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”  (  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” (, 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.