Ready to branch out into other fields of sound but aren't quite sure how?
To make it easier for you, we're really excited to kick off our all-new Sound Success series, exploring the many different types of audio-related work, what it takes, and where to find it.
We've got lots of interviews in store for you to give you the big picture - and in these first 3 interviews, you'll hear about film sound design from Nia Hansen, documentary sound design from Peter Albrechtsen, and trailer sound design from Karél Psota:
By Jennifer Walden and Asbjoern Andersen, with Nia Hansen, Peter Albrechtsen, and Karél Psota
• How to succeed in UI/UX Sound Design, ADR Recording, & Audio Programming – with Henry Daw, Emma Butt & Adam Croft
• How to succeed in Sound Editing, Sound for Advertising, and Production Sound – with Lucy J Mitchell, Chris Pinkerton and Irin Strauss:
• How to succeed in sound design for Games, Animation, and Television – with Anne-Sophie Mongeau, Jeff Shiffman, Kate Finan, & Peter D. Lago
• How to succeed in Audio Branding, Music Editing, and sound for VR – with Steve Keller, Steven Saltzman, Helena McGill & Anna Woźniewicz
Sound Design: Film – insights from Nia Hansen:
• What working in sound design for film entails:
The sound designer’s main roles are to create new sounds for the film and to guide the editorial process to support the client’s vision and storytelling. This involves recording new source materials, designing unique sounds (from recordings, library materials, layering, and plug-ins), and cutting sound effects in the areas of the film that need design attention. The designer may also — through guiding the sound effects editors and Foley team — ensure that the sound is supporting the story, hitting the right emotions, and forming a coherent tone or palette. They may also meet with clients (sometimes composer as well) for spotting and review sessions to make sure the design is fulfilling the clients’ vision and aiding the storytelling.
While sound design often shines in the creation of sounds for nonexistent events —mythic creatures, aliens, technology, magic and superpowers — it’s equally important in subtler contexts where sonic symbolism, subtext, and emotion plays a huge story role. Design can come into play in the choice of ambiences, the styling of a door creak, or the placement of a sonic motif. While much of this comes simply through good sound editing, the designer can take a big picture perspective on the message of the film and guide the rest of the team to achieve it.
• What it takes in terms of skills and gear:
The sound designer needs strong editorial skills and proficiency with a DAW (Pro Tools is the film industry standard). Software plug-ins are very useful, but designers vary in how much processing they like to do. Plug-ins aren’t necessary to get started, but will definitely be needed somewhere down the line!
Sound recording ability and equipment is a huge plus — at the very least a recorder and good microphone.
Mixing is a very useful skill, whether in Pro Tools or on a console. The sound designer is often responsible for delivering design ideas or entire scenes for review before the film has been mixed, so an ability to present nicely balanced material is a plus.
• How to learn it:
There are some audio post-production technical schools that have courses in film sound or sound design, but the very best way to learn is to find an internship or apprenticeship with an established sound designer and start learning from their process while experimenting and practicing on one’s own.
The very best way to learn is to find an internship or apprenticeship with an established sound designer and start learning from their process while experimenting and practicing on one’s own.
Sound recording and mastering is often a large part of this entry-level position, and will hone one’s ear to quality as well as technique and use of plug-ins.
Sound effects editing is the next stepping stone to a sound designer position. In addition to improving Pro Tools skills and teamwork, it will teach taste, style, organization, and story awareness.
• How to find work:
Jobs in film sound design are project-based and generally come through an existing relationship with sound supervisors and/or filmmakers and studios. At a post production facility, the management may be seeking out films and matching them with a designer.
• Essential advice for working and making it in sound design for film:
The industry is driven heavily by reputation and many jobs will come from someone recommending you to someone else. It’s important to not only put in your best effort and continue improving your craft, but to also be easy to get along with and a fun asset to your crew. Network whenever you can; always be open to learning; ask questions —especially if you’re unsure about something! And keep an eye out for opportunities.
More practically, I think the best way to start tuning your ear and improving your skills is to get a recorder and microphone and begin collecting sounds, listening to the world creatively, and mastering and manipulating what you gather. If you can’t find opportunities to cut and design sound, find a video online and redo the sound for practice. Volunteering on student films or indie projects can be another way to network and build experience if apprenticeships seem elusive.
