In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Film Sound Design

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Cinema and Media Studies Film Sound Design
Laura Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0168


Sound design is a relatively recent term, first used to credit Walter Murch’s work on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Murch has frequently drawn an analogy between how he perceived his role as decorating the three-dimensional film theater with sound and the work of an interior designer who decorates an architectural space (LoBrutto 1994, p. 92, cited under Key Practitioners: Compilations). Sound design is also a topic of increasing interest within film music scholarship, particularly its history and how it might be analyzed. The history of sound design is inextricably bound up with the history of technology, notably the emergence of Dolby in the 1970s. In his Oxford Bibliographies article “Music and Cinema, Classical Hollywood,” David Neumeyer noted in the introduction that the end of the Classical Hollywood era could be situated c. 1972 when the “contemporary era of sound design began in earnest,” and this particular period is indeed crucial. Yet, this is not to suggest that the history of film sound design is brief; in fact, it has a long history of antecedents that have shaped the role of the sound designer into a somewhat fluid concept. As of the early 21st century, no consensus has been reached on the definition of “sound design” in current research; however, the distinction between sound design as the work of one individual as opposed to a mode of practice is apparent. Furthermore, “sound designer” also has a professional meaning; in the United States the labor union defines the sound designer as a person who designs the sound effects. Some scholars expound this relatively narrow definition of sound design as akin to sound effects editing in the post-production process, whereas others see it as a broad undertaking, concerned with every aspect of the sonic environment. Murch encourages a broader definition of the sound designer as “someone who plans, creates the sound effects and mixes the final soundtrack, and thereby takes responsibility for the sound of a film the way a director of photography takes responsibility for the image” (Murch 1995, p. 246, cited under Key Practitioners: Articles). Sound design can encapsulate all components of film sound, including music, dialogue, sound effects, and voiceovers. This holistic understanding of the term is reflected in a significant interdisciplinary edition that takes the concept of the integrated soundtrack as a central theme (Greene and Kulezic-Wilson 2016, cited under Analyzing Film Sound Design). Sound design can involve conceptualization and practical efforts as well as cooperation with the director, producer, composer, editors, and other creative personnel. Sound designer Randy Thom has highlighted the importance of developing opportunities for the creative use of sound when making a film and has appealed for filmmakers to design their films for sound (Thom 1999, cited under Key Practitioners: Articles). The combination of creativity, technical expertise, and the ability to conceptualize innovative interactions between sound and image inherent in the concept is reflected in the very title of “sound designer,” a label that is not officially recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards. With the growing popularity of the term among some industry professionals, it is becoming common for sound artists to claim the credit “sound designer” in addition to those for recognized roles such as “sound editor” or “re-recording engineer” (Whittington 2007, p. 26, cited under Histories and Definitions of Sound Design). Within film music studies, the concept of sound design is increasingly used as a filter for analysis of a film’s soundscape, and thus publications now address how to analyze more complex film soundtracks. The focus of this article is divided into three broad strands: textbooks that give practical and technical direction for film sound design or aspects of it, literature on the history of sound design and the purview of the sound designer, and publications about and interviews with key practitioners.

Practical and Technical Textbooks

A wide range of textbooks are available that give practical and technical direction for various aspects of sound design, such as recording and post-production processes. The following selections present advice to practitioners, while offering a window into the nature of the creativity required by a sound designer and the types of decisions that he or she might make as part of a wider team working on a film project. Gibbs 2007 presents a broad overview of sound design by way of an analogy with visual design. Sonnenschein 2001 offers a step-by-step guide through the processes of sound design, with emphasis on storytelling, while Winters 2017 offers equally detailed guidance with relevance to filmmakers working within limited budgets. Holman 2002, Farnell 2010, and Yewdall 2012 address sound creation and production and pay greater attention to engaging with technology. Holman combines focus on the physics of sound and psychoacoustics with details of all stages of the recording, production, and post-production processes. Yewdall also covers all stages of motion picture sound in great detail, and he brings together his personal experience with a broad range of expertise offered from others in the field. Farnell offers a theoretical introduction to sound but is particularly focused on creating synthetic sounds using software. Rose 2008 and Wyatt and Amyes 2005 are concerned specifically with post-production processes.

  • Farnell, Andy. Designing Sound. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010.

    Aimed at those who wish to learn how to generate synthetic sounds for creative use. The text encompasses theoretical information about physics, acoustics, and psychoacoustics. Presents a sound design model supported by physical, mathematical, and psychological knowledge. Recommends use of Pure Data software and provides practical information and examples.

  • Gibbs, Tony. The Fundamentals of Sonic Art and Sound Design. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA, 2007.

    Offers a broad overview of the history of sonic art and provides a focus on key points in the history of film sound design, such as developments in technology and links to musique concrète and electronic music. The text is interspersed with helpful timelines, color photographs, and illustrations.

  • Holman, Tomlinson. Sound for Film and Television. 2d ed. Burlington, MA: Elsevier, 2002.

    Outlines principles behind sound, including the physics of sound production and reception, and details the processes behind sound creation and recording through post-production to the exhibition stage. The book is divided into levels of varying depth so that readers can select the material most relevant to them.

  • Kaye, Deena, and James LeBrecht. Sound and Music for the Theatre. 3d ed. Boston: Focal Press, 2009.

    Although focused on theater, much of this book is relevant for film, particularly the emphasis on the artistic aspects of sound design. The text offers advice on how to be creative with sound in planning a design and considers closely how variations of the elements in sound design can have an impact on an audience.

  • Rose, Jay. Audio Postproduction for Film and Video. 2d ed. Burlington, MA: Elsevier, 2008.

    Aimed at both students and professionals. Includes accessible instructions as well as information on problem solving. Outlines basics of digital sound, setting up a post-production workspace, handling elements of the soundtrack, and shaping the outcome. Includes “cookbooks”: instructions for common operations and a CD of tutorials and examples.

  • Sonnenschein, David. Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese, 2001.

    Useful for learning about creative and practical processes of film sound design. Focuses on narrative aspects of sound and provides step-by-step advice on how to approach designing sound for a film including what to “listen” for when reading scripts, how to construct a sound map as an aid, and what is involved in post-production.

  • Winters, Patrick. Sound Design for Low and No Budget Films. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315733425

    Taking a holistic view of sound design and stressing the importance of good sound for a film’s production value, Winters offers practical guidance to filmmakers working with limited budgets. Chapter 3 is dedicated to sound design but all chapters will be of interest to practitioners taking charge of their own film soundscapes.

  • Wyatt, Hilary, and Tim Amyes. Audio Post Production for Television and Film: An Introduction to Technology and Techniques. 3d ed. Oxford: Focal Press, 2005.

    Clear, readable guide to professional editing. It is divided into two sections: the first deals with basic technology behind audio post-production, whereas the second traces the post-production processes from recording to exhibition. Chapter 10 focuses on digital audio workstations.

  • Yewdall, David Lewis. Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound. 4th ed. Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2012.

    Highly detailed textbook that outlines all aspects of the film sound production processes. Yewdall writes from the perspective of an experienced professional, and the book is full of personal insights and sections in which other professionals share their experiences and anecdotes from the industry.

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