How to Become a Sound Designer

What it means to be a sound designer varies depending on the area to which you are drawn and/or have had some previous work experience. Essentially, being a sound designer requires that one be intrigued and even enthused by the science of sound. It is a multifaceted and highly varied craft that has a massive impact on films, TV series, and video games.

In film and television there are very specialized audio tasks, yet a sound designer often works closely with the director helping to create and shape a movie’s entire soundtrack. A sound designer may also simply be an individual who can come up with specific sounds that are needed like the whoosh of an alien space craft as it zips over the landscape or the shriek of a dragon in some fantasy world setting.

A sound designer is not only running these kinds of special assignments and/or heading the overall soundtrack creation but is also charged with bringing in professionals who can work such sub-categories like foley (the reproduction of everyday sound effects for film, video, and other media), editing and mixing, and the recording of unique sounds out in the world.

The amount of work the sound designer is tasked with varies from one project to another. A big action movie will always demand more sound than say a simple character-driven romance. And a sound designer is not immune to the pressures and stress that are common on a working set. Tight schedules can really make for a very hectic and harried span of weeks for the sound designer. Essentially, the larger and more elaborate the production, the more highly trained professionals it will require to ensure success.

Sometimes neglected for mention are sound design opportunities in live theater. It can indeed be creatively rewarding, but it is not an area of plentiful job availability. The basic tasks of a sound designer who is in live theater can be divided into 7 categories.

However, an area in which sound designers are in really big demand is the video gaming industry. Games are a wholly different world for the sound designer. A ‘sound designer’ can pretty much be an accurate label for anyone working on the game production who is not a ‘composer’ or a ‘programmer’ of audio. Once upon a time, in gaming’s infancy, a sound designer basically was the one person who really did everything audio-related on a given project. These days, smaller and independent projects still usually utilize just one person in order to contain production costs. In these instances one has more creative freedom but also far more work, time stress and a huge load of responsibility falling upon his or her proverbial shoulders. Larger projects will generally utilize far more personnel with separate audio directors, composers, sound designers, field recorders, audio editors and the like being employed. What many fail to understand is that, in the gaming industry, sound designers are still expected to not only craft all the sound effects but to also be the person in the field capturing the specific sounds needed for the sound elements; he or she will likely be expected to be the aforementioned Foley artist and the one to handle all the sounds required for following the game-play action, in short the person expected to provide all the cinematic sound qualities expected by game creators and players alike.

The infographic below will give you a good overview of the industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Matt Longoria

Beatstreet Productions

Quick Look Bio

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I had a passion for sound and technology from a young age. As a teenager in California, I got really into music and played drums in local bands, which led to going into recording studios for band demos. The experience planted the idea of doing audio work for a living.After high school and a short stint in college, I moved to NYC and played around in the music scene. A couple years later I enrolled in the SAE Institute of Technology with the intention of becoming a music producer/ audio engineer. It was there that I learned of a related audio career: sound design and audio post-production.

While at SAE, I first had an internship at a music production studio in New York and got a taste of the music production world. After graduation, I began a new internship at Beatstreet Productions, an audio post facility. As this internship progressed, I was given small sound design assignments and did well; this lead to further assignments. Eventually, I became the go-to sound designer at Beatstreet, was promoted to full engineer, and was able to quit my side job as a waiter (yay!).

Although I originally pursued a career in audio with the idea of becoming a music producer, I soon found that sound design, Foley, and other aspects of audio post-production can be just as creative – if not more.

I am currently chief engineer at Beatstreet. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly talented voice talents, producers, and songwriters, which usually helps the long studio sessions go by quickly!

After a couple nominations, I won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing for The Electric Company on PBS in 2010. That was definitely a high point in my career so far!

Advice

Stay in school
Internships and entry level jobs are really where most audio engineers learn the ropes. Audio schools, like the one that I went to, are great for general skills, for networking, and for considering career paths, but schooling like this is not always essential.

