Scott Hirsch offers a detailed look at the key elements of sound design. He discusses the three important stems—dialogue, effects, and music.
- [Instructor] It's time to get more specific from the wider lens of history and aesthetics of sound to the more focused medium of the film soundtrack itself. What are the key elements? It turns out you can boil the key elements of sound design into three overarching categories or stems as they're called in the industry. These are dialogue slash production sound, sound effects and music. Let's explore the nuances of these categories by going through an overview of soundtrack elements.
First, we'll talk about the dialogue and production stem. This sound was recorded on the set or at least it originated there. Multiple microphones are used on the set. Usually, you've got one directional microphone or maybe more than one but that's what we call the boom mic and it's focused right on the actor's voices then we have lavalier mics which are attached to the actors and we have spot microphones that might appear in different spots during the scene to pick up sound.
This stem will require a lot of care. It'll require editing and cleanup in the form of noise reduction when we get to the post-production stage. Another element of the dialogue and production stem that's really useful is to capture room tone meaning the sound of the location through the same microphones that are used to record dialogue but this time when no one's talking and this is recorded on set and super useful, in fact, absolutely necessary for fill during the editing process.
When you have a gap in an edit and you need to fill it in, you're going to want this room tone to match what it sounds like at the production site. Next, we'll talk about the effects track so the sound effects stem. Here, we're going to have background and ambience tracks and this is a little bit different than the room tone. These are usually made up backgrounds that might enhance and actually make up the whole world of the film while the characters are talking. You see the end result of the dialogue stem is that it's going to be super clean and so we actually have to fill back in the background and ambience of the world that our characters are living in.
The effects track will also include something called sweetening. I want to go over this for a second 'cause it's often a misunderstood term. Sweetening is actually the process of enhancing production sounds. What I mean by production sounds are the sounds that were recorded at the location. For example, a car door closing on the set will sound not so great. Why, because the microphones were pointed at capturing the dialogue, pointed at the actor's mouths. So anything like a car door or someone putting down a drink or picking up a phone, that's going to be a little bit off mic but we can use the process of sweetening to sweeten those sounds with a much better sound of say a car door closing in post-production and this is part of the sound effects stem.
Some of those sound effects we call hard effects. These are sound effects that can be replaced, sweetened or edited into the soundtrack a lot of times from a sound library although hard effects could include a sound that was specifically recorded to replace or enhance a sound in the production sound. Also in the sound effects category, we have everybody's favorite which is called foley. Foley are special sound effects that are actually acted out by special foley artists.
So if it's someone walking, you can't necessarily get the same effect by putting in library sounds of someone walking as you would if you actually acted out those sounds. So foley is always a fun part of post-production and definitely makes up part of the sound effects stem. Other elements we'll find are common elements of just what I call sound design which are built layered sounds that are meant to enhance mood. So these are things like drones or heavy rumbles or high-pitched sounds that are really not necessarily there to replace any kind of action but they're there to enhance mood and that would make up part of the sound effects stem.
And lastly, we're going to have things that are called production elements. This would be like a sound that goes over a logo. Think like the THX logo. You get that big, sweeping sound effect and these are going to be more common in commercial productions although they do exist in theatrical films sometimes as well. And then the last stem we can talk about that makes up a film soundtrack is the music stem and this is made up of either composed music that was composed specifically for the scenes in the movie or it might be including sourced or prerecorded music.
In that case, the music would have to be licensed and then finally, it might include diegetic music. So if a character's playing a violin in a scene, that would make up the music stem. So now that we've identified the core elements or stems of a film soundtrack, we'll get more specific and talk about how sound for video workflow works during a soundtrack's creation. We'll go into each step in depth and how these stems come to fruition.
This is where you can start to develop a preference of those elements you enjoy and ones you might not like. It's good to know there are entire specialized careers made up of each of these specific elements.
Scott Hirsch starts with the basics, discussing the history and legacy of sound for film, and working through the core concepts and elements of a compelling sound design. Next, he takes you through a sound design workflow, highlights the different elements of a soundtrack, and shows professional examples of sound design in a few real-world projects. He also explores the future of the soundtrack, discussing the core concepts of immersive audio, as well as real-world applications of 3D audio.
- The history and legacy of sound for film
- The role of sound in visual media
- The elements of a soundtrack
- Following a sound design workflow
- Editing dialogue and producing sound
- The role of sound effects
- Mixing a soundtrack
- Exploring the future of sound for visual media
- Core concepts of immersive audio