(Sound) Designing for Diversity

An exploration of how our cultural defaults affect the choices we make in sound design.


. 5 min read


Like a lot of folks after the events of the last year, we’ve been examining our cultural biases, here at Pacific Content, and workshopping how we can design for diversity and inclusion in everything we do as a company, and as humans. We’ve been taking a close look at our cultural defaults — how they affect everything from our hiring practices, to our show development process, and to how we define “expert guests.” We asked how our defaults might distort our storytelling. I had the pleasure of working alongside my teammates to explore how our cultural defaults affect the choices we make in sound design.

Podcasting is a medium that allows for unlimited flexibility: sound can put the listener in a faraway place, introduce them to cultures they’ve never experienced, and evoke a wide range of emotions. But in many ways, the conventions I use as a sound designer and the familiar sonic shortcuts that I reach for are shaped by a very narrow range of cultural influences. They exclude many listeners right from the get-go.

If we think of sound design as a language, then the vocabulary is most heavily influenced by movies. The Hollywood sound is constantly evolving, but many common audio tropes were born in the early days of film and are largely based on colonialist, stereotypical facsimiles of foreign cultures. For example, traditional Indian music is almost always a shortcut for belly dancing. Anywhere from China to Vietnam gets generically slapped with “Asian” melodies and gongs galore, with no regard given to the accuracy of what these places and cultures actually sound like. Hollywood made money off simplified stereotypes of these “other” places for much of its early history; these musical sonic shortcuts get used to quickly set the stage for the listener, but they don’t reflect the incredible diversity of the sonic textures that really exist.

Movie sound effects aren’t immune to these influences either. For a time, the sound of every hero’s car was a gurgly American V8 and every gunshot a cannon blast of glorified, world-altering power. And, a convenient way to tell a listener they’re going to a “bad” neighbourhood is police sirens echoing in the distance. It casts judgment, saying to the listener “Stay away! This isn’t safe for you.”

So, my goal is to re-evaluate and re-invent the sonic conventions I rely on, in order to make them as open and inclusive as possible. But how?

1. Use Actuality (and Play Against Type).

A simple way to reduce the influence of harmful stereotypes is to use actuality — to base my sound design on the actual sound of whatever I’m trying to portray. Say I’m reading a script that calls for SFX: MEXICO CITY OUTDOOR MARKET. Instead of turning to my internal model of what I think that should sound like, I can hit up Youtube and find some recordings of what it actually sounds like! Obviously, any such recordings will vary greatly depending on who’s taking them, for what purpose, the time of day/season/etc, but that’s kind of the point. Just as pictures show the world through the eye of the photographer, field recordings capture the sounds of the world guided by the individual holding the microphone. Recordings from around the world give me new perspectives with which to make sound decisions. When I design the sound of that market, it will be based on someone’s lived experience rather than a guess.

2. Question My First Instincts.

One of my colleagues had a great suggestion: as sound people, we should challenge ourselves and question our first instinct. Maybe an ancient Greek setting doesn’t always need grand, portentous (western) orchestras and ethereal choirs going, “Aaaaaaaaa,” in the background; whenever selecting music to signal a particular people or place, consider whether that music is based in reality, or in a given composer’s idea of what that place should sound like.

Also, consider that commercial music libraries pay royalties to the credited composer, and the majority of music cues in these libraries tagged to represent Chinese, African, or any non-European culture are credited to white composers. While these tracks may or may not feature authentic musicians and compositions from these places, the people getting paid for their use are not. So when the situation calls for this kind of music (and I’m doing my best to re-evaluate when this is actually necessary), I’ll be paying attention to the composer and to musical provenance.

3. Share and Expand My Perspective.

Everyone has a lens (or a microphone) through which they perceive the world, and one way to increase the range of your lens is to compare it with others. If I am to strive towards making my work as inclusive and authentic as possible, I should try to compare my experience with that of a diverse range of other people. This means reaching out if I’m unsure about how to approach a piece of sound design and asking around before making a gut decision. If I don’t know whether including a specific piece or type of music might be offensive or insensitive, I can ask someone who has experience in that cultural context. Having an open approach and reaching out is key — give yourself permission not to know the answer.

4. Seek Out Media From Cultures Other Than My Own.

Unless you’re a polyglot, most people experience foreign films either subtitled or dubbed into their own language (each of which can be problematic in terms of diversity and inclusion, but that’s another discussion). This tends to shift the focus away from the soundtrack, but in doing so we miss an opportunity. Watching a foreign film with sound in mind is an excellent glimpse into the process of sound designers and mixers of cultures different from our own. This active listening movie-watching is a great exercise in general, but it’s especially useful with foreign films. Pay attention to the mix decisions: what sounds they feature when they go loud and when they cut to silence. What choices are they making and how do those choices differ from your own? I often find myself stuck in the same rut, following the usual safe conventions when a different approach might be more inclusive and representative of a wider audience.

Diversity, inclusion, and authenticity are critically important concepts, but it can be difficult to know where to start. Evaluating your own unconscious biases is inherently challenging. I found the process of talking about sound design in particular with a group of colleagues incredibly revealing. We began the discussion struggling to find things to talk about, but as we did, we were surprised by how many elements of our work actually speak to diversity. I’m going to do my best to continue this discussion with my team and continue to evaluate my unconscious cultural biases and how they influence my work.

How are you incorporating inclusivity and accuracy in your sound design work? Share your thoughts and methods with us. What can we learn from you?

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