Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Sound Design Themes and Goals.....Revisited

A while ago a wrote a post about defining themes and goals for sound design (  In summary, I noted that one of the things I obverse with those new to sound design is that they can go about it in a very literal manner.  That is, one action = one sound.  I then suggested that possibly a better way to go about sound design is to clearly define what you are trying to achieve with the sound before actually starting.  The reason I mention this again is that I have just watch the Mavericks of Sound Design Panel video from Moogfest and I was taken by the reflection of a lot of my thoughts on this matter being articulated by the panel.  If you have time this video is worth a watch as it contains a lot of additional points of view.

When you are planning your sound design projects ask yourself these questions, "What emotion do I want the listener/viewer to have at this point?" and "What aesthetics do I want to put across to the listener/viewer?"  If you can answer these questions you are at a good point to begin the sound design project.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Realisation of a Sound Design Portfolio

In my last few posts I have been considering the creation of academic portfolios for sound design.  In this post I will now examine the realisation options for building a portfolio.  Back in the "old days" a sound designers portfolio would normally consisted of a showreel that would be used as a showcase of their best work.  The advent of digital portfolios meant that it became possible to adopt the two faces of an academic portfolio that I have already spoken about in my previous posts.  From an academic point of view, the two faces makes lots of sense and can help to provide the foundations for a portfolio that can be carried forward into a professional career.  Recently work has been published that seems to advocate using different digital choices: Electronic Portfolios - ePortfolio (Dalziel 2006), Blog Portfolios - bPortfolios (Wicks 2011), Mobile Portfolios - mPortfolios (Barrett 2010), etc. However, in my opinion these seem to be missing the point!  I'm not sure that these different implementation technologies really make much of a difference.  For me it seems far more important to make sure that when implemented, the key elements that I highlighted in my previous post are covered with a suitable realisation.  For testing purposes I have built a prototype sound design portfolio using a platform called Mahara ( However, it should be possible to build a digital portfolio that meets all of these elements using different platforms.
  • Planning what sounds need to be created to meet the brief and consideration of how the individual sounds will work together in the final content = blogging to create a Personal Development Plan (PDP) for the content being created and the portfolio itself 
  • Log individual sound elements, complete with providing an inspiration for the sound created and details of how it was made and produced = blogging with possible document upload and SoundCloud can be used to embed audio content that can have comments placed at specific points in the content timeline
  • Final content showing how the individual sound elements have been integrated together to create a final piece = blogging with text documents that can be either uploaded or embedded and SoundCloud can be used for audio content
  • Formal report giving precise details of how one of the individual sounds was created and exactly how it was integrated into the final content = document created from the blog entries and can be either uploaded or embedded
  • Provide a mechanism for students to reflect on what has been achieved = reflective blog entries
  • Able to upload or embed different documents or media = support for web 2.0 technologies
  • Provide storage for work in progress = local or cloud servers
  • Allow formative feedback, ideally at corresponding points in the audio content = embed SoundCloud tracks
  • Support for networking and conversation between both students and tutors = add "comments" to all content (audio, blogs, forums, etc.)
  • Ability to keep some parts private and make others public = maintain an unpublished workspace and published showcases 
  • Provide wider networking between to students and the "outside" world = externally visible blogs and forums
  • Give confidential summative feedback and final grade = provide integration between portfolio and institutions Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) grade centre
  • Allow the work to be showcased to the wider world when completed = combine appropriate elements from the above to create a showcase - use social media to help publicise

As well as these elements I have also identified that students need stimulation to develop their content and themselves, over an extended period of time.  The stimulation mechanisms maybe generated using the following elements:
  • Student based reflection = reflective blog entries containing analysis and evaluation
  • Formative feedback from the tutor = adding comments directly to the portfolio elements (audio, blogs, forums, etc.)
  • Collaboration between students and the wider world = forums and making the content (showcases) visible on the internet

As I mentioned previously, I have created a prototype portfolio using Mahara as the complete implementation plateform.  Although Mahara fits very well with the academic requirements and does offer a very user friendly construction process (when you get your head around the different components), it does have a big drawback!  It does allow blogs, forums and networks to be created, however these do have a visibility issues.  In the sound design area there are already well established online communities and while using these institutional communities will work fine for collaboration between the students themselves, they will not open them up to the wider world.  This will then impact on the ability of the students to network with the professional/semi-professional sound community and build a reputation.  This is particularly important for the sound domain as most people work freelance and get into the industry through a long process of building a reputation and working their way up.  Ideally a portfolio started in their academic careers will form the foundations of a professional professional that will be continued through their Personal Development Plan (PDP).  Therefore, it seems important to not only use the institutional communities, but to also make the students aware of the wider communities and encourage them to fully engage with the networking possibilities.

