Sound Design

4 Functions of Sound Objects in Sound Design

The development of the field of sound design in the mid-1970s markedly changed the esthetic vocabulary of film sound for the term ‘sound design’ reflects the new concept of artistic intervention by an individualized creator personality. A sound designer’s activity involves the development of an overall esthetic concept for film sound that encompasses aspects of the design of speech and sound recordings, but not the music.

Primarily cultural factors were most likely decisive for the development of sound design in mainstream American film in which the protagonists of New Hollywood, a young generation of filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, played a leading role. All of these grew up in the environment of the anti-establishment youth cultures of the 1960s, whose most powerful cultural practice, rock music, found expression in a dirty, electroacoustically amplified sound committed to the physical. In addition, these so-called movie brats were not only familiar with the tradition of American, but also with European art-house film and, in particular, the Nouvelle Vague, which embodies the idea of democratic sound, in which different segments stand in tension-packed, disorganized relation to one another. Key figures in this revolution were Walter Murch, who worked with Francis Ford Coppola on both The Conversation (US, 1974) and Apocalypse Now (US, 1979), and Ben Burtt, who designed the sound for the Star Wars universe.

The advances in audio technology also had a strong influence on the development of sound design. Both for practical and economic reasons, the multitrack formats had almost completely disappeared from movie theaters in the 1960s. It was not until the introduction in the mid-1970s of Dolby Stereo — a system with a center-screen and surround channel — that the decisive shift took place to a blanket outfitting of cinemas with stereo systems. The conversion to digital systems was made from the early 1990s onward. These systems have several surround channels as well as a subwoofer for bass playback.

In contrast to the rule ‘see a dog, hear a dog’ of the classic Hollywood film, which states that no sound object may be used without the corresponding visual representation, a multiform interaction between sound and image has now emerged that can be subsumed under Michel Chion’s term valeur ajoutée (added value).[3] The sovereign sound object of more recent optical soundtracks can, via reference to a sound source, establish material and sensual qualities as well as functions and their consequences.