Book Review: Designing Sound


    Looking into the vast array of educational books on sound design can be an exciting, but also tricky venture. You can find published material on just about every part of the sound design process, but just as easily get lost in technical details and loose scope of how the information fits into an overall design.
    My recent discovery of computer scientist and engineer Andy Farnell may provide answers for someone in the market for more comprehensive material on the subject. In particular, his revered work Designing Sound has created a kind of encyclopedia on sound; it covers the creation of sound effects “starting from nothing” through four major sections including theory, tools, techniques, and practical DSP implementations. This is the sort of book which (in theory) will have an important place on every sound enthusiasts bookshelf, from complete novice to expert programmer.
    This weighty text starts by outlining the elementary principles of physics to understand sound waves and oscillations. It fits in as one of the three pillars of sound design theory - along with a mathematical and psychological understanding of sound. On top of these pillars are technique and design, which are included to complete the entire process of a sound design project from start to finish. Farnell has taken great care to cover every section of this process with detail, making every chapter a possible independent read as well as a stepping stone in the entire book. The amount of information covered here makes this sound dangerously close to a crammed textbook, but its structure and focus on “procedural audio” for video games and virtual reality uncover a very engaging flavor. Before diving into the different sections of this book in detail, below is an introduction to this method of sound design; the chosen tool of open-source visual programming language Pure Data is also very important to this different way of thinking about sound for interactive media.

    Procedural Audio?

    The rise of interactive media in entertainment and the arts has accompanied an increased interest in virtual reality experiences. Driving this surge is the video game industry, where advances in computer graphics and rendering technology have allowed the creation of more realistic and engaging virtual worlds. While the visual technology behind new platforms and games have kept center stage, the demands for more dynamic audio engines are increasing to complete new audio-visual experiences.
    Current systems in video games and other interactive works mainly rely on sample based sound design, meaning the sounds you hear were recorded and then are manipulated in the studio as well as in real time during gameplay. While this allows for very high quality soundscapes and events, the physical nature of an object cannot be modeled in the same way that it can be rendered visually with graphics (an audio sample only captures an instance of the sound and cannot model complex behavior). What many see as a solution and step forward for sound design is known as “Procedural Audio”. In this alternate method, sounds are generated using synthesis and analysis techniques in a programming language (such as Max/MSP or Pure Data) for complete user control. Sounds can be generated with the application of endless real time physical parameters to truly capture the behavior of an object. Instead of having to make most of the critical sound decisions before game execution, procedural audio allows this to be continued “in-world” as the game is being completed with a high level of flexibility. This new way of understanding and applying sound principles should be a serious consideration for any form of media which uses interactive sound.

    Sound Theory

    Rather than jumping straight to the tools used for procedural sound design, Farnell starts off with a comprehensive overview of sound theory to give the reader a (probably much needed) introduction/refresher on the physics and psychology of sound. All relevant areas are covered from basic Newtonian mechanics through the properties of waves and oscillations in different materials and air (acoustics). The behavior and propagation effects of sound itself is important knowledge for any sound designer to understand how different sounds will interact with the spaces they are created and played in. Once sound waves travel through space and reach our ears and brain, our perception of these signals is studied through psychoacoustics. This gets into understanding sound as an emotive and cultural phenomenon subject to human psychology and imperfections. By understanding how we analyze and respond to sounds and language, they can be defined and used more effectively in sound design. This introduction section is then finished with the basics of digital waveforms and graphs as a segway into the tools for procedural audio. While this much detail in each section could be being overwhelming for some beginners, it gives an excellent introduction to the science of sound and may even spark further interest in the subject.

    Pure Data

    In order to actually get started with procedural audio, the tools section introduces the reader to the Pure Data visual programming language with an overview of basic patches and objects in Pd. In essence it is a signal processing environment for audio and visual media as well as general interfacing. Using this modular system inputted audio signals can be used to create specific effects and synthesizers with very detailed control over specific parameters not available in DAWs. The beauty of this kind of program for procedural audio is that every step of signal processing is visually displayed to the user and can be manipulated in real-time in this “event-driven” system. The included tutorial starts from the very basics of your first patch and goes through all operation basics. Once you get to abstraction and signal-shaping the programs begin to transform into more familiar and useful effects, such as creating reverb and delay patches with plenty of examples and exercises. Anyone transitioning to Pure Data from a different visual programming language such as Max/MSP will find the layout and principles to be very similar and intuitive, while there is plenty of instruction for first time programmers. Farnell himself describes the program as a “free alternative” to Max/MSP, with similarities being abundant (including the ‘cyclone’ library composed of cloned Max objects for Pd).