• Further reading and resources:
It’s well worth exploring sites like this one (A Sound Effect) that feature interviews with sound designers in film, TV, and video games, as well as blogs that focus on field recording. Some examples include: Soundworks Collection, InDepth Sound Design, Designing Sound, and the Tonebenders podcast.
Listening to and analyzing films with great sound is hugely beneficial. If unsure where to start, check out the MPSE Golden Reel Award nominees of current and previous years.
About Nia Hansen:
Nia has been at Skywalker Sound since 2009, first interning with Director of Sound Design Randy Thom and then apprenticing with Gary Rydstrom on several films that cemented her understanding of sound design as a storytelling element. Nia has worked on Disney and Pixar animations, as well as VFX-heavy sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters including seven films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She enjoys the creative challenge of designing unique technological and otherworldly sounds.
Sound Design: Documentaries – insights from Peter Albrechtsen:
• What working in sound design for documentaries entails:
When you’re the sound designer on a documentary I think you’re in many ways the ears of the director. You’re creating the sonic world of the film and making sure that the sound of the film is supporting the story, supporting the characters, telling the story in the best possible way, no matter if it’s a very realistic, journalistic documentary or a much more abstract, subjective doc. Sound is incredibly important no matter what.
To me, it’s mandatory to be part of the process very early so that the sound can be an integral part of the film and the storytelling. Being part of the process early also means that you have time to do research and record sounds for the film. In this way, you can also make sure that the sound is recorded properly during the shoot. It’s very rare that the sound designer is an actual part of the shoot, but it’s great to be in touch with the director during that process to make sure that the material is recorded as good as possible. ADR isn’t something you usually do on a doc — one of the few things that is actually different to working on fiction films — so getting good recordings from the shoot is invaluable.
• What it takes in terms of skills and gear:
I want to highlight the small handy recorders on the market which are quite cheap and which make wonderful recordings. Those have been a revolution in the documentary world because you can suddenly get good sound in a very affordable way.
In the film post-production world, ProTools is pretty much the thing everybody is using. It’s quite amazing that I can do the sound editing for a film in my studio in Copenhagen and then travel half way around the world and just attach a hard drive to a computer and then I’m instantly up and running and ready to mix. That flexibility is just awesome.
On top of that, I want to highlight the small handy recorders on the market which are quite cheap and which make wonderful recordings. Those have been a revolution in the documentary world because you can suddenly get good sound in a very affordable way.
But of course, the most important gear is your ears. Take care of those. Remember to listen. Always. Listen to the world, listen to the film, listen to your collaborators. The better a listener you are, the better a sound designer you will be.
• How to learn it:
You learn all the time. I’ve been doing sound for movies for 20 years and I still learn all the time. But for getting some basic skills it’s about just playing around — work on some small films, do some jobs as an assistant, become an intern, go to film school, record sounds, and listen again and again to all your favorite films. There’s so many ways of learning this. And the great thing about sound is that you can keep on finding new sounds, finding new way of telling stories with sound. It’s an adventure!
• How to find work:
There’s not an easy answer to this question. A lot of TV stations do documentaries and you can get some nice basic skills by working there. But otherwise, I would recommend getting hold of some upcoming filmmakers and get connected that way. Filmmaking is about collaboration and finding some great collaborators is key to getting to do interesting work. Several of the directors I work with now I’ve worked with for many, many years — we started out doing no budget movies and now we’re doing Dolby Atmos projects. But we still have a lot of fun. Never forget to have fun.
• Essential advice for working and making it in sound design for documentaries:
Find your own voice and personality. What do you like? Which movies do you like? Which stories would you like to tell? What sounds do you love? I think it’s important to stay true to yourself.
You get to work with lots of amazing people and tell a lot of inspiring and maybe even important stories.
You should only do this if you really like it. Working in film sound means lots of long hours of hard work, tough deadlines and crazy, unpredictable schedules. But it’s also a lot of fun. You’re constantly inspired in new ways by new projects. You get to work with lots of amazing people and tell a lot of inspiring and maybe even important stories. As a wise man once said, “This sure beats having a real job.”