Dalziel, C., Challen, R., & Sutherland, S. (2006). ePortfolio in the UK: Emerging Practice.  A. Jafari,& C. Kaufman, (Eds), Handbook of Research on ePortfolios. PA: Idea Group Reference. Ch. XXXIII

Wicks, D,, Andrew Lumpe, Henry Algera, Kris Gritter, Helen Barrett, Janiess Sallee (2011). bPortfolios: An Overview of Blogging for Reflective Practice. Seattle Pacific University School of Education August 2011.

Barrett, Helen. (2010). The future of mPortfolios (m=mobile) for Lifelong Learning. mPortfolios web-site,

Thursday, 21 June 2012

What is a Virtual Portfolio?

In my previous couple of posts I have been considering from an academic point of view exactly what a portfolio is and what is required of a portfolio for sound design.  In doing so it has started to become obvious that one of the things that is unique to creating portfolios for this area is the diverse range of content that is required.

Another area for consideration is although this maybe an academic portfolio it is for an art based discipline where it is important that the content can be showcased as a professional portfolio for the sector, such as a showreel.  This may not actually be that different to any other discipline, but being an art it is important that the aesthetics are showed off appropriately via the portfolios medium itself.  How is the best way to showcase a sounds that have been designed?  The normal way is to show them in-situ in the final content.  Although this does immediately show the context for the sound it may not necessarily be the best way to show some of the aesthetics of the sounds created.

Something else that I have considered is that not all content naturally lends itself to representation in a portfolio.  For example, if I were a sculpture of stone then my artistic medium would be blocks of stone.  This being the case then a paper or digital portfolio would contain virtual representations of the sculptures rather than the sculptures themselves.  This is the same for certain aspects of sound design, where the mediun is sound.  For example, if a sound is created with a synthesizer the artefact is the patch itself that makes that sound.  Although the patch file itself could be uploaded, assuming it's a soft synthesizer of cause, it will not mean a lot as it can't be played.  Therefore, a virtual representations, such as audio files or samples will need to be included.  This will also allow appropriate delivery content to show off the aesthetics of the artefact.  In this case the portfolio become a virtual portfolio of the actual output artefacts.  Hence it is a virtual portfolio.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sound Design Portfolios

In my last post I tried to clearly define what a portfolio is and its purpose.  Having done this it is now time to start considering what this means for a sound design context. A sound design portfolio is not that different really to any other portfolio, except that many, although not all, of the artefacts will have a high media content.  This is likely to be different to other more academic disciplines, where the content range maybe less diverse.  For example, a sound design portfolio might contain elements of the following different types of media: audio recordings and tracks, samples, MIDI files, FX libraries, DAW projects, synthesizer patches, FX chains, videos, photos, FX and track list, scores, scripts, showreels, animations, sound installations etc.  As can be seen this is an extremely diverse range and some of these may not naturally lend themselves to digital delivery.

As well as considering the different artefact types that are likely to be required in a sound design portfolio, it is also worth considering what is required from both the student and the tutor perspectives.  In doing this I am very much thinking about my students and me as their tutor, but if you think I've missed anything then please let me know.

Sound Design Students

My undergraduate Music & Audio Technology students start developing a Sound Design Portfolio in their first year and continue through their studies.  However, in the first year this is what it is required:
  • Planning what sounds need to be created to meet the brief and consideration of how the individual sounds will work together in the final content 
  • Log individual sound elements, complete with providing an inspiration for the sound created and details of how it was made and produced
    • Audio tracks, MIDI, patches, samples
  • Final content showing how the individual sound elements have been integrated together to create a final piece
    • DAW Projects, track lists and/or FX lists, final mixdown  
  • Formal report giving precise details of how one of the individual sounds was created and exactly how it was integrated into the final content
  • Provide a mechanism for students to reflect on what has been achieved
  • Allow additional media content to be retained
    • Images, videos, scores, scripts    
The portfolio should provide space for all of these individual elements to be formulated and developed over a period of time - like a true "workspace".

