The Insider's Guide to Production: Sound Design - The digital difference

Technological advances mean sound designers now have more creative power than ever before.

There have been seismic changes in technology over the past ten years. Without doubt, the biggest development to affect sound design has been the growth in the processing power of the PC and Apple Mac. Studios these days need never use magnetic audio tape at any stage of the sound-design process. Digital audio tape is only used because some parts of the industry are slow to keep up.

The latest recording systems are PC- or Mac-based, while the older systems such as Audiofile are being phased out - these older systems use proprietory file formats which are becoming increasingly difficult for agencies to access, when facilities using them upgrade, or close. Companies that sell 100 units a year will find it difficult to match the speed of PC and Mac development. It is easier to tailor software than to rebuild hardware.

The internet has had an enormous impact. Audio data is smaller than picture data and so the ability to transfer audio, especially short sections such as commercials, over the web has increased workflow incredibly. Soon you will be able to log in and join a sound edit session from your desk.

With file transfer protocol and e-mail, it is now faster to send a mixed track anywhere in the world for approval. In fact, it can be easier than booking a taxi back to the agency. Gone are the days of mixing down to DAT, taking the tape to the transfer bay and waiting for copies.

Sound designers (we used to be engineers) have far more power in our hands than before, but we need to use it carefully. A common misconception is that because most audio is digital, it will sound OK. Our music-mastering department is busy working with artists who want their music finished using analogue equipment to improve the sound quality. Much of what has been taken for granted in commercials can be improved upon, and it is worth remembering that just because sound has been supplied on CD does not always mean it is acceptable.

Jobs are changing. Thirty years ago, sound effects were played off 35mm magnetic film tracks prepared by an editor. Twenty years ago, with the advent of multi-track tape, the task of sourcing and creating effects passed to the sound studio. Effects were sourced from records, tape libraries, loop cartridge tapes, CDs or by sending the runner out with a tape machine.

These effects would be stored in a library and catalogued. A librarian would look after them and select appropriate ones as required for sessions.

Today the librarian is redundant - sound effects are stored on servers such as Sonomics or M-Soft, which are browsed in the same way you would browse the internet. Servers are compact, can be used by many people simultaneously and, if you can't find what you're looking for, you can interrogate one of the Sonomic originating servers and download the sound into your session in less than a minute, giving you a truly global library.

The boundaries with music are also changing. Music was generally produced in the traditional way and stereo-mixed tracks were supplied to the studio.

Now, however, it is common for the sound designer to be asked to make it sound "different".

Listening with fresh ears and no previous emotional contact with the project, sound designers frequently give a sound their own twist. The music may now be supplied in its component parts so, if it needs altering slightly, perhaps to allow the voice to come through clearer, the engineer has the flexibility to remix. This has always been possible, but it was incredibly laborious, occasionally requiring additional equipment. Now, with a good recording system, it is a simple task - data file interchange on modern systems has become straightforward, so getting files into a session can usually be done in minutes rather than days.

Specific music requirements can be achieved through collaboration between the musician and the sound designers. On a recent project, Mcasso Music composed some bespoke music and Alchemy handled the sound design. A couple of pre-production meetings resulted in a stunning piece of audio. The client was stunned, thanks to good discussion and planning.

The biggest change, from an anorak's point of view, is that there is no longer a limit to the number of tracks available to record on. In the days of film, tracks were limited by the amount of magnetic machines you had: a two-inch tape was limited to 24 tracks then; with systems like Audiofile, 32 tracks. With the newer breed of Pyramix, Sadie and Pro Tools systems, tracks are unlimited. Where once you might have heard someone say: "I'll have to do a pre-mix because I've run out of tracks," now the response will be: "Yeah, no problem."

Alchemy handled the recent Wallace and Grommit PG Tips ads that Aardman Animations created for DDB London. Working over several sessions, the voices were recorded first so Aardman could animate to them. Then, once the video edit was complete, the mute video was brought in and the task of synching the voices, adding music and sound effects began. We kept slipping in the odd subtle sound here and there and the final sound effect count was 126. In a 30-second commercial. And at no point broke into a sweat. Very satisfying.

We already have very good TV sound quality but, looking forward, proper surround sound on terrestrial TV could be one of the most noticeable changes.

From a technical point of view, the way we deliver and move material around, and the speed at which it happens, will improve. Hopefully, the standardisation of systems and file formats will grow and make the interchange with other parts of the production chain far less complicated.

- Tim Lofts is a sound designer at Alchemy Soho.

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