23rd May 2014: What is Sound Design? (explained in under 60 minutes)
I'm a sound designer. It's something I do for fun and/or money. I got my Master of Arts diploma from Theatre academy in Helsinki, the department of sound and light design, in 2009 (btw I never remember how to write the name and or other MA stuff correctly but I'm sure you understand what I mean, right). The school was pretty concentrated on becoming an artist of sorts, and less on the technical matters, although it's hard (but not impossible) to work with sound if you don't know how to use your tools.
Yeah so, why not talk about that, then? I love doing it. The feeling of sitting down in front of a digital workstation at a studio, everything silent around you, no distractions, beautiful sounds flying around your head in the room, it's amazing. That's why I do it for friends for little or no money, and, on the other hand, why I don't have any problem putting together sounds for, say, a toothpaste commercial.
I use sound in my artistic practice, as is evident if you check out Antagon's SoundCloud pages, which hosts a bunch of monologues and audio diaries. Originally, that page was opened for Antagon biennale, but since it's not active at the moment, I've been flooding its account with these recordings, which I also love to do. I enjoy talking and editing. Saying stuff and then adding reverb and bird singing to it. Being in one place then going to another.
What is sound design? First of all, it's very easy, like amazingly so. Amazing is one my favourite words. Also, I don't really know that many adjectives to begin with. So I guess I'm stupid. And I still know how to design sound. This means you'd learn it in a hearbeat.
Stuff you need to consider when doing sound design:
- Make sure the source material is what you want: like if you're recording someone speaking, do it well so you don't have to come up with stupid tricks later on. If someone else is doing it for you, then make sure they know what they're doing. A lot of times it doesn't matter, so don't overstress or -do it, either. Or if you're doing film sound and you need to use the so-called hunt sound (ie. sound that's being recorded on the shoot), then understand that correcting the original field recordings is insanely annoying.
- Do not care about conventions, they mean nothing but are just stuff people refer to when they're scared, unsure, or inexperienced. Check out some old movies like I don't know Fellini or like new video art and see how little they care(d) whether all the foley sounds (= effects, like footsteps, sounds of animals etc) or ambiences (= environmental sounds) were on place or not. If you're making art, you can always do whatever, like just whatever. If you're making commercials then more so, but of course the client who pays you decides what she wants to hear, so it's different. There are absolutely no rules when it comes to the relation of moving image and sound, or sound in theatre plays, or how radio plays should be done. FUCK LOGIC USE MAGIC. No one cares if you can do absolutely credible real-life-but-just-better-sounding effects, but everyone is interested if your actors' voices are replaced with that of a mechanical duck. Although lipsync I like, then again Keren Cytter's videos are amazing because of the off-lipsync (not the only reason though, but just saying).
- Don't think about which microphones to use, unless you're doing something where it's absolutely crucial (can't think of anything except live sound to be honest, but then again I do my own thing and don't know why others do what they do). Just use whatever you can find. Same goes for audio software, plugins (= reverb, delay, etc), hardware (=mixers, speakers). If you buy a pair of speakers and use them to mix your stuff, then you'll probably learn how they sound and after some time you know how to use them to do solid mixes that work for all purposes. Just remember to listen to your stuff from different speakers and headphones. Again, this is not always that important, depends what you're doing.
- If you do video art, mix everything to max volume and you know, so that it generally sounds good. People might show your works in highly varying conditions, so the only thing you can do is to take care of your end. A lot of people still don't do this and it can give you an advantage when all the other works are like muddy and quiet and then there's your work, shining like a diamond. :D
- When you work with other people, make sure you have backups, that you name your files in an understandable manner (example: yourwork-20140524_mix_version1.mp3), and do stick to a chosen logic all through the project. When the project is done, check that your files are in order and all the audio files that the session files are referring to are there in the folder. Like, be tidy, it makes going back to the projects so much more easier. If it's your own stuff, then you of course have the right to not care about this. But consistensy and orderly working methods are really amazing things let me tell you.
- Don't waste too much time on pre-planning when you know the only way to do is to, well, do it. Like trying to think what kind of sounds to use in a theatre play is 99% of the cases absolutely meaningless, since you can only know whether the stuff works or not by going to the rehearsals and trying out your idea with the actors and other people. Sometimes pre-planning can save a lot of time, like if you have a field recording day, then bring extra batteries, extra cables, extra memory cards, tape because you always need to tape something to something. Shit like that saves the day, believe me. Not that I'm that experienced, but this is the truth everyone learns after their 1st or 2nd trick if they have anything going on. Also, don't try do too much stuff at one. Always overestimate the time, never underestimate. Unless you don't mind how things go, then you can do whatever and just be happy with whatever material you get out of it.
- People say "there are no rules to mixing, use your ears". This is not true. Check out tutorials on how to mix vocals, how to reduce noise, how to compress things together to gain maximum volume, and so on.
- Don't be afraid, just do whatever as long as you're respectful and emphatetic towards other people. If you don't know what empathy is or can't accept compromises, avoid group work.
- There's no way to "check all potential solutions". There's like 20000000000000+ recordings of a dog barking to be found in the internet. Accept the fact that whatever material youre checking out, it's never a all-encompassing, full take on what's out there, but just random snippets you've bumped into.
- Sounds mean stuff, that's important too. But sometimes it's all the same what sounds you use. Not doing anything is a great option, too.
- Finally, audio software and equipment is very easy to use. Check out tutorials, ask your friends, sit down and have some willpower. If you've used a computer before, and can use Photoshop or some other design program, then learning to use Ableton Live, for example, will take you a day or two. But if you don't know stuff, don't ever pretend like you do know, because that's always million times more awkward than not knowing.
- I prefer to use sounds that are very concrete and easily recognizable, because then the listener will understand what I'm doing. Abstract sounds are meant for relaxation and academic research.
Ok, that's all I know.
This didn't take me an hour, more like 30 minutes, so I quit now.
I do have a feeling I've forgotten something, like maybe about the sociological side of sound design, or the politics of sound, but yeah maybe more next time.
Monologue of the day: