Creating the world of the play - Sound Design

posted by Paul Braun, sound designer

Some elements of the world of a play are easy to notice. The set, for example (unless it's simply a bare stage). Costumes (you'd definitely notice if the actors were naked). Lights - without lights, it would really be just a staged reading. Or radio theatre.

One aspect that's often overlooked is sound design. The term "sound design" is a bit vague, though. It could apply to sound effects, or music. Or for a musical it could apply to the mix of band and actor mics.

The problem with sound design is that the best sound designs aren't noticed at all. They blend in with the action on the stage. They add to the drama and emotion so while you may not notice right away, you definitely feel the emotional impact. Think of a movie with no score, so sound effects. Imagine how boring that would be...

I've already begun the thought process behind my design for "Brother of All". I enjoy working on Jim Henry's plays, because, as a playwright, he gets me. His shows always challenge my skills and creativity and push me to do better and better. I've done the sound design for every Henry play at CST starting with The Angels of Lemnos, for which I won an award.

I thought I'd give you a little peek at the process behind sound design for a play.

Obviously, the first step is to read the script. Duh. First time through I make casual notes of the obvious cues. But then read it again and mark less-obvious cues, or places where Jim didn't say anything but I think a particular sound or piece of music would underscore the intent of the words. I also try to decide if the effect is pre-recorded or if it's a practical (done live, like a doorbell or an off-stage crashbox).

Once that is done, I have my inital sit-down with the directors and discuss what I've come up with. Some of it they'll agree with, some they may not, in some places it may be a "let's try it with actors and decide later" sort of thing. The director(s) may also have some ideas for things that I didn't think of. This is also where we discuss preshow music and scene-change music.

That meeting results in my initial framework. I'll start the search for effects, both in my reasonably-extensive personal library and also at many of the online sound effects (sfx) libraries. Often a cue calls for a very particular kind of sound that doesn't match any one available effect, so that's when I need to strap on the sound-nerd beanie and analyze what I need to create that sound.

Sometimes it's just a matter of adding a little echo or reverb. But there are times when you have to create a new sound from the building blocks of other sounds. For example, one of the childrens' shows we did several years back required a roaring dragon.

Live recordings of dragons roaring are fairly rare. And since Hagrid won't return my emails anymore, I can't just take the fireproof field recorder out and get one. So, I had to be creative. I thought about what a dragon might sound like at full roar. What are the components of the sound? What little Lego SoundBlocks do I need?

I ended up with a mixture of an elephant, a lion, a roaring fire, and a top-fuel dragster launching off the starting line. Mixed together with the right levels and right amount of processing gave me what I felt was a pretty convincing dragon.

Sound usually enters the rehearsal process about two weeks out from opening. I'll bring my laptop down and play the rough mixes of the effects and music I've found. I can tell what needs editing, what timing is off, things I feel don't work. And then I'll get notes from the directors about what they felt worked and didn't work, where levels need to be changed, or something needs to start or stop at a different time. And maybe something that we all thought sounded rockin' on paper simply doesn't work out when you have live actors on stage.

I'll usually make nightly changes and edits right up to opening night, by which time the design is finalized and committed to CD (I use CD and minidisc as backups - we're about to start running cues from computer software designed specifically for playing show cues).

However, I've done enough of these to know that nothing is final until the final curtain on closing night. This is why computers are a blessing. Back when I started, it was all sound-effects records and cassette tape. Making changes was an immense pain. Even when I started using a computer and we still played back from CD, often I would go through a dozen CD's as revisions kept being made. Now, I can just make changes and replace a file.

Music is also an important part. Music has the power to touch our emotions in a way that nothing else can. A dramatic scene underscored with the proper music just brings things to a new level. Same with the preshow/intermission music. It sets the tone for the evening. If it's a period piece, it can be used to bring your memory back to that time, remind you what things were like back then.

The greatest compliment a sound designer can receive is that someone really felt they were outside. That there really were crickets in the room. When that jet flew overhead, they had to duck. That everything was just believeable because your design filled in the blanks on the canvas of the play.