Sound Design: the one thing you are doing wrong
Whenever I’m designing a synth or a drum sample or tweaking a guitar sound, I have to watch out. I need to keep myself from doing one stupid thing I still do from time to time and that I know you are doing too. And it’s not only stupid, it’s also hurting your sound!
Just think for a second.
What do you do when you are doing sound design?
Well, when designing a synth for example, you start off with … a synthesiser. Right? And you wiggle the oscillators and filters around and all that. Then you maybe go and sculpt some more with some overdrive or distortion. Or anything else that’s part of your creative workflow.
But there’s one thing you might not be paying attention to when you’re doing your sound design. The context.
If you don’t take context into account, your song will suck.
The problem with not keeping the context in mind is that you’ll start to design sounds that don’t match the feel of the song you’re working on. Maybe that nasty reese bass is pretty sweet in your latest dub tune, but it will sure as hell have the potential to create havoc in the love song you’re working on right now. Maybe you adore that deep booming kick you designed, but if you’re putting it into a fast paced track, it’ll mud everything up in no time.
You get the idea.
See, what happens is that you’ll do the sound design and then you’ll start using that sound to start playing some melodies. Because you like your sound design. You’re proud of all the work you put into it.
That’s where you can get very sad and disappointed. I know it happens to you because it happens to me all the time. I’ll be all like: Oh yeah I LOVE this sound —
So why the hell isn’t it working in my song?!
Where I went wrong was that I didn’t pay attention to the sound design in the context of my song. Not even when it should be very obvious that it’s important to do so.
We all get caught up in our creative flows that sometimes we forget the song we were working on. We dig deeper and further into our ideas and try carving out all the details – and we lose sight of the bigger picture.
That’s a dangerous state to be in, because it makes you lose track of what you were trying to write. You’ll create a complete mess without any direction, style or musical integrity.
If you recognise yourself in what I’m saying – if you’re finding yourself constantly designing sounds that don’t work in the song afterwards – you might find my workflow for breaking this habit useful:
Write out the melody and make the arrangement first, THEN do the sound design
This is something I do from time to time with my own music and I find that it allows me to expand on my creativity – all while keeping the context of the song in mind.
I’ll write an entire song with just a piano. Or just a guitar. Everything from the bass line to the melody and the chords I’ll keep in one instrument.
It’s only after I’ve mapped out the entire song (roughly) that I’ll start fleshing out the actual sounds for each part. This ensures that I can do two things:
- I can concentrate on designing the individual sounds, without worrying about my composition
- I am able to keep the entire song context in my mind and don’t have to solo each sound — it’s playing already so why bother soloing?
Working this way is not only liberating in the creative constraint that you’re imposing (you’re writing in one instrument only), but it keeps you focused. It stops you from losing the bigger picture and it makes sure that you’ll keep your productivity.
It will make your sound design better.
But don’t forget do do some crazy sound design, too!
On the other end of the spectrum, though… I’m not saying that you should never venture out of the ordinary and never go crazy. Absolutely not.
On the contrary, sometimes going nuts and sculpting a strange sound into your track can make for an unexpected and awesome addition. Something that makes you go: “Huh, that’s weird. But in a good kind of way!”, is a trademark of some of the best and most popular songs out there. Just make sure that you pay attention to that sound when you’re mixing.
My advice would be to go crazy sometimes. But if you do find yourself in a pickle, think back to this strategy for focus. Try it out.
So let me know, can you find yourself in this? Did the above happen to you before? Let everyone know how you got out of it in the comments!