Sound design

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Sound design is the art and practice of creating sound tracks for a variety of needs. It involves specifying, acquiring or creating auditory elements using audio production techniques and tools. It is employed in a variety of disciplines including filmmaking, television production, video game development, theatre, sound recording and reproduction, live performance, sound art, post-production, radio and musical instrument development. Sound design commonly involves performing (see e.g. foley) and editing of previously composed or recorded audio, such as sound effects and dialogue for the purposes of the medium, but it can also involve creating sounds from scratch through synthesizers. A sound designer is one who practices sound design.



Karel Dujardins, commedia dell'arte show, 1657 KDujardinsCommedia.jpg
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.

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 Tainted blue studios control room.jpg
Modern digital control room at Tainted Blue Studios, 2010

MIDI and digital audio technology have contributed to the evolution of sound production techniques in the 1980s and 1990s. Digital audio workstations (DAW) and a variety of digital signal processing algorithms applied in them allow more complicated sound tracks with more tracks as well as auditory effects to be realized. Features such as unlimited undo and sample-level editing allow fine control over the sound tracks.

In theatre sound, features of computerized theatre sound design systems have also been 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.

The rise of interest in game audio has also brought more advanced interactive audio tools that are also accessible without a background in computer programming. Some of such software tools (termed "implementation tools" or "audio engines") feature a workflow that's similar to that in more conventional DAW programs and can also allow the sound production personnel to undertake some of the more creative interactive sound tasks (that are considered to be part of sound design for computer applications) that previously would have required a computer programmer. Interactive applications have also given rise to a plethora of techniques in "dynamic audio" that loosely means sound that's "parametrically" adjusted during the run-time of the program. This allows for a broader expression in sounds, more similar to that in films, because this way the sound designer can e.g. create footstep sounds that vary in a believable and non-repeating way and that also corresponds to what's seen in the picture. The digital audio workstation cannot directly "communicate" with game engines, because the game's events occur often in an unpredictable order, whereas traditional digital audio workstations as well as so called linear media (TV, film etc.) have everything occur in the same order every time the production is run. Especially games have also brought in dynamic or adaptive mixing.

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 Editor/Designer is a member of a film crew responsible for the entirety or some specific parts of a film's sound track. [5] In the American film industry, the title Sound Designer is not controlled by any professional organization, unlike titles such as Director or Screenwriter.

The terms sound design and sound designer began to be used in the motion picture industry in 1969. 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 The Rain People . [6] 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". [7] The term sound designer has 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 downsizing their sound departments, and when producers were routinely skimping on budgets and salaries for sound editors and mixers. 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 . [8]

The audio production team is a principal member of the production staff, with creative output comparable to that of the film editor and director of photography. Several factors have led to the promotion of audio production to this level, when previously it was considered subordinate to other parts of film:

The contemporary title of sound designer can be compared with the more traditional title of supervising sound editor ; many sound designers use both titles interchangeably. [9] 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. [10] [11]


Sound design, as a distinct 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 [12] during the 1968–69 season of American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, was the first person to be called a sound designer. [13]

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 often focuses on the design and implementation of a sound reinforcement system that will fulfil 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, [14] later reinstating in the 2017-18 season. [15]


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, [14] later reinstating the award in the 2017-18 season. [15]

Professional organizations

  • Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association (TSDCA)
  • The Association of Sound Designers is a trade association representing theatre sound designers in the UK.
  • United Scenic Artists (USA) Local USA829, which is integrated within IATSE, represents theatrical sound designers in the United States.
  • Theatrical Sound Designers in English Canada are represented by the Associated Designers of Canada (ADC), and in Québec by l'Association des professionnels des arts du Québec (APASQ).


In the contemporary music business, especially in the production of 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. A record producer is 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 some, particularly more electronic music projects, artists and producers in more conventional genres have sometimes sourced additional help from artists often credited as "sound designers", to contribute specific auditory effects, ambiences etc. to the production. These people are usually more versed in e.g. electronic music composition and synthesizers than the other musicians on board.

