WHAT IS SOUND DESIGN?
There’s a question I’ve been having on my mind for a few months: what is sound design?
Ok, I admit this might sound a bit odd from someone who runs a sample library company and makes music and sound for images. It’s not a sort of middle age crisis-related existential question, neither it’s a subtle signal of an incumbent self-doubt storm that questions everything in one’s life. No. It comes from a way more trivial circumstance which simply is: how do you explain people what you do for a living? Don’t think about the typical circle of audio heads; think about your relatives, your ex schoolmate you accidentally came across with or your wife’s best friend’s husband who works as a maintenance engineer in a tiny town in central Italy. How do you explain what is sound design to these people?
So, imagine yourself socializing in one of the aforementioned scenarios until the unavoidable question ‘what do you do for a living?’ is dropped. Yeah, you might ingenuously opt for the truth and answer ‘I’m a sound designer’, but very likely this will earn you a vacuous, confused glance from everyone, drowned in long seconds of awkward silence. So you are reluctantly forced to embark in a long explanation that might touch everything from sound and music for images to music technology, digital signal processing, coding, working remotely, leaving you day job, life choices, happiness. Yeah, guys, so far I still haven’t found a way to efficiently describe my work in a few words that can quickly satisfy the curiosity of people and unlock the next steps of the conversation towards other topics.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I really don’t care about the social respectability issue that stereotypically comes with the so called creative professions, which peaks when talking about anything music-related. Neither I care of the eyebrows raising when I talk about my imminent decision to leave my position as an academic researcher in environmental engineering to fully focus on my sound design business. Seriously, I don’t care.
The reason why the question ‘what is sound design’ keeps looping in my mind is because it allows me to completely challenge the perspective that I have on my own work. And (more interestingly) it reveals philosophical aspects that we might ironically not be aware of because we’re too absorbed by our craft. Bear this word in mind, craft, it is a key point of the following. I’ll report here a few definitions of sound design that you can find by googling our question:
Sound design is the art and practice of creating sound tracks for a variety of needs. It involves specifying, acquiring or creating auditory elements using audio production techniques and tools.
Sound design is the process of recording, 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 and video game software development.
Sound designer is a illusive term with different meaning: … The sound designer works with the director to shape an overall, consistent soundtrack that exploits the expressive possibilities of the sound medium.
Clearly, all of these definitions embed various degrees of truth and if you pay attention, you can spot that ALL of them have one very thing in common: they describe sound design through its practical implementation in a professional context. In other words, sound design is defined solely as craft. As I said, it’s a very agreeable idea to identify a sound designer through the products of his work: a sound designer is someone who creates sounds, as a doctor heals people and a civil engineer builds infrastructures. But is that all? I think there’s a more profound aspect in what a sound designer does and, most importantly, it’s not just inherent to the actual work a sound designer is supposed to do according to the previous definitions.
SOUND AND ITS METAPHORS
Let me explain: in his autobiography, Miles Davis talks about the sound he needed his trumpet to play as he wanted. In some sections, he describes the sound as “round”, in others he defines it as something that, when playing with a female singer, needs to “fly over” her voice. He didn’t use a strictly technical jargon but this sort of metaphoric definitions, he described the perception of his own sound referring to shapes, to movements and in general to things that are not supposed to be audible by their own nature.
It is very likely that Miles had synaesthesia, which is that particular psychological status when the boundaries between the nature of perceptive inputs are blurred. For example, sound that triggers visual imagination, or a taste that recalls a tactile perception. It happens to many of us all the time, and even those who are not particularly involved in audio, sound or music will very likely use this sort of sensorial transposition when trying to describe sound in their own words. Here’s now an interesting point: rather than interpreting sound by imagining its multisensory counterpart, what a sound designer does is actually the opposite: giving an audible consistence to something that either is not supposed to be audible by its nature or doesn’t even have a physical, real essence. Sometimes, when working, I ask myself ‘How can I express complexity?’, or ‘How can I recreate movement? Or assertiveness?’.
These questions hide a deep and complex system of interactions that happen on a neurological level in our brain: in his book “Musicophilia”, famous neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks describes how according to brain scans, in some individuals an audible stimulus triggers cross-activation of neurological areas associated to other perceptive mechanisms (visual, olfactory) . For some of us, listening translates into the activation of neural connections between separate areas of the brain which normally don’t work simultaneously. And this does not only regard listening as a passive experience, the fact itself of thinking about sound is a creative act per se according to neuroscience.
Now, think about this: to me, the craft, the instruments we use to forge our sounds, the techniques that we adopt are nothing but the guiding, functional elements that allow us to do what we do in this incomprehensible creative process. A process that involves many parts of us: it requires an ability to abstract from the real world , picture it in our mind and creatively redefine it. Isn’t it amazing that a car crash in a movie wouldn’t feel as realistic without a manipulated version of the real sound?
It involves the ability to embed feelings into things by keeping at the same time a lucid eye and a rational approach to our work. It involves listening to everything without a bias and giving the same dignity to whatever happens around us sound-wise, always putting it in a perspective that might be significant for our work. It involves the ability to find connections, similarities, links and bridges between segments belonging to different areas of the human knowledge that would be otherwise disjointed.
MY PERSONAL ANSWER
Personally, this is what I love about sound design: it’s like a point of convergence of many other things that find a way to relate to each other only when they intersect in this sort of cross-medial point. The more I’m into sound design, the more I find myself seeking ideas, trespassing from the niche of audio and exploring psychology, maths, literature, architecture. I think it makes me more inclined to think forward. Yes, being a sound designer for me is not only a matter of EQs and compressors, synths, samplers and microphones. It goes way beyond the craft.
So, I’ll leave you by shamelessly adding my own definition of sound design:
Sound design is the art of translating in waveforms what is not meant to be audible by its own nature.
– Giuseppe Caiazzo, silenceandothersounds.com
Okay, this probably won’t save me from the awkwardness of some social situations like the ones I mentioned before, but it’s been worth sharing with you. And of course, feel free to write in the comments your own definition of sound design. Oh, and your social awkwardness escape strategies as well.
See ya, Giuseppe
Davis, M. Miles: The Autobiography. Simon & Schuster, 1989. ISBN-10: 0671635042.
Sacks O. W., Prebble S. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Random House, Abridged ed., 2007. ISBN-10: 0739357395.