(I've already looked at the other Abstract question, and it doesn't really cover what I'm about to ask.)

Now, I know how to design literal sounds, and I'm pretty confident I know how to design for fantasy and sci fi (because I've watched A LOT of those types of movies), but I had the realization the other day that I don't have any experience creating sounds for things I've never come across before.

Like this: [youtube]BsekcY04xvQ[/youtube]

Now, that's just an example, and I have some ideas for what I could do, but for most of it it's just a reinterpretation of literal sound.

So, I was wondering if any of you have tips and tricks for that, or even suggestions on where to start.

  • 1
    To me the open and close feel really fizzy. Like cracking a can of soda. Or dropping an alka-seltzer tablet into a glass of water. Maybe pop-rocks. It gets a bit more watery as it goes along until it becomes solid with the point-of-light skyscrapers.
    – g.a.harry
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 11:06

5 Answers 5


Pieces like this require you to think of yourself not as a sound editor or even a sound designer, but as a composer. Because that's what you're doing - you're composing a score. You need to think in musical concepts, such as melody, rhythm, and pacing. Ideas like pianissimo and forté. It's not so much about fitting in a car by here or a tonal element there, but rather building this entire structure up from nothing.

It is a blank canvas and you are the painter.

And like all great composers, painters, and artists in general, you need to get in touch with what this piece means to you, because you may have a director or producer who has no idea what this should sound like and is coming to you for a creative vision. Try not to over analyze it; go with your gut instincts. Does it make you feel peaceful or anxious? Excited or morose?

  • Hey Jay, cool answer. Can I ask if you did go about it off of your gut instinct, how then would you know what is right or wrong? What's the criteria to judge that by in that case? I suppose just the director's needed and wants?
    – Utopia
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 3:52
  • Right and wrong don't exist in this application, imo. It's all a matter of taste - and direction, if any is given. Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 4:07
  • +1 Great answer Jay! Intuiting is exactly how I like to approach sound design moments, and personally those instances of trusting my intuition have turned out to be some of my most fruitful works. Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 6:05
  • 1
    I'll comment this since it's not really an answer and goes with Jay's thoughts. AFTER you get through the "Oh My God, What the @#$% am I going to do with this?" moment (and we all have them), then these sort of projects become the most exciting you can work on, because you have nothing to go on but your instincts and what direction you may have been given.
    – Sonsey
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 16:24

Theres a million different directions you could go in, but it really depends on the directors intent, the narrative, the 'feel', what emotions the director wants to evoke etc...

The use of metaphorical sound is one worth pursuing, and there is a great quote from Walter Murch on the subject: “The metaphoric use of sound is one of the most fruitful, flexible and inexpensive means: by choosing carefully what to eliminate, and then adding back sounds that seem at first hearing to be somewhat at odds with the accompanying image, the filmmaker can open up a perceptual vacuum into which the mind of the audience must inevitably rush. Every successful reassociation is a kind of metaphor, and every metaphor is seen momentarily as a mistake, but then suddenly as a deeper truth about the thing named and our relationship to it. The greater the stretch between the “thing” and the “name,” the deeper the potential truth.”

My only other answer would be to experiment, experiment, experiment, and try to make happy accidents occur...


+5000 to Jay's answer.

My thoughts:

It's important to think like a composer - arrangement, textures, brightness/contrast, pace, space and emotion (the most important IMO). What do you/the director/audience want to feel after watching/listening to this?

I usually start abstract pieces by creating a bed of sounds - maybe a pad or something rhythmic that goes with the pace of the visuals. I then start filling in sounds instinctively - I allow myself to overdo things and experiment without any judgement. Then (the most important part for me), I take a step back and start scrutinizing what I've done (must be careful here, it's easy to hate what you create because it's never good enough) and begin to remove sounds. If I mute a sound and don't find myself missing it, I leave it out.

I then pay attention to the feeling/emotion that the piece invokes in me. At this point I also think about the rhythm and pace. Think about breaks and rhythmic contrasts. The trick sometimes is to make it happen when it's least expected.

Also, when creating abstract designs to picture, it's important to have some sounds sync/follow movement on the screen. It helps the sound be a part of the visuals - instead of two discrete streams (unless intended otherwise).

If you find yourself short of ideas, pick a couple of random sounds from your library and spread them across the timelines (maybe even insert an fx plugin on some of the tracks). It might inspire you to think differently.

It might also help to set up a metronome that goes with the pace of the film. Switch to grid mode and look at your time line visually and fill in sounds.

There are many many many ways to approach this. As long as you are staying true to the intended 'audio-vision' you should be ok.


Playing with granular effects processing and synths, puts me into a mode where I keep thinking, "oh that is such a great sound, I'd like to put this one in." Out of the many samples that I record from this process, not all of them make it into a project but they are there and will get my mind away from repetitious thinking.
One thing you could try is to take an existing, realistic project, make it abstract, and hear where you are from there.


@ntkeep you're a genius.

I just attended a seminar with Stephen Hunter Flick and he basically said to do this:

Go ask the director for a map of how he wants the audience to feel or react throughout the movie.

He said sometimes he needs a guidetrack from the director who knows the character's sound and voice and on certain movies he had the director actually physically voice the character in a scene or scenes - for instance, the Kane character in Robocop 2. He had the director actually voice the character and he recorded it and it ended up in the film.

Your answer is right up that alley! Nice!

  • @Utopia Thanks! I'm now jealous that you got to go for the seminar! :) But yeah, it's so important to have a director who understand or makes the effort to. But they come in 'flavours' - some like being involved, others leave it to the 'sound department' and then there's the confused bunch who are the worst.
    – ntkeep
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 9:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.