How to Be a… Sound Designer
Written by Emily Jansen | Posted by: Anonymous
Picture yourself sitting in a movie theater with the lights dimmed low. The scene filling the movie screen is that of a crowded New England beach. Children are playing, people are swimming, and the lifeguards on duty are carefully scanning the horizon for signs of trouble. The camera cuts back and forth through the water hinting that something is lurking just below the surface, ready to strike. Suddenly, a mammoth-sized shark rises from the ocean and grasps an unsuspecting swimmer between its razor-sharp jaws, pulling the swimmer down to the ocean floor.
Now, imagine this entire scene happening without sound. No splashes. No screams. No music. Somehow, the dramatic effect just isn’t the same.
You may have recognized the above scene as one from the blockbuster movie "Jaws." Over the past two decades, "Jaws" has become synonymous with the measured, tension-filled music and sound effects that heralded the arrival of the menacing shark. Today, sound designers continue to enhance films with their technical and creative expertise as they use the latest technology to create the perfect sounds.
Just ask Jeff Largent, a sound designer at Rumblestrip Audio in Brookline, Massachusetts. Being a sound designer goes far beyond simply adding sound effects, music, and dialogue to a film. So, what exactly does a sound designer do?
"The term ‘sound designer’ is a bit of an anomaly," Jeff explained, "it can mean anyone who touches sound in the post-production phase of a film [as opposed to a ‘sound technician’ who is responsible for location recording]. Sound design is the way you apply sound to enhance and help tell a story. It is a process of layering where you put many sounds together and blend them for a new tonality. Ultimately, you want the sounds to seem less contrived, to meld and morph into one another."
Jeff elaborated, saying that the sound designer focuses on the creative area between sound effects and music, in essence trying to create sounds that tie the effects and the music together. "It is a lot like fine tailoring," he said. "We have a suit of music, and we fine tune it with effects to make the entire soundtrack flow."
Certainly, Jeff knows his sound design. After graduating from Berklee College of Music’s pioneering MP&E recording program (Music for Producers and Engineers), Jeff worked as a sound designer in the Boston area for several production facilities including Video One and Target. It was while he was at Target that Jeff was introduced to one of the first digital audio workstations. Within a few years, Jeff accepted a job offer in L.A. and went on to work in both film and television for well-known entities such as Sony Pictures, Universal Studios, Warner Brothers and Soundelux, a major independent post-production facility. It was as a part of the Soundelux Audio post-production team that Jeff won an academy award for sound on Mel Gibson’s epic drama "Braveheart." Eventually, Jeff and his family decided to return to their Boston roots, and Jeff accepted a job with the studio National in Boston; Rumblestrip Audio is part of National.
According to Jeff, films like "Braveheart" may have as many as 40 people on edit just for sound effects, with scores of other designers working on background sounds, ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement), and music. In Boston, however, one sound designer is typically responsible for managing sound effects and design, and coordinating these with music and dialogue. Along the way, the sound designer (or, on larger films, the Supervising Sound Editor) will work with the creative person in charge — usually the director ñ to figure out what the film should sound like. Then, somewhat autonomously, the sound designer sets about creating the sound track for the film.
Jeff insists that there is "…an amazing amount of complexity even on a simple film," and encourages directors, producers, sound technicians, and sound designers to remember this rule: "Never underestimate how important sound is to a film, and never underestimate how much a good sound track can affect the positive reception of your film." He cautions that relying on the old mantra "fix it in the mix" can lead to disappointment and compromises, while a bit of care paid to audio in picture edits can go a long way towards building a superb sound track.
Why is a good sound track so important? Good sound tracks enhance not only the film itself, but also the viewer’s experience of the film. "A sound designer is always trying to get the most realistic and accurate sounds possible. This is incredibly important because while a viewer sits in a theater we must help them suspend disbelief — we can’t let the audience start to disbelieve for even a second." Accomplishing this task requires the sound designer to think of all action on the screen in the context of "both its natural sense of audio timing along with its natural sense of visual timing." Considering these two variables together will help make the sounds applied to the film seamless and realistic, and will go a long way towards attaining the authenticity that is so important for a film.
Undoubtedly, sound designers play a critical role in enhancing a film. As Jeff pointed out at the end of our conversation, "You can’t really engage an audience or tell a story with just pictures, you must have a full presentation of audio and video." Ultimately though, there is one end goal that a sound designer must keep in mind: "Everything you do must support the story, must flow with the story, and should help to tell the story."
"If you have good sounds to work with," Jeff concluded, "you can pretty much do anything."