Tutor Requirements

As a tutor of sound design these are the elements that would be expected of a sound design portfolio:
  • Able to upload or embed different documents or media
  • Provide storage for work in progress
  • Allow formative feedback, ideally at corresponding points in the audio content
  • Support for networking and conversation between both students and tutors
  • Ability to keep some parts private and make others public
  • Provide wider networking between to students and the "outside" world
  • Give confidential summative feedback and final grade
  • Allow the work to be showcased to the wider world when completed

Having given this a bit of thought, for me the key to effectively using a portfolio as a "workspace" is providing the students a space to "develop".  This takes time so an important part of a portfolio assessment process is engaging students so they use the portfolio over an extended period of time.  As well as giving them time, they need stimulus to develop.  It seems that this will come from three areas:
  1. Student based reflection
  2. Formative feedback from the tutor
  3. Collaboration between students and the wider world
Any portfolio system must provide a mechanism to foster all three of these area.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

What is a Portfolio?

I am currently about to start work on a "virtual portfolio" system that will be used for students to develop a sound design portfolio.  Before beginning work on the detail of this project I think it is worth clearly defining "What is a Portfolio?"  The normal academic reply to this question is something along the lines of...
"A portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student's efforts,progress, and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self-reflection." (Paulson 1991) 
Although this gives a very vigorous interpretation of the academic requirements, it does not consider the wider ramifications from creating a portfolio.  Therefore, it is worth asking the question "What is the purpose of a Portfolio?"  There are two main academic goals for a portfolio: one is as a "workspace" where students can develop their content and the other is a "showcase" where the students can present their work (Barrett 2011).  When considered from the students perspective the workspace is very much about the process, whereas the showcase is the presentation of the product.  However, from an academic point of view the portfolio offers a mechanism for assessment of the student's efforts.  When considering the process this will be about formative assessment, while the product can be used for summative assessment.  This means that the audience for the portfolio as a workspace is largely internal and the audience for the showcase will mainly be external.  It is this external view that carries wider ramifications for the portfolio, beyond just being an academic exercise and it is hoped that the portfolio will become a life-long exercise.

So what are the key elements of a portfolio?  First, it is a repository for holding work. This is a given, based on where the very word comes from (french for page carrier).  Next, it should contain elements of the following to meet the definition above and the academic requirements (Becta 2007, JISC 2008).
  • Planning and setting goals
  • Capturing and storing evidence
  • Collaboration
  • Giving and receiving feedback (formative)
  • Reflections
  • Presenting to an audience
  • Networking and building a reputation
It is also important when planning portfolio work to have a clear target output for the portfolio.  This means identify a specific target audience for the portfolio and tailor the presentation specifically for them.

Next I shall consider exactly what is required for a portfolio in Sound Design.

Paulson, F.L. Paulson, P.R. and Meyer, CA. (1991, February). What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio? Educational Leadership, pp. 60-63.

Barrett, H. (2010). Balancing the Two Faces of ePortfolios. Educação, Formação & Tecnologias, 3(1), 6-14.

Becta (2007), Impact study of e-portfolios on learning,

JISC (2008), Effective Practice with e-Portfolios: Supporting 21st century learning,

Thursday, 17 May 2012

I Feel Love

I learned today that Donna Summer had lost her fight against cancer and sadly passed away.  As I have mentioned previously, her song I Feel Love was hugely influential in getting me into electronic music.  As much as I loved these wonderful synthesizer sounds  and the funky rhythm, it was the vocals the brought the other parts to life.  Right from the first spellbinding "Ooh. It's So Good", to the last captivating "I Feel Love", she gave a truly alouring performance that just sat so well with the track.  Amazing really as there is no real lyrical content, but just a fantastic delivery.  It was this magic that she brought to many of her classic tracks.  I felt her love.  She will be sadly missed.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Practising Sound Design for Visual Content

In my last post I spoke about practising your sound design and suggested practicing sound design for visual content by finding some suitable footage, removing the soundtrack and then creating your own accompanying sound.  The specific content of the visuals is entirely up to you, but trailers or adverts work quit well due to them being short in length.  Failing that you can edit your own video, although remember if this is not done well it will not matter how good your sound design is, the perception of the content will be poor.

