"Every sound can hold a meaning," according to sound designer Tasos Frantzolas.
But it's more than that: "We go to the movies to feel something," Frantzolas went on. "Sound is one of the two main senses that people experience in cinema," but it's the one sense that so many content creators take for granted.
Whether it's a major motion picture you worked on or a vlog update you shot on your phone, videos just don't work without sound. When you think back to the motion picture era, everything had a comedic feel to it. The only way filmmakers could combat that was with music, and most of the soundtracks relied on dark or bombastic scores to oversell the desired tone.
But sound design is more than the soundtrack. It's also more than buying a boom mic and capturing audio on set, or investing in a studio mic to improve the sound quality of your YouTube videos.
What sound design really does is capture a little bit of magic. The visual elements tell a story, but the sound design is behind the curtains, pulling strings and building the set pieces that can make or break a video. And that's why understanding sound design — and using it correctly — can instantly improve the quality of your videos.
How Sound Design Makes Videos Better
At its most basic level, sound design tries to "sell" the viewer on the visuals. It doesn't matter if the movie is a historical epic like Dunkirk, a space opera like Star Wars, or a whimsical adventure like Harry Potter. (All three of those are exceptional examples of sound design, by the way.)
Video creators need a viewer to believe and accept what's on the screen, and the sound design is the secret sauce that successful filmmakers use to do that.
When we watch a video, our brain is doing a lot of things in the background. But what job is fact-checking — our brain is using our other senses to prove (or discredit) what our eyes observe.
How you use sound effects can either sell the visual elements or ruin them. It's why we're able to watch Avatar and not be immediately pulled out of the experience. And it's why the practical effects and meticulous sound design of Jurassic Park is still a masterclass in how to fool a viewer's brain into believing the impossible.
And this isn't exclusive to big-budget films. Sure, an Avengers movie will have a higher production budget than your short films, vlogs, wedding videos, etc. But you can use these same tricks to implement sound design in the same way that your favorite film directors do.
By changing your perspective on the role of audio in your videos, you'll start to think like a sound designer. And that means you'll start to benefit from all the incredible things that sound can add to any video project.
#1. Create Extra Layers of Ambiance
It's hard to really capture the feeling of a place with native audio. Unless you invest in some hardcore microphones and spend hours collecting background sound, you're not going to create an immersive soundscape that wraps around an audience like a cozy blanket.
When you are planning a project, think about the type of environment you will shoot in. What are the sounds you would expect to hear there? Is it distant traffic from outside a building? Footsteps or voices upstairs? What about the hum of an A/C unit or a clanking radiator?
These sorts of sounds won't transform your video into an Oscar-winning masterpiece. But what they can do is build a realistic setting. You want enough sound that viewers hear but don't notice — if they're paying attention to background sounds, then the noises are distracting from the visual elements instead of enhancing them
#2. Add Weight to On-screen Action
If you've ever watched videos of Foley artists at work, you know that a lot of the sounds you hear in film, TV, and even YouTube aren't accurate representations of real life.
That's because the video has taught audiences to expect certain sounds for certain actions. The comic book-level punching sounds or the shing noise of your favorite Game of Thrones sword fights aren't realistic. But scientific reality doesn't matter all that much — that's part of movie magic, of convincing people to believe things that aren't true to life.
Good sound design adds weight to things. Whether you're enhancing certain sounds, replacing others, or adding noise to draw attention to something, sound design gives you a new level of creative control. And when actions have more weight, they become more powerful pieces in the story you're trying to tell.
#3. Tell Stories without Extra Dialogues
There's an old saying among writers that the best stories "show, don't tell" what's happening. In other words, a good storyteller can pull you into the action without having to specifically describe every single detail.
That translates to video too. You don't want to zoom in or specifically call attention to pieces of a scene. But the clever use of sound design can do that for you, subtly enhancing the story in a way that feels organic. Think of it as letting the viewer feel clever for noticing something, even though you know your use of a sound drew their attention to that little detail
#4. Control the Mood and the Emotion
You can think of emotion as the byproduct of good storytelling or acting, but there are other ways to evoke that. The horror movie genre in particular has written the book on this trick.
When you watch a classic like Alien, you aren't necessarily focused on the sound effects in the film. But it's the small noises that drag you into the scene. It immerses you in the moment, and suddenly the anxiety you feel is a real, primal emotion. A distant clank isn't just a sound effect — it's a trigger for the audience as well as the characters.
#5. Take Ownership Of Quiet Moments
You might already be thinking about how you can add sound effects to tackle one (or even all four) of the previous things on this list. After all, these tricks are meant to change your perspective, to help you think of sound design differently, and to elevate the quality of your videos.
But sound design can be the absence of sound too.
Let's go back to the example of horror movies. A well-timed sound effect can deliver a heart-stopping jump scare. But intentional silence can be just as powerful.
It's the lack of sound in A Quiet Place that sets the tone of the entire film. Sure, that puts extra pressure on the sound design elements since they'll get extra attention. But it does everything on this list at once: adds ambiance, gives weight to action, enhances storytelling, and injects emotion.
And, of course, it puts you in control of every single moment. Whether it's a huge, bombastic set piece or an epic worldbuilding shot or an intimate, somber moment, sound design makes you more than just a better filmmaker. It's a direct path to becoming a better visual storyteller, and it's a skill you can carry forward into every sort of project you'll tackle.