Sound design

Sound design is the process of specifying, acquiring, manipulating or generating audio elements. It is employed in a variety of disciplines including filmmaking, television production, theatre, sound recording and reproduction, live performance, sound art, post-production, radio and video game development. Sound design most commonly involves the manipulation of previously composed or recorded audio, such as sound effects and dialogue. In some instances it may also involve the composition or manipulation of audio to create a desired effect or mood. A sound designer is one who practices the art of sound design.


Karel Dujardins, commedia dell'arte show, 1657

The use of sound to evoke emotion, reflect mood and underscore actions in plays and dances began in prehistoric times. At its earliest, it was used in religious practices for healing or recreation. In ancient Japan, theatrical events called kagura were performed in Shinto shrines with music and dance.[1]

Plays were performed in medieval times in a form of theatre called Commedia dell'arte, which used music and sound effects to enhance performances. The use of music and sound in the Elizabethan Theatre followed, in which music and sound effects were produced off stage using devices such as bells, whistles, and horns. Cues would be written in the script for music and sound effects to be played at the appropriate time.[2]

Italian composer Luigi Russolo built mechanical sound-making devices, called "intonarumori," for futurist theatrical and music performances starting around 1913. These devices were meant to simulate natural and man-made sounds, such as trains and bombs. Russolo's treatise, The Art of Noises, is one of the earliest written documents on the use of abstract noise in the theatre. After his death, his intonarumori' were used in more conventional theatre performances to create realistic sound effects.

Recorded sound

Possibly the first use of recorded sound in the theatre was a phonograph playing a baby’s cry in a London theatre in 1890.[3] Sixteen years later, Herbert Beerbohm Tree used recordings in his London production of Stephen Phillips’ tragedy NERO. The event is marked in the Theatre Magazine (1906) with two photographs; one showing a musician blowing a bugle into a large horn attached to a disc recorder, the other with an actor recording the agonizing shrieks and groans of the tortured martyrs. The article states: “these sounds are all realistically reproduced by the gramophone”. As cited by Bertolt Brecht, there was a play about Rasputin written in (1927) by Alexej Tolstoi and directed by Erwin Piscator that included a recording of Lenin's voice. Whilst the term "sound designer" was not in use at this time, a number of stage managers specialised as "effects men", creating and performing offstage sound effects using a mix of vocal mimicry, mechanical and electrical contraptions and gramophone records. A great deal of care and attention was paid to the construction and performance of these effects, both naturalistic and abstract.[4] Over the course of the twentieth century the use of recorded sound effects began to take over from live sound effects, though often it was the stage manager's duty to find the sound effects and an electrician played the recordings during performances. But even though the sound designer has basically assumed these roles, time and technology have not ruled out non-sound designers having a hand in sound production. For instance, since today's audiences are savvier and can readily distinguish between live and recorded sounds, live backstage sound effects are still used (e.g. gunshots) by the stage manager (or assistant stage manager) for premium "aural illusion".

Between 1980 and 1988, Charlie Richmond, USITT's first Sound Design Commissioner, oversaw efforts of their Sound Design Commission to define the duties, responsibilities, standards and procedures which might normally be expected of a theatre sound designer in North America. This subject is still regularly discussed by that group, but during that time, substantial conclusions were drawn and he wrote a document which, although now somewhat dated, provides a succinct record of what was expected at that time. It was subsequently provided to both the ADC and David Goodman at the Florida USA local when they were both planning to represent sound designers in the 1990s.

Digital technology

Modern digital control room at Tainted Blue Studios, 2010

MIDI and digital audio technology helped to drive the rapid evolution of sound design during the 1980s and 1990s. Features of computerized theatre sound design systems were recognized as being essential for live show control systems at Walt Disney World and, as a result, Disney utilized systems of that type to control many facilities at their Disney-MGM Studios theme park, which opened in 1989. These features were incorporated into the MIDI Show Control (MSC) specification, an open communications protocol used to interact with diverse devices. The first show to fully utilize the MSC specification was the Magic Kingdom Parade at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in September, 1991.

Also, the World Wide Web has greatly enhanced the ability of sound designers to acquire source material quickly, easily and cheaply. Nowadays, a designer can preview and download crisper, more "believable" sounds as opposed to toiling through time- and budget-draining "shot-in-the-dark" searches through record stores, libraries and "the grapevine" for (often) inferior recordings. In addition, software innovation has enabled sound designers to take more of a DIY (or "do-it-yourself") approach. From the comfort of their home and at any hour, they can simply use a computer, speakers and headphones rather than renting (or buying) costly equipment or studio space and time for editing and mixing. This provides for faster creation and negotiation with the director.



In motion picture production, a Sound Designer is a member of a film crew responsible for some original aspect of the film's audio.[5] In the American film industry, the title of Sound Designer is not controlled by any industry organization, unlike titles such as Director or Screenwriter.

