[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Volition's senior audio designer Ariel Gross clears up several misconceptions around his discipline to explain what sound design isn't.]
What isn't sound design? That's a weird question. Well, not that weird. It's not like asking why I frequently wear briefs made from bologna. The answer to that, by the way, is because most people would never guess where the smell is coming from. They'd feel awkward even suggesting it, and rightly so. If you've read any of my other blogs, you're probably expecting me to end on bologna briefs. I might.
The reason I'm phrasing the question this way is because I originally wanted to write up a blog that answers the question, "What is sound design?" But in brainstorming, I realized that it would probably end up being roughly 400 pages, and I don't have time for that today, so I thought instead I'd ask an easier question. That is, what isn't sound design?
Why Am I Even Asking This Question?
I'm asking and eventually answering this question because it seems like people generally don't know what sound designers do. I'm mostly referring to other disciplines, but it also applies to many students and even some so-called sound designers (that don't seem to know what they're doing).
It's important, though. It's important for people to know what sound design is (or isn't). Sometimes it's like people think that we wave a magic wand made from bologna and rad sounds start filling the air. To be clear, rad sounds would
start filling the air if one were to wave a bologna wand around, but those haven't been invented. Or, at least, they're not mainstream (yet).
So, the first answer to the question is this: Sound design is not the result of waving a bologna wand around in the air after someone requests a sound. There isn't even such a thing as a bologna wand. At least not in the mainstream. We've gone over this. Since I'm getting to answering the question already, I'm starting a new heading.
Okay, So What Isn't Sound Design?
Sound design is not quick work.
It doesn't happen in five minutes. I don't care what sound I'm making, it could be the sound of a feather landing lightly in a basket of cotton. It doesn't matter, it's not going to take me five minutes. It's probably not going to take me 30 minutes.
I might be able to get it done in an hour, but it's not going to be the best that it can be. Not even close. It's going to be a rough first pass that may be acceptable to ship if absolutely necessary, but I'll probably find some time to make it better later. May as well say that it's going to take at least a couple hours.
Sound design is not simply taking existing sounds and plugging them into the game.
Although in many cases this is technically legal to do, depending on the EULA of the sound library or if the sounds are owned outright, it's still generally unacceptable to Team Audio. Yep, we do tend to have a bunch of sounds lying around, and they may come from sound libraries, or they may be original field recorded sounds, but the buck doesn't stop there.
We want to take those sounds, usually referred to as source assets, and layer who-knows-how-many of them together (could be two, could be 100), tweak them with all kinds of effects, and apply all manners of audio wizardry to them to make them unique and, most importantly, perfect for what they're being used for.
Sound design is not reserved exclusively for titled sound designers.
Just like how I can open paint.net and make an awesome picture, anyone can make a sound, and believe it or not, it can be great. There are so many free tools to make sounds that it would make your head spin. Audacity is a popular choice, and it's free, so don't be afraid to dabble.
Beyond that, you can use your mouths to make sounds. We encourage this at Volition to help us determine what it is that people want. Just make the sound with your mouth and you've given more useful direction than you may realize.
That said, good sound design is not something that is easy.
Like any other profession, sound design will take years and years of hardcore practical application to master. It could take a lifetime. It's highly creative, highly technical, and at times, highly frustrating.
To be a professional sound designer, you have to devote your life to it. You have to pour your soul into it. If you have the fortune to be working with good sound designers, take a moment to appreciate their work. Like, go watch them do it if they're cool with it. You'll see!
Sound design is not exclusive to sound effects.
This one can be tricky and I don't mean to confuse anyone reading this, but the lines between sound design and music as well as sound design and voice are blurry. Mario picking up a coin is a quick little two-note melody. Is it music? I don't know. It's musical, for sure. I think you could call it a tiny little song, or you could call it a sound effect.
And when I'm applying a walkie talkie effect to a voice line, it feels suspiciously like sound design. Same goes for zombie voices. Pitch the original line down, apply some distortion, layer in some extra spit and a growling animal… sounds pretty sound designy to me. But it's still a voice line!
What about the bologna briefs?
You could use the footstep system for that. Take a squishy sound, something nasty, maybe stirring a bowl of mac n' cheese, and make it staccato with your envelope, basically an immediate attack and a decay of no more than a half a second. I'd probably opt to layer in some subtle farts in a couple of the variations, but that's just me.
Bologna is pretty floppy, so it would be slapping against the thighs, so you may want to put something viscous on your hands and clap them together, maybe maple syrup, since that's highly viscous and also may not taste too terrible if eaten on bologna. Layer that in there, too. Then, make it play on top of whatever footsteps are already playing using your footstep system. This way you get the sound on every step.
You'll want some VO lines for NPCs that indicate that there is a meaty, pungent smell emanating from the character that is wearing the briefs.
[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]