Asbjoern Andersen


Sound designer Charles Maynes has worked on blockbusters like the Spider-Man series, Total Recall, After Earth and a myriad of others. He’s also a noted sound effects recordist for film and video games such as Call of Duty, Metal of Honor, BLACK and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series.

Today, I’m delighted to present this guest post from him here on A Sound Effect, where he shares the 10 notions he finds essential to great sound design.

 

Asbjoern asked me to contribute a musing about the concept of ‘Sound Design’ and what I thought were important considerations for the A Sound Effect visitors.

After reflecting on what I might think was valuable – and what my heroes think about the idea – I came up with the following notions or suggestions for all of us in the world of the sonic arts.

It was good fun, and I hope it is of some interest.

I have to thank so sincerely all of those folks who have provided me both mentoring and inspiration.

Specifically, these would be Randy Thom, Stephen Hunter Flick, Ron Bochar, Jon Johnson, Skip Lievsey, Jay Wilkinson, Bill Jacobs, Charles Deenen, Ann Kroeber, Gary Rydstrom and David Yewdall. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for being both great artists, and inspirations.

Below, I present my chosen notions – with explanations on why I think they’re so important to the work we do as sound designers.
 

But first: What IS a Sound Designer anyway?

A quick preamble which addresses a continuing Pandora’s box in our community:

There has been much talk about “what” a “Sound Designer” is.

I could write pages on the discussion, but I largely feel that it comes down to two basic distinctions which I label the “upper” and “lower” case description of the job.

In the “upper” case “Sound Designer” variant, I would say this has been best described by Randy Thom (who definitely fits in this realm) as something akin to a “Sound Director”. Ie. someone who is really defining the true aesthetic of the project.

Classic examples would be the work of Walter Murch, especially in films such as “Apocalypse Now”, “The Conversation” and “American Grafitti”.

The Sound Designer will be using ALL of the sound groups to accomplish this task

With this, it is important to say that the Sound Designer will be using ALL of the sound groups to accomplish this task; Dialog, Music, Sound Effects, Foley, and special sound design.

The sound designer will usually have a significant role in the mixing of the elements to achieve the vision of the director, and will be participating in the decision making at the level of the Picture Editor and Cinematographer.

The second, what I call the “lower-case” “sound designer”, is what might better be described as a sound effects designer- ie. someone who creates sound effects for a certain action or space, but doesn’t have that larger imprint on how (or if) it will be used.

At one point, there was more of a division with this and sound effects editing, but I believe that distinction has largely disappeared for the most part, as we sound editors are almost constantly having to create effects where existing material might be not available.

So, with that being said.. off we go!
 

1: “No matter how much experience you have, you do good art by making lots of mistakes and learning from them. That’s the way it happens early in your career, and it changes very little even after several decades.” – Randy Thom

Randy is just an amazing, amazing man. What he says in this comment is the mark of his humility, and in that comment we do confront the classical business issue of “Fast/Cheap/Good” which is omnipresent in our western society.

The problem with that paradigm is that “Art” doesn’t mind timetables well, and if we are hoping to create “Art” which is new, and original, it sometimes takes some time to formulate those ideas. That is why most commercials and short turnaround work usually sounds like other things you have heard before.

When we look at films like “The Matrix” or “Gravity”, we see daring choices that were dangerous and thought-provoking. These choices though were ultimately agreed upon and approved by people other than the “Sound Designer”. We are hired to serve our collaborators in our work, so their viewpoint will indeed dictate the degree of freedom and latitude we have in our work.

An attachment to this would be to realize that is that the brilliant ideas we come up with might be discarded like the pristinely perfect parsley that comes with a fine meal. This is not an indictment on the quality of our contribution though.
 

2: ‘Never use the “right” sound for an action’ 
-A concept from Treg Brown, legendary sound designer for the original Warner Brothers cartoons

Treg Brown is probably one of the most important figures in sound design history. His work redefined animated sounds, and his work is truly foundational to modern sound design.

And when we read about Gary Rydstrom using the sound of dog food being sucked out of a can for the sound of the Terminator going through prison bars, we can trace the thinking in that exploration back to Mr. Brown’s sweeping influence on our art form.

I have always considered this to be a literary parallel to sound: When we metaphorically approach the sound we are envisioning. So thinking in the terms of metaphor and simile can be terrifically useful in creating an emotionally compelling aural experience.
 

3: “Should” is a dangerous word.
Wow, that’s an ambiguous statement – but it addresses the notion of “Formulaic outcome”, which can often simply be the process of attaching cliché to art.

“Should” is a pretty useful word usually. To really address this sub-topic, we need to ask of if we are working in “high” and “low” art – but we have a difficult condition where “art” isn’t demanded, or even desired, but “craft” is.