Be ready to pay your dues
In my case, I was very lucky to find a position that I was well suited for right out of school, but I also had room to grow beyond the entry level job. For anyone interested in this field, be ready to pay your dues in the early years – make coffee for clients, answer phones, clean up after a session, and practice, practice, practice your technical skills.

Keep an open mind
Be open-minded about what kinds of audio jobs you will go after. You may find a job that is very different than what you imagined you’d be doing and end up falling in love with it.

Excel at customer service
Treat your clients with care and respect. You need to make them feel well taken care of during the process. Doing the job well is not enough to ensure repeat business.

Be accessible
Have a presence on social media. Have a website. When you get an email from a prospective client, respond immediately.

Stand out
Having some projects under your belt is crucial to separating yourself from other applicants. People post no-pay crew positions to mandy.com and Craigslist. Those can be a great way to start developing sound design technique. It can also be a good way to start making connections.

Wendy Grimm

Sound Designer

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I first truly fell in love with sound after a high school friend convinced me to join the tech team for the school play. I had known for a while that I wanted to work in the film industry but hadn’t found any particular position that felt right until I was put behind a soundboard.My high school art teacher introduced me to Savannah College of Art and Design because she had heard they had some kind of sound program. I had never heard of the school before then. Their program looked fun and exciting, so I enrolled. I got much more than I had expected. Their facilities and professors are world-class. From the first day of my first sound design class, I was already editing and designing.

Loving all aspects of sound design, I became heavily involved in the college’s radio station, SCAD Radio. In addition to being a DJ, I also became the station’s Sports Director and produced a variety of sporting events and a weekly sports talk show.

I next interned with Clear Channel radio during my senior year and was offered a job after graduation. I declined it though, aiming for something in the film industry instead. In 2009, I received my B.F.A. in Sound Design from SCAD.

My first break was complete chance. I was on a plane coming back from a trip, and the man across the aisle started up a conversation with me about my sweatshirt. It ended up that the man’s brother-in-law was a prominent music re-recording mixer in the L.A. area. I gave the man my card and asked him to please pass it along to his brother-in-law. About a month later when I had moved to CA, I received an email from the brother-in-law asking to interview me for a position as his personal assistant. From working with him, I was able to learn first-hand a lot of information about the industry, go to studios, and meet people that would have been virtually impossible otherwise.

My next job was at Kings Soundworks. Here, I got to learn a lot about post-production sound for television, in addition to film sound. I loved working in the studio, but the hours could be tough. Vacations and travel are hard to plan since you’re at the mercy of the production’s schedule. If their plans changed, yours had to change. I love traveling, so I knew this would be a problem. That’s when I made the move to freelance.

I have been freelancing for a few years now, and I enjoy it. You have to diligently seek new projects, or work has a tendency to get sparse. Freelancing has its own unique set of challenges, but being able to choose which projects you work on and set your hours makes it worth it. Unless I find a studio that lets me work remotely, I will likely be sticking with freelancing for the foreseeable future.

Advice

Education is important
With audio editing software and other resources becoming more readily available, you certainly don’t have to have a formal education to get into the industry, but it definitely helps. It’s worth the time and money just for the connections that you’ll make and your friendships with your classmates will turn into assets when you are all working in the industry.

Then there’s the professors- Not only have these guys been out there and done it, they know a lot of other people who are still in the trenches and can help you advance your career. At SCAD, I got to spend time with Oscar and Emmy winners on a regular basis. They were all always happy to share names and numbers of other professionals for me to contact, Personal recommendations like those are priceless.

Make friends
The top of my list is to build relationships. Make friends. The old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” couldn’t be more true. Every job I have had in the field of sound has come directly from a personal connection that I’ve had with someone. People hire people they like, plain and simple. Go to industry events and talk to people, but also talk to people at your neighbor’s cookout. You never know who knows someone that will be able to recommend you for a project.

