Something I've been thinking about lately:

We have a vocabulary to describe what a certain composer's music sounds like. They're really into X Y Z and the do this or that dynamically etc. etc. I can talk to a client about what s/he's after in music, and hire a composer accordingly. And generally, I avoid musicians who say "I do everything" because it means they probably haven't found their voice.

I think it's harder as sound designers. Because maybe we don't have the vocabulary for it yet. Or maybe, since sound design has less rules than music composition, it's more difficult to pin down your thang as described by adherence or defiance of various rules.

For me, it's taken me a long time to pin down what my voice is as a sound designer. Not because I didn't have a "voice" before, but because the idiosyncrasies that make up the-stuff-I-like-to-do just weren't things that are easy to put into words. I've started to work it out now, but it's still kinda hard to describe. I guess my "voice' is to use silence and abstract/musical sound in a way that just barely tows the line between diegetic and non-diegetic. I use human vocals in a loosely musical way, but I try to minimize dialog. I use tonal/musical effects in a not-exclusively musical way.

So what's your voice?

Or am I thinking about "voice' too narrowly?

  • "since sound design has less rules than music composition", I think that's really subjective. Sound design in media is as constrained if not more constrained than music, even if it's not fixed to having to have melodies, rhythm, time signatures and be in key. It's constrained e.g. by being less expressive, making less sense on its own or being (and being forced to be) too literal. Maybe the lack of voice in sound design is because there's nothing or not much that a listener can really catch on as an artist's voice. – Internet Human Jun 9 '13 at 0:00

I think this comes back to the whole thing that the futurist musicians were getting into (Futurist Manifesto).

What we do is still not seen as "art", while music and painting, and whatnot, are. Also, films tend to be very symbiotic things, so the creative needs of the project overshadow any creative needs of our own. Having said that, i do think each of us has a different set of creative tools, or preferences for how we do things.

I'm probably not the best person to describe myself, but: my approach is very non-musical, as i'm one of "those" sound designers who didn't come from a musical background (apart from playing Rage Against the Machine from guitar tabs in my bedroom when i was 16). I like to employ silence, or go against the image whenever i can, as long as there's a creative reason. I like to have a specific reason for every effect i put in, and i'll resist inserting a sound just because "that's what you'd hear in real life" or "it was there on set". When i reappropriate FX to make something weird, i try to employ reduced listening, to the extent that i don't even take note of the origins of the sounds. The director will say "how did you make that sound?" and i'll reply "umm, i don't know, let me see, oh look, a tractor".

Also, my sound friends think i'm weird because of the attention i put into atmospheres, and because i usually try to sneak something strange into them.

Ok, hope this wasn't too self indulgent. I'm still developing my methods and ideas, and i'd be keen to hear others' responses to this question!

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  • It's not art, because it's not genuine, free-form and individual expression, but rather interpretation and a part of a much larger piece of art (one'd argue that a film is larger than any of its parts). One is not saying what one would feel like saying, but rather saying what another idea or a sum of ideas (the project, the brief) suggests. One won't tell a sound story about cowboys (even if it would feel like something that one'd have a reason to do a piece about) if the project is about space marines. Although from a larger viewpoint,all sound made for art/media is art or part of the arts. – Internet Human Jun 8 '13 at 23:24
  • And the soundtrack not including music cannot be enjoyable on its own, whereas a OST can. – Internet Human Jun 8 '13 at 23:25


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  • yep. love that. – Rene Jun 26 '11 at 14:48
  • Haha thats hilarious. – Stephen Saldanha Jun 26 '11 at 18:24
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    Funny but true for me philosophically, I really question the idea of having a predetermined voice, surely the approach & ideas for a film are motivated by what it needs, rather than what someone has determined in advance of even seeing or knowing anything about a project. Open mind... – user49 Jun 26 '11 at 19:35
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    But surely that film is shaped by the minds that create it? I love the romantic ideal of the sculptor, revealing and not defining. But your mind brings something to the film - something more than a reflection of the film. If you and I were to sound design the same movie, they'd be different movies. What about your version reflects your mind, your ideals, your emotional self? (I do love the link though) – ragamesound Jun 28 '11 at 8:06

In the spirit of Tim's video link, between the visual work I do and the audio work I do, I try to be a mimic, a ventriloquist, do impressions, make up new languages...anything other than establishing a clear voice that you can see or hear from project to project. My style is either having no style, or reinventing a style for each project, or stubbornly ensuring that every project is equally as difficult, depending on who you talk to. The project vision should establish the voice. I'm just an amplifier and/or a filter.

