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Coherent Sound Design

For my first real post, I figured we’d dive right into a meaty subject: coherence in sound designs.

This is something that comes up a lot in discussions I have with other sound designers: How do you create a design for a game, or play, or film, or any sort of media, that feels coherent? What I mean by “coherent” could vary from project to project, but in a nutshell, Iit means a design where every element feels as though it fits in the same world and aesthetic.

I found when I was first starting out in sound design, my work was pretty slapdash: need an ice impact? Okay, I’ll get a good impact sound, and some ice cracks, slap them together and voila, we have an ice impact. Need a dog bark, sure, I’ve got one of those too! It was a matter of crossing items off of a to-do list, rather than thinking of how these individual sounds fit in the bigger picture.

Well, if I said I’d solved this problem completely, I’d be lying. But through discussions and personal experience, I’ve come up with a small handful of techniques that may help create a more coherent result:

1. Start with the essentials. When I’m working on a game or a play, I’ll start by creating an asset list spreadsheet, a no-frills list of what the project needs. This tends to be pretty mechanical, and initially is what I’ve heard called “see a duck” design, as in “see a duck on screen, hear a duck quack”. There’s not a lot in the way of abstract or creative ideas. This is okay. At least until you get the game (or play, etc) under your skin, you need to focus on what’s essential. Take the time to identify what audio is essential to the game experience. In some cases this is obvious, such as combat-heavy games, where audio is an indicator of whether attacks are successful, when the player is in danger, and so on. If it’s a narrative driven game, it’s possible you might want to start with audio associated with the main character, since this is who you want the player to identify with the most. Start with these sounds, and take the time to iterate on them until they feel right, and you’ll have given yourself a strong footing on the sonic identity of the project.

2. Create sonic collages. A “sonic collage” as I define it is a collection of sonic elements with no visual accompaniment. I don’t do these nearly often enough, and they can be immensely helpful for creating a coherent design. A good way to create a sonic collage is with your essential sound effects: your combat sounds, or character sounds, etc. Throw them in a DAW or a sampler program, whatever you prefer, and start playing around with them. Tell a story using only these sounds, with the desired gameplay or mood of the project in mind. I find that creating a through-line with only sound elements can develop your sense of how the project should sound overall. For me, I get a lot of inspiration for audio elements that aren’t hard effects this way, i.e. ambiences, abstract mood-coloring audio elements, and other less obvious sonic components.

3. Determine your hook or pillar. When I first started in theatrical sound design, these were two terms I heard occasionally when talking about cohesive design.

“Hook” generally referred to something that was a creative inroad for your design choices. Hooks can be essential in something like theatrical design, where your sound choices are often a lot more abstract and less presentational than some games demand. For example, I recently worked on a show that was a spiritual successor to Dracula. The show dripped with paranoia and malice. So I latched on to “paranoia” as my hook, and ran with it. I started grabbing sfx that came to mind when I thought of paranoia: sirens, bugs crawling, footsteps drenched in reverb, low unidentifiable drones. Did I use all of these? No, in fact, I don’t think I used any of them. But they started a creative spark that carried me through the project, and that creeping sense of paranoia informed every creative choice I made in the show, even when it came to sonic elements that weren’t inherently paranoid. (Even my “calm daytime birds” sound cue felt more paranoid than normal.)

“Pillar”, on the other hand, is used as a kind of central theme for a sound design. This is a phrase that informs the design, or is the stated purpose for the design. Another show I worked on in rep with the Dracula successor was, appropriately enough, a sort of side story to Frankenstein. The director frequently used a phrase in discussion: “What line separates humanity from monstrosity?” This is a pretty abstract concept, and you could unpack a lot from it, which makes it a great pillar. If you take this approach, write your pillar down and post it up somewhere you can see. Will it inform every choice you make? Probably not, at least not in the way my “paranoia” hook informed my choices, but when I was left uncertain as to whether a sound had the right quality, I looked to that pillar. Even if it didn’t directly apply to what I was working on (for example, I didn’t ask “does this chilly breeze fit the pillar better than this gusty breeze?”), the pillar gave me a sense of the purpose of the play, which in turn filled out my sense of the world in which it took place.

4. Let your collaborators inspire you. This seems obvious, but bears mentioning; If you’re working with others on a project, let their work inspire yours. Grab concept art from the artists, promotional materials from marketing/PR, any kind of documentation you can, and speak to your collaborators about how they see the project. However, I think with this one, you can go a layer deeper. Find out what inspired your collaborators. If the project has a lead creative person, it may be worth asking what movies, or music, or art they looked to as inspiration for the project. Even if the project doesn’t directly mirror the inspirational material, there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate elements that fit the project you’re working on.

5. Keep a reference handy. Ahh, finally something less theoretical! This also seems a little obvious, but once you get into the full-bore creative phase of the project, make sure to keep a “keystone” sound available in any of your audio sessions. This could be one of your essential sounds, or something you’ve developed along the way. I find that some ambiences work well for this, as you can easily play any SFX over them and get a feel for whether they fit the world. This seems like a simple technique, but it’s easy to tell yourself it’s not worth the hassle or that you’ll “know” whether what you’re working on really fits, but why not have a reference at hand to check against at all times? It will save you time in the long run, as it’ll likely prevent you from having to export a sound, put it in a game, find out it doesn’t fit after all, and go back to the drawing board.

 

Now one thing you’ve likely noticed, reading through these, is that all this advice is very front-loaded, in terms of a project’s timeline. There’s a reason for that! If you’re working on a game that’s well into a beta, or in tech for a show, you may already be too deep into the project to give serious consideration to how coherent the design is. Time is always limited on any project, so the best thing you can do is make sure you have as much time up front to carve out an identity for the sound in your project, rather than scramble for enough time to fix the inconsistencies further down the line.

I hope these tips help you think about your projects, and their sound, in a more holistic way. How do you keep a design coherent? Leave a comment, or find me on Twitter and start a conversation!

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