When learning sound design one of the mistakes that most newbies make is to go about it in a very literal manner.  Along the lines of....there is a sound source in a scene so I need a corresponding sound.  That is, one action = one sound.  This is not really the best way to go about it as you will end-up with a very literal sountrack.  Often resulting in a soundtrack that is either too cluttered, sparse or just lacking a clear message.  A better way to go about the sound design is to look at every scene and think about the what you are trying to convey to the viewer with the sound.  Consider theme, concept, narrative, aesthetics, emotion, atmosphere, abstractions, expression, feel, characterization, reality, separation, metaphors, environment, authenticity, intelligibility, etc.  When you have considered these you can go about creating a soundtrack to match the message you want to put across to the viewer.  In doing this you will find that you end-up with much more focus to the sound and should find that you naturally create the required selectivity, based on what you are trying to achieve.

Another really good idea for practising this form of sound design is to take some fairly generic visual content and then create different soundtracks for the same content that allows you to explore different styles, emotions, atmospheres, etc.  You will have to make sure the visuals posses the scope for what you are trying to achieve, but it is a really great way to explore what is possible with the sound.

As I have said before, all of this content can then be used to build your showreel and hopefully you will learn a lot and have some fun with sound.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Sound Design Themes and Goals

I've written several posts now about learning and practising sound design.  When it comes to practicing, you could just sit down and experiment until you come-up with something that you think is good.  Although this is likely to be a very creative process, unfortunately it is not the way that most sound designers really work.  Sound Designers will generally work from a script or brief, and will only experiment with specific goals to achieve.  This being the case, a good way to practice your craft is to set yourself specific goals for your practice projects.  These should include aesthetic goals as well as technical requirements.  This will allow you to be much more focused in your practising and is more like how you will have to work in the real world.

First decide what kind of project you are going to do: music, soundscape or soundtrack.  (As mentioned previously, if you want to get into sound design for moving image, take a video clip (film, TV or game) and remove the original soundtrack).  Then set yourself a "theme" for your sound.  For visual based content this will be partially defined by the images, but still think about what you want to achieve with the sound and formally define your "theme".  (Remember you can give the visuals a completely different feel with different sound.)  For music or soundscape projects the definition of a theme is even more important and it will give you a clear remit within which to work.  Just to give you a few examples: Summer Rain, City Streets, Jupiter's Moons, Apathy, Sea Breeze, etc.  You get the idea.

Having defined the theme for the project, next you should think about the main, over arching aesthetic/style/genre goals that you want to achieve.  These will inform how you go about all stages of the sound design process and what you are trying to accomplish.  Try and keep this short and succinct, using only three or four descriptive words.  So for something like the Transformers movies it may be something like: powerful, bold, dynamic and clean.  Although movies will have other sound styles in them at different points, these are the overall goals that set the mood of the final piece.   These would be completely different for other projects, but should always define the sound design direction.  Added or combined with this should be the aesthetic goals.  You will have much more influence over the aesthetics if you have full control over the project.  Having said that, at least think about whether you want the impact of your sound to be overt, subtle or subconscious.  This will at least give you a level to aim your sound at.

Once you have defined the main goals for the project it is then time to dig down into the piece and define what you are trying to achieve with each scene, act, movement, section, etc., of the project.  Again this will depend on the type of sound design project you are working on, but think about things like the message you are trying to convey, emotion and listening modes.  It is at this point that you can start thinking about particular sound design techniques that you want to use.  For example, Sound Narrative, Stylistic, Realistic, Hyper-Realism, Empathetic, Synchresis, Anthropomorphism, Leitmotif, Vectorisation, Temporal Linearisation, Counterpoint, Musique Concrète, Contrapuntal Music, etc.  Think of these definitions as a skeleton or framework on which you will hang your sound design.

Finally, you need to define some technical specifications for the project.  If you want to work as a professional you will always have to make sure your work meets the technical requirements defined by the initiator of the project.  Again, some of these will be define for you if you are working with image, but think about things like levels, format, spatialisation, duration, etc.

