HITHER GATE MUSIC                     with additional funding from
North Wiltshire District Council

Study Guide for Workshops in Sound Design

by Archer Endrich

PURPOSE the role of the sound designer in
films etc. & music
RECORDING TECHNIQUES recording sounds and transferring
to computer
LISTENING sounds: hearing, listening, imagination
AUDIO & VISUAL IMAGES how sounds and images can interact
SOUND TRANSFORMATIONS how sounds can be altered and developed,
using computer technology
MUSICALITY the way basic form archetypes can help
make sounds more emotive

The Purpose & Context of 'Sound Design'


When we are absorbed in a radio programme, TV show, film, animation or video, we are so much absorbed by the images and action, that we tend not even to notice the music that is often accompanying the story. And woven into the music, there are just as often many sounds, both familiar and strange. These sounds are seldom just recordings of real-life action.

These sounds are in fact carefully chosen and developed in order to support and increase the emotional effect of the action. This work is done by a person known as the 'sound designer', who may be the same as the composer of the music, or a separate individual. The role of the sound designer is now an accepted and standard part of the creation of sound tracks.

Another important new role is that of foley artist. 'Foley' sounds are those which accompany the movements of the actors which make noises, such as footsteps or a creaking chair. These are normally not the natural sounds made by the actors. Usually they are specially created by foley artists and held on a separate audio track. It takes tremendous ingenuity and skill to think how to duplicate natural sounds and then do so in sync with the action. For example, the sound of all those punches in films is not created by knuckle on bone, but by hitting thick beef steaks or crushing melons. [based on Sonnenschein, p.41].

Thus the music and sounds weave an emotional fabric which enhances the experience of what we see, and often guides how we interpret what we see, e.g., as benevolent or as sinister.

Having said this, it is also important to realise that composers today are using sounds to create large-scale pieces of music. This usually (but not always) involves extensive sound generation and processing techniques. Both for composer and for listener, this involves coming to terms with a whole new musical aesthetic.

Exploring sound transformation techniques will be the main focus of these Sound Design Workshops. Fantastic things can now be done to transform and develop sounds. These processing techniques can be used to create and hone sound effects as well as to create passages and whole pieces of music using sounds, or a mixture of sounds and musical instruments. They therefore form the core toolset and primary innovative area of sound work today. The purpose of the Workshops is to introduce participants to some of the amazing possibilities available, and in the process point towards the various career opportunities for sonic artists.


Here are a few of the top sound designers of our time and a little bit about their work and approach:


These few examples tell us a number of things:

Basic Considerations & Techniques of Sound Recording


OK, so let's get some sounds to study, explore and use. There are many CDs of sound samples available. It is useful when these can be used – but then, after transferring the sound from the CD to the computer's hard disk, some transformations of the original are often needed. For many foley, period, or imaginary sounds, actual field recording is the only way to achieve what you want. For the purposes of this workshop, making our own recording provides a useful way to connect the original sound with what happens to it when it is transformed.



For professional sound designers, recording techniques are a major issue, and great expertise is brought to bear on getting the right recording for the intended purpose: ambient sounds, specific sounds recorded on location, such as those made by period engines or other machines, foley sounds, vocal sounds, and instrumental sounds.

Recording for our Workshops on Sound Design are, in effect, field recordings, using an electret condenser microphone with cardioid directionality, and the discrete preamp facilities of the Focusrite Trakmaster Channel Strip (includes a high pass filter and 48V power). We may also do some close miking with a contact microphone, depending on what sound-making objects are brought along and what scenarios are envisioned by the participants.

The recording will be captured directly on hard disk, with the computer's sound card converting the analogue signal to a digital bit-stream. Thus the recording path is: sound-making object –> microphone –> Trakmaster preamp –> sound card –> hard disk. The post-processing described above will then be done on computer. Alternatively, the recording can be captured on cassette or minidisc and then transferred to the computer. A decent field microphone and minidisc recorder are now adequate for all but the most professional field recording situations.

The main things we will need to pay attention to are:

The Act of Listening


Hearing, listening, and imagining are not the same thing.

  1. Hearing: There can be sounds around us that we don't hear at all. We can also notice sounds – hear them – but take them for granted and scarcely pay attention to them.

  2. Listening: At other times, we can pay close attention to sounds. This is especially the case when being aware of them is important for our survival: e.g., the sound of an oncoming car, or that of a dangerous animal in the wild. The sound designer listens to sounds with acute perception and awareness of their emotional impact.