In the application of electroacoustic techniques (e.g. binaural sound) and sound synthesis for contemporary music or film music, a sound designer (often also an electronic musician) sometimes refers to an artist who works alongside a composer to realize the more electronic aspects of a musical production. This is because sometimes there exists a difference in interests between composers and electronic musicians or sound designers. The latter specialising in electronic music techniques, such as sequencing and synthesizers, but the former more experienced in writing music in a variety of genres. Since electronic music itself is quite broad in techniques and often separate from techniques applied in other genres, this kind of collaboration can be seen as natural and beneficial.

Notable examples of (recognized) sound design in music 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 .

In 1974, Suzanne Ciani started her own production company, Ciani/Musica. Inc., which became the #1 sound design music house in New York. [16]


In fashion shows, the sound designer often works with the artistic director to create an atmosphere fitting the theme of a collection, commercial campaign or event.[ citation needed ]

Computer applications and other applications

Sound is widely used in a variety of human–computer interfaces, in computer games and video games. [17] [18]  There are a few extra requirements for sound production for computer applications, including reusability, interactivity and low memory and CPU usage. For example, most computational resources are usually devoted to graphics. Audio production should account for computational limits for sound playback with audio compression or voice allocating systems.

Interactivity with computer sound can involve using a variety of playback systems or logic, using tools that allow the production of interactive sound (e.g. Max/MSP, Wwise). Implementation might require software or electrical engineering of the systems that modify sound or process user input. In interactive applications, a sound designer often collaborates with an engineer (e.g. a sound programmer) who's concerned with designing the playback systems and their efficiency.


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. [19]

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, [20] then reinstated the categories in the 2017-18 season. [15]

See also

Related Research Articles

Film crew

A film crew is a group of people, hired by a production company, for the purpose of producing a film or motion picture. The crew is distinguished from the cast as the cast are understood to be the actors who appear in front of the camera or provide voices for characters in the film. The crew is also separate from the producers as the producers are the ones who own a portion of either the film studio or the film's intellectual property rights. A film crew is divided into different departments, each of which specializes in a specific aspect of the production. Film crew positions have evolved over the years, spurred by technological change, but many traditional jobs date from the early 20th century and are common across jurisdictions and filmmaking cultures.

Sound effect Artificially created or enhanced sound

A sound effect is an artificially created or enhanced sound, or sound process used to emphasize artistic or other content of films, television shows, live performance, animation, video games, music, or other media. These are normally created with foley. In motion picture and television production, a sound effect is a sound recorded and presented to make a specific storytelling or creative point without the use of dialogue or music. The term often refers to a process applied to a recording, without necessarily referring to the recording itself. In professional motion picture and television production, dialogue, music, and sound effects recordings are treated as separate elements. Dialogue and music recordings are never referred to as sound effects, even though the processes applied to such as reverberation or flanging effects, often are called "sound effects".

Surround sound

Surround sound is a technique for enriching the fidelity and depth of sound reproduction by using multiple audio channels from speakers that surround the listener. Its first application was in movie theaters. Prior to surround sound, theater sound systems commonly had three "screen channels" of sound that played from three loudspeakers located in front of the audience. Surround sound adds one or more channels from loudspeakers to the side or behind the listener that are able to create the sensation of sound coming from any horizontal direction around the listener.

A sound editor is a creative professional responsible for selecting and assembling sound recordings in preparation for the final sound mixing or mastering of a television program, motion picture, video game, or any production involving recorded or synthetic sound. Sound editing developed out of the need to fix the incomplete, undramatic, or technically inferior sound recordings of early talkies, and over the decades has become a respected filmmaking craft, with sound editors implementing the aesthetic goals of motion picture sound design.

Walter Murch American film editor and sound designer

Walter Scott Murch is an American film editor, director, writer and sound designer. With a career stretching back to 1969, including work on THX1138, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient, with three Academy Award wins, he has been referred to by Roger Ebert as "the most respected film editor and sound designer in the modern cinema."

Sound stage

A sound stage is a soundproof, hangar-like structure, building, or room, used for the production of theatrical film-making and television productions, usually located on a secured movie or television studio property.