Not every project presents itself with the need for creative or abstract sound

Not every project presents itself with the need for creative or abstract sound. In those cases sometimes the dialog is so key that it doesn’t require more, or in other cases, music might be key to the drama.

One example that I think of in this case was the film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” which had a great score, which drove the emotional tenor of the film. The sound design was actually brilliant, but it was largely overshadowed by the amazing score.
 

4: Your director is the first most important person to want to please. There are others who can see that you are replaced at a whim though.

Our director is the one person who has a singular vision for all the parts that make up his experience. Usually though, he or she will not have absolute control over the end product.

Producers will also have a say in the matter, and will hopefully be communicating those ideas in advance to the Director and Editors involved ahead of us.

We are in the service business, and we serve our work like other businesses make food, or other goods.

Though in many ways, as “sound designers” we are in the same sort of boat as musicians trying to make a living with their work. There are many, many qualified people who do creative work as a simply matter of fact. Sometimes the work we do ends up getting recognition, which might elevate our visibility – and sometimes we do amazing work that is largely unrecognized.
 


Popular on A Sound Effect right now - article continues below:

 

Latest releases:  
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    MOVES will make a great addition to your sonic arsenal and help you achieve that personal character sound that you have in your head. MOVES does not replace a Veteran Foley artist, but will come in handy if you have a restricted budget or if you need a good sound to enhance the movements of your characters.

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    Two versions included:

    To speed up your workflow, the library comes with two versions of the same content, tailored for people working either in the Video Game or the Cinema industry:

    Video Game Workflow: For every variation, you will have a single wav file, making it ideal for people who like to have every sound already cut and ready to be used in their DAW or middleware. It consists of 772 sounds.
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    An exclusive collection to satisfy your sound design addiction.

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5: There are many ways to Mecca, and many are highly compelling.

A quote from General George S. Patton. Actually, he said this:

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

This is a concept which is sort of covered in the others, but it is important to iterate: If we are allowed to be creative, ideally we will not be micro-managed in doing so. Sometimes that’s not the case though – but we can hope for the best.
 

6: Should sound be really cool, or invisible as a component?

Another sort of multi-faceted comment: Will sound make a bad film or whatever be good? Will “bad” sound wreck an otherwise great film or media experience?

What is “good” sound?

Back when I was younger, the phrase “Turd polishing” was sort of popular. On a creative level, doing that is always unsatisfying, because bad stories are generally not going morph into good stories through elaborate adornments.

The obvious thing here though is that we are for-hire labor, so we really don’t always have much of a say as to the quality of our projects when not working is the alternative. So I suppose this should really give us an appreciation of our place in an imperfect world.

When we however look at “good” films, strangely, sound seems less important.

Try to find as much joy in the project as is possible, and to attach as much of yourself to its success as well

Sure, with films like “The Matrix”, “Saving Private Ryan” or “Jurassic Park” sound plays a huge role in the experience, but largely, the experience would be nearly as visceral silent. That is the mark of exquisite film making.

One tool I find very important though is to try to find as much joy in the project as is possible, and to attach as much of yourself to its success as well.

When it misfires at the starting line we may be disappointed, but we will have the satisfaction of knowing the best possible work we could have provided WAS provided.
 

7: Go out and sound explore. Hearing sound in the first person and actively listening is a very important experience.

There is not a lot to add here: Being involved in the real world is a great thing.
 

8: Verbalizing effects is often useful, and sometimes, those effects are actually what’s used in the end.

Perhaps not an obvious thing, but it’s terrifically useful. Especially if you can’t quite get the sound you are looking for via editorial. Many of the biggest names in sound design do this, and though we can sometimes be a little too self-critical, it usually is very useful to do.
 

9: ‘Sound Design, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing are all about Editorial. It is the process of purifying the sonic moment. And often means reducing things, not adding more.’ – Randy Thom

Randy is always very eloquent, and I would be reluctant to add much to his comment on this. I will say that it is difficult to be too critical with our own work though.
 

10: A second quote from General George S. Patton, and one I hold quite dearly: ‘Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.’

Again things that have been mentioned speak to this. But in the end, it speaks to education. We can learn tons by reading and listening to those who went before us. As Shakespeare said, “there are no new ideas under the sun”. We can take those previous approaches and mix them up to suit the needs of the project.

A bonus suggestion: Take everything you hear from your peers and colleagues with a pound of salt.
 

– Charles Maynes
Sound Designer, field recordist and hopeful activist.

 


 
A big thanks to Charles Maynes for his insights!

 

Please share this:


 


 
 
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    Sounds for you to use for sci fi lasers, thin sheets of ice and electricity popping sounds recorded with a contact microphone and a slinky.

