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Sound Designer

Last updated: Apr 26, 2021
Reads: 88,952

Career Overview

Sound Designers create sound effects and immersive audio experiences in the worlds of film/TV, theater, concerts, and video games.

Alternate Titles

Audio Designer, Audio Artist, Sound Artist, Creative Sound Designer, Technical Sound Designer

Salary Range

$30K – $100K

Career Description

Sound Designers use various processes to record, create, acquire, generate, and manipulate audio elements for use in films, television, radio, theater productions, sound recordings, live performances, sound-art, post-production, animations, and for video game and software development.

The art of sound design includes creating and manipulating audio tracks using techniques such as performing sounds to be recorded (Foley Art), composing music or audio, creating or editing sound effects, recording or editing dialogue, and using synthesizers and previously recorded audio such as samples or files from sound libraries. Sound Designers work in teams on major films and video game releases or work individually as a freelancer on smaller or independent projects. Not all Sound Designers are Composers or musicians.

Today’s Sound Designers are busy professionals usually working on multiple project-based productions simultaneously. They work in a highly technical environment where they must meet tight deadlines under immense pressure. Some Sound Designers are Music Technologists, Composers, Audio Engineers, Music Video Directors, and might be musical performers as well. They may write and produce fixed scores for soundtracks used in films and TV, and they might also design complex systems for sound layering and interactive audio control, using real-time synthesis in non-linear environments such as in video games.

Successful Audio Designers spend years honing their craft and learning the art of creating unique digital soundscapes which support the visual elements on screen. They have excellent collaborative abilities, and superb time and project management skills. Sound Designers perform an integral role in the world of entertainment and visual media.

The advent of streaming over the web as the primary distribution method for video and audio content has only increased the work available to Sound Designers and will likely continue to do so. Whether based in Hollywood, Bollywood, or anywhere else on the planet, Sound Designers serve an international industry spanning continents, borders, and time zones. Those with the right training, knowledge, capabilities, talent, and skills are in high demand in an interconnected digital world where visual media and digital audio content command the attention of billions of people every minute of every day.

To learn more about the different facets of sound design and how to start a career in the field, we talked to Sound Designers working in several different fields. In this article you’ll hear from:

  • David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)
  • Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)
  • Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)
  • Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

What does a Sound Designer do?

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

At its basic level, a Sound Designer creates and/or arranges different kinds of sounds, most often in some form of media. On the more innocuous side, think of that sound effect when your computer starts up. A Sound Designer made that. On the more exciting side, think about the sounds of the Transformers in those Transformers films or Godzilla’s roar in those recent films as well. Sound Designers [created those effects.]

Somewhat recently, in a funny twist of fate, Sound Designers were hired to recreate car sounds for electric cars because the electric cars were too quiet for people to hear them coming down the road.

Sound Designers both synthesize as well as record all sorts of sounds and manipulate them in hundreds of different ways to create the aural illusion needed for whichever gig they are doing. One of my favorite classic tricks is recording the sound of celery being snapped in half, which has been used for decades as the sound of bones breaking. Psychologically, Sound Designers truly have a lot of influence.

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

The term “sound design” has spread out to be used over a variety of disciplines. In theater, there will be a Sound Designer, and that’s an important role. In the musical instrument world, there are people who are called Sound Designers who work with electronics and make new sounds for instruments and for software. But the title has also found its way into film.

The work that I do is as part of a sound crew doing post-production audio for a film. A lot of times, there are things happening in films that don’t necessarily have a real-world parallel. So, part of the task is deciding what a spaceship might sound like or what some alien species might sound like when they talk.

There will be a crew that works on the entire sound job: dialog, music, foley, and more generic sound effects like cars, guns, or doors opening and closing. I’ll often carve out a little part of the project to work on that’s more of the design-related aspects, whether it’s a creature, a spaceship, a weapon, or anything else that needs to be built from scratch with sounds.

On a film sound crew, the jobs are split up into departments, with the Foley Department, the Music Department, Dialog, and Sound Effects. The Sound Designer is often thought of as part of the Sound Effects Department.

