Book Review – Designing Sound by Andy Farnell

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If there’s anything Andy Farnell doesn’t know about sound – well, he could have fooled us.  We look at this monumental tutorial on how sound works and how to create all manner of it.


The book Designing Sound really isn’t about music, per se – its purpose is to teach the student how to create all manner of “sound effect” type sounds, principally for game soundtracks.  So what’s it doing in the column named “Words on Music”?  The reason is, and I want to make a very strong case here, is that this a book that should be read by anyone seriously involved in music engineering/production.  More specifically, the first 150 pages should be studied, because we find in the start of this book probably the most illuminating discussion of how sound works, and then how hearing works, that you’re likely to ever find.  Read the rest for a geeky kind of enjoyment if you wish or not.  The first 150 pages alone easily justify the purchase price, especially since you’ll probably want to read those 150 pages more than once.

This is a very scholarly book, make no mistake.  By that, I do not mean it’s dry or plodding or overly complex.  It’s mostly quite readable and even enjoyable, at least until we get to the sound design case studies that make up the last half (or so) of the book.  It’s scholarly because this is clearly the product of an immense amount of study and research by the author, Andy Farnell (pictured below right).  Mr. Farnell has an academic background of computer science and electrical engineering; he now specializes in digital audio signal processing.  You’ll have no doubt that he is deeply knowledgeable on all aspects of this subject.  The list of book and scientific paper references throughout is so impressive that it’s almost intimidating.  But as I said, don’t let that put you off.  Be assured that Mr. Farnell has a decidedly grounded way of explaining these things.

I want to spend most of my time here discussing the first several sections of the book, but let me first briefly describe the remainder, which will principally be of interest to people who actually want to create sounds with the tools and techniques the book covers.  The author uses an open-source sound creation technology called Pure Data (PD) and spends a fair amount of effort teaching us the wherewithal to program sound using PD.  My fellow writer, Warren Burt, has written an introductory tutorial on PD in this issue here.  You might think of PD as a no-cost and bare-bones (in terms of user interface) equivalent to NI’s Reaktor.

In addition to introducing PD as a core technology for what’s to come, basic synthesis techniques using PD are explained: additive synthesis, wavetables, wave shaping, and so forth.  All in all, we get a fairly thorough introduction to programming sound with PD, although a glossary of PD “function box” types would be have been most useful.

Following the PD section, we have a brief overview of what game sound programming is all about and are presented with a generalized approach to analyzing a problem and obtaining a solution.  Why game sound in particular and not general soundtrack application?  The reason is that much that happens in games is context dependent.  In a film, sampled sound works fine – probably even works best in most applications.  But in a game, so much is unpredictable that using samples would be obviously repetitious.  Things like the weight of a player walking on gravel, for example, will result in vastly different sounds – an elf will sound far different than a dragon.

Following the approach to analysis/solution, we begin the actual lessons in sound design.  Starting with simple sounds to synthesize, we have a lengthy series of case studies on just how to do so.  We start with some easy-to-grasp cases like a police siren and telephone bell.  The case studies become increasingly complex and involved until near the end we are presented with problems like duplicating the sounds of complex pieces of machinery (you will be amazed at how much goes into getting a realistic machine-gun sound).  The math gets a bit hairier as we progress as well (you all remember what Chebyshev polynomials are all about, right?).  At some point, only the most ardent suitor of game design skills will want to bravely soldier on.

If I were designing a college course using this book as the textbook, I’d probably want to actually split the study into three consecutive classes – there’s that much material and depth.  I don’t see how anyone could effectively teach all this in a single semester or even two.

But back to the book’s beginning, which is where I’m rather confident any reader of SoundBytes would find significant value.  The first five chapters are about how sound works.  We begin with a review of a whole lot of things you learned in high school physics, the concepts of energy, pressure, power, mass, force … the whole gamut.  Much of sound has to do with the basic tenet that energy is never created or consumed, it merely changes form, and where the form involves the transmission of vibrations, this is where sound gets involved.

Next we have a full chapter on waves – a lot that you probably already know but a whole lot you don’t, I’d venture to say.  We then have an entire chapter on oscillations, and, again, if you think you have all you need to know on this topic, you may find there’s much more to it than you ever appreciated.

Finally in the “how sound works” portion of the book, we have a thorough exposition on acoustics, including things like scattering, diffusion, wind shear and on and on.

From there we go to “how hearing works”.  Much is devoted initially to how we hear sound, the basics including identifying the source of sounds, perceptions of frequency, and so on.  Yes, our old friend, the Fletcher-Munson curves make an appearance, of course, but there’s so very much more to it.

From there we go on to the subject of sound cognition – how our brain interprets the signals coming from the ears: sound classification, identification, recognition, and so on.  The subsection headers of this chapter hint at what to expect: Auditory Scene Analysis, Auditory Memory, Listening Strategies, Physiological Responses to Sound and finally Sound, Language and Knowledge.

The remainder of the first section, i.e. that section of the book that will be of interest to anyone involved in music production, covers digital signals.  Yes, you will probably know some of this material already, but I think few would find a thorough study of this material a waste of time.

So, there you have it in a nutshell.  If you are serious about sound production in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to acquire a copy of Designing Sound and read the first quarter with great attention.  If you actually happen to want to develop computationally-produced sound-effect design skills, then by all means read on from there – and best of luck to you in this demanding course of study.  But as I said earlier, the first part of the book that will be of interest to anyone involved in sound engineering is worth the cover price all by itself.  This one is most highly and enthusiastically recommended.


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