How To Become a Sound Designer
What Exactly Does a Sound Designer Do?
The Sound Designer is the creative position in charge of creating the soundscape for a production. “They put in edits and replace and clean up specific sounds to create an overall aesthetic,” says Thomas Ouziel, who has worked on multiple features and commercials.
He elaborates, “They must determine the best way to use sound for the audience to understand the complexity of the film, which obviously varies from project to project. Commercials tend to be more straightforward while narrative productions require more complexity that deals with the perspective and headspace of the characters.”
What happens each day for a Sound Designer is dependent on the project. They work in post-production so deadlines are determined by delivery dates. So, in a sense, they can create their own schedule and work on multiple projects at once. Typically, a commercial will take a lot less time and is usually an effort to make the product accessible and presentable. Full-length narratives often take months to complete due to their complexity.
The whole post sound industry is evolving. Ouziel says, “Entry-level used to be gathering sounds for Sound Editors to use, then learning the process that way. Now the gear is becoming so accessible that individuals can work as a Sound Designer right off the bat if they have good taste. The technology can always be taught but the creativity that sets people apart is a lonely journey. Artistry gets developed over years of experience.”
This methodology of career advancement is based on working freelance on independent projects and building a reputation for quality.
Another approach that many people take is getting an internship at a professional post-production house and learning their workflow. Try to pick up tricks from seasoned professionals and learn how they listen to sound. From there, an aspiring Sound Designer would build a network and get promoted or hired to be an Assistant in a specific aspect of post sound like backgrounds or sound design. Eventually, the individual will get their opportunity to work a larger project as a Sound Designer.
One of the major things that separates people in the post sound world is their speed. What will take an amateur a month to do, a professional can finish in a week. This can make it difficult to break into the profession because productions will usually hire more experienced people. They know they’ll receive a better result in a shorter amount of time, even if a less experienced person offers a better deal.
The money works out to be roughly the same. This is one thing to be cognizant of if a person is trying to go the independent route, instead of working for a post sound company.
Education & Training
There are two different training paths to becoming a Sound Designer.
“One is to come from the technical side. An aspiring Sound Designer would go to audio recording school, which teaches you sound-based stuff like signal flow, software, and using microphones to record. They are usually more geared toward music than movies. The other way is more creative and involves attending film school.
“These programs give a broader overview of filmmaking, letting a person experience multiple aspects of the production process. They focus on telling stories and leave it up to the individual to teach themselves the technical stuff. Neither one is better,” says Ouziel. It is important for an individual to make sure that they are receiving both technical and creative development. Both are crucial for becoming a Sound Designer.
What skills do you need to be a Sound Designer?
Ouziel says, “The love of stories is critical. If a person has that then they’ll really love the way sounds can affect people subconsciously. The big thing with sound is if a Sound Designer is doing their job well nobody knows they were there. That is, it seamlessly blends into the story and isn’t distracting. People should never turn to someone else and say, ‘Wow! That was great sound design!’”
Much of the creative journey for a Sound Designer comes from watching movies and studying their craft. They work alone, so practice is key, which could be watching films with their eyes closed, attending films in theaters to hear them with optimum sound, and/or working on independent films.
The key qualities for a Sound Designer are to be calm and understanding without having an ego or attachment. “The Sound Designer is one of the key creatives and they have a lot of power because most of the time Directors don’t know exactly what is being done to achieve a specific effect or feeling, says Ouziel.
“They will be vaguer and talk about feelings or sensations, which can be difficult because sometimes they will not like something purely out of taste, not realizing that it’s setting up another effect. It’s up to the Sound Designer to be supportive and help walk them through the process so everyone leaves happy,” he adds.
Much of a Sound Designer’s work deals with the subconscious. They need to not only be creative in how their approach to the Director’s notes go, but also to explain why they made a specific choice.
“In this industry, especially when working as a Sound Designer, it’s a seven-day-a-week job, even in big studios. Sound Designers need to be available when the client needs them for delivery or notes. Therefore, it’s important to find a balance of how many jobs to take. Some people work quicker. Others like to have tons to do all the time. It’s important for an individual to find their own balance and understand the type of lifestyle they are entering into,” explains Ouziel.
Working freelance isn’t always easy and can require lots of effort with long periods of downtime. People should accept the lifestyle along with their passion to be a Sound Designer if they want to pursue this career.
The Sound Designer typically collaborates with the Director on the overall vision. They will also get notes from the Producer and Film Editor. Within their own Sound Department, they’ll collaborate with the Dialogue Editor, Foley Editor, and Background Editor. They also talk to the Music Supervisor and Composer to make sure all sounds are functioning cohesively.
Landing the first opportunity in sound design can be tough. Ouziel says, “Getting that first opportunity to work can come from an internship. Many of them tend to be unpaid but they help build a network. With a network comes opportunities to prove oneself, which will be that first job.
