Intro to Sound Design
History of sound design
Sound started in the earliest forms of theatre ~ 3000 B.C. There was music accomping the dances of the period. This was mostly percussion. During theatre later in time, the slapstick comedies used sound to emphasis the farcical slaps. This included Commedia dell ‘Art.
During the Elizabethan time, as in Shakespeare, the sound was made live backstage by talented artists that used devices or their voices. This was a necessary practice. Shakespeare required it in all his plays. This was the beginning of sound effects during a show to heighten the mood. This was also the beginning of the practice of hiring musicians to play in the pit. A lot of theatres had “Thunder runs” built into the ceiling of the theatre. These were troths angled so a cannon ball could be rolled down them. Creating the illusion of thunder. Several theatres in England still have these in them.
In the 1930’s, recorded sound started being used in theatre. Some theatres had a few turntables to produce the sounds. Because records weren’t that reliable and each record had to be pressed, which was very time consuming, they weren’t used that often. When the long-playing record was introduced in 1948, the disk could hold more audio information and the sound quality improved drastically.
In 1952, tape players began replacing records as the primary source of sound. Because they were expensive, only some theatres could afford to do this at first. Plus there were still many effects already pressed on record. Also, during the 1950’s, sound was being used in more and more Broadway shows. They tried to make the sound onstage become more like the sound of the cinema. Because the playback devices were not reliable, sound became a last consideration. Because of this, most of the sound was cut early rather then taking the time to adjust it. It was also not heard by anyone until first tech or even opening night.
The actual role of “Sound Designer” Wasn’t established until the 1970’s. So as you can see, the sound design field is relatively new and still growing. This is why this field is still not fully understood and some directors don't take full advantage of the Sound Designer.
The role of the Sound Designer is to present the complete audio experience. This person will work with the director and other designers to create the aural element of the play. He/she is usually a freelance person contracted for the individual show. Although the number of theatres with Sound Designers in residence is growing.
When the Sound Designer receives the script, he/she will read it over to get an idea of the show. On subsequent reads, the designer will take notes on sound effects written in the script; locations (settings); scene changes and emotional response of each scene. Then the designer will have production meetings with the director and other designers. This will determine the direction the play will go. Next the designer does technical and historical research. This is to find out things like what does a city street in LA sound like in the 1800's. This research is put into a binder that has information, pictures and a CD with samples of sounds for the show. Depending on the situation, sometimes the sounds are played in the production meeting, sometimes the director will meet with the sound designer individually.
The Sound Design paperwork is the best way of keeping track of the show. This includes a scene breakdown; Tracking list; Cue Sheet; Drafted Plot and section. The Scene Breakdown is both a technical breakdown (i.e. Phone rings, car horn) and emotional breakdown (i.e. mood:sublime). The Tracking List is used for mainly wireless microphones to tell what actor has what microphone. The Cue Sheet tells what the sound cue is, how loud it is, what speakers it comes from, does it fade in/out and whatever other information you want. The Drafted Plot shows a picture of the stage from both the top view and a section. This lets the Master Audio know where to hang the speakers, place microphones or where the orchestra members are going. Along with this plot is a diagram of the equipment rack and a system flow diagram. The rack diagram so the Master Audio knows where the equipment goes and the system flow to show how it's hooked up.
Like the Lighting Designer, there are hang and focus sessions to hang the speakers where they are to go, then point them in a particular direction. Speakers, like lighting instruments, have a directionallity with horizontal and vertical dispersion angles. You have to hang and focus these in a way to get even coverage of the audience. There are also practical speakers that allow sound to come from a specific place (i.e. phone ring from the phone).
Unlike the Lighting Designer, the sounds are put together before technical rehearsal. Sound effects can be found, recorded or built. You can find lots of sounds online in many different places. If you can't find it, but you can find a source (i.e. your car horn), you can record it. There are portable recorders for on location, but the best place to record is in the studio. This helps you control the background noise and just get the sound you want. If you need something specific that you can't find or record, you can build it. This is done by taking sounds either found or recorded and layering or tweeking them. Layering is adding the sounds together one on top of the other. Tweeking is changing the sound by altering the properties of the sound (i.e. changing pitch, boosting the high and low frequencies, etc.) By layering and tweeking, you can get the sound effect you need. It takes a lot of practice and an ability to listen to things with an open mind.
During the tech rehearsal process, the Sound Designer will adjust levels and cues as the tech progresses. This is also the time to adjust the sound of the wireless mics to make it sound natural. If the audience can't tell you're micing, you've done a good job. Most of the level adjusting and tweeking falls onto the Sound Engineer. This person runs the sound console and is responsible for the sound during the run of the show.
For more information on theatre sound design, check out