• Further reading and resources:
There’s not that much written about that subject, I’m afraid. Most of the writings are focused on sound in fiction films. Google will bring you some nice articles, though. I wish someone would write a really great book on sound for documentaries.
About Peter Albrechtsen:
Peter is a sound designer, mixer, and music supervisor working on both feature films and documentaries. Recent credits include festival favorites Generation Wealth, The Distant Barking of Dogs, Blind Spot, Godless and sound effects recording for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. He’s also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. When not in the studio, Peter is writing about music and movies and lecturing about sound design around the world, most recently at Sheffield Doc/Fest and at the Berlinale Talents in Beirut.
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Trailer Sound Design – insights from Karél Psota:
• What working in trailer sound design entails:
In my experience, we mostly design abstract sounds to help editors and composers. Think about Whooshes, Whoosh-Hits, Booms, Pings, and Power Downs. They all have to: emphasize transitions and impacts, enhance production value, wow the audience, and create a memorable signature for the campaign.
I rarely see the picture or talk with the editors. Trailer music supervisors request custom samples packs, and months later I get a quote request for the few samples that made it through all the focus groups.
On the other hand, some trailer sound design companies focus on “audio finishing.” They mix the whole trailer and design some of the sounds in-house. The pressure is really high since the director and the “suits” are all there. That’s not the case for me.
• What it takes in terms of skills and gear:
Skill-wise, you will need a sharp ear. Being able to spot a problem really fast is valuable for mixing. I do a lot of exercises. They are very frustrating and would drive most people insane. A lot of EQ matching, and chord and melody dictations. I also remake famous songs. Anything cool I hear, I’ll sit down and remake it.
The more I advance, the more I realize how little gear is needed. Cultivating taste and seeing the big picture is the key
There’s maybe a 20% success rate, but the sheer fact of focusing on layers, compression, reverbs, etc… it keeps my ears in shape.
Gear-wise, the setup is pretty standard — if not sub-standard compared to my peers:
• Recording: Zoom H5.
• Raw Processing: Reaper, iZotope RX, SoundMiner V4.5 Pro.
• Production, Mixing, Mastering: Ableton Live 9, xFer Serum, Waves Sound Design Suite.
• Monitoring: Apollo Twin, ADAM A7X, Auratone, Audeze LCD-X.
The more I advance, the more I realize how little gear is needed. Cultivating taste and seeing the big picture is the key.
• How to learn it:
As I say to my students: “remakes, remakes, remakes.” You’ve got do your homework first. Study the greats and bridge the gap between your ideas and your speakers. After that, you’re welcome to experiment and do weird unique stuff.
Study the greats and bridge the gap between your ideas and your speakers. After that, you’re welcome to experiment and do weird unique stuff.
For the existing music producers and sound designers that are looking to transition into that field, I made a course with Evenant. It goes from recording to mixing to licensing your own sounds for trailers. It’s over 4 hours of video where I break down my most licensed sounds. I also improvise sounds from scratch so you get to see my thought process and mistakes. There are a lot of secret tricks and mix tips. Note that the entry level is higher than most courses — a basic knowledge of your DAW, EQ, and compression are required.
• How to find work:
Well, there are many options, but I’ll share the two methods that worked for me:
• Public Release – selling your own trailer sounds to the general market through a website. It can be your own or a third-party. Third-parties obviously take a cut, but they reach more people.
On AVA – INSTINCT, I teamed up with a childhood friend. He did all the web design, ads, visuals, and marketing. I did all the sounds, demos, Kontakt scripting, and UI design. It was a great combo!
• Industry Release – licensing your sounds privately to studios that are working on trailers. You can do that on your own (company required), or use a publisher (no company required). Publishers usually take 50% but have a larger reach.
I created a company 4 years ago. It allowed me to deal directly with Sony, Universal, Warner Bros, Disney, Paramount, and others. When an editor uses my sounds in a trailer cut, the studio then has to license the sound from me. I get to negotiate the price, so the sky is the limit.