The way these jobs are typically done now is by taking from libraries of recordings you already have, libraries that you can either buy or you can go out and record. Say there’s a helicopter in your movie, so you go record a helicopter. A lot of times, what a Sound Designer is tasked with are those things that you can’t simply find a recording of and plug it in. If it needs to be a helicopter eighty years in the future or something, that’s more of a design task.

Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber's CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)

I do sound design for musical theatre which is just one of the many disciplines of sound design. I spend a lot of my time making music and singing sound good, creating sound effects, and playing with lots of cool gadgets.

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

In the mornings I go through emails, bug tracking notifications, attend lead meetings if I’m a lead on the project or sometimes I need to just immediately jump into content development.

Issues will come and go during the day; we may get news that makes us reorient the entire department’s priorities. Other times I’m just head down working on a creature, maybe a voice processing chain, or implementing a number of sounds into a boss fight.

Occasionally I’ll spend entire days in meetings, speaking with Composers, developing outsourcing plans and schedules. Some of my favorite days are when I’m head down, working on music and everything is just coming together nicely and no fires popped into existence!

In a low cycle, I’ll have fairly normal 8 hour days at a relaxed pace. In a peak cycle, I’ll have 8 hour high-intensity days for a while and then 9-12 hour high-intensity days for a week or two preceding a major milestone. Depending on the milestone, I’ll sometimes work a couple of Saturdays or a weekend or two in a row. When that happens, though, it usually comes with comp time afterward.

Note that the kind of hours you experience can vary wildly from Developer to Developer though. A lot of this depends on the internal culture at a studio.

Why is sound design important?

Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber's CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)

The sound design in theatre is critical to the show–without it, the audience would not be able to hear the orchestra or the singing. Also, many of the sound effects are important for telling the story and for putting the audience in the right acoustic place.

Where do Sound Designers work?

Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber's CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)

I work almost exclusively in theatres, but some Sound Designers work creating sound for games, or for movies.

Salary

Breaking into the highly competitive business of sound design is very challenging and usually requires working as an Intern or Assistant on teams or with established Sound Designers at low or no pay in the beginning. Sound Designers report being able to earn $30,000 to $40,000 in the first few years of employment, later moving up to salaries around $100,000 per year or slightly higher.

An entry-level position with a well-known company might pay $75,000 annually. Some Designers might also work on an hourly or per-shift basis (a shift is about eight hours) earning between $200 to $800 per shift. This might sound like a lot, but most of the jobs are in places like Los Angeles where the costs of living are also quite high.

The most successful Sound Designers command large fees from major studios or companies and typically also manage teams of people working on all aspects of audio production. In general, the more responsibility they have, the more money they can earn. Large budget projects have sufficient money earmarked for music and sound design and big studios may sub-contract (hire) smaller specialized sound design companies to work on a production or a game.

The Sound Designers working for those companies may be on salary, as long as there is enough money coming into the company to support their work ongoing. Sometimes a big studio or game company will buy a smaller sound design company to bring the operation in-house and prevent the Sound Designers from working with the competition.

Smaller projects will have a more limited budget and the Sound Designer will have to bid on the job in a competitive environment. The competitive bidding process is designed so that the client can choose a Designer they think will be able to complete the work to their specifications at the best possible price. The bidding process usually begins with the client soliciting a “request for proposal” (RFP) from the sound design company or Designer interested in doing the work. Once a proposal is approved by the client, a contract will be executed.

Most contracts are for a flat fee, also called “work for hire,” meaning the Sound Designer doesn’t receive royalties from the future revenues generated by the project. In some cases, the Game Music Composer might have an opportunity to sell their music within a game to generate publishing revenues.

How much do Sound Designers earn?

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

The union rates for sound editorial work are pretty locked in. This is a union job I’m working on, and I think the Sound Editor rate is $63 an hour. Plus there’s usually some overtime. So those are your union jobs.

It can be all over the place; I work on non-union jobs that pay a rate that’s more like $40 an hour. The pay scale is usually a weekly rate. So you’ll start and they’ll say, “This is a little low-budget drama that’s shot in upstate New York. Can you work for six weeks on it for $3,000 a week?”

The union jobs, on the other hand, are a lot more spelled out. There’ll be protection for you. If they ask you to work on the weekend, there’ll be overtime.

