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A documentary maker called me a sound designer. At first I thought he forgot to mention my composer role. I told my girlfriend about it and she was like sound design is what you do, a composer feels like an old title.

When I am doing music or sound I blend it all together. I might even play guitar, small percussion, record and tweak everything. Like doing sculpture. Make new noise out of noise.

Uhm, but I am not sure. What's the difference?

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In my opinion there are huge differences between composition and sound design

The term sound designer was first created I think by Walter Murch or Ben Burt in reference to the older term sound director ie the person who oversees and/or creates the elements of a soundtrack ie dialogue, adr, loop group, ambiences, foley, sound effects etc... these are all primarily sounds that reinforce story telling and the reality of the film, and they are (mostly) in direct sync to picture (it seems in more recent times the term has become confused as meaning people who make weird/non-real/stylised sounds or who program synths)

A composer writes music and a film composer writes music to picture. Music tends to be motivated by emotion in a scene (or action) and its sync relationship to picture is very different to sound effects, dialogue etc...

Are there composers who use sound effects as elements in their music? Of course yes.

Are there sound designers who use musical elements in their work? Of course yes.

Maybe to clarify, if you register your works as musical compositions and receive royalties then its musical composition...

On feature films it is rare for someone to do both sound design and composition, for many reasons: schedules are tight and all consuming - to be sound designer on a film takes ALL of the available time. To be composer on a film takes ALL of the available time. But its also about having people dedicated and specialising in fields that they excel in....

Specific to your question: were your compositions listed as music titles in the final credits? They are on every film, doco etc... with the music title & who composed/owns each piece of music

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Depends who you are asking, I guess. In my opinion there is very little difference between the thought processes involved in composing and sound designing; it's really the instrumentation that is different. Composers historically have used traditional instruments to create their soundtrack, ie. violins, pianos, creative percussion, etc. Sound designers will use almost anything at their disposal, be it mountain wind, seal barks, or even a garbage disposal. The end result is still the same: A composition.

What's the real difference between a composer and a sound designer? Composers make a LOT more money!

  • Oh, and they get up-front credits, too. – Jay Jennings Mar 30 '10 at 18:43
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The term "Sound Designer" is used to mean vastly different things by many arms of the arts / entertainment industries. It can get a bit confusing for those, like myself, who work across the boundaries of these divisions.

In Film/TV, Tim's description of Walter Murch and his associates wanting it to mean something like "Sound Director" is correct, and to my mind the ideal usage - though nowadays common usage is often much narrower - the person who creates sounds to match images of fantasy / scifi / animated subjects that can't just be recorded in real life.

In Live Theatre (specifically "Straight Plays" - ie NOT Musicals) the Sound Designer is more often than not, also the Composer when Music is being created to order, as well as being responsible for spot Sound Effects and Ambiences. Whether such a person is credited as Composer or Sound Designer is often a matter of personal preference (or that of the Theatre Company). That same person may or may not involve themselves in the specification of the physical sound system (Speaker positions, processing, playback equipment).

In the Musical Theatre side of the Live Theatre business, the primary role of the Sound Designer is in fact the specification of the reinforcement system, and 'tuning' it to the venue (usually including backstage Comms and CCTV systems). Then they are the person responsible for steering the artistic approach the show's Sound Operators take to the actual mixing of the show. On top of that, they create & plot all required Sound Effects and Ambience. They are never the Composer!

In both forms of Live Theatre, the term was adopted (in the early '70s at around the same time as Murch et al adopted it in Film) - allegedly by Abe Jacob on Broadway, specifically to gain a 'seat at the table' on an equal footing to the other creative team members (Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Costume Designer) who create the show one level below the Director. Before that, Sound was seen as a technical task only - usually an annoying sub-responsibility of the Electrical department.

In Games - the Sound Design role is narrowing to a similar 'creating specific sounds to image' meaning as currently used in Film/TV - with a new role of "Technical Sound Design" being the person(s) who look after implementing those sound elements or 'assets' into the programming framework that runs the game and triggers the sounds when appropriate. the Walter Murch" version of sound design in the Games world would be the "Audio Director" or some similar title - many of whom do 'sound design' work on their projects as well. Except in possibly the smallest teams, the Composer is a separate role, though usually under the direction of the Audio Director (distinctly different to Film/TV - where the Composer answers directly to the film's Director)

In Electronic Music, a Sound Designer is quite specifically the person who either (1) Creates sound presets for Hardware Synths or Virtual Instruments - often for the manufacturer of those instruments, or (2) creates sound resources to be used on such instruments. 'Sound Design' is also used as a description of what a Composer, Musician or Producer is doing whenever he/she 'tweaks' a preset, or ignores the presets altogether and creates sounds using the instrument's controls, their own samples etc.

