7 Tips for Aspiring Sound Designers
I never really set out to be a sound designer. In my twenties, I dreamt of being some fly house DJ with a cool-sounding name that would be on the lips of young people everywhere. Obviously, that never happened. Those “young people” are now parents, and in all probability, cannot stand the music their children listen to. Life had other plans. I was hired and fired from more jobs than I can count on my fingers and toes. I was even homeless at one point. But no matter what life threw at me, one thing never changed: my passion for electronic music.
I now consider myself a sound designer, and even though I still need to combine that income with other things to make ends meet, I spend the vast majority of my time doing something I love, and that means more to me than standing behind a turntable in front of a crowd full of screaming teenagers. But if that’s your dream, hey, don’t let me discourage you!
Since 2014, I’ve released a number of sample and preset libraries under the “Sound Author” moniker, and while I’m not exactly a household name, I’ve had a great deal of success so far, and I thought I’d just offer up a little advice to anyone who might be interested in sound design. Regardless of whether you might be considering this a full-time job or maybe you’re just looking to polish up your skillset as a producer, I thought you might appreciate some food for thought from a guy who never had a plan…
YOU DO YOU
I’m sure you’ve seen tutorials with titles like “How To Make (some popular artist’s) Style Lead”. You don’t have to look far. YouTube is replete with these kinds of videos, and while I’m sure many of them might be very useful, I must caution novice sound designers from wading in the stagnant reservoir of copycat sound design tutorials.
I’ve wasted countless hours of my life trying to find myself in someone else’s smile. Learning how to create someone else’s creation hardly ever leads to my own creations…or at least not the ones I’m particularly proud of. I’m not diminishing the importance of learning new things. I’m sure reverse-engineering some Mefjus style neuro bass will open up a world of new possibilities. It’s what we do with those possibilities that truly matters.
Know your tools and their intended purpose. But also try to figure out how they can be used in ways they weren’t originally intended for. Masterful sound design relies on deep experimentation and genuine, burning curiosity. So, the next time you hear that voice in your head saying “what’s this knob do?”, listen to it.
That being said, don’t just arbitrarily fiddle with knobs and patch cables with no direction. Try to have some idea what will happen when you do something, but just enough curiosity to find out what will happen when you do something you haven’t tried before. But before you can do that, you need to know what you have tried and what you haven’t. So, like I said, know your tools…and…
READ THE MANUAL
Yes, it’s long and tedious and painfully boring, but knowledge is power. A major turning point in my sound design career was setting aside the time to sit down with a cup o’ joe and dedicate two weeks of my life to learning everything there is to know about u-he’s Zebra 2. Fortunately, Zebra has a very thorough manual.
However, I need to stress the importance of pacing yourself. As you can imagine, you can get really burnt out. If you’re learning something as overwhelming as Zebra, you should probably just learn a few modules a day. Just try to keep in mind that it’s better to have a strong knowledge of each working part of something than a general knowledge of the entire thing, which will lead to “generally favorable” results. You want amazing results. So, do your homework. Also, coffee is your friend.
YOUR PLAN DOESN’T ALWAYS MATTER
It’s important to always start with an idea, but try not to get too attached to it. Your idea will probably vanish into the fog of better ideas that will emerge as you discover new things, which is basically the whole point of experimental sound design. Take note of new discoveries. If need be, ditch your plan. You can always come back to it later. Now that you’ve got something new and exciting to mess around with, mess around with it!
Don’t forget why you decided to be a sound designer in the first place: It’s fun! The moment this starts to feel like a job, you’re inevitably going to make some pretty forgettable sounds. I’m not saying there aren’t challenges to this profession. Like anything, you’ll need to focus and do a considerable amount of research. On occasion, you’ll experience a creative drought. This happens to everyone. The best way to get back on track is to get inspired.
EXERCISE AND LISTEN TO NEW MUSIC
You need to go outside. No, seriously, your brain needs to go out into the world. Your eyeballs need to see things other than the interior of your recording studio. Your lungs need breath fresh air, and your ears need to be listening to music you’ve never heard before. I don’t care if it’s 17th century baroque cantatas or Italian vaporwave. It just needs to be new to you.
Creative people are often very introverted. We keep to ourselves, and because of that, we’re apt to miss out on the creations of other amazingly talented artists. So, we need to make a point to expose ourselves to new music, and similarly, to the world beyond our comfort zone. Without inspiration, the creative process screeches to a grinding halt. We need inspiration like we need oxygen. So, go make some friends and find out what they’re listening to.
Even if you don’t plan on releasing it, you should always be making new music. I’ve found that designing sounds in a musical context helps me determine what they will sound like in a mix, so I compose and design at the same time, which isn’t the most workflow-efficient way to produce a track, but for a sound designer, it can lead to some really cool results. Even if you deposit the track into your recycle bin, you should have gotten something out of it. A few synth patches. Some punchy one-hit drum samples. Or maybe…just maybe…your new hit single!
I don’t have all the answers, but in the last few years, I’ve bumped up against a few creative roadblocks, and with a genuine spirit of adventure, a constant dosage of inspiration, several gallon of coffee, plus a little help from my friends, I’ve managed to carve out a small, upwardly mobile online business doing something that puts a smile on my face, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So, regardless of “where you see yourself in the next fifteen years”, do what you love, above all else, and when you have a million reasons not to…love it harder.