I don’t know anybody that’s just, like, rolling in the dough. But the people I know who work steadily are able to buy a house, have a family, and make $100,000 a year. There’s a huge range. I mean, my income probably went from $30,000 a year when I was starting, to up to $100,000 a year. But that took 5–10 years to get there.

A busy sound post facility will bring on [entry level Sound Designers] because they want to keep bringing new talent in. So you might get a chance to live in northern California, work on film sound, and make $40 an hour as an Assistant; which sounds awesome except that it’s so expensive to live there.

That’s gonna be true in L.A. too where most of this work is. Like, it looks good on paper until you try to live there for a couple of years, and you realize it’s okay, but it’s not the same as if you were making that same money and living in someplace more normal.

So, yeah, the differentiation between getting started and being established was tight for me for the first five years or so.

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

Like almost all trade jobs, this varies wildly from person to person. There are so many different avenues in sound design, whether you’re working as a freelancer vs. salaried for a studio, what kind of media you’re working within, etc. One person’s entire annual salary could easily be another’s backend quarterly royalty check.

Career Outlook

There’s been a steady increase in demand for music and soundtracks to accompany visual media which is likely to continue. We are living in a fully digital and (often) remote world, where more and more interaction occurs over the internet and airwaves. Today, more than ever, electronic sounds are incredibly expressive and effective at conveying emotion, and due to this, use of electronic-based sounds in film, audio production, and video game soundtracks has become more popular.

Theater productions and concerts aren’t going away, either. Theme parks, cruise ships, museums, and tourist destinations all have audio production needs that a proficient Sound Designer can fill. Another growth area for Sound Designers is animated logos and animated shorts, which are very popular.

Sound is a unique element that is central to the emotional impact of all visual media and the performing arts. Sound supports what we see and convinces us; what we hear has the power to influence us, and advertisers know this as well. Many Sound Designers work on advertising for radio, TV, and on the web. Tech companies like Google also have Sound Designers on salary.

As the demand for all the creative industries increases, there should be a steady demand for talented Sound Designers to do the needed work. Well-trained and skilled creative Sound Designers can expect a steady demand for their work, assuming they are in a location where there is an industry and they can effectively network with employers, Music Supervisors, Directors, Producers, and Project Managers in media and entertainment.

One way to connect and network with others in the industry is to attend conferences on a regular basis. These conferences could be in the music, film, audio engineering, music production, education, or video game fields. Besides meeting others who may be important to launching a career, attending conferences is an excellent way to learn all about the industry, understand the latest developments, and form an opinion on the future outlook for employment. Many colleges and universities also offer symposiums and career-related events that are open to the public and they may have other resources to learn more about where the industry is headed.

Career Path

As with most other careers in the arts, new entrants must work their way up the chain of command, working first as an Intern, Assistant, or team member. Observing and learning from others with more experience is part of the deal, and after some time the Sound Designer should be able to move up and perhaps become a team leader.

The work of a Sound Designer happens primarily in small teams, which includes others working on a production who may not be directly involved with creating the audio. Developing cross-functional positive working relationships with others will likely lead to working with the same folks on future projects.

Gaining experience and developing a portfolio of high-quality previous work to show prospective clients is a crucial step to getting more work. A steady stream of clients allows experienced Sound Designers to be selective about which clients they accept. An outstanding portfolio showing the Sound Designer’s talent and skills will allow them to charge higher prices, leading to a sustainable career as a Sound Designer.

Some career options might include working for a sound design company, in a recording studio, a theater, a sports arena, or an advertising company. Some Sound Designers work as live Audio Engineers for concerts and might also DJ or create EDM (electronic dance music), loops, beats, write mixed film scores, or produce popular recording artists. Others work more intensively on recording and editing dialogue for visual media.

How do you become a Sound Designer?

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

I’ve seen people come out to a facility where I’m working, they’re trying to get their foot in the door, and they come with a DVD. Or they send an email and say, “Hey, here’s a link to my Vimeo page,” or whatever. That’s totally valid.

It depends on what kind of jobs your readers might be looking for. If you’re talking to a Director or to a sound facility where you might get a job as an Assistant Designer, I think it’d be great to have your own personal Soundcloud or Vimeo page, or your own little splash page website that you can direct people to and say, “Here are a few examples of my work.”

