Sound Design – Theory or Practise?


I was fortunate enough to undertake the formal study of computer-assisted sound design, many ages ago. I will always remember being asked if it was worth it, if it was worth it to go back to school, or put more simply, if the education I was getting was worth the cost of the education. I was asked this countless times, while I was at school and after I graduated. My answer was almost always the same, "It depends."

It depends on what it is you are studying. It depends on how much you value what you are learning. It depends on a lot of things. One might have thought that if I was going to learn sound design, that I could have invested in equipment instead and just learned it on the fly, practising on the equipment itself, instead of taking a bunch of classes full of theoretical knowledge. That might be true, but a) recording equipment goes out of style and b) great recording technique does not. Also, I’m sure that the young Mozart had one or two music lessons.

However, I always welcomed the question because I felt it was pertinent. I wanted to do sound design, right? So why not just do it instead of learn about doing it? I could have, and I more or less did both in any case. The problem was that I had already been doing sound design, sound recording, and wanted to take the craft to another level. I had already made it some distance on my own and decided to take a short cut. I would study with professionals, they would teach me their best practises, and it would cost me something. Otherwise, I very well could have tried to do it on my own, and now, almost 20 years later, I might still be trying to figure a whole slue of things out that I didn’t have to figure out because someone just told me.

I liken it to trying to teach oneself Calculus. I tried to teach myself calculus once. I spent a total of about 12 years and made almost no progress whatsoever. Two years ago, more or less, I started taking MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, and happened to take a course or two on Calculus, or else courses that required some level of calculus that I did not have. It turns out calculus is not that hard, it’s really not any more difficult than anything I learned in high school. We did trigonometry in high school, but not calculus, and now I wonder why we weren’t taught both at the same time, or why mathematics in general was taught at such a slow pace in school. But that is another story. The point was that calculus was much easier to learn with a teacher than it was on my own. I’m still not that great at calculus, but still in 2 years of taking MOOCs, I learned infinitely more about it than I did in 12 years battling it out on my own.

However, this isn’t true of everything. Believe it or not, calculus and sound design have something in common: They are both technical. Granted, anything can be technical depending on how we frame it, just as it could be said of almost anything that there was a Right and a Wrong way to do it, i.e. there’s a Right way to do Historiography and a Wrong way to do Historiography. The difference is that in calculus or in many other branches of mathematics, you either solve a problem or you don’t, just as in sound design, you either produce great sound design or you don’t. Historiography in that sense might be the subject of debate, but audio engineering, sound recording, etc., you either did a good job or you didn’t, it either sounds great or sounds like spaghetti. I will come back to this.

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