I also have some sounds with trailer publishers. They allow me to tap into markets that I know nothing about, like TV show licensing for example.
By the way, both methods are equally lucrative, “Public” being more stable, “Industry” being more like a roller-coaster with 6 months delays.
• Essential advice for working and making it in trailer sound design:
I think it all starts by being very curious and having a taste for high production value.
The following tips really helped me get my s*** together:
1) Understanding function. Why was that sound used there? Did they change anything around it to make it pop out? Does it serve multiple purposes (creating sonic depth, emphasizing a title card, ending a musical passage, contrasting with the previous narrow stereo field, etc…)
2) Be organized! Learn how to name files properly and consistently. Batch edit samples to save time. Select only the best samples so you don’t waste your time browsing later on.
3) Tunnel vision is the enemy. Work fast and efficiently. If you’re spending more than 5 min on a sound, you’re probably doing it wrong. Save multiple versions. V02 might be better than V17. Take frequent breaks. Listen to multiple references. Try to maintain a flow state.
4) Provide value to your friends and clients. Don’t write a novel in your emails. Don’t waste their time by sending un-mixed samples. Surprise them with free material from time to time. Make it look sexy — visuals matter. A bit of artwork goes a long way!
5) Have high standards. Compare your work to the best sounding trailers. Even if you’re only 60% there, that’s probably better than if you hadn’t compared it at all.
6) Be useful first, original second. Remember that you are providing tools to enhance the narrative. Try to think about what storytellers need. It doesn’t always have to be an incredibly unique sound like the SW II Asteroid Bomb. 99% of the sounds you hear are generic.
7) Less is more. “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s also easier to mix for you… and for the dubbing mixer.
8) Don’t narrow your field of study. Film, orchestration, physics, acoustics, dubstep, psychology, psycho-acoustics, even Photoshop concepts can be directly applied to trailer sound design.
9) The answers are often in front of you. Synth presets can teach you so much if you take the time to reverse engineer them. You can also hear each layer in a hit with a bit of ear training. Not sure which limiter is the most transparent? Download demos and try them all… or maybe play around with the release knob you never touched. You would be surprised how little people do all that.
10) Give Back. You can charge a fortune to corporations… and help out kids for free. You’re not devaluing yourself. Also, what’s a better business card than an excellent free sound design pack with your name on it?
• Further reading and resources:
It’s a rather hidden industry. There’s almost no resources on trailer sound design. Since trailers are ads, nobody gets to see our credits. We also don’t get a Blu-ray featurette on how an elephant was recorded to make a spaceship reactor.
However, I’ve been seeing more and more interest. Maybe people are finally noticing the sounds… or how lucrative it can be?
These few articles were quite influential in my process:
• Mick Gordon – DOOM Behind The Music (GDC Talk)
16 pedals side-chained to each other, guitars morphed with chainsaws… you get the idea.
• Charles Deenen – 100 Whooshes in 2 minutes
The mastermind behind Source Sound Inc (Battlefront II Trailers). Very advanced article that gave birth to the Melted Sound – Whoosh Engine.
• Boom Library – Tutorials
One of the top trailer sound design companies. Very nice tutorials where you get to see what they layer, what reverb they use and how they master. I remember learning about the Altiverb – Vigeland preset from them.
I also made a few videos on my YouTube channel, but if you want to dive in completely, the Evenant course is the sum of my knowledge. Although I show everything I used and offer the stems, I also made it fun and inspiring so you can do your own thing… and maybe stop using my racks haha (I see you, students!!!).
Check out my Free Fireworks Pack. I processed it to sound like massive trailer hits. I also left the raw so you can practice yourself!
About Karél Psota:
Karél is a sound designer, composer, and mixer. His music was used in the theatrical trailers for DC Shazam, LEGO 2 and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. His sounds were used in Avengers: Infinity War, Justice League, Spider-Man Homecoming, and more. He also produced the AVA – INSTINCT Trailer Sound Effects Library.
A big thanks to Nia Hansen, Peter Albrechtsen, and Karél Psota for sharing their valuable insights!
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• How to succeed in sound design for Film, Documentaries, and Trailers
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