What is a Sound Designer?

Donato Wharton, Course Tutor for Theatre Sound at Central, explains what a Sound Designer is, the difference between a Sound Designer for theatre, film, TV and games, responsibilities of Sound System Design, common skills needed for all Sound Designers, and how to embark on a career as a Sound Designer.

Image of what is a sound designer, and a macbook with sound design software in a theatre

By Donato Wharton, Course Tutor for Theatre Sound at Central

What is a Sound Designer?

When we ask ‘what is a sound designer’, it depends on what form we are talking about. There’s a difference between what a sound designer in film, in theatre or in video games would do. 

The Sound Designer in Theatre

In theatre, the Sound Designer is responsible for everything that you hear as part of the performance. A Sound Designer will create sound effects; will create more abstract sounds – sounds that are emotive, evocative of feelings; sounds that will suggest place, time, mood, atmosphere and will decide when, at what volume level, for how long and from where in the space the sounds are played back as part of the performance.

The Sound Designer will work to add a sonic dimension to the piece – you could see it as creating a sonic world of the performance. This would typically include sounds that are guiding the audience’s emotional journey, or sounds that are providing a sense of setting – so time and place – naturalistic sound effects, like explosions and similar effects. 

Often being a sound designer also includes sourcing and editing of music; it might include the use of microphones, to amplify performers’ voices, whether they are head worn, or placed around the stage. The Sound Designer will decide how and when these different elements of sound and music are used – that’s always a conversation to be had with the director. There is a high degree of autonomy in the work of a Sound Designer but at the same time the director always has the final word, such as what specific sound will be used and what piece of music, and how that will be integrated into the whole of the performance.

That’s the content creation side of sound design, and the dramaturgical side to sound design, i.e. how the sound is helping to tell the story, or how the sound is helping to create an atmosphere or feeling.

Sound System Design 

The other side of the Sound Designer’s job is to design the sound system through which all of this content is played back. They have to ensure that there is as equal as possible coverage of the audience so that the audience have as homogenous as possible experience of the show, and in order to be able to give the sound some depth. You’re working with three dimensional space so you’re making very conscious decisions about where you’re placing the different loud speakers through which the sound is coming in order to create this three dimensional sonic impression for the audience.

If you’re involved in vocal reinforcement you’ll be specifying the system to give as natural an amplified voice as possible so that despite the amplification being present the audience still have the impression that the voices are coming from each of the performers, and they can locate them to that place.

So the world of sound design for theatre encompasses these two hemispheres. On the one side there is the creation of sound effects, making of recordings, editing and manipulating the sounds, and deciding which sound feels right for which moment. On the other hand there’s this technical world where one needs to have a good knowledge of the sound technology in order to be able to then translate these ideas, and the sounds you’ve created into an experience for an audience.

Sound Design for Film & TV vs Sound Design for Theatre

Doing sound design for film is quite a different way of working. A film is a far more complex piece of work, so there will be a much larger team of sound people working on a film. 
It’s hard to say what’s typical and what isn’t, because film sound designers may also record their own sounds, but the major difference is that a lot of their work happens in post-production, in the studio. They will record something while the film is being shot, but typically they’ll put the whole of the soundscape together when the images are there. 

Whereas if you’re working in theatre you’re in rehearsals, and you have a set rehearsal period. During that time you need to come up with all these sounds, and you need to organise them in such a way that they can be flexible within a live performance. Film is a fixed medium, so you sit in the studio and once you’ve placed the sound in its place, it’s fixed there, and that won’t change any more. 

It’s quite a different thing to doing sound for theatre, and for games it’s different again, where you have a different set of requirements, and you also need a different knowledge set to do with the implementation of the sound design in the Game audio engines. A good way to understand Game Audio is perhaps to see it as a hybrid between fixed media and a live experience. It is a very interesting field.

Sound design: common skills

Common to all of the sound design work though is a love of, and curiosity for, sound. How it works as a perceptual phenomenon, how it works as part of a narrative, and the craft aspect is the same as well. So you’ll go out, make your own recordings, experiment with your sounds using whatever software tools you’ve got available, until you have something that you feel is a good proposition for this particular moment, and then you’ll try that together with whatever visual, movement or spatial material you have.

Also common to all of the Sound Designer’s work is the conceptual work that happens. You need to come up with a concept for the design to start off the process; there’ll also be research involved, and you’ll need to be able to pitch your ideas to whoever it is that you’re going to work with, whether it’s the director of a theatre play, a film, or a game. You’d have to pitch a concept that explains how you envisage this world that you’ve created will sound and feel, and how you’d implement it, and how it would be able to tell the story in a way that would make the whole of the work stronger and more compelling and more of an experience for an audience.

It’s having an understanding of how sound works as one element amongst the other elements, whether that’s set, lighting, moving image, or an interactive virtual world. It’s about making a composite whole as strong as possible and giving it sonic dimension and understanding how this sonic dimension would work dramaturgically to tell the story, making the whole work more emotionally affecting and stronger aesthetically.

Sound Designer Jobs 

Speaking mostly for theatre, there certainly are jobs to be had as a Sound Designer. Most theatre productions now have Sound Designers working on them; in theatre there’s a greater awareness of the power of sound to enhance a theatre production, to give it an extra dimension. 

Of course there are very different levels of scale of production, so it’s very unlikely that someone starting out will immediately be doing sound design for some big West End production or big international show. A career in sound design would start out with doing much smaller fringe-style shows, whilst perhaps working on the team of a more established Sound Designer in order to learn more about the profession but also to make contacts. That would be one way in – other ways in are to work in theatres as a sound operator, or a sound technician, while still having the time to do one’s own design work. 

It’s about making connections with directors who are at the same point in their career as you are, so as their career progresses then if you’ve been working with them from the beginning, you will have developed a relationship of artistic understanding and trust. This means that those directors are likely to keep coming back to you, so that the careers progress in parallel – that’s quite common. A lot of work is through recommendation – so if you if you establish yourself as being reliable, skilled and pleasant to work with, the quality of your work will generate further offers of work for you.

Sound Design is certainly a viable career. It’s a very attractive career for people who make music and who are musicians. Because there are institutions who are producing theatres, and there’s Arts Council funding for independent theatre companies. There’s a sense that a career in theatre could be more viable than a career as a musician making a living solely from your own music. However the same talent and ability you have as a musician can be applied to the collective work of theatre making. 

Find out more about Sound Design

If you like the idea of becoming a Sound Designer, check out our Theatre Sound, BA course

Image of Donato Wharton, BA, MSc, course leader for Theatre Sound Design

Donato Wharton is Course Tutor for Theatre Sound at Central