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This is a question about personal observation of designer aesthetics and taste.

As someone who is hired to design sounds for all types of moving pictures, animations, graphics and scenes, I find myself very often being honest with myself and asking "does this thing I'm looking at need a sound at all?"

As sound designers, we inherently love to throw down complex stylized cool sounds, future glitchy sound effects, detailed micro timed edits and automation matching perfectly to a visual occurrence and often times bringing it to life in a way impossible without the detailed sound work. But, as I grow in my profession, more frequently I will make the call to not put some sound effect on something, or not sound design a piece and just let the music and voice tell the story.

So, my question in the broadest since is:

Do you ever find yourself in this position?

Have you ever told a client "I don't think it needs sound design" even though you've been offered the job to design it?

Have you ever spent time on a complex design piece only to step back, be objective and realize the piece is better without much of the sonic design?

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This is an excellent question, perfectly suited to Social Sound Design. More like this, please. –  Jay Jennings Mar 14 at 19:51
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Nothing like the sound of lasers in space! –  Chloe Mar 14 at 23:53
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"Stack Exchange is telling me this question is subjective." That's because SE has an algorithm to recognise "what do you do?" survey questions. SE isn't very good for surveys, and this is rather phrased as one. Specifically, "Do you ever find yourself in this position?" is fine for a chat, but not for a Q&A site. This could be rephrased to be less discussiony, while still being an acceptable subjective question‌​. –  TRiG Mar 15 at 2:11
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@TRiG - ErikG hit the head on the nail. The idea of "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective" did not exist within the community that made up social sound design. We, in fact, thrived on the subjective questions. We are artists, and there is no way to discuss our craft without subjectivity. –  Shaun Farley Mar 15 at 14:57
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As someone who is experienced with Stack Exchange sites, I think that the cry of "subjective" can get a little too loud. Subjective questions are fine, as long as they're answerable - which this is. Yes, it's asked in the form of a poll, but the core question is easy to discern: Is there a time when sound design is inappropriate and silence should rule? –  neilfein Mar 15 at 15:29

10 Answers 10

Great question. Sound design IS inherently subjective, to deny such questions is to misunderstand the role sound design plays.

With regards to sound design, what you describe occurs in every film mix and I personally consider it my greatest work when either I, or we (director, re-recording mixers) can find a clear motive and purpose to have no sound at all. If I had to make a list of the best work and/or moments in films that I have ever contributed to, more than a few of them would be where there is no sound. What is interesting is the fact that it requires more justification and/or motivation than if there was sound.

I wonder if the reason it is so powerful & rare is due to both investing ego in your work as Roger mentioned, or losing objectivity about the overall effect of the soundtrack? But also possibly through not having an appreciation or experience with such things conceptually. Seeing the power of less in film sound design is certainly what set me off into researching minimalism in all of its forms a very long time ago... Clever use of minimalism impresses me far, far more than 'complex stylized cool sounds, future glitchy sound effects' ever will.

As an example: In House of Cards there was a beautiful moment, mute of sound, when the journo discovers his girlfriend is dead. Its a wideshot INT office, he walks into his office, shuts the door, violently throws down a folder & slumps into his chair. So emotionally powerful not because of the music cue, but because of the metaphorical use of no sound. It isn't that the scene didn't 'need' sound - its that it is more emotionally powerful without it.

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I loved that scene in House of Cards! So powerful and well played out. –  Joseph Dutaillis Mar 14 at 22:43
    
don't leave! :) –  user7731 Mar 18 at 16:24

my .02

Adding sync sounds gives a sense a reality and often a sense of weight and grit to any given scene. If reality, weight, and grit are what's required artistically then the tendancy would be to make a sound for the object on screen. The vast majority of the time, this is probably the case.

Abstaining from placing sync sounds creates a sense of detachement and surrealism, and can leave open a lot of space for audience interpretation if the visuals are still gritty and dramatic. Abstaining from placing sync sound usually requires there to be a score there to help out. It also requires a ballsy mixer and director.

What this means is that super big emotional events are often better handled with score than with sfx.