I’m coming to this from the perspective of somebody who’s been in the very specific niche of sound design for film for the last 20 years. But stepping back, if I were in my 20s, I’m not so sure I would go in and say, “I want to do sound design for film.”

I think this is a really exciting time where there’s so much content being made that’s not going up on movie screens—and really good content. Very soon, I think there’s gonna be an even tighter exploration of the VR/game/film experience. I think that’s where we’re headed as technology continues to develop. It’s still too expensive to shoot a film with VR technology, but I think we’re headed that way.

So, if I was an 18-year-old and thought I might want to get into sound design, there’s just so much right now with VR, and with game audio design, and with all the streaming content the studios like Netflix and Amazon are doing. It really seems like a lot more things are opening up that could make really good jobs and really good career paths.

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

Like anything, you choose to. You’ll only choose to if you truly love sound, the concept of sound, the science of sound, the emotional response of sound. It’s a truly exciting world where the only real limitation is your imagination. The rest is up to you.

As far as job opportunities go, sound design is everywhere. Some of my earlier sound design gigs were doing little interstitial sounds for indie video games 12 years ago or so; that later evolved into sound design in movie trailers, and sound design-based music in bigger games. Personally, my own music is quite sound design-based, so even when I’m in a Composer kind of role, sound design plays a big part in my compositional process.

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

By working on independent game projects, film and animation projects, student projects, whatever you can find that is work to picture or interactive mediums. Stay active on projects that give you deadlines and/or structured goals.

Work according to images, movies or scenarios in games so that even while practicing, you’re also training yourself to try and fit a scene or objective. Also keep diversity in mind so make sure some of your projects push you out of your comfort zones regarding music style.

Experience & Skills

Sound Designers must learn all about current music production, sound design, and synthesis technologies and how they are used in recording for visual media. They must know how to record, edit, program and mix electronic music and sound design projects using Pro Tools, the ultimate software recording program used everywhere, and manipulate sound from electronic instruments using synthesizer programming techniques like subtractive, additive, modular, FM, analogue, wavetable, sampling, and granular.

They must have skills in digital audio editing, music synthesis, MIDI pre- and post-production, multimedia development, and performing. Pro Tools is the ultimate software for recording used by Sound Designers. They might also use software programs like Ableton Live for composing and recording performances. Recording and editing dialogue in post-production is also an important skill for Sound Designers, as is learning how to sync sound and music to picture.

Aspiring Sound Designers should strive first to acquire the basic conceptual and practical skills needed to design and produce sound for film, video clips, video games, animation, and animated logos, while fully understanding the types of sound used in these productions and how they contribute to telling a story. Using synthesized or sampled sounds, commercial sound effect libraries, plus original field recordings, Sound Designers learn to apply editing and effect processing techniques to mold sound sources to the requirements of each project. Sound Designers also create new and original sounds and effects that purposefully elicit desired emotional responses in listeners to coincide with the visual elements of the production.

Further, Sound Designers must master advanced techniques such as synthesizer programming, digital signal processing (DSP), sampling, electronic audio recording and manipulation (e.g., dialogue production, Foley, and music cue editing), sound layering, plus mixing for stereo and surround sound playback.

Advanced skills also include designing and creating interactive audio systems and routines for sound implementation and control, for example, the process of integrating and triggering sound effects and music layers in a nonlinear environment such as a video game (instead of the fixed, linear events found in film and TV). This means designing interactive systems to integrate audio and control aspects and analyze visual action in order to create comprehensive sound support.

Dialogue editing is a huge part of a Sound Designer’s work. They may use dialogue recorded on the set or in other stages of the production, then edit, clean and mix it, or they may record dialogue in the studio and then edit and mix it. They will often record automated dialogue replacement (ADR–re-recording or dubbing an Actor’s dialogue in a quiet environment) and then replace dialogue in post-production if needed. They also record, edit and mix dialogue in different languages for international versions and produce music and effects (M&E) audio mixes for other studios to use when recording international versions.

Professional game development and production also require project management skills, the ability to meet deadlines, and effective communication skills along with the ability to work under intense pressure. The best Sound Designers work well in teams, are great project managers, and have superior business leadership skills and business sense.

What skills do Sound Designers need?

