Justin Macleod on the freedom of the sound designer

While engaged in the very fiddling that inspired that idea for this post, one of the other things I love about sound design occurred to me…the freedom. I believe sound design to be one of the freest areas within the field of audio. Sound designers are illusionists. We’re the con artists everyone likes to have around, constantly taking unreality and passing it off as real, packaging cornstarch as snow, frying bacon as rain and cellophane as fire etc.

It goes even further than that though. I can’t think of anyone else in audio who is allowed to break the rules as often and with as much abandonment as the sound designer. We’re always using things for purposes for which their creators never intended and we get to commit so many of the sins other audio professionals must not.

I remember hearing someone talk about a plugin once, I genuinely forget which one it was, and saying they didn’t like it for their musical application because it introduced too many artifacts. This was the very thing that made me sit up and pay attention to him more closely because artifacts, when properly tamed, can be a rich source of original sound design.

Noise reduction is one of those very risky areas that requires a lot of skill to achieve transparently. Noise reduction to produce good sound design though is liberatingly forgiving of a lack of precision and a heavy hand. There’s something very satisfying in wielding a scalpel like a broadsword and producing interesting and pleasing results, of dialing settings up to eleven or stacking enough instances of a plugin that might make an audio restoration artist wince.

Aliasing is another one of those audio defects that is usually to be avoided at all costs, but taking a tone generator and forcing it to produce tones so high that they produce aliasing, thereby enriching the humble sine wave, is an excellent way to produce beeps and other UI sounds. Terrible recordings, either replete with unwanted background noise or clipping can be mangled into wonderful, brooding soundscapes or other strange and otherworldly effects.

Today, I’m experimenting by automating a pitch-shifter to transition between its extremes. Of course, even though the pitch-shifter is very high quality, one of the best I’ve ever used, abusing it in this way will not bode well for the sound’s integrity. I left any hope of transparent pitch sweeps at the door. There will be artifacts and distortion galore and that’s precisely what I want, for although modulating the pitch of a sound can certainly produce very interesting results, I’m looking to hear things I never heard before, that I never imagined.

Reaper, my DAW of choice, offers several different algorithms for changing the pitch or rate of audio you import. Some of those algorithms would be considered far better than others for traditional applications. I love experimenting with the ones that, many would rightly say, would produce poor results in many important day-to-day tasks of many audio professionals. Sometimes, by dialling those parameters to extremes, it’s possible for me to go an entire session without even reaching for the effects plugin’s dialogue.

The sound designer’s world is so often a never-land, a playground with very few rules, the only one really being that the end product, the sound produced must be fit for purpose. How that goal is achieved, how many cardinal sins of audio production must be committed to get there really doesn’t matter as long as the sound arrives at journey’s end safely. What happens on the journey stays on the journey and I think it’s this freedom, this invitation to indulge one’s rebellious streak, to think outside the box and find some rules to break that’s a big part of what makes sound design so appealing and so much fun.

Justin Macleod is a sound designer based in the UK. You can check out his sound effects here at zapsplat.com and follow him on Twitter @SkycladSound