Why You Must Know The Yin and Yang of Sound – And Embrace It


Yin and Yang in Stone

courtesy ell brown

Shortly after the new year I made a list. It was my sound effects new year’s resolution list for 2012.

There were a dozen things on that list. Some were mundane tasks that I needed to finally complete. Some were exciting ideas like creating field recording apps and new websites. Others were events I wanted to record like races or festivals.

It’s now mid-May and that list keeps growing.

What about you? Is your ‘to record’ sound effects list outracing what you’re editing? Do you look back on your work week exhausted but have trouble naming exactly what you’ve done? Do you wish you could be doing more?

All this has made me think about the role of productivity in sound.

When people say they’re productive they mean they get things done. Sometimes it means doing things faster or better. It’s crossing off lists.

It’s no different with sound pros. It could be finishing designing the sound concept of a video game character. It could be capturing a 300 sound effects a year. Perhaps you need to deliver a completed TV episode by Friday.

I’ve been thinking lately how productivity applies to sound effects libraries, field recording and sound professionals. It’s actually a bit strange. I think sound pros face a unique challenge when trying to be productive.

In today’s article I’ll explain why. I’ll write why productivity works differently for sound effects field recordists and editors. I’ll share some ideas on how you can boost productivity and achieve goals.

In the following weeks I’ll offer specific tricks and tips for getting sound tasks done faster and better.

Why is productivity so important?

Do you ever feel like you have thousands of ideas swarming you brain? Overwhelmed by endless tasks?

Months flipping by? 2012 is almost half-over. Can’t recall what you’ve done since January?

Maybe you’re chipping away at dozens of tasks but accomplishing none of them? A sensation of treading water?

I know the feeling. I feel this way whenever another month has slipped by and my goals feel no closer.

Why is a lack of productivity so ominous? Why is productivity rewarded and respected?

Productivity is a benchmark for success. We feel better when we’re productive. When something is produced it is easily quantified, measured, experienced and consumed.

As sound professionals much of how we see ourselves is based on what we physically produce: a reel delivered to the mix, mastered field recordings uploaded to the sound supervisor, ADR scripted and recorded.

The problem with productivity for sound pros is when you consider three things: sound, creativity and methodology.

3 Sound Productivity Challenges

  1. Sound
  2. The strength of productivity is in getting things done. It deals with tangible results.

    Sound itself is hard to quantify this way. It’s intangible. That means it’s hard to measure.

    Yes, we can sense whether we hear something or not. Sound is easy to notice that way. We can measure waveforms, loudness and direction. But sound is mostly abstract and this affects productivity. I think there are two reasons for this.

    The first deals with our senses. We’re raised in a visual society. Advertising, for example, caters to sight to capture our attention (billboards, television, panels on buses and subways). Usually anywhere you look you see an ad. We don’t commonly hear them (radio is a diminishing exception).

    Touch is also strong. Sound to most people is sadly considered background noise and is easily filtered.

    The second reason is that it is difficult to assign value to sound. Why? It’s invisible. Whenever anything becomes less tangible it’s devalued.

    Look at how file sharing reduces the concept of value for a creative work. An intangible shared file has less perceived value than a physical DVD, for example. Could you see someone sharing hundreds of DVDs of Avatar from their home the same way that file sharing does? It’s the same creative work, though.

    The point isn’t to criticize file sharing. What I mean is intangible things are considered differently. It’s hard to assign value between them.

    It’s easier to absorb and criticize colours in paintings, for example. You can gaze at different parts and compare. Articulating frequencies or judging how good a sound is over time is trickier and less intuitive. It’s harder to spot quality with something we can’t physically assess.

    The point is it’s simpler to rate productivity with things you can feel or watch. A field recording sound file or a waveform is representative and abstract. It’s harder to judge productivity for abstract things.

    Sound: working from a deficit

    So we’re already working from a deficit: no matter how much we produce as sound pros it is generally harder to measure and rate compared to things we can see and touch.

    Of course that doesn’t mean sound has less value. It’s just harder to identify quality and accomplishment. It also makes good, evocative sound that much more valuable.

    I think this natural bias undermines our sense of productivity. Not that it can’t be overcome. But it certainly is harder to quantify and measure sound work and assign merit.

    And because of this it’s harder to fit sound work into the same category of accomplishment as washing dishes or cutting the lawn.

  3. Creativity
  4. Productivity is a challenge for sound pros for another reason: the necessity of creativity.

    Creativity is a fundamental requirement in sound design. Much creative energy is invested becoming a successful sound pro. Often a sound designer must be creative on demand. You’re asked to imagine soundscapes from nowhere, after all.

    It’s the same with field recordists. Creativity is required for problem solving. It’s also what sets apart good from great sound effects recordings. Creative field recordists capture sound in new, ingenious ways.

    Creativity in sound: the challenge

    The problem is that creativity doesn’t easily mesh with productivity.


    Creativity, like sound itself, is intangible. It’s subjective and personal. Since it’s hard to measure, we can’t really say that we were more creatively productive yesterday than today. The value of an idea can be worth more to you than me.

    It’s different with other jobs. A banker, for example, has the luxury of dealing with hard facts like math. I’m sure there’s much more to a banking job than that but the point is a banker relies on evidence. Because of this productivity is easy to calculate.

