Some of the most important elements of filmmaking are sound design and foley. Often forgotten in favor of the visuals, sound design can create realism, elevate your film, and affect the audience on a subconscious level.
Let’s talk about what really is sound design in film: Audio Shapers [source] defines sound design as the art and practice of creating soundtracks for a variety of needs. It involves specifying, acquiring, or creating auditory elements using audio production techniques and tools for films. Creating foley—meaning sound effects— also falls under this definition.
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So what are some of the crucial aspects that make sound design stellar?
The Right Microphones
The first crucial component of any good sound design is the equipment—the microphones and recorders. Often the sound design basics that they would teach at sound design school would be the different kinds of mics and which mics should be used in different situations. Anyone wondering about sound design and where to start should familiarize themselves with microphones.
Firstly, there are the omnidirectional mics. These mics pick up sounds in all directions. Their pick-up pattern, meaning the shape in which the microphone can pick up sounds, is a circle. The circular pattern allows for the front, sides, and back of the microphone to pick up sound clearly.
Though this can be helpful at times, and they are the most flexible microphone type to use, professional videographers usually don’t need this much audio picked up during filming. In fact, oftentimes this microphone pattern causes excess white noise to pick up from the surrounding area and can lead to poor audio quality.
Secondly, there are cardioid microphones. These microphones only pick up sounds from the front and sides of the microphone. They are slightly more directional than omnidirectional but still have a wide heart-shaped pickup pattern.
These are excellent general-use microphones. In fact, most handheld mics are usually this kind. In addition, since they do not suppress sound in any one direction completely, the ambient noise picked up can sometimes add to the quality of film you are working on depending on the nature of the scene.
Lastly, there are unidirectional mics, also commonly called “shotgun” mics. These mics only pick up sounds from where the barrel of the microphone is pointed. It is the most directional of all of these basic mics.
A great example of a microphone that uses a unidirectional pickup pattern is a boom mic, meaning a unidirectional microphone attached to a boom pole. With a microphone mounted on the end of the pole, the boom pole is held over the subject creating audio that a videographer wants to be captured. Unidirectional mics offer a great range and unwanted outside noise is rejected well to avoid dialogue distractions.
Those are some of the most common mics used by sound recordist. Having knowledge of theatre sound design can help with understanding the microphones better. Great sound design for beginners is to understand each different kind of mic, and when is the right time to use each.
You can only capture so much useable sound on set. Often important things like sound effects can be forgotten, or the dialogue overrides the other elements that are important for world-building.
Luckily, the art of foley allows for enhanced audio quality. Foley is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to films and videos in post-production to help build up the world of the film.
One great way to become a sound designer for film is to get into the world of foley sounds. Once the picture has been locked, the foley artist will get in the studio and use whatever objects they can to recreate the sounds in the world of the film.
There is no real way to study sound design in terms of foley. You just have to do it. A great way to learn is to take an already existing clip and do your own foley for it. This will give you great experience, and it is okay if it’s not perfect, because it’s just practice!
Another crucial part of the sound design is the ambient noise. This might be the most overlooked element of sound design, because if done correctly, it will seem imperceptible.
Ambient noise acts as a cradle for all of the other sounds in the soundscape. Without it, the rest of the sound design would be ungrounded and seem to come from nowhere and be unmotivated.
It’s often hard to tell, especially in professional films, but when you do hear a sound that sounds unsupported, it is obvious, because it is missing that base of ambient noise. Sound design books and the best film sound designers will attest to the importance of ambient noise.
To begin making your ambient soundscape, you should record a “silent” take on the day you shoot. Make sure the conditions are the same in the space as when you were doing all other takes. This is called “room tone.” The equipment and furniture should be in the same place, the same amount of people should be in the room so that the room tone is authentic.
This room tone will be the basis of your ambient soundscape. In post-production, you can add other ambient sounds to buildup the base of your soundscape. Often these efforts won’t ‘sound’ like much but they will have unconscious effects on your audience. They will be able to perceive the space you have created through ambient noise.
Music and The Score
Film music in another crucial component of sound design. Not every project requires an elaborate score, but film music history has shown that music has powerful abilities to make audiences feel.
Think about your favorite moments on film. Often the music is swelling as the boy gets the girl or the hero defeats the villain. Those moments are impactful because of the music.
As an independent filmmaker music licensing for film might be hard to achieve. But Film Music Magazine offers great opportunities for composers and filmmakers to get in contact and they host film scoring competitions. Getting an original piece of music for you can elevate the entire project.
If not, free film music can also get the job done. If you’re particularly tech-savvy, you could even try out making your own music. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective.
You can also check out the musician Moby’s free film music project, mobygratis.
Lastly, and maybe the most crucial component, is the mix. Sound design and mixing are important because it takes all of the elements we’ve just discussed— the dialogue, the music, etc.— and makes sure they all work together.
The mix makes sure all of the levels in the design are correct. The mixer makes sure that the music isn’t so loud that it’s drowning out the dialogue and they make sure that the background noise isn’t too low that it’s impossible to hear.
A good mix starts with good sound design software. If you learn best by doing, then messing around with Pro Tools or Adobe Audition, and creating your own mixes would be best for you. There are also plenty of great sound design tutorials that can teach you how to use the software and the theory and science behind how a well-mixed sound design effects audiences.
Sound design courses and sound design degrees will teach you all sorts of important aspects of sound design, but you don’t need to go to an institution to learn sound design. Experience, practice, and research can be just as crucial in becoming a great sound designer. There is no one sound design definition in film, and these are just some of the most crucial elements to remember when sound designing.
If you’re looking to elevate your project, hiring a sound designer or sound mixer can be very beneficial. Bolster your budget by getting funding from The Film Fund. You can enter our funding opportunities for a chance to get up to $10,000 and other prizes.