When you have defined all of these, it is then time to start practising your sound design.  Remember at all stages of the project to reference the definitions and ensure they are being met.  Be critical of yourself as in the real world this will be done by someone else and just because you created something, it does not by default mean it is great!

Doing all of this will give you a more realistic way to practice, you will create content for your showreel and you should be able to clearly explain what you were tying to achieve in the sound design.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Train Your Ears

Following on from my previous post on practicing sound design (, another aspect that should be taken into account is developing "critical listening" skills.  Again these will take time and practice to develop and will not just happen over night.  For a newbie I would recommend taking a reference track, which could be music, soundscape or soundtrack and first listen to it as a "whole".  Then listen back to it and in your "minds ear" try to isolate one particular sound element.  The human auditory system as actually very good at this and with a bit of practice it is actual fairly easy to do.  When you have an element isolated see if you can work out its attributes: pitch, duration, timber, loudness harmonics, rhythm, envelop, textures, speed, frequency, length, panorama, intensity, dimension, interest, balance, etc.  Write down your findings so you can refer to them later.  When you have fully characterised the sound, move on to the next one, until you have decomposed the whole track.  Writing down the characteristics will help you when moving on to other sound elements as you can refer to what you have written and sometimes you may find that you will want to modify what you have previously written in-light of the sound element you have just listened to.  When completed it is really important that you listen back to track and listen to it again as a "whole" so you can hear all the elements together.  This is a vital process as it is so easy to design a number of great sound elements, but when they are put together they do not "gel".  This is often best done with fresh ears, after a period of rest so that you are not suffering from listening fatigue.  The more you go through this process the better you will get and the more your ears will be able to identify subtle sound elements that may have been hidden before.  It is my suggestion that over a few weeks you do this for 20-30 reference tracks.  Then when you reach a point that it starts to become easy, go back to your first reference track and listen back to it and evaluate the notes you wrote.  How did you do?  Can you pick-out things now that you missed before?  If you can, your ears are getting better so work back through all your previous reference tracks and see if your evaluations have changed.  It should also be noted that this practice should be kept up.  Even when you get really good at it, still analyse audio content that you listen to, especially your own sound design! 

As well as training your ears on reference tracks you will also need to train your ears on the kind of audio processing you are likely to want to use.  This could be done by simply using a DAW with some audio content and just listening to the effect of changes you make, say to EQ settings or any other form of processing.  However, in my opinion some form of "testing" will yield better results.  There are web-sites and apps available that have been specifically designed for the testing of critical listening skills.  I have not reviewed all of these and I'm sure there are some other good critical listening testing solutions.  However, I would recommend the book, Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical Ear Training by Jason Corey (  This is a great text and comes with an app that compliments the contents of the book and allows you to test your audio production skills.

A final area of useful training is the identification of audio "problems".  For this I recommend you take an audio track and apply processing to it to generate as many audio problems as you can think of.  Here are a few to get you started: over-compression, poor EQ, clipping, quantisation noise, reduced bandwidth, stereo width too wide or narrow, poor spatial impression, etc.  Bounce out several examples of each with different settings and name each file to correspond with the particular issue and the settings used.  Listen to the original audio and then playback the bounced files in a random order and see if you can identify the issue and settings used in each.  This will work even better if you have a friend that can generate the files for you so that you are listening to them fresh.  You could then return the favour.

Suffice to say, the more you practice listening, the better you will get at it.  This time and effort will then pay you back in your sound design and the more you design sounds the better your ears will get.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

David Sonnenschein Blog Posts

Apologies for not writing very much lately.  I currently have so many on-going projects, I'm struggling to find the time to write-up the many ideas I have in my head.  I promise to write up some of my post ideas as soon as I have a bit of free time.  In the mean time I have just discovered a blog series by David Sonnenschein that considers using sound effects in sound design.  Worth a read if you are new to the field:

I'd also strongly recommend checking out David's book - Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema.

Monday, 2 January 2012

What Isn’t Sound Design?

I've just come acorss this blog post with the title "What Isn’t Sound Design?":

Although this post is specific to Sound Design for Games, much of the content is the same for all areas of sound design.  In addition, much of the sentiment of this article is "right on the money" and it also nicely complements some of my earlier posts.