  3. Imagining: This is inner listening. We can conjure up remembered sounds and listen to them, such as a favourite song or the sound of a clarinet. We may even use our imaginative powers to enhance the remembered sounds, e.g., hear an old record without its clicks and pops. Furthermore, we can create new, previously unheard sounds in our aural imagination. The sound designer often has to do this, either to get a composite or transformed sound 'just right', or to create a sound for a new situation, such as someone moving about on Mars.


To help improve our ability to listen closely to sounds, we can think about the qualities and parameters of sound. Here are some suggestions.


Finally, try some of these listening exercises. ...

  1. Silence – Perhaps the most important exercise of all is experiencing silence. Stop what you are doing, stand still or lie down and breathe deeply and slowly for a while. Then make as little noise as possible yourself and just listen. Try this at different times of day and night. Afterwards, write down what you have heard.

  2. Draw – Listen to or think of a sound and try to draw a picture of it. What qualities have you picked up on for your sonic image?

  3. Describe – Listen to a sound and write down what you hear as fully as possible. E.g., a fan, a motor, a train, a washing machine, a food mixer, a coffee machine, birdsong, a dog or cat, knives & forks and people eating...

  4. Compare – Listen to two different sounds and compare them: how are they alike and how do they differ?

  5. Go inside – Consider a sound you are hearing or remember hearing. Now place yourself inside that sound and you are hearing what it sounds like from the inside (and very close up!).

  6. The unknown – Think of something happening that has never happened before, or that makes a sound outside your experience: i.e., you don't know what kind of sound it makes or might make. Spend a few moments imagining what that sound might be – and then think what you might do to make such a sound.

  7. Vocalise – Make as many wierd and wonderful sounds as you can with your own voice.

  8. Research – As you go through a normal day, carry a notepad with you and write down all the sounds you hear, jotting down a brief description in a few words.

Varied Relationships between Sonic & Visual Images


"The juxtaposition of image and music is fascinating. The chemical combination of the two produces a third, greater, effect and it's the understanding of the parameters of music that allows you to shape that emotional effect. Music works on a subliminal emotional level and it gives you access to that most powerful aspect of entertainment – peoples' imagination." (Trevor Jones, in Audio Media, Sept. 02)

The brain receives information from the senses and has to turn that information into something meaningful: i.e., it has to interpret the data. The process of interpretation follows different pathways in the mechanism of the brain for visual and for audio information. Visual information makes a double loop before the interpretation is finalised, whereas audio information goes straight to the emotional centres of the body, such as along the vagus nerve, which runs from the ear to the solar plexus. Thus music and sound provide an emotional colouration which is direct and essentially different from what is seen. As it happens more directly and therefore more quickly, this emotional colouration becomes part of how the visual images are interpreted. Besides adding excitement or gentleness, the character of the music & sound can make the same scene seem tranquil or ominous. This is why it is such an important part of the whole experience.



There are, then, many considerations and possibilities when putting together the sound and the image. We can summarise these as:

A Selection of Sound Transformation Functions


We now come to the core of our work, where we will explore a group of sound processing techniques, and use them to point in the direction of many more. Having recorded our sound or selected our sample, we now set about the task of adapting it to the emotional and dramatic requirements of our image/scenario.

Transformation processes take place in two essentially different domains.

  1. The time-domain manipulates the e.g., 44100 samples per second, which can be imagined as a string of beads which capture the amplitude of the sound at the time that each bead occurs. Thus time and amplitude are the key components. (I don't know how it can do this any more than I understand how the grooves of a record can capture the sound of a whole orchestra.)

  2. The spectral-domain manipulates windows of analysis data. Analysis is a process by which the time and amplitude data of the samples is converted into frequency and amplitude data. It does this in a series of frequency bands (called 'channels') from low to high, seeing what there is in each band and making a note of it – sometimes a channel is empty). 'Frequency' in this context means pitches, all the pitch content which a sound might contain: a fundamental frequency, harmonic and inharmonic partials. This can be imagined as a complex layer cake of pitches. This pitch content is what gives the sound its 'tone colour', and it is usually changing all the time during the duration of a sound, thus creating a 'timbral envelope'.

The purpose is to give some idea of what is now possible and enjoy some surprises as the transformations do their work altering the original sound. Extensive and refined experience with using techniques such as these makes it possible to hone sounds to the nth degree, whether to add a bit of bite to a drum sound or create something utterly strange.


