Sometimes people seem afraid to talk to audio designers. And not because we’re emotional, or eccentric, or because our offices smell weird, like a gym sock with a turd in it, even though all of those things are true, typically because there is a gym sock with a turd in it that we were using to make sound effects. I’m talking about our colleagues from other disciplines being nervous because they may have a hard time articulating what they want from us.
If you’re from a non-audio discipline and you’re reading this, I’m here to put a caring hand on your shoulder and to tell you that it’s OK. It’s OK to say that you want a sound or a piece of music to be more chocolatey. Or to say that a sound isn’t sharp enough, or yellow enough, or crunchy enough. To say that you want a piece of music to be a breeze on a summer afternoon is perfectly fine. It really is!
Part of an audio designer’s job is to translate what people say into sounds. Not to be confused with making sounds using peoples’ mouths, which we can also do, but rather to take somewhat abstract words or phrases and turn them into sound effects, or to use them to iterate an existing sound effect.
It’s uncommon for people to have an audio lexicon, and that’s OK, too. We don’t expect it. If an audio designer on your team is getting frustrated with you because you aren’t saying “attenuate the 12k to 15k frequencies by 3 dB,” then I’d propose that they are not doing their job, or at least they’re not doing it as well as they could be. Don’t let it deter you. Maybe they haven’t yet learned that this is a major aspect of their job and that it should be expected. But you should know that it’s their problem, not yours, because this is part of their job. You can take it from me, Some Guy On The Internet.
Now I’d like to address my fellow audio pros out there.
This might seem like a silly topic, but I’m finding that it’s more important than it might seem. Team Audio needs for others to provide feedback about our work, and as audio designers, we need to make sure everyone knows that it’s totally acceptable and normal to apply their existing vocabulary towards audio.
When you’re showing your work to your colleagues, encourage them to speak up, and to use whatever words come to mind to describe what they want. Remind them that they don’t need to use technical jargon to get their point across, and don’t be afraid to provide some examples. I’ve listed a couple at the beginning of this post, and more are incoming, and you can feel free to use them.
Also, when you’re soliciting feedback from other disciplines, you can give them something to work with up front by using normal words yourself in your explanation. You could say things like, this explosion is green, so we want the sound to feel green as well, which is why we’ve added the sound of acid corroding a soda can. Or, this creature’s skin looks all cracked, so we wanted its movement to sound brittle and poppy. Starting off like this and avoiding audio jargon can help set the tone of the discussion to be more inviting and fun for them, which can lead to better ideas.
Once someone has expressed themselves in this abstract way, it can also be good to follow up by reiterating what they said and then explaining at least one way by which you plan to fulfill their suggestion. For example, you could say something like, “You say you want this pool of fluid on the ground to sound darker and more gooey, so I think the first think I’ll try is lowering the pitch of what you’ve already heard, and then I’ll add the sound of a really thick soup coming to a boil, kinda quiet in the background. Unless this seems way off from what you meant, I’ll have an iteration for you in a day or two.”
Don’t be surprised if you get it totally wrong. You’ll probably find yourself faced with some pretty abstract concepts, like trying to turn a color into a sound. And honestly it would be silly of me to presume that this will be right for everyone, so maybe this is all a bad idea for you or your project, and that’s OK, too. Generally speaking, though, I’ve found that it serves to open up a meaningful dialogue between you and your colleagues from the other disciplines.
Most importantly, to all of you Team Audios out there, remember to be patient. The idea is to help them feel safe enough to speak up, and to give you more ideas, and for them to feel like they were more involved with the design of the sound. It’s a way to get earlier buy-in from people. Remember that awesome ideas can come from anyone. And who knows, maybe other disciplines will come talk to you more about what they’re doing, and that can be a very good thing.
Lastly, get rid of the turd-sock when you’re done with it.