This is an article I put together last October (2010) for the Palace Theatre’s Newsletter. Enjoy.
After working on over 20 shows in the past 4 years, I have managed to accumulate a list of tricks and suggestions that I would like to share about sound design and operation. A few times I have heard from those who have ended up doing sound design either because they did not manage to find someone to do it or they waited until the last minute and ended up doing it themselves. This list is for anyone out there who would like to pursue it further or who may just want a better understanding of what the sound person does.
N.B. These are things I have discovered while working on my past productions. There are no rules set in stone for theatre sound. These are only guidelines, and each designer will surely have other guidelines than the ones I have listed below.
- If possible, carry a recorder with you at all times. There are many times when I hear a sound, and I think – that is what I need for that show!! There are many cheap digital audio recorders out there now, and in the end, this can save a lot of money because you can have your own sound collection that you made yourself from scratch.
As well as sound effects, a recorder can be handy if you are a composer. Often I will think of a tune, but will forget it later because I never had a way to record the tune. Now that I have my recorder, I can save the tune on it, and then work on it later. This helped a lot for composing on The Three Musketeers.
- Directors will often help you with this, but if they don’t, this can get you a lot of brownie points. When reading the script, try to look for sounds that are not dictated by the script. For example, the script says that the doorbell rings, but then in parentheses it says play doorbell sound. There are times in the script where the character is talking about the sound, but the script does not say to play the sound out loud. At times, it can help the actor or the story to have it playing in the background anyways. Many times, the director will just come to you and ask for the sound when they are starting to run the play after all the blocking. Have the sound prepared already and then your director will be very impressed.
- When operating a show, it helps to think like an actor. This is especially true when there are many sound effects or music cues bunched together. The sound can often take a life of its own, and that is why you often will have to anticipate the audience reaction the way the actors do. If you know the audience is going to react to something the actor says before the sound effect or music starts, give the audience a chance to react and then start the cue. Your stage manager will help you with this, but sometimes it can help to anticipate because it will never be the same reaction. The last thing you want is the audience to miss that amazing sound or music that you worked so hard to perfect… and yes, it has happened to me many times.
- This tip is common sense, but I still manage to often forget to do this myself. If you are working on a show that has a lot of physical movement on stage like dancing or fighting, ALWAYS check your speakers before the show. Often, the cables may get disconnected or the speakers moved from all the jumping. This happened to me during The Three Musketeers run, but luckily I remembered to check my speakers and was able to prevent what could have been a big embarrassment of no pistols going off.
- If you buy your sound effects, it may help you down the road to buy from a retailer, rather than rip the sounds. I have purchased almost all my sound effects from Sound Dogs for the longest time. Since I got my digital recorder last year, I have been recording most of my own effects, but since 2007 I have gotten the majority of my sound effects from them. It is wise to stick with one and only one because you never know when disaster may strike. Last spring, I lost all the best sound files I had obtained from Sound Dogs. However, since I was such a good customer and purchased all my sounds “legally”, they were able to restore all my past purchases, and I was able to download all my sounds in a matter of a few hours.
- Lastly, this tip may be funny in retrospect, but I think I would require close to 2 hands to count how many times this has happened to me. Just because a sound cue is coming up and/or your stage manager has given you a standby DO NOT put your finger on the play button. Yes, keep it next to it, or lean it on a flat surface but never ever put it on the button until the precise moment to press it. This is how premature sounds play and how human error always succumbs to most sound operators. It is always better to be late than too early for a sound cue. The actors are trained and will always cover if you are a second or two late, but they won’t always be able to cover a sound that comes in too early.
Maybe you have some you can add? Do not be afraid to comment and let me know. We can always learn from each other.