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Planning a Scene’s Sound Design

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for—planning the sound design for your scene. Think of it like planning a party. First you come up with a theme, then you plan the decorations, food, and drinks. With sound design, first you come up with a theme or feel for the scene, then you plan sound effects and musical parts accordingly.

There are many layers to the art of sound design. Generally you start with the big picture, then work your way down to the details.

Imagining the Soundscape

What’s a soundscape? It’s the audible landscape of your scene that includes everything you would expect to hear in the contextual reality of the scene’s location and time period. The overall soundscape includes ambient noise such as an air conditioner, street traffic, or the walla (that’s sound designer jargon for murmur) of people talking in the distance, and sound effects such as a clock ticking, door slamming, or glass breaking as it falls to the floor. Let’s start by taking inventory of your current “reality”-based soundscape, then apply the same technique to the scene.

  1. Close your eyes for a minute and listen to all of the sounds around you.

    What did you hear? Sometimes what you didn’t hear is as important as what you did. For example, if a scene takes place in a bank near a busy street, you’d expect to hear computers, canned music, people, and cars. However, if the scene involves people locked in a soundproof bank vault, the lack of sound adds to the suspense.

  2. Now, take a mental inventory of things in the room that might need sound effects, such as a computer printer, phone, pencil sharpener, alarm, door, or window. All of these elements are potentially part of the soundscape as well.

    As a sound designer, you may also use sound effects to establish elements in the scene that aren’t visible by the camera.

  3. Imagine things that aren’t visible, but might be in the room and could still be established audibly. These would be things like cell phones, pagers, a knock on the door, a dog barking outside, sirens passing, furniture being moved upstairs....

    Now turn your attention to the suspense scene in your project.

  4. Watch the video clip and take a mental inventory of noises that you should hear, such as a door opening or footsteps.
  5. Watch the video clip again and imagine story elements that you could establish with sound, such as crickets to show that it is nighttime or a barking dog to show that an intruder is lurking outside.
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