You’re going to need a demo reel
Have a great demo reel. Résumés are great, but what everyone is really going to be looking at, or listening to rather, is your demo reel. Keep it short, one to three minutes, but use it to really showcase your skills. If your focus is on dialogue editing, include before and after clips. This is your chance to wow them. Use your best stuff.

Keep learning

Never stop learning your craft. The sound design industry has gone digital, which means it changes daily. Keep up with what’s going on in the industry and what new tools are being developed. Pay attention to the innovations of your peers. If you’re in a position where you don’t have much creative license, take on a side project that will let you experiment with new sounds and processing techniques.

Get an internship
There are always unpaid projects available. They’re easy enough to find online, but if you’re still having trouble, reach out to a film school. Working on student projects gives you the opportunity to build your demo reel and make connections with people.

You might have to have another job on the side for a while to pay the bills, but that’s common. Once you have a great demo reel, start reaching out to people directly. If you’re interested in freelance, reach out to producers and directors. Find out what projects they have coming up and see if your services could benefit them.

If you’d rather go the studio route, reach out to editors and mixers within the studios themselves. Request a personal meeting to learn more about what they do and for advice, or take them to lunch. Most people will be happy to oblige. Establishing a relationship with an editor will get you much farther than sending a résumé to the hiring department.

Sam Crutcher

Sound Designer

Quick Look Bio

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  • Sam Crutcher
  • Los Angeles, CA
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My father’s father and my father both had careers in the motion picture film industry (my grandfather in the negative labs and my father in picture and sound editing). I began going with my father in the mid ‘50’s to the “studio” editing rooms and watching him work as a very young boy. I would play with film reels, cores and film equipment. I wanted to work in the “industry” despite my father’s admonitions not to and had my first apprentice position when I was 18 years old (which he helped me to get).I worked hard and had a knowledge of the ‘tools and equipment’ thus enabling me to work quickly and efficiently. I was so fast and efficient at being a good assistant that I moved up to an editing position. This also meant the team or crew could not easily replace me with someone of equal abilities without some difficulty. I continued to show an ability to understand and communicate what was required to be an editor and eventually had my first paid position as an editor after 10 years first as an apprentice and then an assistant.

I was fortunate enough to work in feature films for over 20 years as a sound editor and sound designer with and for some very talented and knowledgeable sound editors who had a variety of well known clients and worked on some very big-budget, well directed and highly regarded films of the day (late 70’s to the mid 90’s). After the industry experienced a complete gear change technologically (going from analog to digital in the feature film area primarily) I ‘re-learned’ my craft on those new tools (editing platforms/stations/programs) and found work in the television part of the business.

Overall, I worked in the post-production sound business for 44 years, 35 years as a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) and just recently retired (mid 2014).

Advice

On education
I do not recommend it as a necessity, but I do encourage it. Primarily for the expertise you can gain with the newest technologies that are always evolving and changing (and perhaps improving?) and the ability to ‘network’ with other like-minded persons, as well as others who will eventually work in other parts of the business. Also, if you are not 100% sure of which part of the industry you are especially suited for, this may a good way to explore and discover what works for each individual. The equipment and tools are so inexpensive now and you can do so much at home without having to lay out tens of thousands of dollars. With that you should get some software and start experimenting on your own… Take a class if you can at a local vocational school/college.

Just get in there
Find out where the work is being done, and ask if you can sit in and watch and ask questions. Get an intern position on a studio lot (this goes for ANY job you might want in the “biz”), paid or unpaid, and start investigating the process involved in learning what it is you would need to know to get someone interested in helping you.

More ideas
Perhaps cut some tracks/sound effects for a ‘portfolio’ piece so that maybe someone might notice or take an interest in your abilities. Find ‘Mom & Pop’ dub and or foley facilities and beg for a janitorial job (no really, anything to get your foot in the door right?).

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Sound Designer?


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.