In any artistic discipline, it is important to do creative exercises to strengthen skills, play, and expand your practice. For writers, there are countless books and websites entirely devoted to writing prompts. The same goes for other disciplines. For theatrical or film sound design, however, finding exercises is much more difficult. There are music composition exercises and prompts available which can be helpful but they don’t necessarily extend to all of the skills and methods that we need to practice. Making up brief exercises I can use as a sort of warm-up is an interesting and, typically, fun task but there are two issues that I run into with crafting my own prompt. Sometimes I sit down and want to get straight to the point without the frustration of having to create something in order to create something. Other times it is the exact opposite; I spend all of the time I’ve allotted creating a sound design exercise rather than completing one.
We are not necessarily accustomed to warming up in the same way a musician or actor might nor are we always afforded the opportunity to do so. When possible, it is helpful to flex those sound design muscles beyond our main projects. In the past year, with far less design work than I typically have, I have found it more essential than ever to practice my craft in any way I can. The natural solution to this problem is to compile a collection of exercises to have on hand and I’ve been doing just that. Up until this point, I’ve been stashing away little prompts for myself. Now I’m working on editing them into the form of recipes in the hopes of creating a more flexible set of exercises that could suit a variety of sound designers and artists in their individual practices.
One creative exercise of sorts that I already practice every day is cooking. It’s an outlet I love, not to mention something I absolutely need to do to sustain myself. With cooking, I always have someplace to start whether it be a recipe or the contents of my refrigerator. Having that sort of base makes it easier to get started and then I can make any adjustments and substitutions I want or just go off the rails completely. Then of course I get to share that food with others, enjoy it together, and then it’s gone. When I realized that this practice that is already a part of my day-to-day life is quite similar to how I want my sound design exercises to function, I decided to turn the prompts I was devising into recipes.
Framing these prompts as open-ended sound “recipes” takes some of the pressure off of the exercise. Like a good, dependable, encyclopedic cookbook (think The New Basics or The Joy of Cooking) I hope for these recipes to be simple, adaptable, and repeatable. The instructions are meant to be followed to your own taste rather than strictly adhered to. Use the tools you have and the methods that interest you. They are also meant to be created for the purpose of enjoyment and creative nourishment only once, without any need to revisit and replay it. You can, of course, always follow the recipe and cook up another batch of sounds at any time. And if it suits you, you can always cook with others and share the experience.
The recipe below is an example. It is intentionally broad, but you can always return to the item -saltwater taffy in this case – for inspiration or guidance. Don’t overthink it! If you feel inclined to try it out, I hope it provides you with enough direction to get started and spend a few minutes creating, combining, and manipulating sounds in an unexpected and pleasurable way.
Salt Water Taffy
Makes 35 seconds of sound taffy
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
1 (5 sec.) recording of water (any variety)
2 (1 sec.) purely digital sounds
1 (to taste) recording of something within 5 feet of you
Flavoring of your choice
- If you are recording your water sound, take no more than 1.5 minutes to do so. Otherwise, choose a found or previously recorded water sound. Stretch to length (35 sec.). Adjust pitch however you like.
- Take one of your 1-second digital sounds and cut it into quarters. Then sprinkle throughout.
- Take your second digital sample and use to add rhythm to the piece.
- Record whatever you select within 5 feet of yourself. Process using 2-5 different manipulations. Add to the mix, then listen back and adjust to your liking.
- Finally, to add flavoring, identify what is missing and add something with a sweet and tangy taste. Be as liberal or sparing as you’d like.
Abigail Nover is a sound designer and composer based out of Miami, Florida. She works as a freelance designer for theatrical productions in English and Spanish throughout the country. She holds a BFA in Sound Design from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama and an MA in Folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work is often rooted in cultural memory and immersion. In addition to theatrical work, Abigail conducts oral histories and writes about cultural and sound studies. She is a member of the OISTAT Sound Design Group.