20 sound design tips and tricks to improve the quality of your next project

Sound design is a process that sits right at the intersection of art and science. With so much to learn, it can be hard to know where to start. So we’ve compiled some of our favorite tips and tricks to help you up your sound design game and hopefully find new ways to enhance the quality of your next projects. 

Our top 20 sound design tips and tricks

Here are our favorite techniques to help you improve the quality of your mixes, unlock more of your creativity, and ultimately develop your skills as a sound designer.

#1: Record everything

Do you want your mixes to stand out amongst the crowd? Then grab your microphone and recorder and get out into the real world. 

There’s no shame in using digitally-created sounds or purchasing samples, but if you want to set yourself apart as a sound designer, having your own library of sounds that you’ve recorded and tweaked yourself can help give your mixes a “signature” individual sound. 

#2: Don’t be afraid of presets

This may seem counterintuitive to what we mentioned in our first tip, but these two techniques can work hand-in-hand. Great sound designers know when a unique sound can really push their project over the edge, but they also know the benefit of using presets and templates to help speed up the mixing process. 

Remember, you can always tweak and adjust presets to make them blend with your project while still saving yourself tons of time versus doing everything from scratch. 

#3: Layer sounds

Layering sounds is one of the most common tricks that sound designers use to create “unique” sounds that don’t exist in nature or to enhance sounds beyond what they naturally sound like. 

For example, you can layer sound samples from several different types of donkeys to create a strange type of bray that can be used for a creature in a fantasy game. You can also layer sounds from different sources to create a totally new sound effect. 

The trick with layering is to ensure that the layered sounds complement each other, don’t mask out important details, and fit together to create what, to the listener, appears to be a single sound. 

#4: Pay attention to your plugin order

The order in which you apply plugins can have a huge effect on the final sound. Pay careful attention to what plugins you’re using and in what order, and try rearranging the order to create different effects. 

#5: Use noise

“Noise” doesn’t always have to be a recording error. You can use white noise, gray noise, and other types of audio noise effects to your advantage to create all kinds of different effects. The best way to utilize noise is to pair it with other filters (EQ, high-pass, etc.) to create whooshes, whistles, squeals, and other effects in different intensity levels.

#6: Reverse your sounds

Reversing sound doesn’t have to be a novelty effect. In fact, putting sound samples in reverse can create all kinds of new sounds for your projects. 

You can turn drum beats into odd warps or tweets into screeches. If you’re stuck on how to create a unique sound, try reversing some of the samples in your library to see what happens. 

#7: Take advantage of the Haas Effect

The Haas Effect is an acoustic effect discovered by Dr. Helmut Haas in 1949. This effect makes a sound seem “thicker” or “wider” by using two identical mono tracks, each panned to the far left and far right of a stereo track. 

One audio file is played at a slight delay after the other (usually 10-30ms), and when the listener hears the two tracks, they perceive it as a single sustained track. This is a great way to keep tracks from sounding “muddy” when you want to mix in additional instrumentals under your track.

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#8: Don’t overlook sidechaining

Most people associate sidechain tracks with the “thwomp, thwomp, thwomp” of house music, but you can use sidechain compression to add some much-needed movement to a wide variety of ambient tracks. 

The best way to do this is to create your sidechain trigger as a “ghost” track that isn’t tied to your audible output but instead to your compressor’s sidechain input. This allows you to gently add in some movement to sustained ambient tracks without making it sound like a nightclub.

#9: Save your favorite plugin/effect chains

Did you finally get a great sound from a series of plugins or effects that are chained to each other? Make sure you save this setting so you can quickly revisit it in future projects. This can be a huge timesaver, as well as help you build a library of unique presets that can start to define your signature sound as a designer.

#10: Stack textures

Similar to layering sounds or chaining plugins, stacking textures can help you create unique effects or boost your primary texture. For example, some noise effects can help add a little grit to an ultra-clean synth texture. Don’t be afraid to stack things on and reorder them to find new ways to boost your textures.

#11: Start simple

One of the biggest traps many sound designers fall into is they try to start too big too fast. The best way to help yourself succeed is to start simple and slowly build out from there. Lay down a simple “spine” for your mix using the skills, techniques, and parameters you already know, then slowly expand on it piece by piece until you achieve the sound you want. 

While this more methodical approach may feel more tedious at first, it can save you a lot of time and headaches down the line by making it easy to identify what is working and what isn’t. 

#12: Don’t be afraid to take things away

There is a compulsion with many sound designers to keep adding sounds, effects, and textures when they feel like a mix isn’t working. Don’t be afraid to resist this urge, and instead, try removing bits and pieces first to see if that doesn’t improve upon the mix. 

#13: Use your voice

Your voice can be a powerful tool for creating new sounds and effects, and this doesn’t mean you need to be a trained vocalist. You can use your voice in tandem with effects to create a huge variety of original sounds, so don’t be afraid to use it.

#14: Don’t overuse the bass

Creating new bass tracks can be fun, but make sure you’re not using too much thudding bass to make up for a pretty blasé treble frequency range. Before you sink too much time into the bottom-end, make sure what’s happening up top is as unique and interesting as possible. 

#15: Silence can be your friend

Not every moment of a mix needs noise! Creative use of silence in your music production timeline can be an incredible tool for building tension and highlighting certain areas of your mix. Allow tracks to drop in and out, utilize pauses, and ultimately, don’t be afraid to use silence like any other instrument in your toolbelt. 

#16: Look for inspiration in TV and films

You can spend hours at your DAW trying to fight through creative blocks, but one of the most tried-and-true ways to get through a tough spot is to draw inspiration from other works. This doesn’t just have to be for narrative sound design projects. 

You can also use TV and films to pull inspiration for music, either from their soundtracks or by listening closely to the sound effects used throughout (sci-fi is an especially good resource for unique sound effects). Visuals can also serve as inspiration for audio.

#17: Listen to sound design and creative podcasts

There are tons of podcasts available to help creatives get “unstuck” and learn new techniques to help them improve their workflow. 

Get out from behind your studio desk, go for a walk, and try checking out some dedicated podcasts for sound designers as well as some geared towards general creativity to help you improve your creative thought process. 

#18: Read sound design books

There are tons of resources available in bookstores and libraries that can help you seriously up your game when it comes to sound design. A quick Google search will help you discover tons of books written by the masters of sound design that can offer a wealth of education on everything from the physics of sound to practical workflows. 

#19: Collaborate with other creatives

Collaboration can be a huge source of inspiration and innovation for your projects. If you’re looking to expand your project’s boundaries, try working with other sound designers or mixers who can contribute their ideas to the pile and help you create something even more interesting than you could create on your own. 

#20: Don’t be afraid to break the rules

We’ve talked about a lot of “dos” and “don’ts” in this list, but this always bears reminding. It’s one thing to know what to do in a typical situation, but never be afraid to bend or break the rules if it works for your project. 

All these tips and tricks should serve as guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules, because there is no single way to create a great sound design. Never be afraid to let your creativity thrive and try things that conventional wisdom may say are “no-nos.”

Final thoughts

Being a great composer takes a lot of skill and a lot of creative intuition, both of which you can develop through constant practice. The more projects you take on, the better you’ll become, and hopefully, these tips and tricks will help you continue to build on your existing skills to produce better and better work. 

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