    A sound professional uses details too: sound levels, waveforms, technique operating equipment and so on. But they must rely on something far more nebulous: creativity. It’s essential but yet it’s not given its own sense of worth per se. Ideas, theories and concepts are intriguing but don’t create lasting value themselves.

    One example of this is that you don’t bill for creativity. You bill for what you produce. Sure, you can charge more for creative sound effects. But the exact worth of creativity isn’t as easy to determine compared to something like billable hours worked.

    Creativity itself, from a productivity perspective, is lost time. Investing time into nurturing your creative side doesn’t seem as critical as meeting a deadline, for example. Definitely not for your client or boss.

    Creativity vs. productivity

    What I find strange is how strongly productivity is emphasized in a job where the measure of quality is defined by something utterly different: creativity. Sure, productivity is necessary for sound works to appear in the world. But it is creativity that makes the difference to people.

    Better sound effects are more inspired ones. When we think about the best sound in films it is because the soundtrack is novel and effective, as well as a technical achievement.

    Yet creativity is intangible. It doesn’t produce anything physical itself. It’s subjective and hard to measure. How then do we rate progress?

    By what we get done. This is why productivity becomes a dominant way we judge ourselves. That undermines how important creativity is to sound pros, however.

    What’s created is an odd mix. We rate quality based on something completely abstract: creativity. Yet we’re paid when we deliver actual goods: files, sessions, CDs or audio montages. We feel a strong sense of achievement when we finish games, record more sound effects and so on. Realizing that we’re more creative today than last year isn’t as satisfying.

    To feel accomplished we have to produce something. The satisfaction of being creative alone isn’t as rewarding. It’s barely recognized. But it should be. Something so essential to quality in sound should be more given more worth.

    There’s one more challenge still: methodology.

  5. Methodology
  6. Getting things done is tough for anyone. Sound professionals are particularly challenged by this.


    For sound pros, the current way we capture or express sound is with highly technical tools. The bridge between imagining great sound and creating it is accomplished by something inherently non-creative: equipment and machines.

    Think about other artists. Painters and illustrators have only the barrier of pencils, charcoal or brushes between their idea and actualization. Being expressive is direct.

    It’s more complicated for field recordists. You may have a great idea for a sound effect. Can you bring it to life? It depends if your equipment cooperates. Microphone can’t pick up the sound properly? Poor cables? Run out of disk space? So much for your vision. It’s not much different when editing. Software design, RAM and computer power can end your vision before it begins.

    This means that a sound pro’s creativity always has the potential to be undermined.

    It also means that getting sound work done becomes complicated and less intuitive the more equipment you use. I’ve suggested before that reducing this barrier with simpler, more immediate sessions helps.

    But the problem remains: even the equipment we use can be a barrier to using creativity to get things done.

    So if sound, creativity and methodology are so critical, why does productivity remain important?

The yin and yang of sound

Why is being productive, or not, so important to a creative craft like field recording and sound editing?

When we don’t produce work we lose motivation. Sometimes it works the other way: we’re unmotivated so we don’t feel like working and don’t produce.

It doesn’t matter which comes first. The problem is that it creates a dangerous effect: when you’re not productive or motivated your creativity oozes away. And creativity is essential to doing sound work. Since the quality of a sound pro hinges on creativity, lack of productivity is threatening.

Not motivated? You will design weak sounds. It’s hard to be creative when you’re not motivated. You’re not inspired.

Not productive? You won’t create anything.

It’s professional quicksand. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that is hard to break. This is one reason why sound pros that have long breaks between gigs find themselves in an unmotivated slump.

This is why productivity is just as essential to a sound pro as creativity, insight and technical skill. Like the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang, creativity and productivity for sound professionals are opposite yet interconnected.

Getting out of the trap

So you’re unmotivated and not producing anything. Because of this your creativity is draining away. How do you get out of this trap?

Sometimes inspiration returns randomly. Want it to happen more quickly?

I wrote about ideas to recharge your creativity in an earlier post. But lately I’ve tried a new method: forcing productivity.

I’ve found that when you force yourself to produce without expectations, creativity returns.

How do you do this?

To stay productive I use two families of tricks: action and focus.

Two tricks to boost productivity

I think productivity in sound is defined by two things: focus and action.

In other words, deciding the one thing you want to work on and doing it. Sounds simple?

It’s not. Focus is often undermined by distractions. Sometimes it is because you are overwhelmed with options. Action is undermined by a lack of motivation or having too much to do.

Then how can you use focus and action to get things done so your creativity will return?


Focus is a passive way of achieving productivity. It’s passive in the sense that you’re not actually actively doing anything. It’s mental. You’re making decisions.

I focus with six techniques:

  1. Choosing viciously narrow goals
  2. Pruning
  3. Smothering intrusions
  4. Embracing rhythms
  5. Crafting tasks lists
  6. Tricking yourself with rewards


This is the active element. These are tricks you can physically try to make sure you keep producing.

Here are the tricks I use:

  1. Batching
  2. Using efficiency tricks
  3. Disengaging
  4. Using pomodoros
  5. Following the steps
  6. Doing incremental work

What are each of these? How can they help you be more productive and creative?

I’ve run out of space here. I’ll describe each of them and how they can help you in the next weeks. Stay tuned.

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