We have just begun work on several new projects here at Boom Box Post, and it has jump-started a lot of conversations about how best to go about designing signature sounds. It’s one thing to chug along on a previously established television series (and not always an easy thing!), but it’s a different beast completely to be in charge of creating an entire new world from scratch. How do you manage your time? How do you commit to your choices? How do you know which sounds should be signature, and which should be filled in with your best stand-by library sounds? Here are my top five tips to help answer those dilemmas.
1. Design one element at a time.
When you’re faced with a completely blank canvas, it can be difficult to know where to begin. When working on an episode of an already-established television series, I like to work linearly. By that, I mean that I work from left to right in my timeline, finishing each moment completely before moving on. While under tight time-constraints, this is the best way for me to see that I am staying on track.
However, when working on the first episode of a new series, I have found that this is not the best tactic. A new series is an opportunity to create an entire sonic world from scratch and to make signature audio elements for each new scene. In order to properly hear those new sounds, I like to design element by element. This technique lets you extend your entire focus on the key design feature so you can truly hear it. Then, once I’m happy with the design, I like to cut it in throughout the episode, or at least throughout that scene, so that I can get a thorough feeling for how it works to convey the action, emotion, and style of the show.
2. Design in context.
This may sound like a contradiction to tip #1, but it’s not. You should design each element separately, but you should consider what else is happening while you do it. Will there be a lush orchestral score that will fill out the frequency range? Are you designing a hover board that will only be used inside a tornado? Are the characters having a conversation that is key to the plot on top of the jet engine, or is it flying in an action sequence without dialogue? All of these questions of context will help you to choose better elements when designing. Remember that it doesn’t just need to sound cool on its own; it needs to be something that will cut through in the mix.
3. Bigger isn’t always better.
Not everything needs to be the most badass element you’ve ever created. A great example of this came up when we were choosing car designs for an upcoming Disney show, Mickey and the Roadster Racers. In the show, Mickey and his friends all drive distinctive race cars that mirror their personalities. So, they all needed to have their own special flavor. Our first inclination was to make every single one as amazingly big and badass as possible (I mean, it’s a race car show!). But, the problem was that they all drive at the same time, often in close proximity of each other. So, instead of balancing the frequency spectrum on each car so they sounded full and meaty, we decided to give each their own distinctive quality (bumblebee buzzy, growly pipe rattles, diesel rumble, etc), as well as their own special space carved out of the frequency spectrum. This let them all play together without creating a wall of noise. And, it made them sound that much more distinct from one another when driving separately.
4. Make it signature.
When designing a new show, you need to be able to pick out which elements will be signature sounds. A signature sound is one that will be used again and again and that eventually the viewer will identify with the show. Think of the sound of the Cylon raiders in Battlestar Galactica, or the double-thump at the start of each Law & Order episode. Both of those could have been throw-away sounds, but instead a great designer made them something that stuck with us for years after viewing. These signature sounds have become triggers that help us remember how much we loved those shows every time we hear them.
Any element that will will come up again and again--such as a main-character’s custom car, a sci-fi weapon that will be used over and over, or the backgrounds for an alien world we visit time and time again--should be given extra love. These elements should not just sound cool, but they need to embody the style of the show. Ask yourself, what personality should this item have? What is it made from (technology, organic matter, energy, junky plastic, etc)? Should it make the audience laugh? Should it make them cringe? And finally, how can you design this element so that it will always cut through the mix? If it’s signature, it needs to be heard. Take the answers to these questions and then go to work with your design tools. Those could be new libraries that you purchase online, your field recording kit, synth iPad apps, or even just a sine wave and your favorite plugin. Whatever you do, don’t just put an old library sound on it. Make something new and so obviously different that the audience will be forced to think of this show whenever they hear it, because they’ve never heard anything like it before!
5. Review your designs with fresh ears.
When creating new sounds for an all new show, it can be easy to stumble down the rabbit hole of self-doubt--especially after designing for 10 hour straight. I strongly suggest doing the bulk of your designing first thing in the morning, then spending the rest of your day committed to those sounds and cutting them in. You can easily second-guess yourself on the volume of every single element or continue to scour your library for better options all day. But, then you won’t really be getting anything done. Instead, by mid-afternoon, accept your choices and don’t make any more changes. Then, come in with fresh ears the next morning, and make your tweaks then. More often than not, you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised by how good it all sounds overall. For those moments that aren't perfect, you’ll be able to better hone in on the things that need to be changed with laser focus and great decision making power.