Sound reinforcement system

A sound reinforcement system is the combination of microphones, signal processors, amplifiers, and loudspeakers in enclosures all controlled by a mixing console that makes live or pre-recorded sounds louder and may also distribute those sounds to a larger or more distant audience. In many situations, a sound reinforcement system is also used to enhance or alter the sound of the sources on the stage, typically by using electronic effects, such as reverb, as opposed to simply amplifying the sources unaltered.

Filmmaking is the process by which a film is made. Filmmaking involves a number of complex and discrete stages including an initial story, idea, or commission, through screenwriting, casting, shooting, sound recording and pre-production, editing, and screening the finished product before an audience that may result in a film release and an exhibition. Filmmaking takes place in many places around the world in a range of economic, social, and political contexts, and using a variety of technologies and cinematic techniques.

Television crew positions are derived from those of film crew, but with several differences.

A theatrical technician, is a person who operates technical equipment and systems in the performing arts and entertainment industry. In contrast to performers, this broad category contains all "unseen" theatrical personnel who practice stagecraft and are responsible for the logistic and production-related aspects of a performance including designers, operators, and supervisors. Many professional designers and technicians consider the diminutive "techie" to be offensive.

Orchestral enhancement is the technique of using orchestration techniques, architectural modifications, or electronic technologies to modify the sound, complexity, or color of a musical theatre, ballet or opera pit orchestra. Orchestral enhancements are used both to create new sounds and to add capabilities to existing orchestral ensembles.

Control booth area designated for the operation of theatre or TV technical equipment (lighting and sound)

The control booth, control room, lighting box, technical booth, tech booth, or just booth used by television, film or theatrical technicians is the area designated for the operation of technical equipment, lighting controls and sound board. Often one or two followspots may be located in the booth as well. In a theater, it is generally an enclosed space with a large sliding window with a good view of the stage centered in the back of the house. It may be on the ground floor or at the balcony level. In a film or television production, it might be in a trailer or other space near the studio.

Meyer Sound Laboratories is an American company based in Berkeley, California that manufactures self-powered loudspeakers, multichannel audio show control systems, electroacoustic architecture, and audio analysis tools for the professional sound reinforcement, fixed installation, and sound recording industries.

Video design

Video design or projection design is a creative field of stagecraft. It is concerned with the creation and integration of film, motion graphics and live camera feed into the fields of theatre, opera, dance, fashion shows, concerts and other live events. Video design has only recently gained recognition as a separate creative field. Prior to this, the responsibilities of video design would often be taken on by a scenic designer or lighting designer. A person who practices the art of video design is often known as a Video Designer. However, naming conventions vary around the world, and so practitioners may also be credited as Projection Designer, "Media Designer", Cinematographer or Video Director. As a relatively new field of stagecraft, practitioners create their own definitions, rules and techniques.

Audio engineer Engineer involved in the recording, reproduction, or reinforcement of sound

An audio engineer helps to produce a recording or a live performance, balancing and adjusting sound sources using equalization, dynamics processing and audio effects, mixing, reproduction, and reinforcement of sound. Audio engineers work on the "technical aspect of recording—the placing of microphones, pre-amp knobs, the setting of levels. The physical recording of any project is done by an engineer ... the nuts and bolts."

Articles related to the field of motion pictures include:

Wylie A. Stateman is an American supervising sound editor, sound designer, and post production media entrepreneur. Stateman has supervised over 150 sound projects, resulting in 9 Academy Awards, 6 BAFTA Awards, 2 Primetime Emmy Awards, and over 30 Motion Picture Sound Editor Awards.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to stagecraft:

Dan Dugan (audio engineer) First sound designer; inventor of the automixer

Dan Dugan is an American audio engineer, inventor, and nature sounds recordist. He was the first person in regional theatre to be called a sound designer, and he developed the first effective automatic microphone mixer: the automixer. Dugan's sound design work was acknowledged in 2003 with a Distinguished Career Award by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and in 2020 with an Emmy Award for technology relevant to remote working. In 2021 he was awarded Fellowship in the Audio Engineering Society.

Abe John Jacob is an American sound designer and audio engineer. Called the "Godfather of Sound", Jacob greatly influenced the design of sound reinforcement in modern musical theatre, and was one of the first persons credited in the role of sound designer on Broadway, with a sound designer credit in Playbill in 1971.


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