How to Become a Sound Designer
As part of our series looking at jobs in design studios, we speak to Luc Van Stiphout, head of music and brands at MassiveMusic, about the joys of working with sound, why a company’s jingle is integral to its image, and how a tune his dad sang to him when he was a toddler introduced him to sonic branding.
Design Week: What exactly is a sound designer, or a sonic brand designer?
Luc Van Stiphout: There’s a lot of overlap with graphic design. A sound designer’s job is to understand a brand, who its audience is and where it’s going to exist, then come up with concepts to translate that into audio, rather than vision. In our case, we talk to composers, musicians and vocalists to transform what we have in our heads into actual sounds. You could be coming up with a short jingle for a logo one day, or a full soundtrack for an advert the next day. The steps in the creative process are similar to graphic design – you’re constantly assessing and refining after every step.
DW: What’s your educational background?
LVS: I studied quite a mixed combination of subjects at my high school in the Netherlands, including physics, maths, crafts, art history and languages, so left and right brain subjects. I went on to do a six-year, MSc (Master of Science) degree in industrial design at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), where alongside practical skills, I learnt about design history, cultural context and material science.
DW: What’s your career journey been so far?
LVS: After finishing my course, I went on a road trip for seven months with a friend, DJing across Europe — I really wanted to get into music. I had a reality check, and realised I needed to make some money, so I decided to start working as a product and industrial designer, which I did for three-and-a-half years at a small events company called Major Tom. It did brand installations, such as mobile catering units at festivals, and one of the products I designed during my degree — a container for pouring tea and coffee — is now being used across the Netherlands.
I then worked at global advertising agency TBWA’s Netherlands office for four-and-a-half years. This was a project management role but the boundaries between the creative and account teams were quite blurred, so I was designing too.
But my passion is music, and I wanted to get back to that. I went to work in the brand partnership team at record label Electric and Musical Industries (EMI), where I stayed for five months, and then Universal Music, where I stayed for a year. I missed the creativity of working at an agency, so I moved to MassiveMusic, where I have been for six years, first as an account manager, then as head of music and brands.
We’re a creative music consultancy and do everything for brands in terms of their sound, working as a partner consultancy, often alongside design studios.
DW: What first got you interested in sonic brand design?
LVS: It goes back to being three years old when my dad would whistle a little melody in public places, like a shopping centre or a busy street, so that if I got lost, that would be my beacon to find him!
Professionally, it was only when I started at MassiveMusic that I learnt about sonic branding. Before that, I didn’t give it much notice but I would register things subconsciously, like the McDonald’s jingle. Now, as we’re stepping more into a screenless age, the sound of notifications on smartphones and other devices is becoming more important.
DW: What does a typical working day look like for you?
LVS: My average hours tend to be about 9.30am – 6.30pm, but I also commute in for an hour each way, so I use the train journeys too. I have two kids, so I sometimes work remotely.
Mondays tend to start with running through emails and getting an overview of what’s going on with different projects. I divide the rest of my day between sparring with different teams and critiquing work. I also assess new business opportunities and decide who should be assigned to what projects from the strategy, creative and account management teams.
In terms of the sonic brand designers, their daily process involves three phases: conceptualising and research, development and rollout. My team thinks about how to translate a brand into music, so we start by thinking about the components that could make that up, including sound effects, instrumentation, tempo and aesthetics. Spotify is an excellent resource!
We think about what kind of sounds are suitable for a specific brand. For example, we recently worked on a weather app – how do we translate the idea of accuracy and prediction into sound? We think about wider themes, like precision, patterns and clarity, and think about how we would translate these to music. Our designers use a range of sound recording software, including Pro-tools, Logic and Ableton.
After coming up with the concept, the sound designers then brief music researchers, who will find the musical ingredients for our menu, in the form of sound effects, whole songs, jingles and more. If it doesn’t emotionally resonate, it’s back to the drawing board. After we’ve settled on a solid concept, we lay out our rationale on how we got there to clients.
