use it in a production.  I might for example just sell my patch.  In this case, I have created the sound, but not been involved in a production using it so can’t call myself a producer.  To give another example, when Ben Burtt (sound designer for the original Star Wars movie) designed the sound of a lightsabre he did a bit of different roles: to paraphrase “production recordist, a sound editor, a sound mixer”  (http://www.filmsound.org/starwars/burtt-interview.htm).  He did not actually do the production editing (that was the sound editor), but he did the “creation” or “design” of that sound. 

Other associated areas such as, acoustics, studio design, production hardware design, software audio programming, etc., are in my view all forms of true “engineering”.  That is, the application of science and maths.  They do require creativity, but in science and maths, rather than arts and aesthetics, such as in sound design and production.  For example, look at the “Audio Engineering Society” (http://www.aes.org/about/), they are the ones that design all of the equipment we use in a studio.  They don’t do the actual recording, mixing, production, sound reinforcement etc., but rather they design and produce the equipment that is used in all of these disciplines.

Now although sound design can be done entirely by ear, in my opinion it sure helps if you do know a bit of the science as well.  What frequencies does a sound contain? What harmonic components does a particular waveform contain?  How do waveforms combine when added (mixed) together?  How does a sound change when in a different acoustic environments? Etc.  Although you may think you’re not doing any science, you are, even if your measuring equipment is your ears. 

I personally tackle sound design in a very engineering manner, as that is my original background.  I look to combine my science and maths background with my creative skills and apply these to “making” sounds.  That in essence is what this blog will be about.  

Monday, 30 May 2011

How to become a Sound Designer?

I guess if you are looking at this blog then you are interested in Sound Design and might be considering it as a career path.  So how do you become a sound designer?  Well in my experience most end up in this field almost by accident.  Until recently there was no way to study sound design academically.  This meant people either ended up sound designers from other associated fields or worked they way up through the industry.  For my own part, by accident, I have been able to turn my hobby into my primary career.  I never meant to end-up here it just sort of happened to me.  Having said that I'm very happy about my new career and very grateful to the happy coincidence that led me to my present location.

So what advice would I give someone that wants to get into sound design?  Well I think the step-by-step advice given by Andrew Diey (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newtalent/drama/advice_diey.shtml) says a lot of what I'd want to say.  In addition to this, if you are just starting out I think I'd offer the following advice.  First, study the science of sound, normally called acoustics.  You really need to understand how sound "works" if you are going to be able to replicate different audio effects and synthesis required sounds.  Second, in the early part of your career do not restrict yourself to one form of sound design.  As I have said before, sound design is a varied and multifaceted discipline and although you may have a greater interest in one area than another, you need to develop a wide range of skills to be viable.  Finally, train you ears - learn to dissect every sound.  What frequencies does the sound contain?  How does it change with time?  Does it have multiple layers?  What are the layers? Does it sound the same to both ears?  How do you perceiving the sound?  What sound components match the sound you are hearing?  This takes practice as it is not something most people don't do it instinctively?  There are tools (level metres, scopes, spectrum analysers, goniometers, etc.) you can use to help you with these questions, but there is not substitute for a good pair of ears.

Another thing to bear in mind, in this day and age you need to be technologically competent and this likely to be computer based.  It is not about learning one particular tool (DAW) over another, but rather about learning the underlying principles.  Then if you need to use a tool you're not familiar with you should be able to make the switch.  With this in mind, I would recommend that you learn one of the major DAWs (Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools).

What does all this add up to?  In short, all this adds up to learning your trade....

Thursday, 26 May 2011

What is Sound Design?

The phrase "sound design" means different things to different people.  As a result, I think it would be useful to clarify what I mean by the term and what this blog will be about.  To me, sound design is the generation, synthesis, recording (studio and location)  and manipulation of sound and I like to think of it as "sculpting" sound.  Therefore it means all to the following are different types of sound design: synthesizer programming, generating and recording found sounds, foley, applying effects during audio production, etc.  This covers an exceptionally wide range of skills and techniques, but to be successful in this arena you need to embrace every aspect of sound.  Sound design is required in many areas including: music production, soundscapes, film, television, theatre, computer/video games, live sound and sound art.  For me sound design for visual content is very rewarding as it gives you the opportunity to immerse the audience into the world defined by the visuals.  Whereas pure audio based sound design can be highly creative experience as there no constraints.  This can be a positive and a negative thing!  You need imagination.

So whose sound design do I have the most respect for?  In terms of sound design for visuals, I guess because of my age, the original Star Wars film stands out.  This film introduced me to sounds I'd never heard or even imagined before.  What's more the sounds were "just right" for the visuals so most people watching did not even think about them.  This is truly the essence of good sound design for visuals.  (If the audience consciously think about the audio content, invariably there is something wrong.)  If you're not familiar with this work you should really check it out, even if you're not into sci-fi (http://www.filmsound.org/starwars/).

In terms of music, it was around the same point in my life when music took, in my opinion a hugh leap in a magical new direction.  For me there were three tracks the ushered in a new era of music.  The first was "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer.  I think it was the first time I'd heard electronic sounds at the forefront of a track.  I loved the way the sounds evolved and changed as I was listening.  This was then complemented beautifully by the sweet sounding vocals.

The second was "Are 'friends' electric?" by Tubeway Army (Gary Numan).  I'd never heard such striking, in your face, electronic sounds before and the contrast of them to Numan's erie vocals was pure magic.

The final one was "Das Model" by Kraftwerk, a track of ONLY electronic sounds that were then set against ridged vocals in German.  In my opinion, this was the inspiration for the "electronic 80's" and paved the way for bands like The Human League and Depeche Mode.

These early sound experiences were so influential and to this day are the inspiration I aspire to.  (Having said that, this is the first time I have written down these thoughts and until now it was an informal jumble in my mind.)   As a result, I am never happier than when I'm sculpting sound in some way, shape or form.

So what is this blog about?  It is about all types of sound design and everything to do with it.  The content will probably be fairly random and likely to relate to whatever projects I'm currently working on.  It will probably have a strong link to the technology used in sound design, especially computer-based, as that is my background.

I final note:  I'm dyslexic so there are likely to be typos and grammatical errors in this blog. So in those famous words "This is a journey into sound...".