    Inspired by thin ice sound recordings and huge pictures of power lines, I recorded a slinky with a contact microphone in order to get some sounds for some thin ice. I ended up with a lot of sci fi lasers and “star trek torpedos.” With some cool bouncing popping electricity stuff, take a listen and pick up a copy to throw in your library when creating sci fi stuff and/or some electricity being sent through power lines!!

    Here is a little demo. I think some cool sounds were captured. with the 96k recording you can pitch it quite harshly and get some fine stuff…..the last 2 laser “blasts” have been pitched for you to hear. the first one at 20% of the original speed and the last at 15%. Feel free to send me an email if you want to hear more.

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Explore the full, unique collection here

Latest sound effects libraries:
 
  • Foley MOVES Play Track 772+ sounds included $115 $89

    MOVES is a collection of character foley clothing and gear movements that cover a large range of characters such as Special Forces, Medieval Soldier, World War Soldier, Policeman, and High-tech Soldier among many others.

    MOVES will make a great addition to your sonic arsenal and help you achieve that personal character sound that you have in your head. MOVES does not replace a Veteran Foley artist, but will come in handy if you have a restricted budget or if you need a good sound to enhance the movements of your characters.

    You get several walks, runs and stop movements for every type of character.

    Two versions included:

    To speed up your workflow, the library comes with two versions of the same content, tailored for people working either in the Video Game or the Cinema industry:

    Video Game Workflow: For every variation, you will have a single wav file, making it ideal for people who like to have every sound already cut and ready to be used in their DAW or middleware. It consists of 772 sounds.
    Cinema Workflow You will find several variations of the sounds in single wav files here. It consists of 151 wav files sounds.

    And as mentioned, both versions are included, so you can pick whatever works best for your way of working.


    Features props and characters such as:

    Bullet-proof vest, medieval chain mail, dress, leather jacket, old robot, policeman, World War II soldier, Special Forces, Thin Android, Winter Jacket, medieval foot soldier, plastic character, rattle character, shield, sword, weapons, helmets, high tech soldier, winter jacket

    As always, all sounds are embedded with useful Soundminer metadata. I really hope you will find this collection inspiring and useful in your future projects.

    Have a great day designing your new characters with MOVES!

    Best wishes,
    Michel Marchant.

    23 %
    OFF
    Ends 1545174000
  • Motorcycles Helmet Wind Noise Play Track 21 sounds included, 97 mins total $35 $25

    This library gets you 97 minutes of binarual recordings of wind noise, captured inside the helmet as a motorcycle rides along the highway. The speed ranges from a slower pace all the way up to 100 – 130 km/h, and features both acceleration, variable and constant speeds, as well as occasional sounds of passing traffic as captured from inside the helmet. The helmet is a flip-up type of helmet, and the motorcycle is a Honda NC 700D.

    Recorder: Tascam dr100 mk/III, Microphone: DPA 4060 miniature omni

    29 %
    OFF
  • City Life Laos Play Track 153+ sounds included, 353 mins total $75 $60

    Jungles, walla, rivers, crickets, waterfalls, streets and rural villages all unique to Laos.

    All sounds were recorded using the Sound Devices Mix Pre 6 and a stereo pair of Sennheiser MKH 8020s.

    To read about my field recording trip to Laos and to download the free sample pack simply click here.

    20 %
    OFF
  • Human Ethereal Breaths Vol.1 Play Track 132 sounds included $14 $10

    Collection of Abstract and Ethereal Breaths. Recorded Binaurally with optimum results when played back through headphones.

    8 tracks containing 132 SFX in Total, varying levels of reverb reverse whooshes and abstract breathing patterns.

    All files in WAV format with embedded Metadata fully Soundminer compliant.

    29 %
    OFF
    Ends 1545174000
  • DANZA MACABRA is a collection of sound effects made out of real instruments recorded with Barcus Berry contact microphone.

    Unusual tones and timbres came out while bowing and scratching violin and cello or “playing” an upright piano with “string piano technique” using different metal objects.

    Danza Macabra comprises 45 loops at 140 bpm of designed clocks, tick loops, wooden old pendolo and time design elements. Designed glockenspiel and ride cymbals, morphed cinematic elements you will not find elsewhere.

    The sounds contained in Danza Macabra are great when treated with different amount of pitch-shifting to get never heard before sonic results.

    An exclusive collection to satisfy your sound design addiction.

    Features elements and sounds such as:

    • Accent
    • Cinematic elements
    • Clock loops
    • Cymbals
    • Designed glockenspiel
    • Getez – raw
    • Hybrid hits
    • Pianoverse
    • Screech reverse pass by
    • Textures
    • Tuning noises
 
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