Sound Design


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sound as the “mechanical radiant energy that is transmitted by longitudinal pressure waves in a material medium (such as air) and is the objective cause of hearing”. This would technically mean earthquakes can be classified as sound, but at a much lower frequency and high amplitude. So, no living creature can escape the influence of sound as it travels through any medium such as air, water and gas.

Schafer coined this all-encompassing environmental presence as the ‘Soundscape’ (Schafer, 1977). Throughout history varying records or descriptions of sound can be observed across each era. The older scriptures and drawings would portray sound as a divine presence like the voice of God, or singing of birds, rustle of trees or the emptiness in the wilderness. As civilizations evolved, so did the interpretations of the inherited soundscapes. From the sounds of metal on stone from the iron age to the bustling markets and industrial mechanical machine sounds observed through the industrial revolution.  The evolution of civilization and societies can be clearly categorized through their distinct soundscapes (Schafer, 1977).

What is Sound Design?

Sound design is the art of manipulating sonic parameters to generate waveforms that triggers memory responses in humans (Zentner, Grandjean, & Scherer, 2008). Our brains interpret our immediate surrounding through the soundscape we observe. Effects like reverb, which is the trailing off of the source sound as observed when it bounces off of other materials can inform us of the scale of the location and type of material in the environment around us (TEDx Talks, 2016).  For example, we interpret the audio source to be very close to us if the reverb effect is very subtle. In contrast, if the same source is sent through to a larger reverb coupled with an echo effect, we would interpret the source to be in a canyon or a valley with ample space.

Application of Sound Design

Art of Silence

‘Sound’ is one of the earliest representations of the world that we humans observe when still in a mother’s womb. By the second trimester the brain and cochlea rapidly mature, thus enabling the embryo hear its surroundings (Moore & Linthicum, 2007). So logically, it is possible that our brains had begun registering the muffled external sounds and heartbeats as a sign of personal space during its primitive stages of development.

Film makers like Martin Scorsese, have used silence or muffled sounds to immerse the audience in a protagonist’s personal space or mind(Every Frame a Painting, 2014). This empathetic perspective is induced perhaps because it invokes our pre-natal memories (Boothe, Dobson, & Teller, 1985). Similarly, John Cage’s composition titled “4’33 “, when performed live unexpectedly leaves the average audience (Ableton, 2018) in a state of awkwardness as they feel vulnerable like a developing defenseless embryo.

Sound Synthesis

Francis Preve
Peter Kirn (left) & Francis Prève (right) at the Ableton Loop event.

In contrast to silence, understanding the physics of sound helps us re-create natural soundscapes using digital sources. DJ Francis Prève, at an Ableton Live Loop event effortlessly showcases how he synthesizes natural sounds using subtractive synthesis techniques on simple oscillations. By manipulating the amplitude attack, decay, sustain and release parameters he was able to generate sounds of strings, bassoon and woodwind instruments. Furthermore, adding a pitch envelope to an ordinary sinusoidal wave, he replicated the sound of water droplets and birds chirping (Ableton, 2018). The following sound of the ocean waves crashing at the beach was generated using two different ‘3x Osc’ synthesizers in FL Studio using noise source and amplitude envelopes.


Foley recording session of a boat traversing in a studio.

One of the comprehensive implementation of sound design is in film industry. Foley, a post-production process named after ‘Jack Foley’ (Great Big Story, 2017) is a technique by which artists work with different materials to recreate realistic or anticipated sounds for any visual medium. When a character in a film draws his blade weapon like a sword or a knife, a vibrating metal sound is represented and we as the audience accepts it as real and appropriate. However, in actuality, when swords are drawn from their scabbard, metal vibration are almost never heard (Lindybeige, 2008). So why are these representations deemed acceptable? It could be because the sound of metal vibrating might innately remind the audience of something dangerous and thus raising the tension in the viewer. This artful craft of creating sounds to engage the audience with a visual medium is known as Foley.

Paperclips on gloves to recreate the sound of dog paws.

For example, the sound of pet paws on surfaces can be generated by striking paper clips on different surfaces. Similarly, the sound of a boat traversing through waves by splashing water in a tub. Another commonly used Foley sound is that of rain by frying bacon in a pan(TEDx Talks, 2016).


Sound design is a broad field which deals with different techniques of using sonic elements to engage, entice and excite audiences. Variation in chord progressions, changes in harmonics, frequency modulations are a few of the parameters that can be utilized to control manipulate a source sound to create something for a specific purpose.


Ableton (Producer). (2018). Loop | Listening: The Secret of Sound Design. Retrieved from

Boothe, R. G., Dobson, V., & Teller, D. Y. (1985). Postnatal Development of Vision in Human and Nonhuman Primates. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 8(1), 495-545. doi: 10.1146/

Every Frame a Painting (Producer). (2014). Martin Scorsese – The Art of Silence. Retrieved from

Great Big Story (Producer). (2017). The Magic of Making Sound | That’s Amazing. Retrieved from

Lindybeige (Producer). (2008). Drawing swords. Retrieved from

Moore, J. K., & Linthicum, F. H. (2007). The human auditory system: A timeline of development. International Journal of Audiology, 46(9), 460-478. doi: 10.1080/14992020701383019

Schafer, R. M. (1977). The Soundscape. New York: Destiny Books.

TEDx Talks (Producer). (2016). The Beautiful Lies of Sound Design | Tasos Fratzolas | TEDxAthens. Retrieved from

Zentner, M., Grandjean, D., & Scherer, K. R. (2008). Emotions evoked by the sound of music: Characterization, classification, and measurement. Emotion, 8, 495-521.