Sound Design in Animation: Definition, Process & Challenges

8 months ago   •   7 min read

By Gwénaëlle Dupré
Photo by Soundtrap / Unsplash

Animation relies on visuals, words, and sound. Without music, sound effects, and dialogues, stories would remain incomplete. Characters would lack souls. From the subtle harmonies that evoke emotion to the thunderous applauses that give you goosebumps, sound design is an important part of production.

In this article, we take a look behind the scenes to explore the fascinating world of sound design in animation―the techniques, tools, and processes used by sound designers to bring animations to life.

What’s Sound Design

Sound design refers to the creation and integration of audio elements to enhance the visual storytelling experience―including music, dialogue, and sound effects.

For example, sound design involves recording distinct sound effects for a character's movements, composing ambient sounds to establish a specific atmosphere, or designing unique soundscapes for fantastical worlds.

The deliverables of the sound design process include a final mix of the audio synchronized with the visuals and optimized for different playback environments.

Why Sound Design

Sound design plays a pivotal role in enhancing the viewer's immersion and emotional engagement with the story by establishing the auditory environment of a scene. It brings life to characters and environments, making them feel more tangible and believable: from the rustling of leaves to the bustling city streets, carefully crafted audio elements transport the audience into the animated world itself!

Well-crafted sound design is key to captivate the audience and keep them engaged in the animation. A multi-sensory experience deepens the viewer's connection to the narrative and evokes emotions. Whether it's the thrill of an action sequence, the tenderness of a heartfelt moment, or the suspense of a thrilling chase, sound design amplifies the intended emotional response.

Animated characters also greatly benefit from it: unique sound effects, vocal traits, and stylized dialogue reinforce personalities, accentuate humor, or create memorable quirks. The sound design choices can emphasize the traits and nuances of each character, making them more relatable.

Through sound cues, the viewer can identify off-screen actions, understand spatial relationships, and follow the progression of events: sound design conveys information.

Who Does Sound Design

Sound design is the fruit of the collaboration between various professionals who contribute their expertise to create a cohesive and immersive audio experience.

The sound designer is responsible for conceptualizing and creating the overall sonic vision of the animation. They work closely with the directors and creative team to understand the story narrative and develop a sound design plan that enhances the story and characters.

The composer works in tandem with the sound designer to create the original score for the animation, while foley artists record live sounds to add realism using various props in sync with the visuals and capture the subtle details of character movements, object interactions, and environmental sounds. Voice actors provide the voices and performances for animated characters with powerful intonations and deliveries to convey a wide range of emotions.

The sound effects and dialogue editors are responsible for cleaning, editing, and enhancing the recordings. They ensure that the audio is clear, intelligible, and properly synchronized with the animation.

Finally, the mixer brings together all the different audio elements—dialogue, music, and sound effects—and balances them to create the final mix. They adjust levels, spatial positioning, and overall sound quality to ensure a cohesive and immersive audio experience.

Directors and producers collaborate with the sound team throughout the process, providing guidance and feedback.

The Sound Design Process In 6 Steps

Research

The research phase is where the sound design team meets with the director to gain a deep understanding of the animation's vision, tone, and story. This phase is key to lay solid foundations for the later parts of the process.

  1. Analyze visual materials and scripts - The sound design team examines storyboards, animatics, concept art, and character designs to understand the animation's visual style, pacing, and key moments that require specific sound treatments. By delving into the script and character descriptions, the sound design team gains a deeper understanding of the characters' personalities, motivations, and relationships to integrate sound elements that reflect the characters' traits.
  2. Establish audio aesthetics - The overall sound palette, atmosphere, and genre influences that align with the storytelling and visual style. For example, Cowboy Bebop wouldn’t be the same without its jazzy soundtrack, and some animation studios have their own audio identity.
  3. List sound references - The team can draw inspiration from films, documentaries, music, and real-life recordings. This helps gather ideas, explore creative possibilities, and develop a shared vocabulary.

All of these elements end up defining the sound requirements of the project, including technical considerations like licenses, audio formats, etc.

Foley recording

Foley recording involves creating and recording sound effects synchronized with scenes. It adds depth and realism to the animation, allowing viewers to feel more connected to the on-screen world. It is a labor-intensive process that requires expertise, attention to detail, and creative problem-solving to capture the perfect sound effects.

