Vantage Point: Sound Design
Posted Dec 27, 2009

Sound design is the process of planning and creating a sound treatment that will enhance the storytelling of a film. Effective sound design improves a film without being overbearing or calling attention to itself.

Walter Murch coined the term sound design after creating the sound treatment for Apocalypse Now—a film that, along with Star Wars, forever changed the approach to sound editing in filmmaking. By incorporating simple aspects of the craft into our films, we can enhance our productions to better connect with consumers, which will result in more bookings and will increase the value of our product.

"Sound is NOT there to ‘help' the visuals. That's kindergarten filmmaking. Anyone who says that film is a visual medium is being foolish and naïve."—Randy Thom, sound designer (Harry Potter, Forrest Gump, Eragon)

The elements of sound are dialogue, music, and effects. The category of sound that is sorely underutilized in our industry is effects. Think about music videos. The purpose of a music video is to sell a track of music. Therefore, the music is primary, with all else being secondary. We, on the other hand, are attempting to tell a story, and music plays only one small part in accomplishing that goal.

Ambient sound is the natural background sound of any given environment. Ambience creates atmosphere and establishes a setting. It serves to set the mood and tone of a scene. If a couple is walking on the beach and ambient sound of the surf is captured and placed strategically in the film, the oceanic atmosphere will be heightened. The setting will then become multisensory.

"Sound is a heart thing."—Alan Splet, sound designer (best-known for his work with David Lynch)

Sound speaks to the emotions, not the intellect. Its power, though often subliminal, can be extremely profound. There's a scene in As Good as It Gets where Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt are having dinner at a restaurant. The ambient track consists of the murmur of background conversations and the faint clinking of glasses and silverware. As their conversation becomes more intimate, the ambient sound is faded down, bringing the audience into this revelatory, private moment.

In wedding films, ambient sound of the bridesmaids laughing softly as the bride is dressing sets a tone of happiness and excitement. Clients will often be unaware of this type of sound treatment on a conscious level. However, they will connect with it emotionally. And affecting your prospective clients emotionally, through your clips, is vital to selling your product.

The term "room tone" refers to the sound in an empty room. No room is truly silent, and each has its own distinct sound. In the making of motion pictures, room tone is recorded and used behind dialogue to smooth out cuts and provide a consistent sound bed when, for example, the director's voice is edited out.

Event filmmakers can use room tone to improve the quality of just about everything we film. Pockets of dead air in a production are a silent killer. Prerecorded room tone will erase the jarring effects of dead air when sniffles or other unwanted sounds are edited out. Additionally, you can fade up room tone (or ambient sound at an outdoor wedding) as a lead-in (and out) to sound bites in stylized productions. This will reduce the jarring effect of going from a music only track to live captured sound.

Another key element of effective sound design is walla, a studio-captured mumbling (or buzz) of background voices. Walla adds atmosphere and a sense of reality. The genesis of the word goes back to the days of old radio shows. To create the sound of a crowd in the background, players would assemble and recite "walla" repeatedly to simulate conversation without any discernible words. Nowadays, Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR) groups record actual background conversations for films.

If you're unable to capture clean sound on location for a cocktail hour, simply add a track of walla along with your music track. It will enhance the effervescent atmosphere of friends and family being together; plus, with the music, it helps smooth out the cuts.

Prerecorded sound effects provide realism. Sounds such as birds singing, crickets chirping, and waves crashing all serve to take a wedding film from visual to visceral. The number of sound effects that can substantially enhance concept video productions is limitless. ( has every sound effect imaginable.

The significance of a moment can be conveyed through the employment of hyper-real sound—sound that's exaggerated to convey a message. An example is the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding where the sound can end up more of a whisper than a roar. By raising the level of the sound beyond what one would experience in reality, the magnitude and significance of the act is emphasized.

Our brains naturally tune into the sounds that are pertinent to us and background the rest. We tune out sounds such as footsteps. Exaggerating these sounds keeps them from being overlooked. As sound editors, it's up to us to decide which sounds we want to be the focus of attention for our audience. Attempting to re-create the actual soundtrack of life would be distracting because it can be too densely loaded with noises. The trick is to use sound to make a point rather than overwhelming viewers with a cacophony of competing noises.

"Unveil the truth by embracing the false."—Laura Moses

By thinking creatively and using sound effects to reveal the truth within our stories, we can touch the hearts and souls of our audience.

Laura Moses (info at is half of Vantage Point Productions of San Dimas, California. She and her husband, Steve, are WEVA Hall of Famers, winners of multiple international awards, and three-time EventDV 25 all-stars.