Sound designers use technology creatively to provide sound for moving images in a range of mediums, including film, games and theatre

As a sound designer, you'll work as part of a multi-disciplinary team, in which you'll be responsible for creating the audio for the project you're working on. This is used to create appropriate atmosphere, tempo and overall effect.

Technological aptitude of audio software is essential in order to produce the best effects, and you'll need to communicate your vision effectively to others. You'll learn to be ultra-aware of the everyday noises happening around you and to incorporate these in your work, especially when creating sounds for radio or games.

Sound designers are sometimes known as sound supervisors.

Types of sound design roles

You'll usually choose a sector to specialise in, such as:

  • film
  • games
  • television
  • cinema
  • advertising
  • theatre
  • virtual reality
  • radio.

Responsibilities

As a sound designer, you'll typically need to:

In all sectors

  • create, update, maintain and add to sample and sound libraries
  • develop the sound concept for a project and a sound map or storyboard from a script or project description
  • use digital sound processing (DSP) to manipulate and synthesise sound and music
  • enhance or distort sounds using samplers, synthesisers and audio plug-ins
  • mix sounds using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
  • work alongside other professionals including sound technicians and engineers, directors, composers, musicians, actors and producers.

In theatre

  • create abstract sounds that evoke feelings or emotions as well as sounds that suggest place, time, mood and atmosphere
  • decide when, at what volume level, for how long and from where the sounds are heard
  • source and edit music, including using microphones (either in the form of headsets or mics positioned around the stage) to amplify performers' voices
  • design a sound system that encompasses a three-dimensional space, which involves the audience as well as the performers
  • reinforce and amplify individual vocals, to ensure they can be heard but still belong to the performer, rather than coming from a loud speaker elsewhere
  • liaise with the director and performers as well as the other technicians involved in the show.

In games, film and television

  • use various different sound implementation systems such as Wwise, FMOD, Unity and Unreal
  • use in-game implementation systems
  • use systems which could include UE4 Blueprints, Max MSP or other visual logic systems
  • compose and engineer music
  • assist in post-production by improving sound quality or adding sound over video
  • record, layer and produce sounds and sound effects for a desired impact
  • spot, arrange and edit audio into video or other delivery mechanisms.

Salary

  • At entry level you could expect to earn in the region of £18,000 per year.
  • The average yearly salary for a designer with more than five years' experience is £23,000.
  • Experienced designers can expect to earn between £30,000 and £41,000 per year.

Salaries may be paid as a day rate or full-time annual wage, depending on your employment status.

The vast majority of sound designers work in a freelance capacity. The exception to this is the larger games companies, which mostly employ their own in-house team.

Working hours

The hours you'll work are very much dependent on the sector you're in. 

If you're working in theatre it's possible that you'll be working long hours during the rehearsal stages of a show and may be involved during performance dates, which can be day as well as evening times. If the show is touring you may be expected to accompany it, and therefore be away from home for a period of time.

In other areas of sound design a more usual 9am to 5pm pattern is the norm, though you may be required to work late to meet deadlines as the conclusion of a project draws near.

What to expect

  • The audio industry is dominated by males with only about 5% being female. The Audio Engineering Society (AES) has tried to address this by sponsoring female students to attend conferences and initiating company schemes.
  • You'll do much of your work within a team, which could include video content producers, game level designers, graphic designers and programmers.
  • Each sector has different expectations. For example, sound designers in theatre have to attend rehearsals and develop sounds for a live performance within a specific time period, while those working in film will do the majority of their work in a studio during the post-production stage, after the film has been shot. Sound design for games is a hybrid area which utilises elements of fixed media alongside live performance.

Qualifications

Although it's not necessary for you to have any formal educational qualifications to enter this career, a strong background in audio engineering, music mixing, music technology as well as sound design is beneficial.

As competition for entry into sound design is getting higher, it's becoming increasingly common for new entrants to have HNDs, foundation degrees and honours degrees in subjects including:

  • music - including digital music, music production and music technology
  • sound/audio engineering
  • live sound technology
  • sound for film, TV and games
  • sound design
  • sound for the moving image.

Additionally, certifications in Pro Tools and Wwise, certainly at level 1 but ideally level 2, are sought after.

Alongside any academic qualifications it's essential that you have a portfolio and relevant work experience.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • a love of and curiosity for sound
  • the ability to research and pitch your ideas to senior colleagues
  • an understanding of how sound works alongside other elements, including set, lighting, moving image, or an interactive virtual world
  • the ability to record in a studio and on location
  • troubleshooting and problem solving know-how
  • the capability to mix in a variety of formats including Stereo Dolby Ames as well as spatial audio
  • abilities in a range of post-production skills, including editing and mastering
  • competency using STEAM as a games creation platform
  • knowledge of acoustics
  • an understanding of equipment set up and calibration
  • a broad understanding of the structure of films or games, if employed in one of these areas
  • time-management and organisational skills to meet delivery specifications and deadlines
  • fluency in MMOD and/or Wwise as interactive audio solutions for a range of media
  • knowledge of scripting systems for games
  • proficiency using live sound production audio systems for theatre
  • competency in the use of Max MSP and Pure data for music composition and multimedia programming
  • video editing skills including Premier Pro, Final Cut, Avid and Avid media Composer
  • ability to use Pyramix, Fairlight, SADiE or Cubase digital audio workstations
  • sound knowledge of software, such as Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Sound Forge and Cool Edit Pro
  • knowledge of game engines, such as Unreal and Unity.

Work experience

Relevant experience is essential to gain entry to this competitive industry. This could be as an enthusiastic amateur creating your own sounds and building up a portfolio. You'll need to try to get involved in any aspect of sound design to build up your skills as well as up your experience. This could be at live events and festivals, student stage, film and television productions as well as amateur radio stations.

It's common to start working as a runner and then progress up to an assistant re-recording mixer or assistant sound editor before becoming a sound editor and finally a designer.

To work in the games industry you'll need to show evidence of having worked on AAA games, or if you have indie experience any future employer will want to know if the game has sold.

Employers

As a sound designer, there are a number of different types of employer you could work for. These include:

  • major mainstream television studios
  • film production companies
  • AAA games studios
  • radio stations
  • theatres
  • advertising agencies
  • independent game, film or television production companies (known as 'indies')
  • mobile phone and app developers
  • virtual reality developers.

Look for vacancies at:

You can read more about the role of a sound designer at Creative & Cultural Skills - Sound designer.

Many sound designer job vacancies are never advertised and companies will employ sound designers directly though their reputation and word of mouth. Some positions will be filled via an internal promotion.

Professional development

As with many careers, you don't stop learning when you start work. Most designers continue to develop new skills throughout their career. As sound design relies upon technology, it's important to keep up to date with new developments and technological advances within the field. Joining an association or society can help give you access to many useful resources to help your career progression.

The Association of Sound Designers (ASD) has created a community for professionals working in the theatre. They offer a wide range of free training seminars that members can attend or access online.

The Association of Motion Picture Sound (AMPS) works with professionals based within the film, television and game industries. It offers excellent networking opportunities through screenings and social events in addition to organising and running a number of technical training seminars for members to attend.  

Finally, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) organises events and produces publications as well as a large number of other essential services for those working in the audio industry.

Career prospects

It's rare for you to be able to go straight into a sound designer role as this is often a more senior position within an organisation. The more traditional route is for you to start either as a runner, working your way up to assistant editor, followed by folio, sound or an FX editor, where you'd finally become a sound designer or supervisor.

In the career hierarchy, sound designer is usually the rung down from director, along with the other technical lead roles.