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The Skill that Most Sound Designers are Missing

Listen, I know we're all into cool gear, but I guarantee no one in game audio has a pair of these bad boys.

Just some regular everyday headphones

You see, before radar was invented, people needed a way to track enemy aircraft - particularly during World War 2. These gigantic ear horns basically gave people a sense of super-hearing so they could tell what direction planes were coming from, even down on the ground from thousands of feet away.

Now, while having super-hearing would be a great tool for our jobs, there's actually another "super sense" that we need to develop as sound designers... and that's our sense of story.

If we can approach our design with the intent to tell a story, then our sound design skills will jump up immensely. Not only will we be able to create better sound, quicker, but our clients will be all the happier with our work, leading to even more work down the line.

Now, we all can feel when a good story is being told

We get sucked in. We get invested. Whether fictional or not, we start to imagine ourselves in the hero's situation.

The thing is, sound design, just like music, art, or writing plays a massive role in the world of storytelling. So, if we do our job right, the stories being told are going to come across far more powerfully than they would without our audio wizardry.

But, if we can't get into the mindset of a storyteller

Well, things just fall flat. We end up with one of those projects that just feels like the sound just doesn't fit.

Our work may be tonally appropriate, but we can tell that something just doesn't quite belong. It not only feels unsatisfying to us and our clients, but even the audience will feel that something is off.

Let's look at a couple examples good storytelling before we continue

One of my all-time favorite examples of storytelling-through-sound is from the intro to Captain America: The Winter Solider.

Take a look here:

What did you notice about Captain America's footsteps? Note how he makes almost no sound while he's sneaking onto this boat, even though he's moving at full speed most of the time. What does this tell you about his character?

Instantly, you know how much of a badass and how capable he is. This guy can run at a full sprint completely silently and take out a boat full of bad guys without breaking a sweat. That's a perfect use of storytelling through sound.

Now, let's take a look at another example

It's an oldy, but a goody. Probably one of my favorite clips from The Simpsons.

Just in an instance, you hear how powerful and funny that sound of Bart slamming that chair over Homer's back is. Considering the crash has a good amount of oomph and moving parts to it, it sells it even more that this chair hurt a lot and came out of nowhere.

This kind of audio storytelling can be done over a long period of time like in the Captain America clip, or in a flash like in the Simpsons clip. Regardless of the timeframe, you can usually tell a great story.

The crux of being a good sound storyteller comes down to asking questions

While you're designing, you don't want to fall back into old habits and simply just design sound that kind of matches what's going on on-screen. You instead want to constantly ask yourself questions about the story, the context, and the meaning of what you're working on. That will lead to more creative and satisfying decisions.

If you want a list of questions that I like to ask when I'm creating sound to make sure I'm telling as good a story as possible, I have a PDF down below you can grab.

"But Akash, you tantalizing dash of powdered sugar on a fluffy beignet" you say "I'm sure there are some sounds that don't need this special storytelling touch"

And you'd be right! There are certainly times where a sound just needs to be a sound.

If you're making a sound for an average car's turn signal, for example, then the sound just need to convey the right information. There's no real story to tell there.

But in many circumstances, especially in game audio, being able to tell a story is hugely crucial for what we do. If we don't bother with storytelling, then things will just sound flat, boring, and lifeless.

So, while we might not be wearing gigantic super-headphones to detect aircraft anytime soon

We do want to keep our storytelling senses sharp. That's what will make all the difference when it comes to our projects, and helps us bridge the gap between being a beginner sound designer toward being a full-time pro.

And if you'd like a list of questions I like to ask myself when designing based off of story, you can grab a PDF right here!


If you'd like to see a video version of this article, just click down below!

Also, I’m currently updating my “Step-By-Step Sound Design” course to Version 3.0! In the fall of 2023, I plan to open up sales for a self-paced version of the course, and then plan to run a live version of it (where I give you daily assignments and feedback) in 2024.

The self-paced version will be cheaper than the live version for sure, but release dates and pricing are still being determined!

If you want priority updates on when the course will be available and on sale, just join this waiting list here.


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