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

Knowing their way around a DAW. As for which one, it doesn’t really matter these days. Pro Tools is as common as Ableton Live and others when it comes to the creative process of sound design, although it should be acknowledged that in post-production, Pro Tools is still the standard.

Experience with field recording is hugely helpful as well, not to mention exciting, dare I say joyous. Knowing your way around synthesizers and samplers as well is certainly necessary. So much sound design, in general, is a combination of recorded sounds layered with synthesized and processed sounds.

Most important of anything, however, is your creativity. When you’re given the task of creating the sound of an esoteric object that might not have a distinct sound attached to it, that becomes your job to give it a unique sonic identity. Prime example: Quite literally everybody remembers the sounds of R2D2. R2 didn’t arrive with those sounds. Ben Burtt, the Sound Designer on Star Wars created those, which are so expressive that they in turn truly created R2’s identity.

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

Having a passion and knowledge of video games, of course, comes first. For the Freelancer, that’s about the only game-specific requirement I can think of. Although practicing or learning what’s needed for delivering assets intended for vertical stem arranged music systems is also something a bit unique to games. But in the end, the bottom line is that the quality of your music and your mixing is far more important.

For someone interested in an internal position at a game studio, they absolutely must have experience building games. Running into technical or resource walls during that production process as a student or hobbyist and then finding solutions to get past those walls is basically the same process we go through in an AAA development environment.

Every day spent on a large-scale project is an exercise in creative problem solving, so being able to do that while remaining calm, relaxed and intellectually agile are all qualities that successful long-time veterans have. Ultimately these are the qualities you are trying to demonstrate you have as a new entrant into the field.

Since technical aptitude and artistic skill/quality is assumed, the better you’re able to express and demonstrate these qualities, the easier it will be to surmount the industry’s catch-22 of needing to have already shipped a game to get hired as a Game Developer.

I tried to build my own bridge over that catch-22 by forming teams with other like-minded people and then collaborating on projects. Those efforts are what ended up allowing me to get my foot in the door. Look for local game development communities like IGDA chapters, campuses with game development curriculums, etc. Start making friends and then as a group, start trying to make things. Small things.

This career only really works if it’s what you’d be doing anyway with your time. Without that level of interest, the sometimes chaos and long hours/intensity at the end of milestones may not be worth it long term.

In the end, we’re an entertainment industry and we share similar high stakes, high-stress cycles as other entertainment industries, so it’s your passion and love of the medium that make those cycles worth it.

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

For design specific to film: being familiar with the classics of film. A lot of times, Directors will reference other films when they’re talking about what they want and what their ideas are. They might talk about specific sounds in films, or they might just talk about a scene and use it as a frame of reference.

If you really want to be able to work in film for years, it’s important to have a grounding in what’s been done before and what are revered as the touchpoints. In every genre, there are some classics. For war movies, it would probably be Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket. In sci-fi, maybe the first couple of Star Wars movies. Being able to reference that stuff and talk to filmmakers about it is one thing you need.

I don’t think a Sound Designer needs to be a musician by any stretch, but I like to try to think of sound in a similar way to how I think of music. I mean, it’s just organizations of sound, right? So, think about how things affect you and the world around you sonically. A lot of the work I do is taking stuff that happens in the real world and altering things somehow to tell the story better.

What kinds of sounds make you feel lonely? What kinds of sounds make you feel scared? What kinds of sounds make you feel apprehensive like something’s going to happen? If you listen in your day-to-day life, you can sometimes hit an idea that you can use in the film.

[David] Lynch was one of the reasons I got curious about this work. Like, Eraserhead is a hard movie to watch, but I remember every time I would watch bits and pieces of it, the sound treatment was so fascinating to me. It sounded very musical somehow.

I’m working on a film that Marvel’s making right now. It’s very much about spaceships and lasers and crazy monsters. That’s design of sound. But to me, an interesting part of the work is when it’s not so fantastical; when there aren’t spaceships or anything, but you’re still trying to find ways to use sound as a subconscious text for the storyteller, for the Director. Lynch is brilliant with that. You can step back from it and go, “Wait, why am I hearing that in this scene?” He finds those ways to sort of touch a nerve with sound.

So, my long-winded answer is familiarity with film, with the catalog of what’s been done and what’s being done, and being interested in really listening.

