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How to Practice Sound Design (Especially if You Don't Have Time)

Do me a big favor:

Type "breakfast" into google image search and tell me what you see in common between every picture.

One thing you'll notice is that almost every photo has some variant of bacon and eggs in it. If you're in North America, then you already know that "bacon and eggs" is the quintessential breakfast pairing.

But it wasn't always this way.

You see, before the 1930s, breakfast in North America was commonly toast, coffee, and maybe some orange juice. Bacon was actually relatively unpopular.

But then in comes the man known as Edward Bernays - nephew of Sigmund Freud, and pioneer of modern-day marketing, public relations, and propaganda.

Edward was hired by a bacon company to improve their sales, and instead of creating ads, Edward simply reached out to a doctor and asked if "heavy breakfasts" are more beneficial than "light ones."

The doctor said yes. After which Bernays made the connection that a heavy breakfast contained bacon and eggs, thus making it healthier.

Edward Bernays with his powerful mustache

Instead of ads, he had this "study" plastered across newspapers everywhere, and in no time at all, bacon and eggs became a mainstay for breakfast in the US… and it still is more than 80 years later.

While it would certainly be nice if we could get such gigantic results basically overnight, that usually isn't the case. We often need to put tons of time into whatever we're doing to see any sort of payoff.

But, not all of us have that kind of time. We might be working a day job, have a family, be dealing with an illness, or be weighed down by countless other circumstances.

So, what should we do to practice sound design, especially if we're already stretched too thin?

Here's what we'll be covering today:

Part 1: Active Listening

Part 2: Capture Without Worry

Part 3: Passive Analysis

When it comes to sound design

We essentially need to be the best auditory liars we can possibly be. One of our key goals is to "convince" the audience that every sound is indeed coming from this fictional world they're experiencing.

When our work is done well, most people don't even notice. They just get immersed and everyone's happy. But, when the sound doesn't quite work, everyone notices.

To avoid making things that stick out (in a bad way)

We need to know, instinctively, what sounds "right" and what sounds "wrong."

While there aren't any objective measures of right and wrong, most people, trained or not, can tell instantly if a sound is satisfying or if it's unintentionally jarring/weak/thin.

To hone our senses of what works and what doesn't, we need to listen, and listen very deeply to the world around us. Unfortunately, many sound designers never practice this skill.

Thankfully, active listening takes no time at all

But it can be a complete game changer to how we work as sound designers. All we need to do is pay extremely close attention to how our environment (whatever it may be) sounds.

For example, maybe you're going for a walk, and you're paying very close attention to how the rain sounds around you, or what a distant plane really sounds like, or even comparing the difference between the sound your shoes make versus the sound other people's make.

Ideally, you'd go even deeper, listening to every car engine at an intersection and try to discern which is which.

Or maybe you go to the gym and determine how your treadmill sounds sliiiiiiightly different than the one next to you.

All you need to do is go about your regular day, but every so often, really pay attention to what you're hearing for as long as possible.

Most people will be surprised at how many details they were missing in all the sounds around them.

And once we know how our world sounds

It becomes far easier to make any world, realistic or fantastical, sound "right."

You'll know when things sound too thin, or too busy, and you'll know what elements make up a quality ambiance versus a very bland one.

Best yet, you can incorporate active listening into your day without adding a single second of extra work.

Still, capturing sounds is a pretty big part of what we do

But we all know that the capturing, editing, cleaning up, and organization of our audio files can be a time-consuming tedium-fest.

Which is why it can be a good idea to just practice recording

And not worry about anything else.

Just bringing a field recorder wherever we are, taking a recording (ideally while monitoring our recording with headphones), and then not worrying about uploading, editing, organizing, and cleaning up our files will still be eye-opening to many beginning sound designers.

The more we can understand how our microphones "hear" the sounds that we're trying to pick up, the more we understand how a change in angles and distance can completely change the character of the sounds we're creating.

So if you have one, bring a microphone/recorder around with you, slate your recordings (speak into the mic and describe what you're recording for later reference), and record without worrying about the editing aftermath.

If you get some time later to edit, great, but if not, don't worry about it for now.

I'd just recommend dumping the files onto your computer eventually so they don't fill up your SD card too fast, and so you have those recordings in a safe place.

And the last way we can keep our ears sharp

Is by incorporating passive analysis. All this means is that, when we're playing a game, watching a movie, re-watching My Hero Academia for the 90th time, etc. we ask ourselves questions about the audio.

Here are some example questions, but you can ask yourself whatever you want:

"How many layers is in that sound?"

"How does this sound (or lack thereof) lend itself to the narrative?"

"What sources could I use to make that?"

"Did they use a synth for that sound? What kind?"

"What are they doing to make sure the dialogue, music, and sound don't clash?"

We may not have accurate answers to any of these questions, but getting our brains ruminating may lead to new techniques to try later on.

"But Akash, you novelty-sized Toblerone" I hear you say "Is this REALLY enough to make me a better sound designer?"

Yes and no. Every sound designer who wants to go pro should be doing some combination of these practices as well as actually creating sound regularly.

We won't always have the time to do deep practice, so these processes will at least keep our skills from atrophying until we sit down and actually create.

Try going for a walk without listening to any podcasts/music

And actively listen to every single thing you can. If you're doing it right, it might start to get a little overwhelming and tough to focus on for long periods of time.

There will be a ton of stuff that you've never really noticed before popping up. It might even feel a little surreal.

Then, if you find something even somewhat interesting

Start recording it, and monitor your field recorder with a pair of headphones as things are recording.

You'll quickly get a sense of how your gear "hears" the world around it, and how simple tweaks in your mic's position can radically change the sound itself.

So here's what we covered today

1. There are indeed ways to keep our sound skills sharp when we don't have the time to deeply practice

2. Active listening is key to being able to fill in the small details of whatever sounds we create

3. Having fun and capturing sounds without worrying about the dreadful tasks of offloading and editing can help us get into the habit of recording, as well as understand how our gear picks up certain sounds

4. Asking yourself questions while watching/playing something can open you up to new techniques and processes you may not have tried before

5. Bacon and eggs wasn't always a thing! Who knew?!

While we shouldn't be expecting overnight bacon-mega-success like Edward Bernays

These little steps can really help hone our sound design skills - even when we have next to no time to actually practice them.

If you want more sound design tips

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