Although the term “sound design” has been around for nearly four decades--and the practice has been pursued for much longer--its use has only recently become nearly ubiquitous. A day cannot go by that I do not see #sounddesign appended onto the end of a multitude of tweets from around the world. We now have the invaluable website DesigningSound.org which distributes information about our community’s adventures, musings, and technical inquiries. And our own Boom Box Post blog often touts titles such as Creature Speech Sound Design Challenge or Smoke and Mirrors: Unexpected Sound Design Sources.
Why this sudden renaissance of the term “sound design”? This week, I decided to take a closer look at the history of the term, the differences in how it is used across the film and television, interactive and immersive media, and theater industries, and its use and abuse.
Sound Design: A History
The term “sound designer” was used for the first time in film in 1979. Francis Ford Coppola granted Walter Murch the title of Sound Designer for his work on Apocalypse Now, marking the first use of the term as a credit in film. Until that point in time, the usual credit, Supervising Sound Editor or Sound Editor, was generally accepted as a purely technical role on a film crew. Coppola felt that this new title encompassed his feeling that Murch had been a key creative team member who added to the artistry and overall creative intention of the film. It was also to be understood that Murch oversaw the overall sound concept of the film, including dialogue, sound effects, foley, and the final mix, just as a supervising sound editor would normally do.
Walter Murch’s creative storytelling through sound and his integration into the Apocalypse Now team as early as pre-production surely earned him this extra accolade. I would love to wax poetic about the sound of Apocalypse Now, but that certainly deserves its very own blog post. Instead, please read this interview with Murch himself regarding the sound of the film, or watch these two videos on the sound process, which I found on YouTube:
Surely, the sound design on Apocalypse Now was of the highest quality and extremely innovative for its time. However, it is important to note that this was not the first time that an inventive sound editor played a critical role in a film’s sound. Instead, this was the first time that the title Sound Designer was used to describe that work, thereby expressing the beginning of a shift in the industry’s attitude toward sound editorial. The same job would have previously been listed as Supervising Sound Editor or Re-Recording Mixer. Case in point: we can all agree that Ben Burtt’s work in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, released in 1977, was sound design. Afterall, he designed the sound of the lightsaber! Yet, he was originally credited with Special Dialogue and Sound Effects. In the 1997 and 2004 re-released editions, his credit was changed to Sound Designer.
Sound Design Across Industries
One of the aspects that makes the the title Sound Designer so interesting is that it is not controlled by any labor unions or industry organizations except in the arena of theater. So, unlike many other roles which have been established and then held to the same set of standards over the years, the idea of what makes someone a sound designer is free to evolve. Thus, every industry has taken this idea and slowly crafted a meaning that fits its own needs, resulting in a varied and sometimes confusing use of the term.
Film & Television
In the television and film industry, the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild, MPEG (local IATSE chapter 700) controls the titles which are used within union sound houses. Each particular role on a sound team is segmented into specific job titles such as supervising sound editor (the person who oversees all other members of the team and advances an overall creative concept for the project’s sound), dialogue editor, sound effects editor, foley editor, foley mixer, foley walker, recordist, etc. Ordinarily, a person's film/TV credit will match his or her job title on a project. However, there are several reasons why the title Sound Designer may be used in credits in lieu of these standard union titles.
One reason may be the traditional use of the term as it was established by Coppola and Murch: the individual has overseen all sound team members and has had an active creative role in concepts which contributed to the storytelling of the film. In this way, someone is given special commendation by the use of the title Sound Designer rather than Supervising Sound Editor. In essence, they mean the same thing in terms of responsibility. But, Sound Designer has a connotation of creative respect. Another reason would be that the individual played multiple roles in the project (such as supervising sound editor and mixer), and as the term sound designer is outside the purview of the union, this can a convenient way to credit such a person. Keep in mind that in any large studio or union house, an individual may be credited as Sound Designer, but his or her official job title will be one of the union-specified roles. Thus, sound designer is a colloquial term of respect and reverence toward the creative aspect of the work, but it is not an actual job.
In interactive and immersive media (video games, VR, etc.), the title of Sound Designer is often used as a catch-all title for each member on the sound team. In general, there will be a bevy of sound designers on each project, who are lead by the Audio Lead. This person, in turn, is supervised by the Audio Director who works closely with the game design department. On large projects, sound designers may be specialized in different areas such as technical sound designers who work closely with programmers, or integrators who specialize in fitting sound into the pipeline of the game. They may also specialize in foley, dialogue, or sound effects. However, on small projects, a sound designer may be required to cover all sound jobs as well as understand its technical integration into the media. This use of the term as a broad descriptor of all sound personnel differs greatly from the use in television and film.
