EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Sound Design and Electroacoustic Music: Practices or Perspectives?

Steven Naylor

Steven Naylor, Adjunct Professor, School of Music, Acadia University


Sound recording and reproduction technologies enable a wide range of creative practices. Among those is the relative neologism ‘sound design’—a descriptor often associated with dramatic and visual media productions. While there appears to be broad agreement that sound design can play an essential role in those productions, there is less consensus about what it actually ‘is’. From a structural perspective, sound design might be seen as the sonic equivalent of other functional design responsibilities—costumes, sets, or lighting. But its artistic implications are less clear.

In film, a sound designer’s artistic responsibility could range from creating specialised sounds (e.g., invented creatures, futuristic weapons) to overall responsibility for the sound track’s tone and content. Similarly, in theatre, they may be responsible for any combination of playback system design; diegetic and non-diegetic sounds; and choosing pre-show, transitional, or post- show music.

For electroacoustic composers, the question is: where do we fit?

In a conventional production hierarchy, the title ‘composer’ probably means what we would expect—someone responsible for the ‘score’. But while the title may seem clear, the role can be considerably less so, depending on the production context, and the style and materials of the contribution.

For instrumental composers, there is usually an assumption that the ’score’ will meet the traditional expectations of ‘music’, and be reasonably distinguishable from other sonic layers. Some productions may encourage exploration within that paradigm, but the role is still usually clear. In contrast, an electroacoustic ‘score’ for a dramatic or visual media production may readily be conflated with ‘sound design’. After all, apart from projects where all sound is produced in real-time, both roles involve working directly with concrete sound materials on fixed media—and both potentially have at their disposal the full range of sonic possibilities, rather than a familiar subset of instrumental resources.

In some production contexts—particularly more adventurous or inherently collaborative ones—the creative result of this ambiguity may be very positive. If a single artist takes on both roles, they may have considerable creative freedom. And if the roles have been assigned to two different artists, they may find common ground, while also supporting each other’s specialisms. But it is equally possible that the overlapping materials and range can encourage confusion about what is expected from each role—and about how to credit the resulting creative contributions.

To examine this situation, we briefly review several related creative activities, then consider specific production contexts, with some thoughts from composers who have engaged in sound design work in those contexts. While definitive answers may be elusive, we hope the discussion will offer electroacoustic composers useful viewpoints on potentially rewarding creative opportunities.


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EMS18 Proceedings