We did an episode of tonebenders with Coll Anderson (about 30 mnutes in) where he talked about the film Martha Marcy May Marlene - in the conversation we discussed the rape scene there where you both see and hear her screaming while its happening. The interesting thing is that Coll had initially not included the sound of her voice in the scene, but when audiences screened it they became far too disturbed by the combination of the dramatic visuals with the lack of sound coming from her mouth. So much so that they were still distracted by the image in the following scenes and got lost. In the end, they added the sound of her screaming back in to help ground the audience back down into reality somewhat. The addition of sound in that spot actually reduced the emotional content (by design).

I see moving pictures without sound similarly to how I see photography: still vivid and real, but at the same time one step detached from reality and more open to interpretation.

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Fascinating reverse approach situation where sound was used to purposefully reduce emotion, Rene. I also appreciate your definition of sound for reality vs no sound for surrealism. I'd only add that our reality is largely perception. So the question becomes "what perception are we creating, what do we want them to hear?" instead of purely "what things on screen makes sound in reality." –  user7731 Mar 14 at 21:53
    
That was a great episode Rene. You guys are doing a smashing job at choosing interviewees. –  Brendan Rehill Mar 17 at 20:26
    
thanks! Credit Tim Muirhead for lining up the guests. He's far better at that than I am. –  Rene Mar 18 at 14:02

(As an aside, this topic has been addressed very thoughtfully here.)

An excellent question, and one that is not asked enough by the inexperienced or newly inaugurated craftspeople in our community. The old adage of "less is more" has never been more true in this case. What's wrong with most of the Hollywood blockbusters these days? NOT ENOUGH SPACE. And not only in sound, but also (and perhaps more importantly) in picture. There is so much information bombarding the audience, from frenetic film editing to bombastic sound editing and non-stop musical score, that they eventually concede victory to the film and just give up, losing interest in the story and tuning out entirely. I've seen it a million times.

So, in the pursuit of excellence in storytelling, the sound designer should always be on the lookout for opportunities to NOT fill the track with hits, stingers and whooshes. Try silence for a change! You'll be amazed at how effective it can be.

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When I was in my teens learning drums, I had an instructor that always reminded me of K.I.S.S. (Not the band) but "Keep It Simple Stupid" I've never forgotten that and think its useful in many other fields. –  user6508 Mar 17 at 5:04

Coming from the game audio side of things I've done this all the time. You'll often get approached with an asset list of what the designer thinks needs sounds in the game. Lots of times they have asked for every possible thing to make a sound. Even on "paid by the sound" contracts I've done lots of editing of those lists down to what's actual needed.

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That's super cool. Your sort of culling out the weeds in game sound. I'm not really in the game sound biz but I've fulfilled a few audio asset lists and to hear your perspective and approach is cool. Part of your game sound design process is to craft what get's sound. I'm not a gamer but I can see the talent and discipline it would take to know what's crucial, what's fluff, and what's totally unnecessary. Too much sound on everything could diminish a game player's experience. –  user7731 Mar 14 at 21:43

A fantastic question and very thought provoking discussion happening here!

Personally, I'm a huge believer in less is more. Whether it be through only adding limited sfx when editing or subtly controlling what is and isn't heard during the mix, I find that the less the audience has to focus on the more controlled their focus is and more immersed in the production they become.

Of course, as with everything we do, there are always exceptions!

It really is a huge temptation to always create complex multi-layered soundscapes, and sometimes that is exactly what a scene needs, but the art is in knowing exactly when this should be employed and when a minimalist approach will be serve the project best.

And one should never be afraid to let the music do the work!

A short opinion from a developing sound professional :)

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In professional music production there is a rule: Never more than 3 sounds at a time, more a human cant process properly! And I apply it to sound design for movie as well! I always try to have something happening -> atmo, room tone, foley or music which is like the beat that holds a song together (but in avery unconscious way). Then I pick one "hook" guideline which is the "melody/vocals" of a song. At a movie this is Dialogue, Fx and music that tells the story. The third element is sweetening stuff like additional fx or foley. For those I take a pen and paper when I watch the movie or advertisement for the first time with muted audio. Then I concentrate and write down everything that feels like it needs some sound. Like a car passing by etc. Its important to try to not concentrate on the mouth of the people that talk. I try to concentrate on stuff that really have a big movement or that catch my eyes. Because the problem with having no sound on something is, when someone is moving their eyes on that element and they do not hear a sound. This is why it is very useful to have a good atom to give them some type of audible feedback. For special stuff like a car moving or water splashing etc it is good to have an additional sound.

