Sound design

Sound design

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Sound design is a technical/conceptually creative field. It covers all non-compositional elements of a film, a play, a music performance or recording, computer game software or any other multimedia project. A person who practices the art of sound design is known as a "Sound Designer".

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes the finest or most aesthetic sound mixing or recording in film with the Academy Award for Best Sound, [ [ Rule 20 | 80th Academy Awards Rules | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ] ] historically given to an English-language film. The new Tony Award for Best Sound Design is to be awarded for the best sound design in American theatre. ["Starting in 2007-08, Sound Designers Will Be Recognized by Tony Awards"]

Sound Design can also be defined as: "The manipulation of audio elements to achieve a desired effect."


It's known that in India and China around 3000 BC there were theatre productions accompanied by music and sound. The Commedia Dell'arte style also used both music and sound effects.

Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo, built mechanical sound-making devices, called intonarumori, for Futurist theatrical/music performances starting around 1913. These devices were meant to simulate natural and manmade sounds, such as trains and bombs. Russolo's treatise The Art of Noises, is arguably the first written document on the use of abstract noise in the theatre; he might be called the grandfather of conceptual sound designers. After his death, his intonarumori were used in more conventional theatre performances to create realistic sound effects.

Possibly the first use of recorded sound in the theatre, as mentioned in Michael Booth’s book ‘Theatre in the Victorian Age’, was a phonograph playing a baby’s cry in a London theatre in 1890. Sixteen years later, Beerbohm Tree definitely 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. It would not be however until the 1950s, when Hollywood directors started directing Broadway productions, that sound design would start growing. Still, there was no sound designer in those plays; 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. gun shots) by the stage manager (or assistant stage manager) for premium "aural illusion."

Between 1980 and 1988, 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.

MIDI and digital technology helped the field to evolve exponentially during the 1980s and 1990s. Features of computerized theatre sound design systems were recognized as being essential for live show control systems by Walt Disney World when they 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, ratified by the MIDI Manufacturers Association in 1991. The MIDI Show Control standard is an open, industry wide communications protocol through which all types of show devices may easily interact.

To create the MSC spec, Charlie Richmond headed the USITT MIDI Forum on their Callboard Network in 1990, which included developers and designers from the theatre sound and lighting industry from around the world. This Forum created the MIDI Show Control standard between January and September, 1990. This was ratified by the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) in January 1991, and the Japan MIDI Standards Committee (JMSC) later that year, becoming a part of the standard MIDI specification in August, 1991. 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 track. The title is not controlled by any industry organisation, as with the title of director or screenwriter in the American film industry.

The terms "Sound Design" and "Sound Designer" were already in use in theatre and were introduced to the film world when Francis Ford Coppola directed (and his father, Carmine Coppola, arranged the music for) a live production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco where sound designer Charlie Richmond was resident, while the final cut of the "The Godfather" was being edited in 1972. In the original film world meaning of the title, as established in the 1970s by Coppola and Walter Murch, a sound designer is an individual ultimately responsible for all aspects of a film's audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording to the re-recording of the final track. The title was first granted by Coppola to Murch for his work on the film "Apocalypse Now", in recognition for his extraordinary contribution to that film; in this way the position emerged in the same manner the title of production designer came in to being in the 1930s, when William Cameron Menzies made revolutionary contributions to the craft of art direction in the making of "Gone with the Wind".

This "strong" meaning of the title is meant to imply that the person holding the position is a principal member of the production staff, with tangible creative authority, equivalent to the film editor and director of photography. This development can be seen as a natural part of the evolution of film sound. Several interacting factors contributed to this:

* Cinema sound systems became capable of high-fidelity reproduction, and particularly after the adoption of Dolby Stereo. These systems were originally devised as gimmicks to increase theater attendance, but their widespread implementation created a content vacuum that had to be filled by a competent professional. Before stereo soundtracks, film sound was of such low fidelity that only the dialogue and occasional sound effects were practical. The greater dynamic range of the new systems, coupled with the ability to "place" sounds to the sides of the audience or behind them, required more creative decisions to be made.

* Directors wanted to realize the new potentials of the medium. A new generation of filmmakers, the so-called "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls"—Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and others—were aware of the creative potential of sound and wanted to use it.

* The new filmmakers were inspired in no small part by the popular music of the era. Concept albums of groups such as Pink Floyd and The Beatles suggested new modes of storytelling and creative techniques that could be adapted to motion pictures.

* The new filmmakers made their early films outside the Hollywood establishment, away from the influence of film labor unions and the then rapidly-dissipating studio system.