We go into the spectral domain for this technique. The sound has been 'analyzed' into a series of (overlapping) windows, each of which contains frequency and amplitude data. Here we decide how many windows to have in a group (the blur factor), and the software averages all the data within each group, thus blurring the sound.
The amplitude 'envelope' gives the loudness contour of the overall sound. One can extract this loudness contour envelope from one sound and impose it onto a different sound. Or a hand-crafted envelope can be superimposed.
A sound has many frequencies in it, from low to high. Filtering enables us to set a level above which we remove the frequences, thus keeping the lower ones (= low-pass), or a level below which we remove the frequencies, thus keeping the higher ones (= high-pass). This is not done with a sharp edge, but with a gradual slope, known as Q. Q can be quite steep or fairly gradual. If steep, the retained band is more restricted and single tones may emerge. If fairly gradual, more of the original sound comes through.
This is a way of texturing the surface of the sound. The original sound is broken up into very tiny grains, like grinding up a cube of sugar until it is a pile or grains, or even a fine powder. Then there are lots of ways to play with these grains on an individual basis, such as by changing their size, degree of repetition (time-stretching), pitch level, amplitude (loudness) or spatial location. The results can vary from fine grainy 'lines' of sound to huge, complex textures.
Two (or more) different sounds can be combined by interleaving them, a section of one followed by a section of the other. These sections can be tiny or somewhat larger, a fine or a coarse texture resulting. Fine waverings, sharp contrasts, deep churning can all be achieved with this function.
Here we are focusing on breaking a sound into small sections – but not as tiny as 'grains' – and then looping not the whole sound but each segment. This can be done while separating the segments in time, or having them overlap.
This function operates in the time domain, where lowering the sound deepens the tone while elongating it, and raising it thins the tone while shortening it: e.g., growling low voices or mice-like high voices. The transposition can also take place gradually, over a specified period of time, thus producing a rising or falling glissando.
This is a strange process usually full of surprises. The software compares the analysis windows of several files for loudness, and keeps, on a window to window basis, only the window of the loudest file. The result is a sound made up of only the loudest windows from the various inputs. This produces a seamless mix of the files, but you can never tell in advance just which parts of each will be retained.
The sound plays starting at the end and moving towards the beginning, i.e., backwards. The most noticeable audio feature of reversal is the amplitude contour. For example, piano tones begin sharply and then fade (they are really percussive sounds). When reversed, the volume rises slowly as it fades in, sounding very much like an organ, but then it ends abruptly. The spoken word is altered to a surprising degree, mainly due to the reversal of consonants.
This is a simple process in which the original frequencies in a sound are separated by both adding and subtracting a given value. This can make the sound appear to be 'hollow'.
In this case, we not only segment the sound, but also jumble up the order of these segments. If the segments are taken from places near each other, the sound may not change all that much, but if from distant locations, it will soon become something quite different.
This process takes most or a part of the frequencies of a sound and moves them up or down, leaving the remaining frequencies in place. Because it is a spectral process, the duration of the sound is not changed, but the tonal qualities are. When the shift takes place over a specified length of time, the effect creates glissandi inside the sound.
A sound can be repeated simply by splicing copies of it end to end. Several soundfiles can be put together end to end, making one long, changing, sound. Reversed soundfiles can be included with ones going forward. This is one way to develop sound material to input to other sound transformations.
A sound can be extended in time by various means, but this particular technique is in the spectral domain and enables the sound to become longer (or shorter) without changing its pitch. This elongation at the same pitch stretches out the spectral envelope so that it evolves more slowly. Imagine words being spoken very slowly so that every sound and syllable is ddd-rrr-aaww-nnnn out.
Also in the spectral domain, we can thin out a sound by deciding how many of the loudest frequencies to retain (as found in the analysis channels), and remove all the rest. If we retain about half or even a quarter of the frequencies, the sound might just sound a bit 'cleaner', but if we reduce the number to something under 25 channels, we start to get just a 'trace' of the original sound.
Among many possible ways to distort a sound, we will be using a wavecycle method. Wavecycles are irregularly sized portions of soundfile between 'zero-crossings' (where the amplitude curve passes from positive to negative and v.v.s). When these wavecycles of varying durations are manipulated, the irregularity produces distortion.


There is a wonderfully extravagant guitar solo in Back to the Future, in which Michael Fox lets rip with distortion, pitch bending, fierce strums and glissandi, and strong chords – all very loud! Compared with this, the dreamy waltz which it interrupts seems more than a little tame. This scene epitomises what has been going on with music over the past 100 years: ever since the Dadaists & Futurists started using machines and urban sounds for musical inspiration.

The difference is in the sound, and what is different about the sound is the degree to which we have gone inside the components of sounds and begun to manipulate those components. At first this was done with tape recorders and analogue radio equipment, then with effects pedals, MIDI synthesisers, and samplers. Now we are also using computers for digital sound processing.