The terms sound design and sound designer were introduced to the motion picture industry in 1972. At that time, The title of Sound Designer was first granted to Walter Murch by Francis Ford Coppola in recognition for Murch's contributions to the film Apocalypse Now. The original meaning of the title Sound Designer, as established by Coppola and Murch, was "an individual ultimately responsible for all aspects of a film's audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording to the re-recording (mix) of the final track".[6] The term sound designer replaced monikers like supervising sound editor or re-recording mixer for what was essentially the same position: the head designer of the final sound track. Editors and mixers like Murray Spivack (King Kong), George Groves (The Jazz Singer), James G. Stewart (Citizen Kane), and Carl Faulkner (Journey to the Center of the Earth) served in this capacity during Hollywood's studio era, and are generally considered to be sound designers by a different name.

The advantage of calling oneself a sound designer beginning in later decades was two-fold. It strategically allowed for a single person to work as both an editor and mixer on a film without running into issues pertaining to the jurisdictions of editors and mixers, as outlined by their respective unions. Additionally, it was a rhetorical move that legitimated the field of post-production sound at a time when studios were down-sizing their sound departments, and when producers were routinely skimping on budgets and salaries for sound editors and mixers. Sound designer became means to elevate the value of post-production sound within the industry, from what was generally thought to only be a technical craft, to a creative and artistic profession. In so doing, it allowed those who called themselves sound designers to compete for contract work and to negotiate higher salaries. The position of Sound Designer therefore emerged in a manner similar to that of Production Designer, which was created in the 1930s when William Cameron Menzies made revolutionary contributions to the craft of art direction in the making of Gone with the Wind.[7] Today, the strategic and rhetorical benefits of calling oneself a sound designer are minimal, and many within the industry continue to call themselves re-recording mixers and supervising sound editors.

The sound designer is a principal member of the production staff, with creative authority equal to that of the film editor and director of photography. Several factors led to the promotion of sound design to this level:

The role of sound designer can be compared with the role of supervising sound editor; many sound designers use both titles interchangeably.[8] The role of supervising sound editor, or sound supervisor, developed in parallel with the role of sound designer. The demand for more sophisticated soundtracks was felt both inside and outside Hollywood, and the supervising sound editor became the head of the large sound department, with a staff of dozens of sound editors, that was required to realize a complete sound job with a fast turnaround.[9] It is far from universal, but the role of sound supervisor descends from the original role of the sound editor, that of a technician required to complete a film, but having little creative authority. Sound designers, on the other hand, are expected to be creative, and their status is comparable to the other creative department heads.[10]


Sound design, as a separate discipline, is one of the youngest fields in stagecraft, second only to the use of projection and other multimedia displays, although the ideas and techniques of sound design have been around almost since theatre started. Dan Dugan, working with three stereo tape decks routed to ten loudspeaker zones[11] during the 1968–69 season of American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, was the first person to be called a sound designer.[12]

Modern audio technology has enabled theatre sound designers to produce flexible, complex, and inexpensive designs that can be easily integrated into live performance. The influence of film and television on playwriting is seeing plays being written increasingly with shorter scenes, which is difficult to achieve with scenery but easily conveyed with sound. The development of film sound design is giving writers and directors higher expectations and knowledge of sound design. Consequently, theatre sound design is widespread and accomplished sound designers commonly establish long-term collaborations with directors.

Sound design for musicals and sound design for plays

Some sound designers specialize in certain genres of work, though typically most work across all genres. The two most common specialisms are in musical theatre, and plays; with others including devised work, children's theatre, dance and opera.

Sound Design for Musicals

Sound Design for Musicals often focuses on the design and implementation of a sound reinforcement system that will fulfill the needs of the production. If a sound system is already installed in the performance venue, it is the sound designer's job to tune the system for the best use for a particular production. Sound system tuning employs various methods including equalization, delay, volume, speaker and microphone placement, and in some cases, the addition of new equipment. In conjunction with the director and musical director, if any, the sound reinforcement designer determines the use and placement of microphones for actors and musicians. The sound reinforcement designer ensures that the performance can be heard and understood by everyone in the audience, regardless of the shape, size or acoustics of the venue, and that performers can hear everything needed to enable them to do their jobs. While sound design for a musical largely focuses on the artistic merits of sound reinforcement, many musicals, such as Into the Woods also require significant sound scores (see Sound Design for Plays). Sound Reinforcement Design was recognized by the American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards with the Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Musical until the 2014-15 season.[13]

Sound Design for Plays

Sound Design for Plays often involves the selection of music and sounds (sound score) for a production based on intimate familiarity with the play, and the design, installation, calibration and utilization of the sound system that reproduces the sound score. The sound designer for a play and the production's director work together to decide the themes and emotions to be explored. Based on this, the sound designer for plays, in collaboration with the director and possibly the composer, decides upon the sounds that will be used to create the desired moods. In some productions, the sound designer might also be hired to compose music for the play. The sound designer and the director usually work together to "spot" the cues in the play (i.e., decide when and where sound will be used in the play). Some productions might use music only during scene changes, whilst others might use sound effects. Likewise a scene might be underscored with music, sound effects or abstract sounds that exist somewhere between the two. Some sound designers are accomplished composers, writing and producing music for productions as well as designing sound. Many sound designs for plays also require significant sound reinforcement (see Sound Design for Musicals). Sound Design for plays was recognized by the American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards with the Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play until the 2014-15 season.[13]