Education & Training

Most Sound Designers attend college or university music and audio engineering and production programs. It’s possible to earn a degree in sound design, and there are courses and certificate programs.

They might be musicians, DJs, or Audio Engineers who are especially adept with music technology. Many begin by studying film scoring, music synthesis, electronic music, and audio engineering. Students initially learn how to set up and run a home studio, use DAWs (digital audio workstations), and learn basic sampling, digital signal processing, MIDI sequencing, synthesis, mixing, and other techniques central to sound design and electronic production.

College programs teach the current music technology and compositional techniques used in film scoring and sound design, as well as the business skills needed to go out and get the work. Students will be required to assemble a portfolio before graduation and will have access to the facilities and resources to do so. This is one big advantage of attending a school.

Students also study the history of film scoring, sound design, and electronic audio for visual media, which goes back about sixty years. (One of the first films to incorporate electronic audio effects used a theremin and tape delay in the soundtrack for the film Forbidden Planet.) More modern applications for sound design in film might include creating sounds for CGI animation effects, animated logos, streaming VR movies and video games, and even virtual social media influencers. Studying the history of electronic music and sound design provides a context, and awareness of prior influential scores offers a useful framework for creating the soundtrack of the future.

In school, more advanced courses focus on using sound as texture within visual media, learning to work with software synthesizers and samplers, and using raw and electronic sound sources to create unique sounds and musical soundscapes. Students learn how to apply audio effects to enhance and customize sounds, to generate audio loops, create original instruments, and apply these sonic textures to a mixed score.

They might also study techniques for creating EDM music, learn to DJ, practice turntabling, perform live on synthesizers, learn new ways to play and compose music, learn advanced techniques for using Pro Tools music production software, or create music for body and mind relaxation or wellness.

Other more advanced subjects taught in sound design and electronic music production programs include sound design for game audio, sound design for VR (virtual reality), use of Ableton Push for performing live, use of modular synthesizers for performing and sound design, EDM production, use of Csound (free software for audio programming), training for advanced DSP (digital signal processing), electronic sampling, mixing, circuit-bending, physical modeling, use of Roli Seaboard Rise (an innovative newer kind of keyboard MIDI controller), and use of software programs and real-time tools such as MAX for Live, Logic Pro X Sculpture, and Native Instruments Komplete. Students also learn to use various DAWs and audio implementation tools such as Wwise and Fmod Studio for both linear and interactive media.

Many of these courses are taught in cutting-edge labs and studios with state-of-the-art facilities. Being enrolled also comes with student discounts for hardware and software bundles, and access to labs and studios where students can experiment and learn on their own. There is a lot of material to learn, and the technology is constantly evolving, so the Sound Designer needs a mindset of constant learning to keep up with the trends.

As the use of electronic-based sound has grown and opened more opportunities for expression, Composers and Sound Designers must learn to use the new technologies to create sounds that no one has heard before. Using synthesizers, samples, and audio effects combined with traditional instruments to engage, entertain, and excite listeners, Sound Designers explore new realms in the world of creative audio and produce innovative and unique soundtracks to enhance the listener and viewer experience. With the right mix of training, skill, and creative abilities, experienced Sound Designers will continue to shape the aural world for generations to come.

What qualifications do you need to be a Sound Designer?

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

Beyond normal composition and orchestration training, it’s very important to get a solid education in audio engineering and music mixing. I would also stress exploring and developing your craft in areas like electronic music production, guitar-based bands, etc.

It is not uncommon for Contractors to have to handle live recording, session direction, composition, and final mixes for games. That means that it will be important for you to have solid skills in all of those areas and [you] would likely have a very difficult time if you tried to stay within a particular music style, like orchestral scores.

Practical experience at places like recording studios is a huge boon to anyone pursuing music production as a career. Having experience at a studio not only teaches you to think about your compositions and production quality from an engineering perspective, you will also have access to equipment and methods that will help educate you on tools (that are very hard to obtain access to on your own) and a skillset and mindset that will help you create great mixes.

Some studios and/or Publishers will be able to offer you services like mixing and Recording Engineers to handle live recording sessions or small ensembles, but it’s a good assumption that most of the time, you will have to rely on your own skills due to budget or time constraints.

