Written by Barney Oram
Rule of Thirds is a technique I’ve been developing to foster creative re-iteration in my sound design work. It’s hardly a new approach, per se, but I’ve formalised it as a process and implemented it into my own workflow with great results. The phrase ‘Rule of Thirds’ is taken directly from photography, a technique by which the photographer uses a grid when framing photos to create a cohesive and pleasing image. I’m really just stealing the name – my approach doesn’t particularly bear resemblance to the photographic technique. The division of thirds is also fairly arbitrary for my approach, as I’ll go on to explain, but I found it to be a number I was most comfortable with.
As a sound designer, possibly the most important thing to learn is taste – a taste for what ‘works’
As a sound designer, I think possibly the most important thing to learn is taste – a taste for what ‘works’. The ability to understand aesthetic (be it defined by visuals, by direction, or by yourself) and practically apply that understanding in a proficient way is, in my opinion, what produces cohesive and impressive sound design. Some sound designers are inherently good at this – many are still figuring it out. I personally feel like I am still grappling with this concept, and I developed the Rule of Thirds approach out of the need to practice aesthetic understanding and aesthetic exploration in an easy way.
When initially approaching a sound design task, it can often be difficult, if not impossible, to design the perfect sound on the first try. With practice, it can become easier to get closer to initial perfection. Personally, I will almost never use the first sound I make. I have previously fallen into the trap of being content with the first sound I design, but I have slowly realised that I can miss potential to make the sound even cooler, by settling on my initial attempt, and not exploring everything a sound has to ‘offer’. As such, I needed a technique by which I was able to factor quick re-iteration into my workflow on the first attempt at creating a sound.
So, the Rule of Thirds approach is simply this; three steps of iteration for each sound you design.
Let’s unpack that with a conceptual example – this technique will work with any sound you need to create; say a rockfall, a reload, a magic attack, an explosion – even an ambience – anything.
Let’s use a magic attack, for a fantasy game or film, as our subject. Perhaps you may have an animation, or visuals, to design to – or maybe you are designing blind. Either way, you’ll jump into your DAW, and begin to craft a sound. Maybe you could pull in some organic elements, rocks, whooshes, synth textures, and squash them together to create your first attempt. It isn’t bad – it hits the timings you need it to, it communicates the ‘magic’ aesthetic, and performs as a functional sound. You know it can be better, but you don’t know how to make it better.
Choose a stimulus to work from and iterate with that in mind
This is where we can use the Rule of Thirds – you’ve already done a third of the technique – the first iteration. Now, you will re-design the sound, two more times, with a brand new approach each time. I recommend you choose a stimulus to work from – I usually use a word – and iterate with that in mind. Think of it as a trick to stimulate inspiration.
Take a concept like wide. You’re going to re-work or re-design your magic attack with wide in mind. Instantly, that provokes ideas – you could make more use of panning; you could use chorus effects to add to the width; you could add some subtle movement in the sound by automating an element to pan across the stereo field; you could avoid occupying the central channel for your core elements altogether; or you could duplicate your entire sound, pan hard left and right, and offset the timings by half a second to create a huge, wide sound.
It doesn’t have to be wide – it could be short, long, small, muffled, backward, thin, red, blue, obtuse, organic, quirky, comical, chunky, gritty, smooth, rocky, hot, cold, dense, wet, tonal, hollow, flexible, ornate… anything. Take a descriptive word, be it something related to your target aesthetic – or not – and re-work or re-design with it in mind.
Instantly, your sound has gone in a new direction, and you’ve explored a new aesthetic that you almost certainly wouldn’t have entertained had you approached the sound from a surface level analysis
That’s your second iteration, and second step of the Rule of Thirds technique, done. Let’s move onto the third. This time, let’s take a conceptual aesthetic to work with, rather than a descriptive term; steampunk, for example. Initially, there’s a lot of directions that this could be taken, especially considering steampunk and magic are generally not close neighbours, aesthetically. Perhaps you could use some more clicky, mechanical elements in your magic attack sound; you could use Foley elements like leather, or clinking gear, to punctuate your sound; or you could decorate your sound with subtle air or steam release sounds. You could even just use distortion to make the sound a bit more aggressive, a bit gritter.
Instantly, your sound has gone in a new direction, and you’ve explored a new aesthetic that you almost certainly wouldn’t have entertained had you approached the sound from a surface level analysis. If you do it subtly, and cohesively, it won’t seem unusual to the end user – they’ll just hear a cohesive sound and accept it as part of the product’s aesthetic direction. Only you will know that, in order to get to that final interesting sound, you had to follow a slightly unorthodox approach. And again, it doesn’t have to be steampunk. It could be any aesthetic, any genre, that you weave into your sound.
Popular on A Sound Effect right now - article continues below:
Huge Holiday Sound Effects Sale +
Get 300 free sound effects & access to 10.000+ premium SFX here
Here’s a practical example, with some sounds I’ve designed. I decided to make the sound of a big metal machine – perhaps some kind of hydraulic press in a factory, or maybe even a huge robot’s footsteps. It’s perhaps not the best sound I’ve ever designed, but it communicates the idea – and also could represent an attempted first-pass at a sound design task. I began by making a big, chunky sound – lots of metal elements, some punchy transients, some nice mechanical movements and some servos – arranged them into a rhythmic pattern, and created a couple of extra variations by subtly shifting clip timings. I tried to keep the elements relatively raw, minimal processing was used and I mainly capitalised on some great source. You can hear the resulting sound below.