“The more experience a person has by the time they get that opportunity, the better advantage they’ll have at making the most of it. People never know when they’ll get a second shot so it’s important to be ready to go when it happens because that piece will be a building block to showcase in getting future work. Another good thing to remember is that it’s important for a person to place themselves in an area where more opportunities are likely to present themselves.
“In freelance, a smart Sound Designer will be constantly trying to find the most talented Directors and Producers with whom to collaborate. As they progress in their careers it will lift up the Sound Designer as well, if they have a good working relationship.” It can be difficult to land a job as a Sound Designer so it’s important to develop a network and live somewhere that post-production is constantly happening.
How Much Does a Sound Designer make?
The average annual salary for a Sound Designer is approximately $40,800. The salary range for Sound Designers runs from $25,000 to $68,000.
“Sound Designers typically have to find their own work and build their own clients, even if they work with a big company,” says Ouziel.
Since it is a freelance job, most of the time projects are done on bids for the sound team. That money is then divided among the individuals working on a project, which translates to time and hours. Typically, an individual will try to make at least $200 a day but once they’ve advanced in their career and joined the union they can make $40 per hour or more.
Unions, Groups & Associations
“The Association of Sound Designers, or ASD, is an amazing organization,” says Ouziel. They have an archive of past seminars that can be viewed about all aspects of sound design.
Otherwise, it’s good to check out tutorials on Lynda.com and YouTube. Much of the creative journey comes from hands-on experience. It’s important to take online resources and apply them. There are also Facebook groups like Sound Design and Sound Design Only that can be great resources.
- Learn Pro Tools. It’s what ninety-nine percent of the film industry uses.
- Listen to various environments and imagine how you’d artistically represent them.
- Research successful Sound Designers and try to get an internship at their post-production companies.
- Listen to movies. Watch them with eyes closed.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Out of all the creative fields within the filmmaking industry, sound design is the least tangible. It’s difficult to put one sound design choice juxtaposed against another like someone could do with cinematography. This isn’t a bad thing but should be celebrated.
“The field offers the most creative freedom to help tell stories in a deeper way that not everybody can do. Anyone can get an editing program but it takes time to cultivate the talent to express artistic ideas. It takes longer to reach a level where one is decent than in other fields. The biggest suggestion then is to understand the dynamics of the field and don’t expect it to come easy. It takes a lot of practice.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Why is sound design important to film?
“The importance of sound design is found in the underlying feeling of the film. It’s always there, affecting the audience, whether they know it or not. The art form is more effective when people aren’t thinking about it. It’s almost like sounds should be felt, not heard.
“Young filmmakers never think about sound design but they’ll wonder why their films don’t feel like real movies. A film can have shaky camera work that is pixelated but if the sound is good the movie can get by with found footage. However, if a movie has great picture and bad sound, it’ll come off as a bootleg.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Why was this creative decision made?
“In a general sense, one of the things Directors and Producers fail to ask is why a Sound Designer made a creative decision. They usually approach it from an immediate gut perspective, which can be valuable, but they don’t think about the creative implications.
“Therefore, it’s up to the Sound Designer to defend their option, not out of ego, but because it will help other collaborators expand their perspectives and look at the project in a new way. What usually happens is a synthesis of ideas, leading to something truly unique.
“Many people will just be button pushers, but as a career strategy, those can easily be replaced. If a Director or Producer knows that a Sound Designer will bring something truly unique to a production, then they’ll be more likely to hire them in the future.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake that people make is they aren’t patient enough when it comes to the industry. They feel like they are talented and get frustrated with not having great opportunities. The film industry is a tough industry. It’s going to take time, especially if someone is going the freelance route.
“The hardest thing about it is that it’s network-based so sometimes the best projects for advancing a career don’t pay the best. This can be tough if a person is struggling to pay their rent. It can take a couple of years for relationships to form and pay off. A Director whom a Sound Designer helps on a short may get their shot at a feature film three years later.
“With that in mind, trying to develop a network too fast by taking on too many projects won’t benefit a Sound Designer in the long term. Working on one great film that an artist truly believes in will be better than five bad ones. At the end of the day, no one looks at a bad movie and says, ‘I want to hire whoever made this!’”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Communication. It’s important to be able to talk to whoever is in charge and ask the right questions on how to get the project where it needs to go.”
LA-based Sound Designer/Editor Thomas Ouziel is a sound aficionado with a passion for telling and enhancing story through sound. He is the Co-founder, Lead Sound Designer, and Supervising Sound Editor of Melody Gun Group.
He strives to aid Directors in accomplishing their visions while offering a unique perspective through a sound-based approach to further enhance the intended goal. The nuances of ambiance or the timbre of an effect all play into the overall emotion and experience of the film and being sure to capture the right feeling for each moment is essential to his approach and philosophy of sound design.
Ouziel was a member of the New York Festivals Advertising Awards Finalist Certificate team for their work with Lexus.