As many of these new filmmakers worked in the San Francisco Bay Area, the strong meaning of film sound designer has become associated with films made there, and the production companies situated there, such as American Zoetrope, Lucasfilm Limited (and its subsidiary Skywalker Sound), and "The Saul Zaentz Film Center".

The role of "sound designer" can be compared with the role of "supervising sound editor"; many sound designers use both titles interchangeably. 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. 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 role is a generalization of the other creative department heads.


"Sound design" is one of the youngest fields in stagecraft, second only to the use of projection and other multimedia displays. The idea of sound design has been around since theatre started, however the first person to receive a credit as Sound Designer on the poster and in the programme alongside the lighting and scene designers was David Collison for the 59 Theatre Company Season at London's Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in 1959. The first person to be titled the "sound designer" on Broadway was Jack Mann for his work on "Show Girl" in 1963 [ [ IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information ] ] , and for regional theatre to Dan Dugan at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), San Francisco in 1968. Since then the field has been growing rapidly. The term "Sound Design" was introduced to the film world when Francis Ford Coppola directed (and his father, Carmine Coppola, arranged the music for) a production of "Private Lives" at ACT, while the final cut of the film "The Godfather" was being edited in 1972.

Currently it can be said that there are two variants of "Theatrical Sound Design". Both are equally important, but very different, though their functions usually overlap. Often a single Sound Designer will fill both these roles, and although on a large budget production they may work together, for the most part there is only one Sound Designer for a given production. Where such distinctions are made, the first variant is "Technical Sound Design" (which has also been termed "Theatre Sound System Design" by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology's (USITT) Sound Design Commission), which is prevalent on Broadway, and the second "Conceptual Sound Design" (which has also been termed "Theatre Sound Score Design" by the USITT), which is prevalent at Regional Repertory Theatres. Both variants were created during the 1960s. These terms are really examples only, and not generally used in practice since most Sound Designers simply call themselves Sound Designers, no matter which role they are filling primarily.

"Technical Sound Design" requires the sound designer to design the sound system that will fulfill the needs of the production. If there is a sound system already installed in the venue, it is their job to tune the system for the best use for the given production using various methods including equalization, delay, volume, speaker and microphone placement, and this may include the addition of equipment not already provided. In conjunction with the director and musical director, if any, they also determine the use and placement of microphones for actors and musicians. A Technical Sound Designer makes sure that the performance can be heard and understood by everyone in the audience, no matter how large the room, and that the performers can hear everything they need to in order to do their job.

"Conceptual Sound Design" is very different from technical sound design, but equally important. The designer must first read the play and talk to the production's Director about what themes and messages they want to explore. It is here that, in conjunction with the director and possibly the composer, the designer decides what sounds he will use to create mood and setting of the play. He or she might also choose or compose specific music for the play, although the final choice typically lies with the director, who may want nothing but scene change music or, on the other extreme, will want ambient beds under every scene, such as Robert Woodruff of the American Repertory Theatre or Bill Ball, Ellis Rabb and Jack O'Brien who were active at ACT and the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, in the mid 1960s where Dan Dugan initially began his art. Many sound designers are indeed accomplished composers, writing and producing music for productions as well as designing sound. With these designers, it is often difficult to discern the line between sound design and music.

Some noted Sound Designers and/or Composers include David Budries, Abe Jacob (considered by many to be the Godfather of modern Theatre Sound Design), Steve Canyon Kennedy, Otts Munderloh, Mark Bennet, Hans Peter Kuhn, Obadiah Eaves, John Gromada, Darron West, Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn, Tom Mardikes, Jon Gottlieb, Dan Moses Schreier, Jim Van Bergen, Bruce Ellman, Richard B. Ingraham, David Van Tieghem, Joe Pino, Steven Brown, Richard Woodbury, David Collison, Jonathan Deans, Tony Meola, Paul Arditti and John Bracewell.

On occasion, the director may be very hands-on and will tell the sound designer what sounds to use and where to play them. In such cases, the sound designer becomes little more than an audio editor, but this depends to a large degree on the director and his relationship and level of trust with the sound designer. There are also collaborations such as exist between Ann Bogart and Darron West in the Siti Company, where he is in rehearsal from the day one and sound is really another character of the play. Also, the Conceptual Sound Designer must build the "prop sounds" (telephones rings, answering machines, announcements etc.) and figure out how to fit them into the established themes with regard to when and where the action is supposed to be taking place. For example, using a modern cellular phone ringtone would be out of place for a phone ringing in the 1940s. A Conceptual Sound Designer uses sound to enhance the audience's experience by conveying specific emotion or information without using words.

