Sound design can be a tricky thing to define. As a result, there can be potential miscommunication about what the role of sound design means within the context of a given project or different production positions. It's useful to establish a vocabulary which better equips radio producers, sound designers, and other audio professionals to communicate about the needs of a project and the skills it may entail.
Borrowed from the world of the film post-production, here is some terminology that will clarify the audio needs of your project as you communicate with potential collaborators.
Dialog Editing/Editor: Cuts recorded dialog to the needs of the script to be as intelligible as possible. This often involves hiding edits to sound natural in the context of the dialog, replacing bad phonemes and cleaning up mouth sounds. The role can also include pre-organizing clips in the project and leveling out dialog to a standard volume in preparation for the mixing process.
Composition/Composer: Writes original music to score the piece.
Music Editing/Editor: Places and edits music provided by the composer or licensed music to match the pacing and structure of the piece.
Music Supervision/Supervisor: Consults to locate, curate, and license 3rd party music options to underscore a piece. While a music editing focuses on the execution of underscored material, music supervision mainly focuses on the lawful acquisition of the material.
Mixing/mixer: Adjusts the relative balance of all audio elements in the piece (dialog, music, effects, etc...) for a cohesive final product. This doesn't just involve volume but also tonal qualities (EQ) and other processing.
Audio restoration/cleanup: Advanced forensic techniques and tools to remove background noise, hum, hiss, crackle, interference clicks, or other issues in audio quality. These responsibilities often fall between the job of a dialog editor and mixer.
Recording engineering/engineer: Records and monitors sound in a studio setting to ensure the cleanest possible source recording. Makes choices about the best microphones and other recording technology for the situation.
Field recording/recordist: Captures voices or other sounds in the field, outside of a studio environment. Makes choices to optimize towards the cleanest possible source recording.
Foley / Foley Artist: Performs sound effects live to a story. In the case of radio, this is most often on stage in the context of a live radio-drama broadcast. Prairie Home Companion’s Fred Newman is one contemporary example. In film, the foley artist performs sound effects to re-record sounds that weren’t adequately captured on-set.
Sound design itself can include different tasks including those above, but it also can involve an editorial and creative side beyond the many technical facets of sound engineering and editing. For a sound designer, these technical skills act as a toolset to realize broader storytelling goals. A film’s director of photography has a working technical understanding of lenses, color correction, lighting, and the latest advancements in camera technology. He or she may personally execute related technical tasks or delegate them, but is foremost responsible for understanding the film’s storytelling goals and subsequently overseeing their visual interpretation and execution. The sound designer operates in a similar manner, but in regards to aural storytelling. For every designer and project this aspect can take on different meanings, but some might include:
Establishing the sonic vocabulary and overall aural aesthetic of a moment, scene, episode, season, show, and/or presenting organization.
Curating, creating, and/or shaping custom sonic elements to best serve the storytelling needs of a project.
Example: A podcast episode about ice fishermen needs the sounds of sawing ice, frozen creaking and boat motors to build a landscape. If the producers can’t involve a field recordist to collect these sounds anew, they might collaborate with a sound designer to curate and combine pre-existing recordings and reshape them to the exact context of the story.
Acting as a translator between creative storytelling intentions and technical solutions.
Acting as an interpreter of complex information by devising sonic representations. Events can be aurally illustrated step-by-step in a style akin to an infographic. Data can be precisely represented sonically akin to various charts. Key characters or concepts can be assigned a recurring sonic theme akin to color-coding.
Example #1: A producer is working on a story describing the mechanics of archery. They collaborate with a sound designer to create a vocabulary of figurative sonic representations. The sound designer breaks down each step, using representational sounds to depict the complicated sequence being described: The withdrawal of an arrow from its quiver, the building tension of the bow string, extreme concentration on behalf of the archer, a sudden release of kinetic energy, an arrow cutting through the air, it striking its target.
Example #2: A producer is working on a story covering the history of the internet and how it’s become faster over the years. They collaborate with a sound designer to score the piece in such a way that creates the aural equivalent of a line graph. The sound of musical bits and bytes begin sparse and grow in density as the script moves through the years and data speeds increase. (*If sonic qualities like density, pitch, volume, timbre or otherwise are mapped precisely to scientific data points, it is sometimes referred to as “sonification.”)
Example #3: A producer is working on a story covering the 100 year history of a family. With so many characters involved, they collaborate with a sound designer to create sonic themes for any key recurring characters to make it easier for listeners to keep track of who is who.
Assuming an editorial role to ensure that sounds included in non-fiction projects are journalistically sound. Sound design has the power to color storytelling realities in a profound way. It’s important to treat it with the same responsibility and integrity as you would spoken text. Sound designers are obligated to use their skills as critical listeners to ensure sonic elements are true to the facts of a story and its subjects. The difference between audio which is “diegetic,” from the world of the story being told, must be clearly differentiated from fabricated “non-diegetic” audio acting as external commentary or embellishment on the story.
Example: A plane crashes and a TV news network wants to depict the events of the crash. They choose not to broadcast stock footage of a crash because it doesn’t reflect the specific aircraft that’s involved or its circumstances. They broadcast found-footage shot from a witness's phone, and a clearly representational 2D animation to depict the exact circumstances of the crash moment by moment. Sound designers can work to make the same kind of distinctions aurally and avoid using generic stock sounds when inappropriate or unethical. Found-sounds can be framed so their origin is clear. Representational sounds can be strategically stylized to make it clear that they aren’t real.
While well established in the theatre, tv, film, and game industries, the concept of a sound design role is fairly new in radio. With greater understanding and exploration, there is huge potential for radio & podcast storytelling to further blossom as sound design finds its place in the medium. Hopefully this article equips you with a vocabulary to understand the all the audio production roles you may need for your production, as well as the potential for what sound design can bring to a project.
Special thanks to Dan Powell for his contributions to this piece. Also many thanks to Dylan Keefe & Simon Adler for their feedback!