Flikli’s Production Notes – A Brief History of Sound Design

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This is the second part of a new series where we invite you into our studios to take a look behind the scenes and see what makes us tick. Previously we discussed what sound design is and today we’ll be taking a look at the evolution of sound design.

We need not go into why sound design came to be, since this would be akin to asking why ice cream was invented – i.e. they’re both absolutely necessary to maintaining an enjoyable life. Anyone hearing-able will agree that the primary use of sound to accompany visuals has always been to evoke emotion, project a mood and/or compliment visual actions.

However, the evolution of sound design from it’s conception to it’s present state, especially in the world of animation, is definitely worth a brief reflection…

The Beginnings of Sound Design in Animation

The first animated film ever commercially produced with sound is documented as being Peludópolis – an Argentinian film created by Quirino Cristiani in 1931. No Rotten Tomatoes rating for this one (unsurprisingly), but regardless of quality it definitely goes down in history as ground-breaking for bringing sound to the big screen.

The process of sound accompanying visuals back in those days was primitive but – to an audiophile somewhat romantic. Phonographs were used, and so timing was all down to the accuracy of both the projector and phonographer’s synchronisation with one another. Pretty cool!

How Sounds Were Produced and Captured

It’s entirely understandable the way in which sound design in animation has progressed through the ages to it’s current state in today’s creative industry. Its evolution rode (and continues to ride) side-by-side with technological advancements – i.e. what were previously laborious and analogue tasks/techniques have become ever more doable via digital hardware and software, such is the case with most traditional industry sectors.

The creating and capturing of sounds over the years can be summarised in the following way:

Musical Sound Effects

In early animation, sound effects were produced via orchestral instruments. This was because recording equipment back then was just too bulky and large to transport “on location” and capture real sound recordings. Here’s a classic example of such musical effects:

This method of sound design (essentially musical composition) also allowed total control over the sounds produced, since they were recorded within the studio.

Customized Sound-emulating instruments

As broad a sound as each can produce, sound designers realised quickly that some common sounds stretched even the most inventive use of musical instruments. So what was the next evolution?

Invent new instruments to emulate sounds, that’s what! Here’s a short clip of legendary sound designer Ben Burtt talking about some of the awesomely unique contraptions invented over the years:

As time went on, more and more trinkets and machines were invented, allowing easy emulation of practically any sound. Even in today’s high-budget animated productions you can still hear the use of such analogue contraptions.

Recording Equipment Advancements

Super cool and effective as such emulation inventions were, there would inevitably be sounds that were just not credible enough when imitated. Designers still yearned to go in field and record “the real deal” when it came to trains, planes and automobiles.

Thankfully, advancements in sound capturing equipment finally allowed designers the mobility they longed for – allowing for total freedom to capture whatever sounds they wished, wherever they wanted. The most significant of these advancements of course being the portability of both microphones and storage devices.

It’s quite impressive to look at the sheer size and capabilities of today’s recording devices against their ancestors of old. Take for example the first documented magnetic video recorder, from Ampex in 1956:

The first documented magnetic video recorder, from Ampex in 1956

And put it up against the latest all-in-one audio recorders from Tascam:

The latest all-in-one audio recorders from Tascam

Considering you can hold the Tascam model in one hand, record sounds of incredible quality, and even edit said sounds on the same tiny device, it is safe to say the world of technology has done a sound job on improving portability, efficiency, and quality in the world of audio capturing!