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1.9: Sound

  • Page ID
    55846
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    Types of Sound in Theatre

    Sound is important part of any theatrical experience. It communicates with the audience, creates atmosphere, supports the script, and supports the performer.

    Often the sound design is the first design element the audience will come in contact with. If there is to be preshow music or other sound playing as the audience enters, it is the responsibility of the sound designer to create and the sound technicians to play. Most live entertainment events begin with an admonishment to turn of cell phones and instructions on what to do in the case of an emergency. Generally, this is either a prerecorded announcement or performed live on an off-stage microphone. Even if the pre-show announcement is pre-recorded, most venues require that a live microphone be set up so that in the event of an emergency announcements can be made by trained personnel to the audience.

    Once the show has begun, there are several tasks that must be accomplished by the sound design and the sound team. The first of these is helping create the mood or atmosphere for the show. Especially in shows that have several locations during the course of the play, the sound designer may create a soundscape to play behind a scene. For example, a scene in a desolate field may have the sounds of wind mixed with occasional sounds of wildlife. Another example would be a scene in a sports bar where crowd sounds, muted sports commentary, and clinking glasses may create the appropriate environmental sounds. In some plays, a complex mix of individual songs and other instrumental noises may create underscoring, similar to that of a movie.

    Sometimes the script of play calls for specific sounds. These might be door bells, or gun shots. These are distinguished from environmental sounds, by the fact that they need to come at a specific moment in the script. Often times, sound designers will create a long loop of sound for an environmental sound. A loop simply means that when it gets to the end it will start over again. Loops are often designed to be seamless so that the audience won’t notice it is the same sounds again. This does not work as well for the specific sounds called for in the script. The designer and sound crew will need to ensure that these sounds happen at just the right moment through the cuing process (see chapter 12).

    The last category of sound in theatre is that sound that aids the performer. Often this work goes unnoticed by the audience, but would be detrimental if not executed very well at each performance. Most performances in large theatres use microphones and other sound equipment to amplify the voice of the performers. Some of these microphones are placed around the stage and auditorium and amplify the overall sound coming from the stage. Sometimes microphones that are attached to a wireless transmitter are attached to the performer’s body. A wireless receiver, attached to the sound mixing console will allow the sound to be transmitted to the audience. In musicals, the musicians in the orchestra are also generally surrounded by microphones. The sound is often mixed with the performers before being fed to the speakers in the audience. Sometimes the sound from the orchestra is actually being fed to speakers on the stage so that the cast can hear the instrumentalists better. Some theatres also find it necessary to feed the sound of the vocalists on stage into small speakers in the orchestra pit so that the musicians can hear them better. Many theatres also use their sound system to send a feed of what is happening on stage to the dressing rooms so that actors changing costume know how soon they need to be on-stage. The theatre may also send the sound on stage (often called show program) to the lobby of the theatre. This allows house staff and late arriving patrons to hear what is going on.

    Ways of Creating Sound

    In the theatre today, most sound effects, whether an environmental sound, underscoring, or specific sound cue (such as a door slam) are pre-recorded. Sound effect companies sell all sorts of individual sound effects that can be purchased and modified to fit the needs of the show. Some sound designers go out into the world and record sounds using portable recording devices and then edit those sounds to suit the needs of the show. Regardless of how it is gathered, pre-recorded sounds are generally played back by a specialized computer running special software. The software allows the sound team to carefully program how loud a sound is, what speakers it is played through, etc. All of these commands are recorded as “cues.” At a specific point in the script, the stage manager will instruct the sound operator to execute the cue, and the sound will playback exactly the same as it has for every previous performance. Some smaller theatres may still use sound effects played back by CD. In those cases, the sound team must work together to take careful notes of how loud each sound should be, if it needs to fade at the beginning or at the end and what speakers it needs to play out of. All of that will need to be written into the sound cue sheet and set up individually for each cue.

    Before computers and CDs, sound was created live in the theatre. Some productions will still use some of these techniques.