It’s then time to start producing. Our designers and researchers brief musicians and composers, asking them to create a demo of a certain length. Like a creative director briefs a copywriter or a graphic designer, we brief these music specialists to bring things together.
Memory is a big challenge with music – we avoid songs that are too well-known and have loaded connotations. Certain sound effects have this nostalgic effect too; a ukulele sound will instantly create a corny, “holiday” mode for an advert, for instance.
DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks and responsibilities?
LVS: For me, it’s overseeing projects, assessing the business overall, and making sure employees are happy. I also work on design sprints with different teams, make sure we’re focusing on the right clients and look to the future of the business in terms of opportunities.
DW: How creatively challenging is the job?
LVS: It’s super creative, on two levels – firstly, nobody wants a copycat, so we make sure all the music and sound effects we make are bespoke and unique. The second thing is that the world of sonic branding is evolving, as is branding in general. We’re constantly working with multiple teams, including design studios, ad agencies, user experience (UX) design studios and clients.
DW: How closely do sonic brand designers and graphic designers work?
LVS: Pretty closely; I’m currently working on four projects in collaboration with design studios. Generally, the client tends to brief the studio, then once graphic designers have set out the fundamentals, it gets passed to us, and we start working on the sound. Most of the time we are briefed by the designers but sometimes we are briefed by clients directly. We often work remotely at designers’ offices.
We don’t want to step on their toes though – the visuals lead, and they tend to have longer lasting relationships with clients than us, so they will help us iron things out and get the nuances right. We’re currently working on a project for a global bank, creating the soundtrack for an animation, and we’re never going to say: “If you could just make it five seconds longer, that’d be awesome”!
DW: What strengths do you need to be a good sonic branding designer?
LVS: You need to love music and be enthusiastic about how it works, the effects it can have, and how it can move and inspire people. You need to understand the grammar of music – and by that, I mean how you translate a theme or feeling into sound. You don’t need to be able to read music! The musician will do the technical stuff with instrumentation and composition, and turn it into something that is relaxing, upbeat or melancholic, but you need to have an idea of what kind of sounds reference these feelings.
You also need to understand how brands operate, that’s the crucial crossing. Music is emotion but how do you make it work commercially? You need to tell a story quickly, in a two-minute animation.
You don’t necessarily need to be a trained designer but it’s important to have an interest in branding. I’ve forgotten 80% of the technical stuff I learnt on my industrial design degree, but how to structure a creative process has stuck with me.
DW: What are the best parts of your job?
LVS: Being in and around music all day, it’s that simple. Being able to contribute to that world is great, as is being able to make money from it!
Also, sound design is really growing in popularity. Brands are realising they need to engage with their audiences in different ways that are memorable, pleasurable and relevant, and that’s where sound plays a big part.
DW: What are the worst parts of your job?
LVS: On a personal level, my job now is less of the sound design, so I do miss that. More generally, the idea of sonic branding is very much in flux. This means there aren’t a lot of jobs yet, because many design studios don’t have those roles in-house, and some clients don’t appreciate it yet. But it’s changing, and increasingly studios are telling their clients that sound is something they need to consider, so there is growing opportunity.
DW: If you were interviewing for a junior sonic brand designer, what would you look for?
LVS: Someone with a good set of brains and who is opinionated. Ideally, they should have a real interest or background in music, and experience working in branding. It’s not about being a musician, it’s applied science – you’re not making a beautiful love song, you’re helping to cater for an audience. It’s not essential to have a background in design but it is a big plus because it means you will have a good grasp of different themes, audiences and aesthetics.
DW: What advice can you offer people considering a job in sonic branding?
LVS: Go for coffee with lots of people. When I finished my degree, I didn’t go out into the real world to meet people nearly enough. Drop companies like us an email and ask if someone working in sonic branding has half an hour to chat. This is introspective as much as it is general learning – it’ll give you a good sense of whether you’re interested in jobs like this.