This month I thought it would be beneficial to define this term we hear often in film and video games. What comes to mind when you hear the term “Sound Design”?  It’s a pretty self-explanatory term, I guess, but I’d like to go into detail about what it means from my perspective.

“Sound design” refers to the creative process of making sounds for various media. Consider how “graphic design” is the process of defining and creating the way something  looks to your eyes. Sound design is a similar process which aims to define the way something communicates through your ears.

How often do you experience the work of a Sound Designer? Unless you live in a technology-free commune, or are cast away on a deserted island, than you experience the work of a sound designer every day. If you use an alarm clock, you are experiencing a sound designed specifically for that purpose of “wake up!”. When you get a text message, whichever sound you hear has been designed by somebody to say “give me attention!”. When you turn the keys in your car ignition, most likely, there’s some sound that informs you that “shit is working”. It’s a key component of the modern “experience”.

What are the origins of sound design?  Sound is the medium of spoken language. Without sound we do not have speech. Words are sounds. Speech is a set of sounds that have been designed collectively by people. Some sound/words have been designed to be used by hunters, sounds that do not alert their prey. Other sound/words are designed to frighten enemies. Most early sounds were made by people squirting air through their meat or clapping their meat together.

Flash forward several hundred thousand years and we can talk about the use of sound in games.

The earliest example that I was able to find in my research is a european tabletop game called “Bell Bagatelle”.  In 1871 Montague Redgrave, Chicago-based, released a production run of his game that used a spring-loaded plunger to launch metal balls into a field of pins, holes, and a big shiny bell. The player tried to score points by landing the ball in holes, getting the balls into slots at the bottom, or by hitting the bell. This game is considered by historians to be the first pinball machine (even though the evolution of this type of game can be traced back into the 1500s). There are similar games that predate this one, but they did not use bells. This bell sound meant that the highest score has been made (like hitting a bull’s eye in darts) and became synonymous with winning.

In 1901, Ivan Pavlov began his famous experiment in St. Petersburg where he conditioned dogs to associate the sound of a bell with the act of being given food. I mention this because it marks the beginning of the awareness of sound as a factor for affecting psychology and it scientifically proved the importance of sound design. Pavlov’s research gave us the idea of “classical conditioning”.
In 1933 the first battery-powered pinball machines were developed in the United States and by 1934, these batteries were powering chimes, bells and buzzers. These games became very poplar during the Depression Era.

In 1935 the “tilt” mechanism was invented and incorporated into pinball machines and when triggered would issue a “warning” to the player.

 

In the 1970’s solid-state electronic pinball machines were introduced. These machines used electronic sounds, as well as electric speech to make the games more exciting to the players.

 

Links:

“Bell Bagatelle – traditional tabletop game” – by Manor Games

Collection of Early Bagatelle games

The History of Pinball Machines

 

Pinball Before Baffle Ball

“They’re Made Out of Meat”  – Fictional Short Film

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