  1. Scene analysis - The sound design team carefully analyzes each scene to identify the specific sound effects that need to be recorded: footsteps, clothing movements, object interactions, and any other sounds that are essential for enhancing the realism and immersion of the animation.
  2. Foley artist planning - The Foley artists study the scene requirements, gather necessary props and materials, and plan their approach to recreate the desired sounds.
  3. Foley stage setup - A dedicated recording space is acoustically treated and equipped with various surfaces and props to create different sound textures.
  4. Recording - The Foley artist performs actions and movements in sync with the animation, using props and materials to recreate the desired sounds. This may involve walking, running, handling objects, opening doors, or even mimicking creature movements, depending on the requirements of the scene. The sound design team records multiple takes of each action to ensure they have a variety of options during the editing phase. They carefully capture the cleanest and most authentic sounds possible. After recording, they edit and manipulate the recorded sounds as needed to fit seamlessly into the animation.

Depending on the budget constraints, Foley artists can also leverage sound effects sourced from open-source audio libraries instead of recording everything themselves. In both cases, it’s crucial to build and maintain a comprehensive sound library for the animation production to efficiently manage and integrate hundreds of audio assets.

Music composition

If original music is required, the composer creates a score that complements the animation.

Based on the research phase, the composer begins the process of crafting the musical score. They create melodies, harmonies, and arrangements that align with the desired emotions, character motivations, and story progression. The composition may involve various instruments, styles, and genres depending on the animation's requirements.

Then, the composer or a team of musicians record the music with high-quality audio equipment. This may involve live instrument recordings, MIDI-based orchestrations, or a combination of both.

Because of the tremendous resources required to create an original soundtrack, it isn’t unusual for animation studios to rely on purchasing music licenses.

Voice acting

Voice acting is the process of recording character dialogues or verbal expressions. Just like a regular actor, a voice actor must excel at expressing a wide range of emotions from joy and excitement to sadness and anger. Voice actors also bring life to dialogues and voice-overs, making it sound natural and believable. They understand the nuances of timing, rhythm, and intonation, creating dynamic performances that enhance the delivery.

In Japan, because of the skills and talent required, the best voice actors have a superstar status, and you can find 130 schools specialized in voice acting! Voice acting can really make or break a production, so attention is required during the casting phase.

Mixing & editing

The various audio elements are combined, balanced, and refined to create a cohesive and immersive auditory experience for the animation.

  1. Audio cleanup - Unwanted noise, clicks, pops, or any other imperfections that may have been captured during the recording process are removed.
  2. Dialogue editing - The sound designers carefully edit the recorded dialogue tracks to remove background noises or inconsistencies, adjust volume levels, and ensure that the dialogue is clear and intelligible.
  3. Sound effects integration - The sound effects are synchronized with the on-screen action.
  4. Music mixing - The sound design team adjusts the levels, panning, and frequency ranges to carefully mix the music with the other sound elements and create a balanced and cohesive audio experience.

At this stage, the audio is ready for delivery!

Final mix

The final mix combines all the edited audio tracks, including dialogue, music, and sound effects:

  1. Balancing levels - The sound design team carefully adjusts the volume levels of each audio element to allow for intelligible dialogue while maintaining the impact of sound effects and music.
  2. Dynamic range control - The dynamic range refers to the difference between the quietest and loudest parts of the audio. In the final mix, the sound design team applies techniques like compression and limiting to control the dynamic range, ensuring that the audio remains consistent and avoids abrupt volume changes that could distract or overwhelm the viewer.
  3. Spatial design - If the animation calls for a spatial audio experience, such as surround sound or 3D audio, the sound design team spatially positions the sound elements within the audio field using techniques like panning, spatial effects, and binaural processing to create a sense of movement.
  4. Equalization - Equalization (EQ) is used to adjust the frequency response of different sound elements. During the final mix, the sound design team applies EQ to ensure that each sound element occupies its intended frequency range and doesn't conflict with other elements. This helps to create clarity, separation, and overall tonal balance in the audio track.
  5. Quality assurance - The sound design team monitors the audio using high-quality speakers or headphones to make sure the audio translates well across different playback systems and environments from mobile phones to movie speakers.

The final audio package containing the required audio files are then sent to the animation editor for integration in the episode or film.

Conclusion

Sound design is a key part of animation production. From its role in establishing mood and atmosphere to music and voice acting, sound designers bring visuals to a whole new level. As animation enthusiasts, it is crucial to appreciate the immense efforts that go into sound design.

Throughout the sound design stages, collaboration, feedback, and revisions occur between the sound design team, directors, and producers to refine all the audio elements. It's a major step to make your production perfect.

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