Sound Software

Sound Software in Theatre
by Brad Rembielak

Using the best tools to contribute to the art of sound design.


Sound as a Storyteller

There is no discipline in the performing arts that is more gear intensive than Sound. Technology is at the core of Sound in live performance today, but it remains crucial that it not overshadow the importance of the story itself.

Most of the sound technology is responsible for ensuring that actors are heard, from microphones to mixers and amplifiers to speakers.  While an important responsibility, sound can also become more that just that; it can be an active contributor to the storytelling, in much the same manner as lighting and costumes.  Lighting, for instance, does not stop at only illuminating the actors: it also sets time, location, and mood for a scene.  Likewise, besides amplifying the action, sound can also establish mood and setting by using the latest technology and still not break the bank.

With advancements in computer hardware and software, the sound designer gains a palette of tools to accomplish greater artistic reign, and he or she can also gain respect more as a fellow artist than just the guy that sets up the microphones and controls feedback.

Sound Art

The main weapon for sound to aid in establishing time, location, and mood is the sound effect.  Ignoring the obvious sound effects that are usually called for in the script, such as telephone rings and clock chimes, we dig deeper for the atmospheric effects that we can deduce from a scene that arenít explicitly listed in the script. For example, if a scene occurs in a sewer, we can contribute to this scene as by including dripping water, rats squeaking, and pipes creaking.None of these effects bash the audience over the head like a telephone ringing, but all work to subtly support in establishing the setting through underscoring. While a light designer may add a pattern to establish an offstage window, or create a shaft of light to designate a key light, the sound designer should also consider similar ďbackgroundĒ contributions.

Giving you the most bang for your buck, software can be a cost-effective and productive tool to create art.  Three such types of software tools can directly help sound designers: sound editors, composition packages, and sound playback applications.  

Sound Editing

Sonic Foundry Sound ForgeOnce sound effects have been identified, the next step is acquisition and creation.  Given the numerous effects libraries available, there are still always situations when a unique effect is called for that and you canít find it in an existing or on-hand library.  By recording it yourself, or modifying an existing effect, you can use sound editing software to customize the effect you need.

I did a show that called for an explosion in an offstage kitchen.By combining an initial explosion effect with numerous shattering glass effects, and even some home recordings of plates rolling across a floor, the effect was unmistakable.  All were created with the help of a sound editing software program.

Sonic Foundryís Sound Forge is a popular sound editing application.  Two other popular packages include Syntrilliumís Cool Edit and Digidesign ProTools.  All developers have comprehensive web sites and some have demo copies of the software that you can download to try yourself.

The key feature of sound editors is that they allow you to digitally manipulate sound; a far cry from splicing tape way back in the day (youíre not splicing tape anymore, are you?).  You can record your sounds directly into the computer or "rip" them from a CD-ROM. Not only do they allow you the rudimentary cutting and pasting, but they also include adding audio effects, filters, mixing, and other features that give you access to the entire audio content of an effect. While the visual aspects of this type program allows you to quickly do the basic tasks, it may take some time to really master the more robust features, such as applying the correct equalization or audio modifications to an effect or segment.  Still, even if you never require the more advanced features, being able to record and cut-and-paste is worth the price of admission for one of these programs.

Sound Composition

Sonic Foundry AcidAt times, designers may find they need to add music or underscoring to a production, and run into the hassles of licensed music or even having to bring in a composer for an original piece.  Today, there are software packages that can aid in creating royalty-free music and donít require you to be a trained musician.

Basically, these software packages allow you to pull together royalty-free clips (e.g. bass lines, rhythms, strings) to create an original piece.  You can get as simple or complicated as you want, and the best part is that you come away with a piece that is original.  Like the sound editing programs, the interfaces are graphical and itís easy to drag-and-drop clips around your composition.

On popular package is Sonic Foundryís Acid .  Besides that actual software package itself, you will need to acquire libraries of music clips.  Sonic Foundry has links on their web site of all different types of music from Latin to World Beat to Classical and more. Creating your own music to add to scene changes or underscoring not only creates a richer production, but also rewards your creative side.


Sound Playback

Stage Research SFXThe final step is actually playing back your sound effects and music during a production.  Instead of dumping all your hard work on a CD player or minidisc, sound playback software will execute a complex design so that it is easy for an operator to run.

You can use Windows Media Player, Winamp, or better yet a package designed specifically for theatre, Stage Researchís SFX. SFX is cue list based and will playback more than one layered sound effect at a time (which is critical in live entertainment). It contains several features that come in handy for a theatrical sound artist.

The art doesnít stop at sound editing and composition, because it is at this point where you bring your previously created components together, assign volume levels, and speaker destinations - all through the software. Rehearsals go so much smoother when you can edit and change things on the fly, and shows are more reliable when an operator simply has to push a GO button.

Software as the Solution

There is a wealth of theatre sound software out there in the marketplace today. Utilizing software in your sound design and playback will not only make a sound designer and operator happier people, but it will also dramatically contribute to the quality of shows that are put on your stage.