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.