Theater sound design is a very different animal, indeed, and for that reason, I have left its history to this section. Sound design for theater refers to the choice of music and sounds for a stage production, and the subsequent choice, setup, and use of live audio technology to play those sounds during a performance. This implies an intimate familiarity with the work, and a close alliance with the director and possibly playwright to create an overall soundscape that enhances the work.
The first use of the term Sound Designer was in the 1968-1969 theatrical season of the American Conservatory Theater, and was bestowed upon Dan Dugan who worked three stereo tape decks routed to ten loudspeakers. As technology has advanced over the years and directors have become more accustomed to lush sound design in film and television, this role has become increasingly complex, and in many ways is linked to the role of Sound Artist within the fine arts community.
This is the one industry which regulates the use of the title Sound Designer. The Association of Sound Designers is a trade organization in the UK which represents theatrical sound designers. United Scenic Artists (Local USA829), part of IATSE, represents theatrical sound designers in the United States. And the Associated Designers of Canada represents English-speaking sound designers in Canada.
What Sound Design Is and Is Not
As you can see, there is a large discrepancy between uses of the term sound designer. This has enforced an even larger gap in the use of the more general term for the activity: sound design. If we each have a differing idea of what makes someone a sound designer, surely the act of engaging in sound design becomes even more oblique.
To give an example of how this vagueness affects our community, I would like to tell you about our first class of Boom Box Post interns.
We had two interns with very different backgrounds in audio. Upon their completion of our program, we individually gave them each an exit interview to help us get a better idea of how to improve our program in the future. One of the questions was, “What skill or task do you wish you had the opportunity to see during your internship?” Much to our surprise, both of them replied, “Sound design.”
We were momentarily baffled, since our company provides sound design for animated television series. Every day, all day, all of our team members are actively working to design, edit, record, and mix sounds to enhance the storytelling of an episode. So, we took a step back and asked a few follow-up questions:
“What do you mean by sound design, specifically?”
Both answered, “I don’t know.”
I got more specific, “Do you mean that you wish you got to see more recording of custom sounds? More creation of new sounds using a sine wave and synthesis? More use of plugins to mangle sounds?”
Both answered again, “No….. I don’t know. I just thought I would see some sound design.”
Clearly Jeff and I, and our community as a whole, including their college degrees, had failed these interns. We had failed them not by excluding sound design from our interns' experiences, but by failing to make it clear exactly what was entailed in sound design. They were seeing it every day and didn’t even realize it. Since then, we have revamped our program to include a straight-forward curriculum and clear definitions of what each role on our team entails, including sound design.
So to be utterly clear, this is the definition of sound design via Wikipedia:
“Sound design is the process of specifying, acquiring, manipulating or generating audio elements. It is employed in a variety of disciplines including filmmaking, television production, theatre, sound recording and reproduction, live performance, sound art, post-production, radio and video game development. Sound design most commonly involves the manipulation of previously composed or recorded audio, such as sound effects and dialogue.“
My best guess from this experience with our interns, and from the multitude of interviewees who profess to us that their ideal job is “sound designer who makes cool sounds,” is that much of our up-and-coming talent has formed their idea of sound design from Blu-Ray special features and YouTube videos of Ben Burtt describing his inventive creation of sounds for big-budget movies. So, let me be clear: a job does not exist where you get to sit around and muse about the possible ways to make odd sounds from scratch, simply waiting to be struck by inspiration, at which point you are given unlimited time and money to concoct extravagant contraptions to record and/or process. All of those really fun, really creative activities certainly do occur. They happen every day here at Boom Box Post. But they occur within the confines and time-constraints of what is often a high-pressure, time-sensitive, technical job.
I certainly recognize that our own Boom Box Post blog often offers detailed descriptions of our adventures in sound design, and we too tweet incessantly about our creative escapades. But, it is important to understand that these activities are so often written, tweeted, and vlogged about because they are the most fascinating part of our job, not because they are the only part.
So, go on, enjoy the latest SoundWorks video about the sound design for an upcoming blockbuster film, and keep adding #sounddesign to your tweets describing your sonic experiments just like we do! But remember that even Water Murch , the first ever great sound designer, also did a little editorial.