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Learning Sound Design Online

A professional sound designer offers a series of online webinars on designing sound for film.

David Sonnenschein

You’ve scripted the film, the boards are ready to go, you’ve got help lined up for clean up and paint. Everything is good to go, even the sound – some musician friends got together, jammed up a storm, and gave you the recording.

3 months, 6 months, 2 years later, and the film is done. It looks great. But it sounds like a music video. Why is the music so clear but the storytelling seems weak? Wall-to-wall music - while it’s great to listen to – isn’t the best choice to support the telling of a visual narrative.

So how do you learn to design sound for film once you’re out of school and no longer have access to classes? There aren’t a lot of options out there. But just recently one professional sound designer decided to run a series of webinars – that’s right, seminars on the web which means no booking off work, no flying to a campus, no huge expense – on designing sound for film. 

David Sonnenschein started out as a neurobiology undergrad with a talent for music, took an MFA at film school where he got to study with sound greats such as Walter Murch, and went on to directing film.

Finding a gap in available publications on the use of sound tracks to communicate narrative, and recognizing that he had developed a unique methodology for designing sound for film gave him the incentive to write his marvelous book (I’ve owned it since it came out) “Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema” (published by Michael Wiese Productions.)

Since the writing of the book in 2001, he’s continued to design sound and publish articles on the many roles of sound in media while further expanding on his original psychoacoustic model of sound spheres to unify the theory and practice of sound design.

I took David’s first ever Sound Design for Pros webinar last autumn. It ran two hours a week for 6 weeks. The students were an international mix of film directors, sound designers, and animators, each of us looking to upgrade our skills.

The webinar was an interesting learning experience. When we logged in each of us had live audio and visuals of the teacher, PowerPoint materials, and examples of sound effects, film clips, etc., and we were able to participate i.e. ask questions and make comments through texting or by logging in as a broadcaster.

Screen shot from "Secrets for Great Film Sound" webinar.

I’m delighted to see that David is continuing with the webinar series, the current one being “Secrets for Great Film Sound”. This is a two instructor webinar presented by both David Sonnenschein and Ric Viers.

Ric is the founder of Blastwave FX, one of the largest sound effects libraries around. He also owns the Detroit Chop Shop, the pro end sound effects studio (clients have names like Disney etc.) and is the author of “The Sound Effects Bible” also published by Michael Wiese Productions. For more info on Ric Viers follow www.ricviers.com .

A chart showing various sound bipolarities.

Good film sound supports onscreen action; great film sound helps tell the story, supports the action, and drives the emotional trajectory of the narrative. Designing effective sound tracks takes skill, talent, and imagination. Talent and imagination you were born with, but skill takes learning. 

Working with sound effects for example. Sure, you can grab a royalty free sound off the internet, or buy a whole library if you’ve got the budget, but using canned sounds for the whole film will give it a flatness - not to mention a sameness with other films using the same canned sounds - that can be avoided with a little work and some solid knowledge. But how to get a clean recording. What kind of gear to invest in. How to alter your recorded sounds to fit the picture. What plug-ins to use to make things sound closer/further, larger/smaller, etc. Creating your own sound effects requires a good grounding in all this, and more.

Adding an effective music track is just as tricky, believe it or not. Where to start the music. When and how to stop it. How to shape it to amplify the emotions of the scene. How to communicate with the composer to get the kind of music you need and want.

Sure you can run wall-to-wall music throughout but if you watch - and listen - to any great film, even a short, you’ll find it has a sound track that’s rich with layers of foley, ambience, hard effects, and musical elements shaped by a toolbox full of effects - all of which contribute to the realism, the context, and the emotion of the story.

Effective sound is about the big picture; it's more than stringing together lots of individual bits no matter how wonderful those bits are. A great mix is experienced as a whole unit and needs to be designed with that in mind.

A sound map tracing sound peaks against the story highlights.

So back to David Sonnenschein’s webinar series. Living as I do about a million miles from L.A. where David is based, and having only an indie budget to play with, the webinar was a blessing. It was a fabulous introduction to the building blocks of soundtracks. I followed it up with an online tutorial (www.lynda.com) on the DAW (digital audio workstation) that I use (Soundtrack Pro 3). Working with a couple of good but inexpensive recorders (a Zoom H2 and a Sony Minidisc with a T822 Audio-Technica mic) my newly acquired skills are paying off in spades.

The modules being covered by David and Ric in their current webinar include:

1) Pre-production (analyzing the script…);

2) Production (solving location challenges, gear needed…);

3) Sound Design (how to choose the right sound, story, emotion…);

4) Post (Dialogue, ADR…);

5) More Post (Sound Effects, Foley, Recording, Plug-ins…); and finally

6) Final Post (mix, music, interfacing with the rest of the creative team…).

Really rich if you’re looking to learn how to design sound for any kind of time based media.

In addition to covering this material, the webinar includes personalized feedback on your own projects, something I found very helpful in the webinar I attended.

The webinar started in January and runs until end of February (2011). If this is something that interests you, no worries – there are more planned, including a master class for those with experience in sound design but wanting more personal feedback on their projects.

In the meantime you can register for a recorded replay of the current webinar.

Or get on to David’s email list for future announcements by contacting him directly at sounddesignforpros@gmail.com

For more info on the currently running webinar series "Secrets For Great Film Sound" follow www.sounddesignforpros.com

To register for a free Sound Design for Animators webinar on March 17, 2011 at 9:00 am PST / noon EST follow: http://www.instantpresenter.com/PIID=E953DA89804F

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