Professional organizations


In contemporary music, especially rock music, ambient music, progressive rock, and similar genres, the record producer and recording engineer play important roles in the creation of the overall sound (or soundscape) of a recording, and less often, of a live performance. The record producer is chiefly responsible for extracting the best performance possible from the musicians and for making both musical and technical decisions about the instrumental timbres, arrangements, etc. On certain ambitious and complex recording projects, artists and producers have relied on sonic consultants, often credited as "sound designer", to help them to create specific auditory effects, landscapes, or to ensure an overall consistency and quality of some of the (usually unconventional) sonic elements. In such arrangements, the producer may put almost all of his or her attention on managing the recording session and working closely with the musicians on their performances and interpretations of the material; the recording engineer may dedicate all of his or her time to capturing these performances on tape (or hard disk); the sound designer may then help to create the overall sound, the integration of recording technology with musical instrument technology, the presentation that is the phonographic equivalent of decisions in movie-making about what type of lens to use on the camera, whether or not to use soft focus, and what kind of lighting to use on a scene.

In applied research in electrostatics and computer programming for contemporary music or electronic music, the Sound Designer is a specialist who is usually there to help the composer to do the electroacoustic portion of the composition. Often, the composer comes with an idea (concept + score) and the Sound Designer assists the composer with new technology and unique equipment. Examples include sound synthesis, interaction between acoustic instruments and computers, realization of a computer program in many different languages (often Max-MSP/Jitter), gesture capture with sensors or cameras, video treatment and interaction between video and sound. Historically, the Sound Designer was often called the "Musical Assistant". Some of the many examples of research centers working with Sound Designers include Forum Neues Musiktheater of Stuttgart, IRCAM in Paris or synArt in Antibes.

Notable examples of sound design are the contributions of Michael Brook to the U2 album The Joshua Tree, George Massenburg to the Jennifer Warnes album Famous Blue Raincoat, Chris Thomas to the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, and Brian Eno to the Paul Simon album Surprise.

Computer applications and other applications

Generation and manipulation of sound elements is widely used in a variety of human-computer interfaces, in computer games and video games.[14][15] Almost all large productions have one or a few sound designers. Without these sound designers, the audio of the production would not be as rich and realistic to the audience.


Sound designers have been recognized by awards organizations for some time, and new awards have emerged more recently in response to advances in sound design technology and quality. The Motion Picture Sound Editors and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes the finest or most aesthetic sound design for a film with the Golden Reel Award for Sound and Music editing, and the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing respectively. In 2007, the Tony Award for Best Sound Design was created to honor the best sound design in American theatre on Broadway.[16]

North American theatrical award organizations that recognize sound designers include these:

Major British award organizations include the Olivier Awards. The Tony Awards retired the awards for Sound Design as of the 2014-2015 season.[17]

See also


  1. Brazell, Karen (1999). Traditional Japanese Theater. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10873-7.
  2. Kaye, Deena; Lebrecht, James (1992). Sound and Music For The Theatre. Back Stage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications. ISBN 0-8230-7664-4.
  3. Booth, Michael R. (1991). Theatre In The Victorian. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-34837-4.
  4. Napier, Frank (1936). Noises Off. Frederick Muller.
  5. "Sound designer". Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  6. Reeves, Alex. "A Brief History of Sound Design". Advertising Week Social Club. Advertising Week. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  7. Bordwell, David. "William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea". Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  8. Müller, Bastian (2008). Sound Design: The Development of Sound Design for Hollywood Films and its Impact on Modern Cinema. Hamburg: p. 24. ISBN 9783836618922. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  9. Hollyn, Norman (2009). The Film Editing Room Handbook: How to Tame the Chaos of the Editing Room. Berkeley CA: Peachpit Press. p. 144. ISBN 0321679520. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  10. Dakic, Vesna (2009). Sound Design for Film and Television. Norderstedt: GRIN Verlag. p. 2. ISBN 9783640454792. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  11. Dugan, Dan (December 1969). "A New Music and Sound Effects System for Theatrical Productions". Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. Audio Engineering Society. 17 (6): 666–670. Retrieved March 23, 2011.
  12. Kaye, Deena; LeBrecht, James (2009). Sound and music for the theatre: the art and technique of design. Focal Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-240-81011-2.
  13. 1 2 "2010-2011 Tony Award Rules" (PDF). American Theatre Wing. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
  14. Gal, Viviane; Le Prado, Cécile; Merland, J. B.; Natkin, Stéphane; Vega, Liliana (September 2002). "Processes and tools for sound design in computer games". Proceedings of International Computer Music Conference. Goetborg. CiteSeerX accessible..
  15. Veneri, Olivier; Natkin, Stéphane; Le Prado, Cécile; Emerit, Marc. "A Game Audio Technology Overview" (PDF).
  16. Jones, Kenneth (19 Jun 2007). "Starting in 2007-08, Sound Designers Will Be Recognized by Tony Awards".
  17. Bowgen, Phillipe. "Tony Award Administration Committee Eliminates Sound Design Categories", Playbill, June 11, 2014
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