Sound Designer

From Academic Kids

This is an article about the film crew member known as a sound designer. There are also Sound Designers attached to stage productions. An important piece of sound design software is also called Sound Designer


A Sound Designer, in the most general sense, is a member of a motion picture production crew responsible for some original aspect of the film's audio track. The title is not controlled by any industry orgnization, as with the title of director or screenwriter in the American film industry. A sound designer performs one of two jobs:

In the original meaning of the title, as established in the 1970s by Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch, a sound designer is an individual ultimately responsible for all aspects of a film's audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording to the re-recording of the final track. The title was first granted by Francis Coppola to Walter Murch for his work on the film Apocalypse Now, in recognition for his extraordinary contribution to that film; in this way the position emerged in the same way the title of production designer came in to being in the 1930's, when William Cameron Menzies made revolutionary contributions to the craft of art direction in the making of Gone With the Wind.

This "strong" meaning of the title is meant to imply that the person holding the position is a principle member of the production staff, with tangible creative authority, equivalent to the film editor and director of photography. This development can be seen as a natural part of the evolution of film sound. Several interacting factors contributed to this:

  • Theater sound systems became capable of high-fidelity reproduction, and particularly after the adoption of Dolby Stereo. These systems were originally devised as gimmicks to increase theater attendance, but their widespread implementation created a content vacuum that had to be filled by a competent professional. Before stereo soundtracks, film sound was of such low fidelity that only the dialogue and occasional sound effects were practical. The greater dynamic range of the new systems, coupled with the ability to place sounds to the sides of the audience or behind them, required more creative decisions to be made.
  • Directors wanted to realize these new potentials of their medium. A new generation of filmmakers, the so-called "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls," were aware of the creative potential of sound and wanted to use it.
  • They were inspired in no small part by the popular music of the era. Concept albums of groups such as Pink Floyd and The Beatles suggested new modes of storytelling and creative techniques that could be adapted to motion pictures.
  • The new filmmakers made their early films outside the Hollywood establishment, away from the influence of the film labor unions and the then rapidly-dissipating studio system.

As many of these new filmmakers worked in the San Francisco Bay Area, the strong meaning of sound designer has become associatied with films made there, and the production companies situated there, such as American Zoetrope, Lucasfilm Limited (and its subsidiary Skywalker Sound), and the Saul Zaentz Film Center.

The role of sound designer can be compared with the role of supervising sound editor; many sound designers use both titles interchangeably. The role of supervising sound editor, or sound supervisor, developed in parallel with the role of sound designer. The demand for more sophisiticated soundtracks was felt both inside and outside Hollywood, and the supervising sound editor became the head of the large sound department, with a staff of dozens of sound editors, that was required to realize a complete sound job with a fast turnaround. It is far from universal, but the role of sound supervisor descends from the original role of the sound editor, that of a technician required to complete a film, but having little creative authority. Sound designers, on the other hand, are expected to be creative, and their role is a generalization of the other creative department heads. Organizationally, a supervising sound editor derives his authority from the producer who hires him, and performs his job to meet contractual obligations. A sound designer derives his authority from the director, who delegates the creative sound decisions to him.

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