Sound designer

 13 March 2013

Sound design can involve making sure the mix of sounds is correct at a live event, designing the sound effects on a mobile phone, and many other things.

Sound designers work in a wide variety of settings, from live events to a mobile phone design firm. Image: University of the Creative Arts
Sound designers work in a wide variety of settings, from live events to a mobile phone design firm. Image: University of the Creative Arts

What do sound designers do?

Sound designers create and record original sounds, which they then manipulate and edit for a variety of settings. They may also use previously recorded material.

The sounds can be used for television, radio, film, computer and hand-held games, mobile phones, online media, live events, theatre and sound installations.

What is the job like?

Your work varies greatly according to the sector in which you work, but will often include:

  • developing the sound concept for the project and a sound map or storyboard from a script or project description
  • manipulating and synthesising sound and music using digital signal processing (DSP)
  • creating and recording original material and sourcing existing recording
  • enhancing these sounds, or distorting them using samplers, synthesisers and audio plug-ins or manipulated in playback via samplers
  • mixing the sound in various stages to the final mix using a Digital Audio Workstation
  • maintaining the in-house sound effects library
  • working with a wide range of people including sound technicians and engineers, directors, composers, musicians, actors and producers.

Sound designers are often freelance, taking on a variety of projects for different clients. They may also work for companies specialising in a particular area, such as audio post-production or computer games.

Sound designers normally work in post-production studios, but may sometimes travel for location recording. The hours are often long and irregular.

How do I become a sound designer?

Do you enjoy listening to everything that is going on around you and then gauging people’s reaction? Do you enjoy recording and experimenting with sounds?

If the answer is yes, you already have some of the qualities needed to become a successful sound designer.

You will also need:

  • a good ear, and to be enthusiastic about sound and able to demonstrate this
  • a familiarity with the work of sound designers and sound effects artists through the history of audio-visual media
  • the ability to continually develop your skills and keep abreast of constantly changing technologies
  • well-developed communication skills, and the ability to work flexibly in a team with a wide range of different people
  • the willingness to multi-task, as you may be working on several projects at once
  • business and financial skills (particularly if you are self-employed) and a knowledge of health and safety issues.

 A knowledge of video editing is also beneficial.

Work experience

Sound design is a job where people often work their way up via junior assistant and technical roles in sound recording and editing. This is a highly competitive career, and you will need lots of relevant experience.

Sound design is a highly competitive career. You will need lots of relevant experience.

Sound designers often combine their role with other work such as sound editing, recording or mixing. Work experience in a sound-related or video-editing setting would be invaluable.

You can also gain experience by getting involved with the sound design or production for school concerts or plays.

An ability to play a musical instrument is not essential, although some of the related university courses might request this.

What qualifications and training do I need?

Relevant school subjects include music/music technology, physics/science, maths, IT/computer studies, and design and technology/electronics.

Most sound designers are well-qualified, often to degree or postgraduate level.

Some relevant qualifications include:

  • City and Guilds Awards, Certificates and Diplomas in Sound and Music Technology; you can search on their site to see what is available in your area, and courses are offered at different levels and with varying entry requirements
  • BTEC Level 2 Diploma in Music Technology; entry is usually with two GCSEs (A-D)
  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma/Extended Diploma in Music Technology or Production Arts (Theatre Production); entry is usually with four GCSE (A-C)  including Maths and English
  • HND in Music Technology or Sound Production; entry is usually with, at minimum, A levels, BTEC Level 3, or equivalent

There are many relevant undergraduate degree and foundation degree courses available. These include:

  • BSc Sound Engineering Design
  • BA/BSc Music Technology
  • BA Film and Television Sound
  • BA Sound Engineering and Recording
  • BA Digital Music and Sound Arts
  • BA Technical Theatre
  • BA Music and Sound for Image

Entry for degree courses is with a minimum of two A levels or equivalent. Popular courses may ask for three A levels at high grades.

A levels in Music Technology, Physics, Maths, and Music may be required, and in some cases graded musical instrument qualifications.

Look at the UCAS website for course listings in the Design section, followed by Sound Design.

Most Music Technology courses also include sound design as part of the course. You should take care to research course content very carefully. Try to visit university open days before applying.

What can I earn?

Sound engineers are often freelance, although some are employed by companies such as video game design firms or audio post production houses.

Sound designers often negotiate their fee per project and this can vary enormously depending on your experience and the type of work you are doing.

They may also charge by the sound effect or music track that they make. A typical rate might be £25 per sound effect or £500 per music track.

A typical annual starting salary might be around £18,000.

Rates are often higher in London.


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