The above 14 sound transformation software programs bring us deep inside sounds, such that their inner structure and tonal qualities become as much a part of musical thinking as melody, harmony and rhythm. The next section takes us further into this way of thinking while seeking to connect it with enduring principles of musicality.

Micro-form Archetypes


Music is the art of arranging things in time. This statement is deliberately open-ended. Pitches, melodies and harmonies need not be involved: sounds can be arranged in time. Indeed, even 'things' which are not sounds can be arranged in time, can be 'musicalised', such as normally non-musical aspects of theatre: movement and lighting.

This approach helps us to expand the way we think about music without losing touch with what music is. It also helps us to perceive the various musical qualities present in the music of all different styles, periods and cultures.

The 'micro-form archetypes' described below are generic (open-ended) ways to arrange things in time. Thinking about them and playing with these ideas can help towards using sounds in a 'musical' way. They thus become not just sounds in isolation, but sounds arranged into time-patterns. These patterns can match and reinforce images, or create contrasts, suggesting the presence of other feelings and possibilities than what is appearing on the screen.


The following are a brief selection from about 80 micro-form archetypes that I have identified so far. The list is actually endless, because music and society are constantly evolving, and new forms are always being invented.

accumulate – retain previous while adding new
Possible application: throw more and more things into the pot, until it is seething and overflowing, or a crisis point is reached
collage – mix varied ingredients
Possible application: populate a sonic 'landscape' with a variety of items, some of which will share a theme, and some which will be quite uncomfortable together; express diversity, lots of things happening at once, different groups in the same place
contrast – put the dissimilar in close proximity
Possible application: musically, this would relate to different styles, or sounds which don't belong to the prevailing landscape: things out of place which invade, interfere, turn the action in a different direction, or are just uncomfortable
direction – create a sense of moving towards
Possible application: many different musical features can be used to create this sense of moving purposively towards something, i.e., in a relatively straight line, e.g., tempo acceleration, melodic contour, increasingly intricate rhythmic figures, harmonic chord progressions, crescendo – this is a very important dramatic tool
expand/contract – make space or time between events larger/smaller
Possible application: a sense of growth, relaxation or increase in power; a sense of containment, frustration or weakness; often achieved by using longer or shorter durations, larger or smaller pitch intervals or frequency levels, esp. if the same motif grows or diminishes
extend – make longer by adding to in some way
Possible application: Basic musical technique involves drawing out material so that it fulfills its potential, and new material isn't needed at every turn. Repetition, variation techniques, motive-spinning, letting a figure 'grow' etc. are all ways to realise this idea. It can create a sense of growth, vigour, 'rolling along', or at other times become over-extended, leading to suspense and a sense of danger.
isolate – separate from other material
Possible application: Something feeling separate and alone is a common dramatic situation. In general, the isolated item may be on the weak side, quiet, tenuous, quavering. The music needs to create a sense of distance such as by silence, placed at a pitch remote from the key, harmony or pitch level of the other material.
juxtapose – layer or locate (usually dissimilar) items next to each other
Possible application: As in film editing in which different scenes follow on without transition, music can place contrasting sounds or harmonies side by side, or even on top of each other: simultaneously. This can create a sense of dislocation or danger. Rapid juxtaposition of similar material can reinforce a sense of bounty or of being overwhelmed.
layer – coherent linear sequences overlaid in vertical space
Possible application: This is very familiar as the layering of tracks, with the distinctive sound + rhythm of each linear sequence enabling each one to be perceived as a separate entity. Layering in more tracks can create increased excitement or complexity.
move – make items dance, exude energy, or go someplace
Possible application: Movement in music grows out of biological rhythms, physical movements and dance. Movement is life, energy, purpose. Rhythms, melodic contours, accelerandi, larger intervals, figures that start at one pitch and drive strongly towards another, as well as an overall design which begins in one musical area and ends in another – all contribute to a sense of movement.
repeat – adjacent statements of the same or very similar items
Possible application: Periodic, iterative movement is part of astronomy, biology and machinery. When the material repeated is the same or very similar, it creates a strong sense of being in a place, whether with joy or with frustration. When combined with crescendo, increased movement etc., repetitions quickly create a sense of dramatic buildup.
sustain – continue without much change
Possible application: Often achieved with tones or sounds with long durations, inducing a sense of quiet, calm, enduring, warmth, or over-stretched, tense, in suspense
sustain + move – combine items which move and items which sustain
Possible application: a very powerful combination of energy and energy withheld; highly charged atmospheres of dramatic tension; inevitably involves creating layers


A simple way to 'get into' these micro-forms is to make rough sketches to illustrate for yourself what they seem to be doing. For example, juxtapose could be blocks of different colors, and sustain could be a long squiggly line. Now add a time grid, e.g., vertical lines for every 4 seconds or so. This helps you to feel the shapes, especially when you start bringing the timed shapes to life with imaginary sounds.

