How to Think about Sound Design

I’ve recently gotten really into real-world spy thriller stuff. It’s been a trip.

And one of my favorite spies has to be Elizabeth Smith Friedman. Most people don’t know her name, but she made huge contributions toward the Allies’ victory during World War 2. Elizebeth was a code breaker. In fact, she one of the greatest who ever lived. Her and her husband, William, practically pioneered the field of cryptology.

Unfortunately, due to a level of sexism that rivals Google, all of Elizebeth’s accomplishments have been swept under the rug and all credit for her work was given to both her husband and J. Edgar Hoover. Still, even while the world pointedly ignored her, she became a key spy in hunting Nazis both during and after the war.

Even in the face of all of this adversity, Elizebeth’s mindset allowed her to push through and become a genius-level infiltrator. Without this iron mind, she or anyone else would have cracked under all the pressure. The mindset we adopt affects much more than just our ability to manage intense levels of stress, however. As sound designers our mindset will allow us to think about sound in a much better, more articulate way, allowing us to create the sounds in our head much, much easier.

On top of the super-neato history lesson you just got, this article covers:

  1. Two different sound design mindsets

  2. How to approach new sound effects

  3. Learning the technical before the creative

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Our sound design mindset
Has a lot to do with how we approach every single project. Not too long ago, I was speaking to Jeff Seamster, who was the lead sound designer for games like Star Wars Battlefront 2, Bioshock Infinite, Battlefield 1, and tons of other huge games. Jeff laid out two ways each of us, as sound designers (or artists in general) can approach our projects: We can either take an asset-based or a craft-based mindset toward our work.

An asset-based mindset
Is probably the most common mindset that most sound designers adopt. I’ve certainly thought this way before. This is the headspace where we start to think of things just as assets. Here are the footsteps… the magic… the ambiences… let’s just check the boxes… Tick tick tick.

While we’re in an asset-based mindset, we’re not thinking of our project as a whole. Instead, we’re just getting stuff into the game for the sake of it. We’re getting the “boring” stuff out of the way so that we can work on the cool stuff.

Now, sometimes this is fine. In the early days of a project, we sometimes do just need to get stuff in and fix it later. This mindset only becomes poisonous when we adopt it for the entirety of development. It causes us to become disengaged and often leads to mediocre results at best. However, a craft-based mindset will often serve us much better.

When we’re focusing on our craft
Every single sound is the opportunity to explore. From the simplest, single-layer footsteps all the way to the most complicated action sounds. We take on a mindset of “how can this sound best serve the game?”

This allows us to approach each project with a much more playful mindset. Even if we are making a sound that most people would think of as boring, we’re still moving the game towards sounding amazing when we’re in this headspace. Sure, the footsteps will be straightforward and simple, but they will be the bedrock of audio that all the “cool” stuff is built on top of. We’ll need both the simple and the complex to bounce off of one another and create our ideal soundscape.

So, when we’re approaching each and every new sound, we can start to think of it as a chance to push our craft forward.

When we’re tasked with creating a new sound effect
We can now ask “how will this best serve the game?” And go from there. We’ll spend a lot less time wondering how complex the sound should be, what synth we should use, and what sample libraries we should draw from. Instead, we’ll have a much greater sense of what we need to do to best serve the game. From there, we can start creating using the additive process I outlined previously.

Granted, you can’t just rely on your creativity alone to get through this. There is a foundation you need to build beforehand.

And most of this foundation is technical in nature
It’s tough to be creative in sound design without at least some technical background. This doesn’t mean you need to be an audio programmer (though if you want to go that route, sign up for Adam Croft’s newsletter.) It does mean, however, that you need to have a solid handle on your DAWs, sample libraries, plugins, processes, and more.

I recommended this in a previous article, but to learn all of the technical stuff in depth, check out Geoff Cole’s resources. They’re some of the best out there to learn the technical side of sound design, including gear, signal flow, and more.

But this isn’t the only way to think about sound design
I can think of plenty of other sound designers who would not approach things this way. That’s totally fine. My aim here is to provide you with mindsets and tools that you can use to approach your work with more joy and efficiency. Start with what I’ve outlined here, and if it works, great. If it doesn’t then ditch it and build your own systems.

I’m working on three new (secret but really cool) games right now
And I’m taking a craft-based mindset for all of them. Granted, there are absolutely times where I just need to get stuff in and working so we can test to see how Wwise is working. That’s totally fine! As I said, there’s nothing wrong with filling things in so that we can hear how things sound in context.

But now that things are working from a technical standpoint, I’m stepping back and essentially starting over. This time, I’m starting from simple sounds like footsteps and designing them to be in service of the game, instead of just assets that I need to get out of the way before getting to the “cool stuff.”

And that leads us to what we’ve covered here:

  • Spies are awesome

  • We can either take an asset-based or craft-based mindset when creating our sound design

  • Craft-based will often create a better soundscape, but sometimes, we will need to focus on just getting assets into the game early on in the process to make sure things are working

  • Before we can start getting really creative, we should at least have some basic technical chops available to us so we’re not floundering around, wondering how to create the sounds in our heads

No one paid any attention to Elizebeth Smith Friedman
But her mindset allowed her to persevere, push the field of cryptology forward, and smash Nazi spy rings with ruthless efficiency. If a person’s mindset can allow such huge accomplishments, then our mindset when we approach our work will make a massive difference in our output as well.

And if you haven’t yet
Be sure to read my previous article on the additive art of sound design. That article will make sure you have a checklist of elements to create great sound design from quickly and easily.

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