Those aspiring to a career in sound design should be forewarned that a formal education is really just an introduction to the business and the craft. This is one of those trades that is mostly learned by hands-on trial and error and with the assistance of veteran workers. It never really has had, until almost twenty years ago, a traditional and universally recognized school curriculum. That changed and now there are various levels of training from 1-year diploma programs to earning a bachelor or master’s degree in sound design. The better schools provide the latest in training in cutting edge sound studios.
Attending school is arguably the best way to prepare one’s self for this business, as it provides the foundation upon which you may build a solid edifice of real world experience.
WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A SOUND DESIGNER?
- The Evergreen State College is perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the sound design field. It is the school of choice for almost half of the working game audio professionals in the US Northwest. Included in this love fest are the many studio engineers and musicians who have received their educations here as well.
- Vancouver Film School has a Sound Design Program that is known for its professional-level sound design instruction set in a demanding production environment that closely resembles industry reality.
- Emerson College – located in Boston, MA, boasts an intensive program that delves into the theory and practice of all phases of producing creative and professional sound tracks for film, video, and other media forms, preparing students for career opportunities in
audio production and post-production.
- Columbia College Chicago offers comprehensive and well-regarded studies in all areas of film and video. Students may earn degrees in specialized areas such as Audio for Visual Media and Audio Arts and Acoustics, to name just a couple of the concentrations available.
- Berklee College of Music offers degrees in such areas as Music Production & Engineering and many students express that the knowledge and experience gained from the school set them on the path to sound design excellence, be it in feature films or games. Berklee is a highly regarded educational institution.
GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR
With such a wide array of potential duties for a sound designer, how would you know if you have what it takes, namely the inherent talent and requisite knowledge, to be a successful one? Well, certainly having an innate passion for sounds is a very auspicious sign and chances are you’ve already collected an impressive collection of interesting and useable sounds you’ve found in the field, recorded at home or wholly created yourself from disparate and often unlikely sources. This all would be a good indication that you’ve got sound design in your DNA and that your love of sound may reasonably translate into a career choice.
Should you have inbred musical talent, you’ve already got a jump ahead of the competition. Playing instruments and creating music along with the technical ability to run a keyboard patch means that your mind is already familiar with the ins and outs of sound-creation. (These days, as a result of all the latest technological advances, there are innumerable kinds of music software for computers, which allows you to now record, compose, and mix music at home using most keyboards.) Being both a tech and music geek gives you a great base from which to pursue a career in sound design.
Now, don’t worry if you suddenly feel like a Luddite. Be assured that, even without special skills in tech or a solid musical background, you still can attain career success. For starters, having an ear for the subtleties of sound can go a long way. This directly relates to the ability to not only physically hear well, but also to listen well. Having both enables the sound designer to distinguish between the innumerable and often subtle elements of a sound, whether or not you’re musically inclined.
For example, if in a movie you hear a gun go off in an enclosed space, this will generate 4 distinctive sounds that, when reproduced correctly, can greatly contribute to making the experience quite visceral for the filmgoer. Broken down, there is what is often referred to as the “attack,” which is the sound of the hammer hitting the bullet. Next there is the “body” where the sound intensifies and achieves its maximum intensity. The “echo” is the sound wave from the shot as it bounces off interior surfaces and returns to a witness’ ears. Finally, there is what is called the “decay,” in which the sound fades down to silence. If you can hear, differentiate and then analyze each of these categories of sound, you likely have a shot at a career in sound design. Of course there is far more to it than just that. Additional qualities include the ability to be acutely aware of background noise, sound distortion and a myriad of other details far too numerous to list.
As with many professions in the arts, it is incumbent upon the sound designer to put together an impressive compilation of his or her talent and skills. Unless you already are well known in the business and have an established reputation, most of those who are in the position of hiring will require examples of your work. A solid demo reel is the route to proving your mettle. Arguably the most effective method to make a great demo is to showcase a variety of audio vignettes with sounds that you have created or have recorded in the field. By telling a bit of a story utilizing just your sound effects, like the climax to a horse race or perhaps the impact of a roaring tornado on a Kansas farm, you can “wow” prospective employers. What you choose is up to your imagination, so use it! These days ‘reels’ are generally anything from an mp3 or CD to even a DVD (if there are visuals). As time goes on, files that can be shared on the internet through third parties such as Dropbox or via email are becoming the de facto way in which to show your stuff.
Getting started is always the hardest in any art-related profession. Normally it is best to begin with smaller (and often low-paying or pro-bono) work on a local level and then work your way up as you get more experience and add actual professional examples of your output. If you have any friends or friends of friends in the film or gaming businesses who need help with sound, jump on it and offer your services. Also, be sure to look into local sound companies and studios and offer to work for free to gain practical experience. As you build up your skills and experience, you can look for larger and more sophisticated projects that have real budgets. Keep working and building momentum, be pleasant and never give up. Should you have the talent as well as the commitment and perseverance, you will one day find yourself fielding offers and naming your own rate!
Starting out you can also check into online classified or freelance hiring sites, such as Elance or Freelancer, for example. Craigslist, trade websites and publications, headhunters, etc., are all important avenues to investigate. Also cultivate relationships with other sound designers who someday might need help on a project. (Remember that, as an independent contractor, networking skills are essential.) Getting out there and hobnobbing with people in the biz can work wonders. Go to trade shows (like Comic-Con) and join groups and relevant associations that have a focus on film or game audio.
In the world of the arts, experience actually doing the work is generally the best way to learn. It is also hugely beneficial to learn the different audio editing software, like ProTools, Cubase, Digital Performer, Live, or Logic, to name a few. (Free demos are often made available for you to try.) Learning and getting real world experience can be achieved via small gigs, internships, assisting other designers or, better yet, finding a pro who is willing to mentor you. One can also take the route of learning through a formal college education or training program. If you attend university, keep in mind that all the rules and methodology taught can often times stifle creativity. Remember to think outside the proverbial box and to strive for your own uniqueness or signature style. Don’t be tempted by sound libraries when you are learning the ropes; it’s lazy. If you force yourself to create sounds on your own, it is most helpful and informative. Again, always make yourself available to learn from others and to incorporate new and marketable skills. Experiment, have fun and try anything! Accidentally stumbling upon a new and unique sound just might get the attention of the person who is in a position to take you on!
What is often neglected to mention is the need to save your primary instrument- Protect your ears! Find the money to buy a good pair of ear plugs. (Even cheap disposable ones will work in pinch.) Keep them with you always and certainly never attend a concert without them on your person. And one last thing: If you are planning on becoming a film sound designer, you would greatly benefit from a comprehensive education in film-making.
If the thought of manipulating or creating audio elements for film, TV, live theater or video games makes you positively giddy, if you are willing to stick with it and never be discouraged, if you are committed to achieving your goal, and, obviously, if you got the requisite talent and ear for it, then sound design might just be your thing after all.