    Techniques and Practical Examples

    The final two sections of the book complete a broad understanding of sound and the design process. Knowledge learned in previous sections is applied in a layered approach through artistic considerations, implementations, and technical principles. While all three layers of the sound design process are laid out by Farnell, he focuses in on the middle section with various implementation techniques to go from sound design model to a finished product. Farnell believes that taking a step back and analyzing how to approach the production of sound design is very important. He uses the framework for a software engineering task as a model to create a formal process for sound design, which includes eight detailed steps going from Requirements analysis all the way to product maintenance. He does confess that a truly structured and reasoned approach to sound design is an “ideal, and sadly mythical one”, but follows through with a detailed process that is one of the most comprehensive approaches I have seen. Somehow a human and surprisingly emotional feeling is maintained through this process, mainly through a section of working methods to facilitate the steps between ideas to actual sound (keep physically active, balance priorities, very scope ect.). Farnell maintains a very practical focus by extending into a series of techniques for procedural sound design with Pd, including useful tutorials on useful types of synthesis and modulation. The final step is taken to tutorial a dozen or so practical synthetic sound effects made in pure data with a full discussion of process on each design. While some of the effects created may not sound very realistic (bird/animal calls), the amount of user control to continually refine each sound effect and alter modeled behavior is quite amazing. The given examples are only completed in Pure Data, however several users of Max/MSP have gone on to re-create the practical design examples as Max patches, further illustrating how the book is useful for much more than just Pure Data. If procedural audio continues to be developed and taught in the broad context that Farnell describes, it could bring video games and interactive media to a new level of realism and flexibility.
    Free download of practical design examples as Max patches: https://github.com/unriginal/Designing-Sound-Max-Patches
    Original code examples in Pure Data and sound files: http://mitpress2.mit.edu/designingsound/
    For Farnell, procedural audio is more than just a new tool for sound designers, he views it as a whole new philosophy on sound. Thinking about sound as a process serves as the backbone of Designing Sound, and illustrates why he put so much effort into writing a well rounded book on the subject. Farnell believes that great design comes from a deep understanding of sound mechanisms and the physical world we live in, not just skills with a computer and and handful of excellent audio plugins. It is clear that the structure and content of this book are designed specifically to facilitate this kind of well rounded knowledge. The only area which is somewhat left out of this book is the artistic and aesthetic considerations of sound design, however this is acknowledged as the text clearly has a practical and technical focus. Several book recommendations are even made which delve into the world of artistic design elements. Andy Farnell has written a sound design book for almost every area of study which is perfect for beginners, however it will continue to stay relevant on the path of proficiency and provide essential knowledge for the future sound designer.

    • Oct 03 2017 | 6:21 pm
      Didn't realize that the Max versions were as numerous as they are. Thanks for the link, Zeos.
    • Oct 03 2017 | 7:15 pm
      Indeed, that's quite cool.
      A couple of the example seem like unfinished patch fragments, but nots of cool ideas and usable bits of code in there.
    • Nov 14 2017 | 10:54 am
      That's indeed a fine book. After finishing his one I plunged into many other books related to sound and especially acoustics (I'm a writer into arts and architecture at a freelance web site). Acoustics might have been why the dimensions of one building in particular have been famously specified exactly in the bible. The temple of Solomon was supposed to be built on one particular spot, at one height above sea level and with exact dimensions (though there is disagreement on the numbers and even the units). Its design could have been chosen to make the building's inner chamber resonate at some low frequency between 5 and 20 Hz, which would sound like a pleasing hum and probably lead people inside to experience to inner peace.
      Plenty of YouTube videos and meditation CDs try to replicate this effect using stereo headphone tricks (binaural beats), focusing on one frequency in particular known as the Schumann resonance, the frequency at which waves bouncing around the planet between the earth surface and the top of the sky/bottom of the ionosphere oscillate. It's also supposed to be the frequency of brain waves during meditation.
      Who knows...perhaps acoustics can lead to outer peace, because if we can figure out what frequency the designer of the temple intended to use and recalibrate the building for another height above sea level with similar wind excitation, then the temple of Solomon could be rebuilt anywhere. Doesn't have to be in the exact same spot. And the sound shall stay the same, inside.