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Sound Design Guide

A Video Editor’s Guide to Sound Design

Sound design and mixing is an important part of the editorial process that is becoming an essential skill to have in the editing room.

In years past, the picture editor was responsible for editing picture, dialogue, music and maybe a few sound effects here and there. Then they would pass the cut to a Supervising Sound Editor, Re-recording Mixer and others to add all of the wonderful, polished audio goodness.

While that still holds true to some extent, more and more the picture editor is expected to flesh out the audio bed during the rough cutting process and add some sound design elements like drones, hits and rises to really make the scene as intended. This trend is most certainly due to the speed and tools now available to them in most digital video editing programs. Additionally, in smaller productions and independent films, many editors find themselves wearing multiple hats — responsible for both video and audio editing.

No matter the reason, it is definitely worthwhile for an editor to familiarize him or herself with the basic types of sound design and learn some of the common uses for each.
Please note that this article is focused on sound design, not all sound effects. Below is my layman’s definition.

Sound Design is artificially-created or enhanced sound used to manipulate the mood of a scene or simulate the audio of non-existent things such as lasers, alien roars, etc. Sound design is just one of several categories that exist under the umbrella of “sound effects”.

Heavy use of sound design.
Heavy use of sound design.

Some other categories of sound effects are:

  • Hard Sound Effects – Common sounds heard on screen  – door slams, traffic going by, gun shots etc.
  • Background Sound Effects – Ambience used to create immersion in the scene – birds chirping, crowd walla, crickets, etc.
  • Foley Sound Effects – Sound effects created to match actions in the picture – Footsteps, scissors cutting paper, cloth moving, etc.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the most useful types of sound design, hearing a sample of each and discussing some situations where you might use them.

6 Useful Types of Sound Design

While there are countless categories and sub-categories of sound design, we decided to break them down into six of the most commonly-used types. If you learn to use the following six types of sound design effectively, you’ll have a pretty powerful arsenal of audio at your disposal when editing your next cut.


Sound Design - Hit Waveform
Sound Design – Hit waveform

Hits are sudden, staccato sound effects that sound pretty much like the name implies. They come in many of variations ranging from metallic, low end, drum-like and countless others.

Hits are often used to add impact to things like punches, door slams and gunshots. Sometimes, hits can be used in more abstract ways, such as to give the last beat of a song a sense of finality as you fade up on a new scene or to build a sound rhythm of deep booms, meant to build tension and suspense.


Sound Design - Drone Waveform
Sound Design – Drone waveform


Drones are long, sustained sounds that typically serve to provide a sense of tonal atmosphere to a scene. Drones can range from somber and foreboding to light and ethereal, depending on the instruments and sounds used to create them. Sometimes drones will also contain a bit of melody in the form of repeating sounds peppered into them, but more often than not they are based on one continuous or oscillating sound.

Some common uses for drones are to establish the mood of a scene as scary, magical, serious or light. They are typically used in the absence of a full music track and help to guide the viewer’s emotions toward the intentions of the story.


Sound Design - Whoosh Waveform
Sound Design – Whoosh waveform


Whooshes, also known as swooshes and swishes, are airy sound effects that quickly build to a peak and taper off. Think of them as similar to the sound you might hear when you swing a flyswatter quickly through the air or as a jet plane flies by in the movies. Whooshes can range from slow, draw out breathy sounds to very quick swishes.

Whooshes are often used to heighten the intensity of punches, kicks and weapon swings in fight scenes. They can also be used to add impact to sudden events like objects passing quickly by the camera, frightening things jumping out at the viewer, or transitions into and out of dream sequences and memory flashbacks. Like most elements of sound design, the key is to use them sparingly and tastefully.


Sound Design - Swell Waveform
Sound Design – Swell waveform


Swells are pieces of sound design that start low, gradually increase in intensity and volume and then taper off. They are similar to whooshes but have the unique distinction of being quite a bit longer and often based on the sound of a cymbal or a tonal string instrument.

Swells, particularly those that are cymbal-based, serve a great function in sweeping, epic sections of a piece to add a bit of gravitas and drama. They can often be layered onto a drum or orchestral track for added effect.


Sound Design - Rise Waveform
Sound Design – Rise waveform


Rises are sound effects that start low and gradually build intensity, usually taking 10-30 seconds to reach a peak before stopping abruptly or with a short ring-out. Rises can be created from many different sounds, ranging from a cacophony of strings getting louder and louder to the modified sound of a jet engine as it winds up.

Rises are almost always used to build the intensity of a scene or moment towards some sort of climax. Often, the longer the rise continues, the quicker the editorial pacing will become. Rises are useful across many genres from action to comedy to horror. For example, in a horror scene a rise might slowly build to a peak as a man investigates a dark room. After the rise ends, we are left with a momentary tense silence and the editor has a perfect opportunity to create a sudden scare to both the character and the audience.


Sound Design - Suckback Waveform
Sound Design – Suckback waveform


Suckbacks and reverses are both sound effects that build into a shot or a moment. Reverses are often created by literally reversing the sound of a hit ringing out, such as a piano key or a metallic impact. Suckbacks have a bit more of an airy audio quality to them and sound similar to the sound of air being quickly sucked into the mouth with pursed lips.

Both suckbacks and reverses are useful ways to tell the audience that something sudden is about to happen when you don’t want to confuse them too much. An example of this might be a reverse piano sound that subtly leads up to the landing of a new music cue and a cut into a new scene. The use of these sound design elements is similar to the concept of motivating your shots with something like a characters eyes glancing at an object before cutting to a shot of it.

Wrap Up

Sound design can be a powerful tool in the editing process. It can turn a dull, lifeless moment into a terrifying or exciting one. It can add a bit of extra help to a scene and take the emotion to a higher level, resulting in a greater impact on the viewer.

With the powerful software tools and amazing sound design collections now available to editors, every editor should take the time to incorporate sound design elements whenever appropriate. It will improve your editing, impress your clients and make happier viewers every time.

Do you have cool tips you’d like to share or questions about using sound design?

Please let us know in the comments below. We read them all!

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