    • Crash box: This is a wooden, metal or sometimes cardboard box filled with scrap metal, glass and other items. It is tipped over or dropped to create a crashing sound. An experienced crew member backstage can adjust the loudness or ferocity of the crash to match the onstage action.
    • Cap guns/Blank guns: These are ways of having a gun prop on stage create the bang as the trigger is pulled. While certainly safer than a real gun, cap guns and blank guns can seriously injure or kill someone. All venues have special procedures for using on stage weapons, and the venue must be consulted before using these items.
    • Door slams: These look like a miniature door from “Alice in Wonderland.” They often have a working door knob, and possibly a working lock all built into a small frame (about ¼ of the size of a real door). When opened or shut offstage it gives the impression of a door being opened or shut. Again, an experienced sound technician can provide more variation from effect to effect using a prop such as this compared to a pre-recording.
    • Door bells: A real set of door bells can be purchased at a hardware store and placed on stage instead of a prerecorded effect.
    • Phone Ringers: Devices are made that will mimic the signal sent by the phone company to ring a land-line phone. This allows the real phone on stage to ring. Careful testing must be performed in advance. Many of these devices will cause the phone to ring even if the hand set has been picked up. Practice between the operator and the actor is essential to make it look real.

    It should also be noted that in the “old days,” it was not uncommon to have a musician or small ensemble of musicians to provide underscoring for a non-musical play. Today, that sound is almost always created via a prerecorded track played back for the audience.

    Sound effects are typically cued by the stage manager via whatever cueing system is available in the theatre. In some cases, especially with crash boxes and door slams, the stage manager may call the standby, but the responsible crew member may be watching the action on stage to precisely time the effect with the actors. Some sound effects may be actually executed by the actors on stage. If the design team has created a prop gun that fires a blank or a cap, it may actually be fire when the actor pulls the trigger in the course of the stage action. In cases such as this, it is not uncommon for a backup sound effect to be ready to go in case something goes wrong on stage. This could include a back-up prop gun in the hands of a crew member in the wings that could be cued by the stage manager, or a prerecorded sound effect that could be played in the event of a problem.

    Sound Breakdown

    Much like the breakdowns that have already been done, these are organized by act, scene and page number. Additional information is needed about what the cue is, and how it is created (live sound, playback etc.). Atmospheric sounds and underscoring are often created to be longer than they need to be, with the intention that they will fade out at a specific moment in the scene. This fade out is itself a sound cue, since it will need to be called by the stage manager and rehearsed with the cast and crew.

    Take a look at this sound breakdown for “Box and Cox”

    BOX AND COX

    Scene

    Page

    Sound

    i

    2

    Preshow Music (Pre Record)

    i

    2

    Preshow Music Fade/Pre Show Announcement (Pre Record)

    i

    2

    Knock on Door (Possibly live)

    ii

    4

    Off stage voices (Possibly live)

    ii

    6

    Fire crackle (Pre Record)

    ii

    6

    Sound of bacon frying (Pre Record)

    iii

    6

    Fade bacon frying

    iii

    6

    Sound of pork chop frying (Pre Record)

    iii

    6

    Fade pork chop

    iii

    6

    Sound of bacon frying (Pre Record)

    iii

    7

    Fade bacon frying

    iv

    18

    Knock on the street door (Pre Record)

    iv

    19

    Clock strikes 10 as an Ominbus passes (Pre Record)

    iv

    20

    Bow Music(Pre Record)

    iv

    20

    Bow Music fades / Post Show music (Plays out) (Pre Record)

    Sound Cue Sheet

    BOX AND COX

    Cue

    Level

    Sound

    NOTE

    A

    Preshow Music

    B

    Preshow Music Fade/Pre Show Announcement

    C

    Knock on Door (Back up)

    Safety in case cast is late

    D

    Off stage voices (Back up)

    Safety in case cast is late

    E

    Fire crackle

    F

    Sound of bacon frying

    G

    Fade bacon frying

    H

    Sound of pork chop frying

    I

    Fade pork chop

    J

    Sound of bacon frying

    K

    Fade bacon frying

    L

    Knock on the street door

    M

    Clock strikes 10 as an Ominbus passes

    N

    Fade Fire/ Bow Music

    O

    Bow Music fades / Post Show music

    While lighting cues are typically executed by the board operator by just pressing the go button, many shows have sound cues that are more complicated. Sound is still often a mix of sources and playback methods which may require more than simply pressing a go button. When creating a sound cue sheet, it is important to remember that the operators are probably using the sheet in dim lighting during the stress of a show. Consider simplicity and clarity as the guiding principles. If the sound levels are not preprogrammed, a space will be needed for the operator to write the information down during technical rehearsals.

    Note how the sound designer decided to build back up prerecorded sounds for the live sounds on stage. Also note how in the final cue sheet, the designer notes that the fire sounds need to fade out.

    Additional Materials


    1.9: Sound is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher R Boltz.

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