A few observations about making music with sounds complete our introduction to the sound design workshops.

Making music with sounds is something new. Of course, there have always been the distinctive sounds made by different instruments: the flutes, clarinets, horns, strings, sitars, koto, gamelan gongs etc., all contributing to musical creations with their tonal qualities, pitch range and rhythmic potential. Melodic and harmonic music is the usual result. Percussive instruments are closer to the sounds we are talking about, and are often used as sound sources: drums, rattles, scrapers etc. Music in our time has made extensive use of percussive instruments.

But in talking about making music with sounds, we actually go much further and include all sounds: the sounds of Nature (like wind and thunder, streams, animals large and small, insects and birds), or voices, traffic and machinery, footsteps, creaking doors, fireworks and explosions, or various forms of noise. These sounds have various associations with their origins, as well as being, very often, too complex to have clear pitches or rhythms. These features need to be respected when using them for music, or they will not sit comfortably in the musical fabric.

Here are a few aesthetic considerations:

  • Many natural sounds form randomised textures, such as pebbles rolling with the surf, the overlapping songs of a whole flock of birds, a series of thunderclaps. Putting such sounds into regular rhythms makes the seem forced and artificial. Thus a somewhat randomised rhythmic placement (ultra-'humanised', as it were) is appropriate for many different kinds of sounds.

  • The same can be said for pitch. Sometimes randomisation may involve the order of the notes of a scale or chord, but at other times it needs to go further, and use microtones and pitch bending.

  • Often, harmony could do with being considerably juicier. Sounds with a reasonably clear pitch content can be assigned to the notes of a chord, but a simple chord would seem like a straightjacket. It is good to explore rich jazzy 9ths and 13ths, original complexes of pitches (called 'pitch configurations' because they don't form a chord of any known type), and also different types of noise. Many sounds have a noise component, and these can be graded qualitatively and selected or mixed together to form 'harmonies' in the very broad sense.

  • Chord movement and directionality can also be worked out in terms of patterns made from changing tonal qualities.

  • New kinds of texture can be explored: not just the familiar homophonic texture of melody with chordal accompaniment, but also multi-event complexes of strange sounds and glissandi. Thus sounds can be mixed to create all kinds of emotive environments.

Key References

Sound Design, by David Sonnenschein
'The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema'. A fairly new book, one of the first of its kind, it covers the field of sound design in tremendous detail. (Michael Weise Productions, 2001)
Knowing the Score, by Irwin Bazelon
'Notes on Film Music'. Contains many examples of image + sound relationships, along with how the effects were achieved, example scores, and interviews with film composers. (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975)
Articles from Audio Media (AM) referenced above:
  • Godzilla, A Monster Mix by Alan James. Audio Media June 1998. pp. 84-86
  • Antz by Robert Alexander. Audio Media November 1998, pp. 56-57.
  • The Matrix by Julian Mitchell. Audio Media June 1999, pp. 58-59.
  • Universal Soldier: The Return by Alan James. Audio Media August 1999, pp. 58-59.
  • Toy Story by Julian Mitchell. Audio Media March 2000, pp. 58-59.
  • Chicken Run by Julian Mitchell. Audio Media July 2000, pp. 64-70.
  • U-571 by Mel Lambert. Audio Media July 2000, pp. 55.
  • Microphone Design past, present & future by David Royer and John Jennings. Audio Media July 2002, pp. 108-112.
  • Red Planet by Julian Mitchell. Audio Media December 2000, pp. 62-63.
  • A.I. by Paul Mac. Audio Media September 2001, pp. 54-55.
  • The Lord of the Rings by Julian Mitchell. Audio Media January 2002, pp. 44-49.
  • The Human Body by Julian Mitchell. Audio Media August 2002, pp. 36-37.
  • Knowing the Score by Michael Wood. Audio Media September 2002, pp. 76-80. (Interview with Trevor Jones)
Article from Studio Sound (SS) referenced above:
  • Godzilla, The thunder of tiny feet by Richard Bushkin. Studio Sound June 1998, pp. 66-69.

Last updated: 29 April 2003
© 2003 Archer Endrich, Chippenham, Wiltshire  England