The Role of Sound in Cinema – 05 An introductory look at major Sound Designers

An introductory look at major Sound Designers and how they think about sound

I will now write a few words about some very famous sound designers who have explained a few interesting aspects of their workflow and about the way they work and think about sound for film in interviews, articles and books. You will see how each designer works differently and how each aesthetic choice and concern makes a big difference in the design result. However, as the videos definitely point out, the aesthetic of each sound designer also changed in time and what I will write is just a summary of what has been written about them at the time they were interviewed.

Mac Donald Jimmy was famous for having designed many Disney animations and Disney films like The Black Hole ( Nelson, 1979). He used foley and didn’t love production sound, as he preferred to make voices himself. When making foley sounds he often used sounds which were unrelated to the source he was supposed to sync because he understood that in most cases the sound gesture is more relevant to give a more unique feeling and effective context and also to be more effectively dramatic.

Frank Serafine was a very experimental sound designer who used unusual sounds taking advantage of what technology could give him. For example in Tron ( Lisberger, 1982) he wanted to recreate the sounds of video games and so tried to use synthetic sounds made with synthesizers as much as possible. The sounds created with samplers and synthesizers were very unrealistic and lacked the typical gestures of real life sounds. He also believed in audio-visual synesthesia so he tried out various associations like matching the pitch of the sounds to the camera, associated panoramic frames to distant sounds with noticeable reverb, or matched colours to timbre. For example yellow visual elements were sonified with sharp sounds, red ones with resonant and warm sounds etc.

We then have two major sound designers who have been awarded several times for their work and who have changed the way all other sound designers work. They are Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom.

Burtt became one of the most famous sound designers thanks to Star Wars. A New Hope ( Lucas, 1977) because it is one of the first science fiction films that avoided using synthetic sounds so much and even when he uses them he tried to give them a wordly concrete feeling by using technologies like the envelop follower.

Gary Rydstrom is acclaimed for his skill in using sounds which are unrelated to what you see in screen always seeking expressiveness and character rather than realism like in Terminator 2 (Cameron , 1999).

Both make use of many sound manipulations and they both believe the sound designer should work side by side with the music composer so that sounds and music do not interfere with each other. They both try to make sounds with very characteristic and unique gestures so that even if there is no correspondence to the source which is being sonified it still has a very palusible and yet even more engaging effect. They both design sounds not just by manipulating one at a time but also by overlaying them so to take advantage of the expressiveness of many different sounds when put together. For example the alien in E.T. ( Spielberg, 1982) was achieved by combining the sounds of many animals and elderly ladies utterances . They give gesture to their sounds also space wise, so to make the sound perception more engaging and vivid. Having said all this, they both believe that a sound on its own is meaningless if you don’t also bear in mind the whole. This doesn’t mean for them that sounds have to follow a same aesthetic or taste but on the contrary that they should differ as much as possible so not to confuse certain sounds with other sounds in the same film. This way the identification process becomes very effective.They also believe in the use of rhetoric and recurring standard techniques in films and some of them have become so popular that they are now common clichés in the film sound practice. For example Burtt made the Wilhelm Scream and the silence before the explosion technique very popular among sound designers.

Walter Murch is famous for bringing sound design awareness thanks to the films he made with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola like THX 1138 ( Lucas, 1971) , American Graffiti ( Lucas, 1973) Apocalypse Now ( Coppola – 1979). The main features about Murch’s style is that he is an audio-video editor and therefore his aesthetics focus on editing and on making audio and video work together. Specifically he believed that editing should not unravel too quickly and the storytelling process should be carried out by suggesting the emotional states that are connected to the film plot. Therefore, his editing techniques play with ambiguity to keep the viewer engaged and attentive. He also believed that the cuts had to be used coherently with the dramatic flow of the film plot to suggest the right tension and expectations. Moreover, he was convinced that an adequate flow could make the film viewer empathize with the film. This means that his editing is very distant from classical  40s style. He also likes playing with silence because he thinks it is an effective way to suggest death or dramatic unsettlement. However, he is not concerned only with time, but also with layering as he agrees that no more than 3 stimuli should be overlaid, because that’s the maximum number of elements that can be followed at a time and even more only for a short time. Otherwise the viewer has difficulties understanding what to pay attention to. In addition, he says we must not forget that the images already play with our sound elaboration and this process is also very important in film-viewing because it makes the viewer more active in the imagination process which makes the film-viewing experience more empathetic. Another reason why he is notorious is because he started using the Worldizing technique as he understood that post produced sounds and music could be given a more contextualized feeling if re-recorded in an environment similar to that seen in the image. For example, in AmericanGraffiti ( Lucas, 1973), the songs have acoustic characteristics depending on whether the the music scene is from a radio rather than a concert hall.

Randy Thom has an approach very similar to Murch in many ways also because he worked with him in several films including Apocalypse Now ( Coppola , 1979). However, he became acclaimed thanks to his collaborations with director Zemeckis for whom he designed the sounds of films like Forrest Gump ( Zemeckis , 1994) . In these films Thom explored subjective listening induction by simulating or miking the sounds he had to sync so that you could perceive them coming from specific positions in space, and consequently as if you could actually feel the sound world like the protagonist. This way the listening procedure should induce an empathetic state with the film characters. In fact, he finds that sounds that don’t create a connetcion to the film character create little engagement. The only issue with this strongly subjective approach is that it’s difficult to make all the sounds in a scene be perceived as such. Therefore, he organizes the scene so that sounds are always perceived as “Schaferian Signal sounds” which means that they must induce the character and consequently the viewer to pay attention to them, if they are meant to do so or they end up being negatively distracting. Moreover he is very concerned with audiovisual expectations which is determinant to play with, if you want to create a committiment with the film viewer who feels satisfaction only when he perceives a continuity and logic between different elements of the film.
Having these principles in mind his soundtracks end up being very light, because he believes excess is distracting and not involving. The only difference with Murch is that he believes that all the sound design process should work well with the image, but so that you never perceive the technicalities and you don’t actually understand which aspect of the film making process actually suggests the pathos flow.

To read the previous post on the birth of the term sound design go to


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