The concept of sound design developed in the mid-1970s. Under this concept, the sound designer is perceived as the primary creative authority, someone who controls all of the aspects related to the design of speech and sound recording within a film (except for the music) and integrates them into a comprehensive, overall sound composition. This includes recording and editing individual sound objects, monitoring the work of the Foley artist, cutting and editing the original dialogue recordings, as well as participating in the final mix. In short, the sound designer’s task is to develop an individual style of sound that provides an optimum basis for the narration as well as deepening and expanding the emotional effect. 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), as well as Ben Burtt, who designed the sound for the Star Wars universe.
Sounds were already an element of film screenings in the first movie theaters. However, little detail is known about the use of sounds in early cinema. A rare document on sound technology in silent movies is S. de Serk’s Les Bruits de coulisses au cinéma of 1914 describing some of the techniques used to substitute sounds, which in turn can be traced back to theater since antiquity. Cinema organs with special sound registers (e.g., thunder, wind, animal sounds, and bells) were also used from 1908 onward. In the 1920s, Deutsche Grammophon released sound discs containing original recordings.
Another precursor of sound work for film was sound montage as it was later developed in Musique Concrète. In the 1910s in Russia, Dziga Vertov attempted to assemble documentary sound recordings with the aid of a Pathephone wax record player. Beginning in 1924, composition work with sounds established itself in Germany within the context of radio art. The most well-known example of sound art is certainly Walter Ruttmann’s Weekend (DE, 1930).
Particularly interesting with respect to creative work with sounds are the early sound films, such as Blackmail (GB, 1929, directed by Alfred Hitchcock), M (DE, 1931, directed by Fritz Lang), Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (The Western Front 1918; DE, 1930) and Kameradschaft (Comradeship; DE/FR, 1931), and Applause (US, 1929, directed by Rouben Mamoulian), especially because the limited technical possibilities necessitated pronounced economizing on the soundtrack. In Hollywood, increasing standardization was accompanied by the principle of division of labor, which as a rule was only coordinated by the head of the studio’s sound department. The sound editors primarily availed themselves of material from the studio’s own sound archives. In contrast to this system, as early as 1933, Murray Spivack was responsible for the overall concept for King Kong (US, 1933, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) and, in particular, created the sounds that characterized the fantastic figure of Kong. These included the giant gorilla’s roar, which Spivack produced by blowing into a megaphone and combining the rumbling sound it created with a lion’s roar that he had slowed down and thus transposed into a bass tone. A further important tradition that paved the way for sound design can be found in the environment of the animated film, which from the very beginning had its own unique and very artificial repertoire of sounds. Seminal figures in this tradition were Tregoweth Brown, who added sound to the Warner cartoons, and Jimmy MacDonald, who worked for Disney. Overall, a very radical stylization and standardization within sound design can be discerned in the period between ca. 1933 and 1950, which can be directly traced back to work with sound objects from the archives.
The conditions for differentiated sound composition were created with the arrival of magnetic multitrack formats, which became prevalent in the early 1950s. In contrast to traditional mono optical sound, these methods had a wider frequency range at their disposal. Above all, however, multichannel technology enabled the sound objects to be broken down, so that — in contrast to mono formats — they now no longer lay masked on one axis. The result was not only heightened acoustic spatial illusions, but also the creation of more complex sound spheres.
It is interesting to note that these improved technical possibilities were hardly used at the time. Instead, sound composition for films continued to be dominated by a stylized use of for the most part stereotypical sounds. Exceptions to this were Spartacus (US, 1960, directed by Stanley Kubrick) and Lawrence of Arabia (GB/US, 1962, directed by David Lean). For Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (US, 1963), Oskar Sala synthetically created the penetrating cries of the birds on a trautonium.
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). 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.
The design of complete auditory scenographies by means of emblematically amplified sound objects enables direct reference to a specific setting. A distinction must be made between individual orientation sounds, which characterize a setting, and atmospheres, which are mostly organized as combinations of a maximum of three orientation sounds. Typical constellations are chirping crickets and the distant bark of a dog, which represent a nighttime landscape in the South, or the muted clattering of dishes and snippets of conversation in a restaurant. The orientation function of the soundtrack is for the most part based on stereotypes that the recipient immediately and effortlessly understands. The cardinal function of the soundtrack, which consists in creating coherence and anchoring the filmic shots that have been fragmented by editing within a superordinate whole, also shows itself in the acoustic setting. The economic use of sound objects that acoustically characterize a setting is presented in an exemplary way in 48 Hours (US, 1983, directed by Walter Hill). A dense sphere of sounds consisting of the ringing of a telephone, footsteps, and background voices initially suggests the impression of bustling activity and is then reduced over the course of the film until the ringing of the telephone is the sole orientation sound and indicates an office in a police station as the setting.