Next, I copied my first sound, and chose a stimulus to re-design it with. I decided to make it tight. So I worked with the original layers, stripping back the overlapping aspects, tightening up my fades, layering in some new elements for more of a rhythmic flow to the sound. I also accentuated the transients a lot more, making them shorter and adding some elements to the initial transient to make it more sharp and harsh. I also shortened the servo sounds, and used pitch to make them feel quicker, smaller and more accurate. I think the resulting design is much tighter than the original – and whilst maintaining some elements, has taken on a new life of its own. You can hear the resulting sound below.
Lastly, I decided to pick a conceptual aesthetic to work with. I chose an aesthetic close to my heart – Sci-Fi. Again, I copied my original sound, and took it in a completely different direction. My approach to Sci-Fi sound design currently rests upon modulation, and I used a few of my favourite plugins to warp and bend the elements. I decided to flatten my transients and make it more of a flowing, washy sound, whilst maintaining the rhythm of the original. The result is a spluttering, rubbery Sci-Fi style sound, which would be great to describe an alien or future energy. You can hear the sound below.
For me, approaching my sound design in this way has proven to be very helpful. I usually find that creating a sound three times, twice from different mindsets and aesthetic approaches, can yield great results. I think it’s about forcing my brain to consider a sound in a different context, and typically that context can stimulate enough ideas for me to make a sound much more interesting. As I said, three is arbitrary – you could, and should, re-iterate on a sound as many times as you need (or as you have time to) til it’s as close to perfect as it can be.
I hope this is an interesting look at my approach, and I hope it is useful. I’d love to hear how you’ve used it in your own work.
Barney Oram is a video game sound designer, currently working for Cloud Imperium Games on Star Citizen. He’s passionate about designing sounds, and creating audio experiences that are visceral and exciting. Barney is an active member of the game audio scene in the UK and online, and is a co-host of the Soundbytes Podcast, a monthly podcast focused on games and audio. He can be found on Twitter, and on his personal website.
Please share this:
License agreement for users of Sound Examples downloaded through A SOUND EFFECT (www.asoundeffect.com) (as “Distributor”).
This end user license agreement (the “Agreement”) is entered into between you, a single user natural person (the “Licensee”), who has downloaded one or more Sound Examples through the Distributor, and the creator or creators of these Sound Examples (the “Licensor”). For multi-user licenses, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Agreement covers one or more Sound Examples downloaded by the Licensee via the Distributor.
The Licensor is the creator or creators of the Sound Examples, stated as such in the downloaded file(s) (“File”) the Licensee receives after registering with a valid email address and name.
By downloading, the Licensee accepts this EULA and agrees to be bound by the terms and conditions set out in this EULA and the EULA’s with similar terms for each Licensor in the File. Any files or material included in the File not specifically mentioned in each Licensor’s EULA is covered by the terms below. By downloading the Sound Examples, you'll also receive the A Sound Effect newsletter from time to time. You can unsubscribe from this anytime.
1. Grant of License
In consideration for the download of the Sound Examples via the Distributor, the Licensor grants the Licensee a worldwide, non-exclusive, perpetual, royalty free license to use the Sound Examples (“Sounds”) on the terms and conditions set out in this Agreement.
2. Rights Granted
The license granted in this agreement allows the Licensee to:
a. install and use the Sound Examples on one workstation at a time, although the Licensee is permitted to make and keep backup copies of the Sound Examples on other storage devices, and
b. distribute and publicly perform reproductions of the Sounds, where these are incorporated in and synchronized with other media productions, which shall mean products that contains at least one additional media element to the Sounds (music, voice, image, etc.), including but not limited to radio and television broadcasts, film, music compositions, web sites, podcasts, mobile apps, advertising, multi-media presentations, video games and similar.
The Licensee is not permitted to distribute or perform reproductions of the Sounds where these are not incorporated in and synchronized with other media productions, including but not limited to in toys, product design, greeting cards, ringtones, applications such as soundboards, hardware devices, media authoring tools etc.
To the furthest extension permitted by law, the Licensee is prohibited from adapting, modifying or repackaging any Sounds, except as permitted in Clause 2.
4. Intellectual property rights
All rights to the Sound Examples are owned by the Licensor and other than the license rights granted in this Agreement all rights in the Sounds and Sound Effect Libraries remain the property of the Licensor. The Licensee must not claim ownership or authorship of the Sounds or the Sound Examples.
The Licensee’s right to use the Sound Examples will automatically terminate in the event of any breach by the Licensee of the terms of this Agreement. In the event of termination, the Licensee shall delete or destroy all copies of the Sound Examples which the Licensee has produced.
The Licensee shall indemnify Licensor and Distributor from, and against any and all claims, demands, suits, awards, damages, suits, injuries, liabilities and all reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees incurred by the Licensor and the Distributor with respect to any matter that arises as a result of the Licensee’s breach of this Agreement.
Licensor and/or Distributor shall not be liable for any damages or for any loss of business or business profits, business interruption, or any other direct or indirect loss resulting directly or indirectly from the use of any of Licensor’s Sounds.
To the furthest extension permitted by law, the Licensee must not assign, license, sublicense, sell or otherwise assign the Sounds to any third party, except as set out in Clause 2.B.
9. Applicable Law
This Agreement is governed by the law of Denmark without giving effect to the Uniform Law on the International Sale of Goods and the Uniform Law on the Formation of Contracts for the International Sale of Goods.