Everything else needs no specific sound! :D

Good Day!

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Walter Murch has talked about the 3 sounds rule as well. –  Joe Griffin Apr 15 at 3:44
    
Cool I heard it fro ma lot of music engineers/arrangers/producers. At it really works well and helps to keep it tight and simple. –  Tobias Schmidt Apr 15 at 12:48

I've held this view many times in the past. I think that the contrarian in me wants to go against the tendency to design sound for every little thing. Sometimes, when i argue this point, directors/clients will push for me to add something anyway. Whether i ditch it in the mix, or play it very subtly, i think it's usually a good thing to add more. What matters is how you mix it. I say "usually a good thing" because time constraints can restrict the freedom to do this.

Sometimes there will be projects where the style seems to go against the use of sound design. In these cases, it's a matter of a conversation with the director as to their intentions. I'd rather pass up a job than ruin something that works better without FX, but the director has a vision and it's my job to latch onto that vision and help it materialise.

And it hurts to drop something in the mix if you've spent a lot of time building it. I don't think it gets easier, but it's definitely an exercise in letting go of our ego. I've fought directors over many things and lost, yet they often turn out very well. This is why i never refuse to try something if it's asked for.

(Btw, i'd hate to see this forum without subjective questions!)

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Thanks for the perspective, Roger. Sometimes it is tough to let go of something you've spent time on, or pass on an opportunity to create sound. I certainly agree that it's our job to latch onto the director/clients vision and execute that. I have a few clients who having worked with over time grow to appreciate my objectivity and willingness to know when not to throw sounds at something. The relationship on projects will grow into more of a "use your best judgement" rather than direct orders on what to do. It's the trust that is built by your ability to see the big picture. –  user7731 Mar 14 at 20:38
    
I too however wonder if it's sometimes just the contrarian in me, if I should work to break my initial approach and try to design something that changes my mind on the merits of sound on the object. In the end it's about making good design decisions. –  user7731 Mar 14 at 20:46

In game audio editing a scene can be as much about removing sounds as it's adding them. Imaginary example - in an earlier scene there was huge torch that was central part of the positioned ambience and it's existence was emphasized with a strong sound. Later you run into a scene with 20 similar torches and there is a huge doomsday machine on the background. It's all just noise and you have to make a decision between "realism", consistency, delivering information to player and what sounds artistically good. Sometimes in smaller game companies there isn't anyone making this decision. There are just sounds sound designer has done based on limited information (image of torch) and programmer who has added sounds and result is noise...

Similar situations happen almost daily and often overdoing things feels good, but could lead to worse results. Especially hard in game audio since you can't often be sure of anything and you are lucky if you know the potential worst case scenarios of how sounds could interact.

I haven't really had client related experiences since I work as inhouse audio guy at game company and have pretty free hands.

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Fantastic answers and great discussion! I suppose I have a slightly different view - I design for live theatre rather than film or games, so there's a certain extent to which I can get away with more abstract design decisions - I'm often working outside of a 'realistic' mode. But to explain my thinking:

Silence is broadly interesting from a philosophical perspective because if we are open to it, turned towards it as listeners, we are actually open to an absence rather than a presence - in listening to silence we are actually straining not to hear and proceeding with our judgements in that capacity. (yeah, I'm also doing a PhD in sound!)

From a design perspective, though, silence is precisely not silence - it is not an absence of sound or an absence of meaning: silence is part of the sonic palette, a mechanism by which a meaning is given to the audience. Silence on stage or in film is rich with meaning precisely because silence in the world is not (this is despite the causal significance of a silent situation, such as an absence of birdcalls because of a hunter's gunshot, and so forth), therefore a decision can be made to use silence because of its potential to mean something.

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Never break the silence unless you can improve upon it.

I use this as a tenet of design as well as general conversation.

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