The last few weeks I’ve tried to get you to think outside the box. I wrote about why audio engineers should learn video, and I also wrote about why audio engineers shouldn’t learn video.

Today, I want us to take a look at something other than music. I have nothing against music, obviously, but as audio engineers, it would behoove us to expand our horizons and at least think about other ways to use our skills.

With that in mind, I called in an expert, Nick Maxwell of Nick’s a great guy and very knowledgeable about all things sound design. Check out his answers to the questions below. Good stuff.

What options to audio engineers have aside from recording music?

Music recording is just the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to utilizing this skillset. Sound design for music, film and video games, foley, sound library creation, and live sound are just a few examples of disciplines which heavily overlap with the skills involved in recording.

In fact, recording experience is an advantage when transitioning into the world of sound design because an understanding of microphone types and placement is important when you’re capturing the source material that will eventually be manipulated in the studio.

Define Sound Design.

The phrase “sound design” has evolved to encompass a lot of the different disciplines that I mentioned in my answer to the first question. I’ll spare your readers the long historical discussion of how is came to be.

I would define sound design as the art and science of telling a story through non-compositional audio elements. I borrowed that last phrase from Wikipedia, by the way, because I think it fits really well. If you listen to a movie or game’s sound, there’s a score and then there’s all the other sound. Sound designers are generally responsible for “all the other sound.” Creating the growl of a monster, the sound of a spaceship, or performing footsteps in a foley room are all good examples.

Same thing with musical sound design, where the act of composing or songwriting is a separate issue from what sounds are used to voice all the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of the composition. The advantage is that the composer can focus on the important task of telling a musical story without getting caught in an endless cycle of making sounds.

What draws you to sound design over music?

Music is one of the most important parts of my life, and I do spend time writing tunes for my own pleasure as well as for testing out my new sounds. However, in a “professional” context I prefer to spend my time with designing sounds as well as teaching other people how to do so.

I suppose this is because it’s equal parts science and art, and I can freely move between the left and right sides of my brain when I get tired of what I’m doing. For instance, I’ll conjure up a sound in my mind which is purely a creative act. The next phase is to make that sound a reality to the extent that my current skillset will allow, moving toward technical problem-solving.

Breaking down a creative entity into its component parts in order to determine an efficient process for building it is a very exciting process for me. When this technical process is complete, I start back toward the more creative end of things and add bits here and there to make the patch really shine beyond the original idea. In short, the creative and technical parts of the process inform one another.

What practical steps can people take to expand their audio horizons?

The practical options for expanding your audio skillset are more varied and easily available than ever before. I never attended school for anything audio related. My majors were in Philosophy and English (hence the need to find a profession where people actually make a living). I developed my skills over a 10 year period through trial and error and with the help of affordable music software, knowledgeable people on forums, books, video tutorials, etc.

I’m not at all precious about this stuff: The reality of sound design is that you get good at it by messing around with sound, hopefully doing something right along the way and learning from your mistakes. Most of the best sounds come from accidents. I’ve recently read some interviews with sound designers who talk about spending weeks agonizing over each sliver of their creations, and I just can’t relate to that at all. These guys are really good at what they do and I mean no disrespect. I just think it’s more fun to be like a hyper-active child in a room full of toys, tossing stuff together and figuring out why it does or does not sound cool. Simply practicing your craft is the most practical step imaginable!

Do you offer any training products?

Over the last year and a half I started a business at I create video tutorials that deal with musical sound design. The videos deal with each of the most popular instruments in the Suite version of Ableton Live, although I’ll be expanding to instruments like NI Absynth and CamelAudio’s Alchemy.

The basic goal of my site is to provide the guidance I wish I would have had access to when I started learning the ins and outs of synthesis and sampling. The tutorials move from basic to advanced material pretty fluidly, so I’m proud of how comprehensive they are. I should also point out that signing up for my mailing list will get you a free hour’s worth of tutorials from my full packages, so I encourage your readers to sign up if they’re at all interested!

I’ve also recently joined up with Bjorn and Andreas from the Covert Operators. The CovOps site is now my primary vehicle for releasing commercial patches for Ableton Live instruments, and we have been working for some time on a huge project that will hopefully be unveiled in a few months.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about sound design!