Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn


Being in the business of sound, we’re expected to develop a critical listening ability which is crucial to figure out issues or solve problems and focuses more on the ‘how’. Beyond this, we need to be patient and open our mind to the plethora of knowledge and material around us. Considering the fact that we spend most of our time listening, we should be good listeners! Going beyond the technicalities, we now need to delve in the emotional and start developing our analytical listening skills and concentrate on the ‘why’ aspect.

I consider sound design to have more of an emotional nature than technical. Granted, there are technicalities involved in this job just like many others but its easy to pick up on those and build. These can be learned by reading or watching videos on YouTube and generally practicing a lot. The problem arises when you start getting better technically and now focus on the whole soundtrack as a whole. You need to carve a direction in the sound scape, it’s no more about that one sound effect or that one scene, it’s about the film. That is when you really need to step up and explore the other side of sound design. You will, at this point, need to get better at interpreting why certain sounds were used in a particular way and what did it really convey. A great approach I’ve found is to listen to what other’s have done. There are so many films with great sound design that you can learn from, one that springs to mind immediately is The Conversation or Blow Out and if you’re in the mood for something heavy then we have films like Saving Private Ryan or the recent Deepwater Horizon and many more in between.

d71f043c71_345x518_62a3cbd05aSo I watch a lot of movies, the credit for this goes to one of my very first bosses who gave me the golden advice to watch one movie everyday! Without thinking too much, I took to it in a jiffy! I did this for about 2 solid years before work and studies took over but even then I used to watch at least 2-3 films a week. Over the years, I’ve realized that there’s a technique behind this. In my initial years, I was “watching” the films and now I’ve come about to “listening” the films and understanding the thought or logic behind their sound design, if any. There is no discrimination with the kind of films I watch, very rarely do I decide a film based on its sound design or editing. This means watching everything from crap to gold and thus just let the film guide me. After this continued practice, I was beginning to understand what works and what doesn’t and how someone would normally approach a particular narrative in a particular genre.

Something that you will instantly start to recognize will be clichés and will know what is considered to be the norm. For example, the tinnitus tone after a bomb blast or some sort of accident. You will hear so many different versions of it and ways the sound designers have employed to not sound clichéd. But then again, why does that tone need to be there in the first place? Do something different that conveys the same meaning or maybe do the same thing differently, that’s up to you. Not only clichés, listening to films will also show you how a particular narrative can be designed to sound coherent with the picture. You will get so many different ideas that should work as inspiration for you to do something else. As with anything else, take it step by step. Before learning how to do the heavy lifting, learn how to get the clichés right! Lots of learning here!

Might seem a bit weird but sometimes when I really like a film, I try to only listen to it and not watch. This enables you to dissect more and be able to focus more on the what you want rather than being distracted by the visuals. You could do this blindfolded or for someone who wants to give it a try, you can go to a website like ListenToAMovie.com.


An excerpt from a UCL presentation on Critical Vs Analytical Thinking. Click here for full presentation.

I think if you want to learn sound design and mixing then just buckle down and watch some great films. Hear how the decision to keep something sounding out of focus is taken even if there’s something on-screen and how the whole mix conveys one emotion or sometimes different flavors. Get more into the moods that you interpret from the mix. One great realization I came to after watching so many films was that the best sound designed films as per me were those that followed the music and one great recent example for me was the film Arrival which features excellent sound work by Sylvain Bellemare, Dave Whitehead and Michelle Child. One of the great moments of the film was the helicopter ride with Amy Adams near the beginning of the film. Hear the mix here, how smoothly and while still maintaining perspective puts us in the characters’ state of mind. Amazing sound editing and mix!

Another great resource I found that constantly keeps teaching me new things is Nature. Sometimes I shut up and listen to my environment. Nature is the best sound designer, organic sound design at its best. Try dissecting the layers in the environment and note how you perceive them or rather how they are mixed together. If a sound appeals to you then do take note of why it made you feel so. More than the sound itself, it’s the feeling is emanates. Maybe this applies to natural soundscapes more but listening to recordings helps a great deal as well. Even if I can’t get a good recording of a place that I find aurally pleasing, I would do a quick one on my phone and label it. Next time if I need to emulate the same feeling, I can refer to that recording and hear what was going on, and then carefully try to build all of it again in my DAW using layers. It all boils down to how open you are to learning. If you’re all ears then information will come from all ends.

Mastering the analytical side of sound design can take time and according to my understanding, will take most of your career because it’s something that should keep evolving for you. Searching deep within for the answers is a great way but listening will give you a head start. So don’t worry about a job just yet, just keep your ears open and there’s more to be learnt sitting right in front of your TV/computer!! Nah, just kidding, there’s still nothing that can replace real world experience and understanding the ‘why’ of sound design will be a great supplement to your existing skill set.

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