Above all, both the Technical Sound Designer and the Conceptual Sound Designer must call on experience and "uncommon" sense to ensure that the sound and music are contributing constructively to the production and are in harmony with the work of the actors and other designers.

The union that represents theatrical non-Broadway sound designers in the United States is United Scenic Artists (USA) Local USA829 which is now integrated within IATSE. Theatrical Sound Designers in Canada are represented by the [ Associated Designers of Canada] (ADC). Sound Designers on Broadway working on productions falling under the League of American Theatre and Producers contracts (i.e. all Broadway theatrical productions) are represented by IATSE Local One [] , by virtue of Local One's merger with IATSE Local 922, the former Theatrical Sound Designers local union. Local One maintains a binding contract with Broadway producers for work performed on Broadway shows.

Charlie Richmond assembled a set [] of Definitions, Communication Standards, Recommended Working Procedures, Information List, and suggested Contract Addenda to the ADC in 1990 in order to assist them in creating a Sound Design contract which finally occurred in 2004.

Other audio positions in a production that may or may not be filled by the designer include that of the production engineer.


In contemporary music, especially rock music, ambient music, progressive rock, and similar genres, the record producer and recording engineer play distinct 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 electroacoustic 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 Dark Side of the Moon, and Brian Eno to the Paul Simon album Surprise.


Even though there have been continual, extraordinary advances in technology and even more demand for top-quality sound, sound design is still struggling to obtain acceptance. On June 19 2007 a new category was added to the Tony Awards honoring sound design. Sound design has fast become an integral part of the design process for many theatres and sound designers often hold similar, if not superior positions in the creative team to the lighting designer and other designers.

Some of the major North American theatrical award organizations that recognize sound designers are

* [ Dora Mavor Moore Awards]
* [ Drama Desk Awards]
* "Helen Hayes Awards"
* "Obie Awards"
* "Tony Awards"

The British equivalent of these are;
* "Olivier Awards"
* "Evening Standard Awards"

External links


* [ - Learning Space dedicated to the Art of Sound Design]


* [ Gareth Fry - Award winning Sound Designer]
* [ Tom Hackley - Talented London Sound Designer]
* [ Music and Sound Design]
* [ Oh the "Zumanity"] (extensive interview with Cirque du Soleil sound designer Jonathan Deans)
* [ Theatre Sound Webring]
* [ Kai's Theater Sound Hand Book (incomplete)]
* [ Theatre Sound List-Serv]
* [ Stagelink] Directory of Sound Designers
* [] Directory of Sound Designers
* [ Theatre Sound Design Directory and Resources]
* [ Articles and Papers about Theatre Sound Design]
* [ Bibliography of Books relating to Sound and Acoustics]
* [ The MIDI Show Control (MSC) standard] (V1.0, still a valid subset, is now superseded by V1.1)
* [ Draft Sound Design Contract Elements from the 1980s]


* [ The Guide to Sound Effects] - Practical tips and ideas for creating sound effects, submitted by sound designers from all over the world
* [ Why Is That Thing Beeping? A Sound Design Primer]
* [ Advanced sound design using Puredata synthesis]
* [ TAPESTREA] - a new way to design sound (software from Princeton)


* [ BBC: Practical 10 Step Guide for young sound designers] , by BBC Sound Designer of the year Winner 2006 Andrew Diey


There are relatively few accredited Sound Design courses - the first three below lead to Equity or Bectu Membership and are accredited by NCDT [] and CDS []

* [ BA (Hons)Broadcasting (Sound Design) at Ravensbourne College Of Design & Communication]

* [ BA (Hons)in Creative Sound Design at the Academy of Contemporary Music]

* [ BA (Hons)Theatre Sound Design at the Central School of Speech and Drama]

* [ BA (Hons) Creative Sound Production at Abertay University, Dundee]

* [ BA Sound Arts at Expression College for The Digital Arts]

* [ Diploma Sound Design at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts]

* [ BA (Hons) Theatre Sound at Rose Bruford]

* [ MFA Sound Design at the University of California, Irvine]

* [ BFA, MA, MFA Sound Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design]

* [ BMus(hons) Music with Computer Sound Design Degree at the University of Surrey.]

* [ Research into the sound design process] . Conducted by MMU [] and [] ]

* [ MSc/Diploma in Sound Design, University of Edinburgh]

* [ Bachelor of Fine Arts(Sound Design) at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia]

* [ BSc (Hons) Sound Design Technology at the University of Hertfordshire, UK]


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