This comes from my training as an illustrator and visual designer: No one approach or process to solving a problem will always work. For sound, sometimes it's directly and literally musical, sometimes very impressionistic, sometimes hyper-literal. Depends on what ideas and themes need to be communicated, who the audience is, and what the vision of the client is (and if they're not really sculpting that vision, I need to help establish it, otherwise That Way Lies Madness).

This isn't to take a anything away from anyone who's got a solid artistic vision and voice. I respect that because I can't do it. It's just an equally valid but different approach.

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I'm simliar to Roger in that I don't come from a theoretical music background, and my guitar playing was mostly rage and metallica from tab as well. :)

with that said, I try to be very broad and diverse with my toolset.

This means that I spend a lot of time

  • recording stuff
  • manipulating stuff I recorded
  • mixing stuff I recorded
  • building stuff in synths
  • buildings spaces around stuff

There are certainly some things I feel more comfortable in my ability to design than others. (UI, impacts, swooshy things - easy. creatures, vehicles, weapons - harder)

With that said, I think that the nature of tying sounds to visuals does dictate a lot of what I end up doing.

I think a lot in terms of textures, time space, and frequency space.

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There is a tendency to think of sound designers as the creators of individual sounds, and therefore "voice" is defined by the nature of those individual tracks. For me, I see the ultimate role of the sound designer on a more macro level, like a composer of orchestral scores, providing a context for the "soloists" to create within, but weaving a whole spectrum of natural and contrived sounds into a coherent whole that has a grander voice. Pavorotti was a marvelous voice, but his voice was wasted without composers like Verdi to give him a context to contribute to.

My point is that sound design is much more than just creating unique "cool" sounds. In it's highest forms, it is the composition and orchestration of the entire non-musical sound score. In this context, the voice is defined on a macro scale, rather than by the individual sounds that contribute to the whole.

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  • I'll give that a +1. – g.a.harry Jun 26 '11 at 7:43
  • Great first answer by the way, welcome. – g.a.harry Jun 26 '11 at 7:43

I would say it depends on what projects you pick up (and whether you do it selectively). Your voice (from an objective viewpoint) will be dictated by the projects you take, just like the soundtrack you create is dictated by the project. Comparison to pure music/sound is just not valid, because there you can be anything you want, which effectively means that one really defines the voice of oneself just like a band defines its voice. And to draw an analogy, in pure music/sound you define the sound as well as the imagery/impression it creates. Plus music is not as strictly position- and style-fixed as voice and SFX most of the time are.

Would you say that certain SFX recordists/producers have their own voice or is it just the libraries that they tend to produce? Would you say that sound artists working on film soundtracks have a certain voice or are they just picking projects that fit to their own interests or their previous work. Or would you ever consider that it's the voice of the sound artists that we hear, rather than the voice of the project/piece?

Could it be that, in fact, given different people the task of producing a soundtrack for the same media piece, the results would have corresponding elements and the voice and the differences could be explained by what sounds and sound sources they happen to have access to, not largely by their editing style? And as a second notion, would it be possible that "the voice" is not actually the sound itself, but what sound and where? Public sound design competitions are interesting "group studies" for this reason, because I feel that they are a good way to hear how the work of some people happens to be reminiscent of others, whereas some seem to really stand out (which arguably is possibly a completely subjective perception).

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  • "what sound and where" AND why – user49 Jun 8 '13 at 21:59
  • @tim Sure, but even that would suggest and be in line with that "the voice" is (or is in) the project(s), not the sound in itself, which is what I was trying to suggest by stating that "the voice is not actually the sound itself", but rather how it's articulated for the project (what and where) and why the articulation is what it is, rather than being "just sound". It's a bit complicated to express, but that's what I think is different from music, where we can say that the voice equals the sound that we hear, because we're, well, listening to pure sound. – Internet Human Jun 8 '13 at 22:39
  • Would one state e.g. that light sabers are part of Ben Burtt's sound? I don't think so, and no one listens to just light sabers (and the sound wouldn't necessarily be enough to distuinguish Ben Burtt, although this is a bad example, because it's become such an iconic sound). It's more natural to state that Ben Burtt is known for what he contributed to Star Wars. – Internet Human Jun 8 '13 at 22:56

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