When the surroundings or parts thereof are presented from the perceptual perspective of a film character, one speaks of subjectification. A distinct increase in such acoustic subjectifications in finely differentiated increments, which underscore the emotional state of the characters, has marked film sound since the 1970s. A superordinate strategy is the dissociation between acoustic and visual representation. If the two are significantly different, the firmly established relationship of plausibility between sound and image is severely disrupted. Sounds can disappear, be significantly altered, or an antinaturalistic selection may place that changes the emphasis of the various sound objects, such as, for example, in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now (US, 1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola), in which an urban setting is transformed into a jungle atmosphere.
It is above all in genres with a fantastic character or in the presentation of the emotional fragility of the protagonists that one can observe a very subtle arrangement of the material properties on the soundtrack. Among other things, sound objects are meant to enhance the two-dimensional image with haptic qualities that feed directly out of the material connotations. At the same time, these connotations contain a symbolic dimension that results from the history of the materials and their cultural usage. While many love scenes are accompanied by the pleasant sound of water, metal is frequently linked with aggressive elements, for example in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (US/FR, 1991, directed by James Cameron). In numerous films, wind correlates with borderline emotional situations, such as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (US/GB, 1977, directed by Steven Spielberg). In Raiders of the Lost Ark (US, 1981, directed by Steven Spielberg), it is used as a leitmotif to represent a Nazi threat.
Unidentifiable sound objects — so-called USOs — lead to an unpleasant sense of uncertainty. They are to be considered as underdetermined signs whose vagueness creates a degree of openness and at the same time tension, because one cannot immediately classify them. One of the main characteristics of a USO is its emancipation from its source, which is neither visible in the image nor identifiable from the context. In addition, the recipient is also denied the assistance of recognition, so that in general he or she cannot reduce the ambiguity. Thus, the USO activates an instinctive reaction, as dangers in nature often announce themselves through sounds. The horror film Cube (CA, 1997, directed by Vincenzo Natali) relies heavily on the unsettling effect of USOs in order to create a threatening atmosphere.
The use of remote frequency ranges (below 80 Hz and above 4,000 Hz) has been increasing since the late 1970s on the basis of both traditional, cultural factors of sound generation as well as psychoacoustic principles of auditory perception. Thus, depending on their rhythmic structure, base-heavy sound objects can have either a calming or a threatening effect, while those unnerving sound objects that correlate worldwide with sound phobias — such as the whizzing sound of the dentist’s drill or scratching the blackboard with a fingernail — reside in the higher frequency spectrum between 3,000 Hz and 5,000 Hz, to which the ear reacts in a particularly sensitive way. These sensory qualities have a directly affective effect.
By using excessive volume and the dissolution of filmic space through the surround method, the traditional altar function of film is being increasingly dismantled. Sensory strategies are taking its place, which are intended to overwhelm the recipient through a simple stimulus-reaction pattern by triggering direct vegetative reactions that cannot be controlled cognitively. Thomas Elsaesser coined the term ‘engulfment’ for such strategies of overpowering. Excessive volume possesses a mythical dimension that can be traced back to the poles of cult and war, in which loud volume has exercised an important function for centuries. Exemplary for the use of the psychoacoustic dimension of sound is the opening sequence in Jurassic Park (US, 1993, directed by Steven Spielberg), in which the dynamics swell to a maximum level and the frequency response simultaneously shifts into the bass and treble area.
 S. de Serk, Les Bruits de coulisses au cinéma (Paris: Mendel, 1914). Also available online at http://www.zauberklang.ch/DeSerk_1914_bw.pdf (accessed September 14, 2009).
 Cf. Karl Heinz Dettke, Kinoorgeln und Kinomusik in Deutschland (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1995).
 Michel Chion, L’audio-vision: Son et image au cinéma (Paris: Nathan, 1990).
 See Barbara Flückiger, Sound Design: Die virtuelle Klangwelt des Films (Marburg: Schüren, 2001), 126–130.
 Thomas Elsaesser, “Specularity and Engulfment: Francis Ford Coppola and Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, eds. Stephen Neale and Murray Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 191.
1900 until today