So don’t be afraid to take some time for yourself after college (or ideally during college) with gaining this kind of practical experience. Even in a situation where it may feel like you’re putting your career off, the older you get, the harder it is to be able to get that kind of dedicated time and focus on developing yourself.

Once you become career-oriented, the time will be difficult to find and you’ll accrue enough life and/or financial overhead that it will be nearly impossible to take a break for training. So get in early, stay focused and experiment when the cost of experimentation is low.

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

The people I work with seem to come at this work from a lot of different angles. I don’t think there’s necessarily a track. But there are some very good schools. I know that a lot of universities have post-production programs, and there are also programs like Full Sail’s audio production degree in Florida.

So, there are places to go if you’re sure that you want to get into sound for film. There are legit schools and ways to study, which I think would be a really good idea.

I studied music in college. This was back before computers were being made, being used to make and edit sound. This was back in the analog days. To make that leap into the work world, I had to go and work for a facility because you couldn’t just buy that kind of machinery and have it at your house.

But now we’re in a situation where technology has evened out the playing field. Now, with a good laptop and a little bit of money, you can be using the same software as professionals—we use Pro Tools.

Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, try to see what kind of higher education opportunities there might be. But also, get your hands on the tools that people are using. If you read about people doing sound design work and you’re interested in how they did it, you can get your hands on some of those tools and start to familiarize yourself with them.

There’s also a huge aspect to this business that’s just being comfortable with data management and assets, files in general, because, especially since COVID, more people are working remotely and there’s more need to use stuff on the web to move data back and forth. I know that’s not as big a deal for people in their 20s because they’re already very familiar.

Getting familiar with software and going to school to not only learn about the technical stuff but to learn about film is a really good idea. Also, the people that you meet in college, as you get out into the world and get older, will be how you get work in this field.

I don’t mean to say you only get work by sticking with the people you went to college with. Obviously, you don’t have to go to college to do this work. But it’s a good way to start to forge relationships.

For me, this work had a very slow growth curve. I started doing some of this kind of work during college, I was able to get an internship out of college, and then I was able to work for several years as a freelancer—sort of the extra person who would get called in every once in a while.

Finally, after maybe five or six years, I started to get more frequent opportunities. There are definitely ways to go to, say, the game studios that make the big games—companies like Blizzard—and get a job as a Sound Designer.

But most of the work is making connections, talking to people, and finding a project. That’s what all of my work is. I go from project to project. The only way that’s possible is having done the work for a while and gotten to know enough people, and they know people, and they connect you to people.

So, building a network is a huge part of being able to support yourself in this kind of work. And it didn’t come quickly for me. I probably wasn’t doing this work full-time to support myself until I was about 30.

It’s not the easiest career path. I haven’t seen as many opportunities to get out of college and send your resume out and get interviews. It’s more like you get out of college and start trying to meet people who are doing the work so that you can get hired as an Assistant.

One thing I would really recommend is, if you go to film school, to work with a lot of the Directors. Say, “Hey, I’ll do the sound for your short film,” because that’s a good way to get experience. Then some of those Directors, hopefully, their careers will continue to grow, and you can start to forge relationships that way.

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

While I went to Berklee College of Music myself, truthfully I don’t believe any institutional qualifications are needed. What matters most, like most trade jobs in Hollywood/multimedia, is your skill/experience, your work ethic, and frankly being a pleasant person to work with.

FAQ

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

Make sure you’re familiar with games and focus on developing your workflow to be as fast and original as possible.

Is there anything else that you think aspiring Sound Designers should know?

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

Be sure it’s something you really want to do because it can be a bit hard to find a path into it as a career. One thing I didn’t bring up is just how important it is to be pleasant to work with.

You have to be able to do the work, but they’ll also be saying, “Okay, this pool of people can do this work. Now, of those people, which one do we want to spend 50 hours a week around?” And that comes down to just being a nice person.

There’s definitely a personality factor to the people who seem to stick on a crew. A lot of times, we’ll refer to it as a crew if it’s a group of six or eight sound people that do a film. Then when we finish, we tend to line up the same group of people to do the next film or another film.

If there are 100 people that can do the work, maybe 50 of them are not gonna be fun to have lunch with every day. So that’s really important. There’