Feb 2, 2009

How Do We Discuss Sound Design?

Or in other words, how do we better communicate an aural aesthetic to others, both sound designers and laymen. Attempting to relay our concepts and ideas can be difficult as most people within the theater remain within a visual field, and the ability for one design field to effectively communicate with one another is needed in order to have a thoroughly collaborative process. While I am not trying to debate if the aesthetics of visual fields have a set of standards and rules inherently, there are certain principles that are used to be able to properly discuss the visual aesthetic. These principles are used in order that we might find some objectivity within a subjective field. This of course gives us the ability to also employ criticism, good or bad, when looking at an artist’s work. The terminology within the visual aesthetic might be of some use to us within an aural aesthetic, give us the ability to better communicate to visual artists, and give us a different way of looking at our own art form.
I would like to define a few things before continuing. First off is that when I refer to a visual aesthetic, I am referring to anything that can be perceived visually, and is considered a visual art. Mostly I would like to keep in mind not only the theater arts, such as scene design or lighting design, but also painting, photography, sculpture, and anything else you can think of not listed here. Secondly when referring to the aural aesthetic (and here is where I get into trouble) I am referring mostly to sound design, which includes, but is not limited to, acoustics, sound effects, soundscapes, reinforcement, music, and to the random noises the building makes. Music is a part of this aural aesthetic, but it is only a part of the whole. We see this all the time within the theater, where you can go an entire show without music, but still have an aural aesthetic.
Conceptually we can discuss art in many different ways. We can discuss it by its mood, how it makes you feel; sad, happy, angry, etc. We can also use mood to give it a color, “it makes me blue.” We can make it actionable, ‘It jumped off the page.’ We can discuss it within musical terms. “It has a nice rhythm.” We also have visual terms, ‘its very textured.’ Discussing a piece using only mood, we can see that it will be too subjective, and is not very descriptive. But color and action are also too vague. Musically discussing the aural world might be more objective. Music after all has its own terminology and aesthetic theory, but by using the musical terminology to discuss an overall aesthetic, it can wind up being limiting, since it is only a part of the total. Music, when discussing it aesthetically, has to be oversimplified to effectively communicate it. We say ‘I want it to be a waltz’, or ‘it will be melodic’, or ‘I want it to be melancholy.” We don’t use actual musical terminology such as, “it will be in ¾ time” or ‘I am going to put it in the harmonic minor scale.” It has to be simplified. I would like to stay away from saying this terminology is not to be used; but that it should not be the only ways in which we discuss sound design aesthetically.
The visual terminology that we see within the arts can better be attributed to the aural world, and can effectively be used to help better describe the aesthetic. While some will argue that it is still subjective, I think that there is more objectivity within a visual terminology. We know from a young age most of the things that are aesthetically pleasing and attribute much to our sight. We learn, as artists, the visual terminology and attribute it to the visual world. Terms such as; Focal point, scale, balance, rhythm, texture, color, depth, symmetry, asymmetry, and unity are seen all over the visual world. Some are even used already within the world of music and sound. We are all used to hearing a balance, and we use that term all the time, but terms such as focal point, we hear within designs, but do not use the term to communicate what we are trying to achieve. We can take advantage of our own artistic education and use a visual aesthetic to communicate in a more objective way. It can also be used to help us think through our designs more effectively and creatively. As an example of using a visual language, I did a show where I used a mix of a singer named ‘Amelie les Crayons’ and French cabaret music (Modern versus older French cabaret style music). As certain events would happen onstage, the music would stop and beep over to the sound of an English to French translation commenting on the actions of the characters, a sort of Brechtian concept. In order to effectively create a world that was not only unified, but also was dirty, I added a record scratch over top the music to give it texture. This created unity within the piece, even though the music was radically different in recording range and added a texture that could be manipulated when the characters lives managed to find some order. I added a loudspeaker upstage center to give the translations a focal point, to create an added effect and give it more focus from the music, which was from loudspeakers aimed not directly at the audience. This design is a simple concept that sound designers use all the time, but we can relay that concept, as you can see, with visual terminology to the other designers and the director.
By using a visual terminology to discuss an aural aesthetic, we can see that we are able to more effectively communicate what we as designers are creating without needing playback in order for someone to understand. It can give us a different way of looking at our own designs and how we collaborate with the other designers. How we communicate is vital to being a good designer, it’s a majority of the work we do, and anyway that we can do that effectively will help. This is only a part of a whole, as there are also other aspects of sound design that are important, but I would like to start from the beginning of my own thoughts and elaborate from there, to start with how we think about sound and add to it.

~Chris Baine


  1. Greetings from the Film/TV side of Sound Design! Great article, I enjoyed it a lot. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hey man, thanks for that. Its always nice to hear when people enjoy what you wrote. Hope you can use this blog to think through things on your side of the fence as well, as we all are similar in many ways.