  • great explanation, I would add the role of the sound designer for everyday objects, which is connected to other fields like product design, interaction design, we call it sonic interaction design... – sounDesign Apr 1 '10 at 12:51
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This is a customer problem, that's to say: It's very hard to explain the difference for people not involved in the Sound world (or universe, if you prefer).

Anyway we think the sound designer as a professional dealing with the sound, from movies to music, form theatre to videogames, and then with all the stuff regarding brand identity, communication and new media.

As a sound designer you are responsible for all those activities treating the sound as an important element of the process of creation of a product, a videogame, a movie, an installation and so on. Music is one of these products. Then if YOU are a "modern" composer YOU are a sound designer, indeed you think the sound as a part of a whole story. You compose to create the right audio experience for the user (listener). If you compose for film or for a videogame you must think about the objectives your sounds have to reach for.

Sound designer: You are a problem solver!!!

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I guess I think of them rather literally still, perhaps just because of my own particular area of work. I am also a graphic designer, which is another example of a term that has become a similarly subjective term. Ask someone outside the field what a "graphic designer" is, or a "web designer". You'll get just as many different answers.

In my mind; Sound Design describes the act of literally designing sound. Crafting sound. Building sound. Creating something that did not exist prior. The sound is the final product. For me, sometimes those "sounds" are playable instrument patches for artists, software/hardware companies etc. like mentioned above. Other times they are standalone sounds for an art installation, a video piece, a game, a whatever. A short special effect, a long "soundscape" (ha, another one with a million definitions!), hell, maybe even a drum loop or two. They are not what I would call compositions.

While Composition is the act of literally writing music. Composing. Crafting a piece of music that did not exist prior, whether it be written out in dots and lines for a full orchestra, or improvised on stage in a jazz trio, or human beatboxed into a microphone. The product is the complete piece of music, whatever it may be.

In the name of not carrying on I just did the world a favor and deleted about three more paragraphs of rambling streaming brain sludge. I could explore and talk about this stuff all night, but I won't. You're welcome. :P

Great thread, love peeking inside people's brains on this kind of stuff!

  • I totally agree! All sounds blends into one. – Raaphorst Nov 20 '10 at 10:35
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Coming from an electronic music perspective with some experience in film sound, the two are completely seperate... unless you really know your composition skills in electronic music. At that point, it is possible for sound design to be incorporated into composition... but this is way beyond the capabilities of most musicians and most sound designers.

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All depends what you define as music. I've heard plenty of "compositions" that fall under the category of sound design...listen to Amon Tobin's work...is this still music? I'd say yes. It's all very subjective from a philosophical point of view, but there is obviously a clear distinction needed and I think the other guys have done a great job with this.

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Especially Tim described it very well, I'd say that the equivalent to what's called sound designer in movie-sound is pretty much the producer in music. I was first and foremost a producer myself before I lost interest and became a sounddesigner/movie soundguy instead, and compared to movies my job was pretty much a mix of director, producer, and sound designer.

I have seen the title sound designer in music too, actually, but only as someone working with making sound-patches for synthesizers and keyboard for a living, never someone programming their own synths. After all, that's one of the most important aspects of owning a synth whatsoever anyway (otherwise you might as well just buy a keyboard instead), though most people I've known working with it did call themselves sound programmers.

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The difference is that there are some digital audio folks who think that there's some fundamental difference between sampling and writing music and some that understand that the division is arbitary.

We can go as far to say that none of the sound production roles/terms have meaningful differences in machine-assisted sound production. The machinery is the same, the processes are the same and at the disposal of everyone. There's no fundamental difference between any of the activities or terms (the difference is in one's head) as it's all just structuring sound with machinery. If we'd forget the machinery, we could perhaps draw more meaningful differences in what the different types of work and roles entail.

The modern computer and sample library assisted "composer" can be a fairly misapplied term as there may not be a practical difference to say "a computer musician", which means what it says. A composer does and can do more than that. "Sound designer" is one of the most extravagant specializations coined, because every kind of creative or planning activity is design. It follows that one cannot produce sound without "design" and therefore everyone does "sound design".

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I find it interesting that this one keeps coming back from time to time.

There are two distinctions at play here. As far as titles go, there's normally a pretty clear difference between the composer and sound designer. On small films especially, I see sound designers also being the composer. The title is usually changed or they are givenultiple credits to reflect that (again, that I've seen). So, yeah, combining the roles happens, but you should've received credit for the music.

The second distinction here is between composition and sound design. This one is significantly less clear. Part of it has to do with your methods. The line there is very blurred for me. When I've worked on a project, especially a more abstract one, I normally approach sound design at least partially from a musical point of view (consonance vs. dissonance is a big thing). On the other hand, since the end of my undergrad music degree, I've looked at music as more of a sonic creation (when I have the luxury).

There are a few examples where the two definitely blend together. The soundtrack/sound design of Eraserhead comes to mind.

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