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Composition and sound design are two terms that are heavily used when talking about the sound for any form of moving image. Traditionally the differences were clear cut, but recently the boundaries are becoming more blurred.

In the debate of composition vs sound design, let’s start by looking at the traditional scenario. That is, the bare bones definitions of composition vs sound design.

Sound Design

Sound design basically means any sounds that are created artificially. In its most basic form it could be things like the sound of footsteps, doors slamming, lights being flicked on, etc. that have been created in a studio and dubbed onto a film. If you didn’t already know, the majority of the sound you hear on film is added afterwards, not recorded on location. Even the dialogue is often rerecorded in a studio and dubbed.

In a more creative form, sound design can be the invention of new sounds for situations that don’t exist in the real world. For example, the blasters and lightsabers in Star Wars. Famously, Ben Burtt (the sound designer) recorded the sound of radio tower support cables for the blaster noises.

Sound designers are imaginative, creative problem solvers. The problem they face is making a scene believable, while still keeping the drama and theatrics of film. Have you ever witnessed a fist fight in the streets? If so, you’ll know that a “punch” sound in real life is barely audible. But, if you had an on-screen scuffle with only light thuds whenever someone landed a punch you’d feel incredibly underwhelmed.

So, the sound designer has to artificially create a sound that pleases your senses while still appearing natural. They do this either by finding a sound to record or by inventively processing an existing noise. And I’m sure we’ve all seen what happens when they get it wrong…

Composition

Composition is the music, obviously. Traditionally that was instruments, particularly the orchestra. However, in modern film scoring the addition of synthesis, samples, and audio processing changes things.

Although the orchestral score is the traditional basis of film soundtracks, for the last few decades composers have either added to the orchestra using electronic sounds and samples (Hans Zimmer/John Powell), or replaced it entirely (Vangelis/Trent Reznor). As well as the electronic effects, there’s also the trend of using instruments in non-traditional ways. Some composers have even invented new instruments! Much like a sound designer would experiment with tapping, hitting, and bowing things to find certain sounds.

The electronic effects really expand the composer’s palette. They open up a whole new world of sounds and noise that can be used to heighten the emotional intensity of a composition. Where a bass drum might have traditionally been used for a low-end thump, a composer can now combine a sub-bass synth with a white noise hit, or manipulate a sample of a huge metal trash can being whacked with a baseball bat, or even create a whole composition by plucking and bowing a bonsai tree…

There are very few composers that would be able to use an orchestral score in every situation. Beyond the likes of John Williams! On top of that, the listener has come to expect a wider range of sounds from music. Could you imagine The Dark Knight soundtrack without the tense sound effects in the score?

Nathan Johnson (Brick/Looper) is a composer that really blurs the boundaries between score and sound design. He has a few videos showing his process that are a great insight into his experimentation.

So where’s the confusion?

With all of these new sounds, effects, and noises making their way into the music of a movie, the importance of the music and sound design working together become paramount. If the score has a continuous “thudding” noise over a scene where someone is banging on a door, there’s a risk that the sound design for the door knock won’t be heard.

Carter Burwell (Fargo/In Bruges) has spoken a few times about how he works with sound designer Skip Lievsay, beginning with their work on Barton Fink.

Barton Fink was highly ambitious in terms of sound design. The sound contributed to how the film portrays the emotions of the lead character. Such important sound design needs to be heard. Burwell and Lievsay worked together to ensure that they weren’t battling for space in the mix. Where the sound design was in high frequencies, Burwell would score low, and later mimic the high frequencies in the score while Lievsay’s sound design filled the bottom end.

Where the distinction between sound design and composition gets really blurred is during specific hit points. As composers, we work to film without the final sound design. It’s sometimes difficult to see the impact of a hit point with just our music, which causes us to “over compose.” We add huge orchestral hits, sub bass thumps, percussion, synth hits, and so on. Then the sound designer adds their sound and we end up with a mess of noise, music, and sound.

Trailer music is an area where sound design is basically assumed to be included in the music. Huge sounds, loads of bass, explosions, etc. Although there is also sound design in trailers, the music is often left to really create the “bombastic” effect.

What can we learn from this?

There are a few takeaways from looking at composition vs sound design.

  1. TALK TO THE SOUND DESIGNER! Find out as much as you can about their plans and share your early sketches with them. Try to get up-to-date sound mixes as early as possible. That way you can both work around each other.
  2. EXPERIMENT: go out of your comfort zone and create new sounds from scratch. If there’s a noise in your head that you want to capture, don’t settle for anything less. Try to create the sound you want.
  3. DON’T FORGET THE POWER OF SOUND DESIGN: if an impact or hit point doesn’t feel as powerful as you’d like with just your score, remember that the sound designer will be working on the exact same hit point. Don’t keep throwing “stuff” at it to make it pop. First find out what the sound designer is doing (if possible, see if they’ll send you that scene) and if it still doesn’t feel powerful enough then decide if it needs more music or more sound design.

Have you ever experimented with sound effects in your music? Let me know what has worked for you – or what’s stopping you – in the comments!

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