The Digital Theatre Sound Design Workshop:
SFX in the Classroom at NCSA

By Jason Romney

In Summer 2005 the North Carolina School of the Arts hosted a continuing education workshop: Digital Theatre Sound Design. The workshop was well attended and SFX took center stage! The workshop was so successful that we’re doing it again in summer 2006!

The world of theatre sound design changes so rapidly making it almost impossible for educators and professionals to keep up. The North Carolina School of the Arts has a BFA and MFA program in Theatre Sound Design with a state-of-the-art sound design classroom with all the latest equipment that sits dark for three months each summer. In fall of 2004 we had the idea that while our students were away for the summer, we could use our facilities to teach educators and professionals and hopefully improve sound design training across the country.

There is no way we can condense our four-year BFA training program into a one-week workshop so we identified three main areas that we would focus on. The theme we identified was digital editing and playback tools. Digital sound software has completely changed the way we design sound. It has changed the way we create the content and the way we play it back in the theatre. Once we’re playing back the sound with this technology, it also changes what we can do with sound in the theatrical space. The workshop is split up into three days of training. Day 1 is dedicated to producing digital sound content, Day 2 is dedicated to programming digital sound playback, and Day 3 is dedicated to executing the content in the theatrical space.

The tools we decided to focus on for Day 1 are Pro Tools and Reason. The workshop participants will spend the day producing three complex theatre sound cues using these tools. Each participant has exclusive access to a workstation so they are spending the entire day with their hands on the equipment. Techniques covered include editing, creating sound effects, combining sound and music, and MIDI sequencing. Each participant ends the day ready to dive in to the world of digital editing and sound production on their own and will have several weeks worth of lesson material in their hand to use in teaching their own students and co-workers.

For day 2 we fire up SFX. The day begins with the basics of creating a cue list and programming your entire show to use a single GO button. After lunch we dive in and learn what SFX can really do. We learn how to program non-linear sequences so sounds can be triggered at any time and in any order. We break the barrier of the single cue list and show how much more you can accomplish using multiple cue lists. We experiment with external triggers, SMPTE, MIDI triggers, and command interface effects to get SFX to vamp music thereby allowing the sound to follow the actor rather than forcing the actor to time everything they do to the sound cue. Everything done in the class with SFX is included in form of written tutorials that each participant takes home with them to use in their own classrooms.

On day three we go in to a theatre and connect SFX up to a multi-channel surround sound system and learn what is possible once you have more than one playback channel and more than one localized sound source. We demonstrate techniques using diffusion and reflection to soften all the point sources. We show how Mid-Side playback can give you much better results than trying to get a stereo image to cover the entire theatre. We demonstrated how to use SFX to move sound around the room. We initiate a ban on the standard ten second fade in and out and use SFX to demonstrate better ways to start and end your cues naturally and with a three-dimensional shape similar to the rest of the production elements.

For example, why just fade the music out at the end of the scene change when you can move it from the house system up to the stage and then have the music come to a natural conclusion? Now that we have multiple playback channels and multiple loudspeakers surrounding the audience, we demonstrate how to use SFX to create immersive surround sound effects rather than simply playing the same sound out of each loudspeaker. Finally, we explore techniques to underscore dialog with sound and music in a way that compliments the performance rather than distracting from it.

At the end of day three we spend some time discussing the creative process of sound design and answering questions from the group on any sound topic the class wishes to discuss; a sort of “stump the teacher” session.

Dr. Jennifer Burg, a participant last year’s class said this about her experience: “There wasn't a moment of wasted time in the workshop. I can't imagine how more information could have been crammed into the three days. One thing that makes the workshop particularly interesting is the fact that Jason doesn't just use trumped-up classroom assignments -- he uses examples and exercises that are drawn from his own work in the theatre. He takes you the whole way from the "problem" (a scene in a play) to the conception of a design to the implementation of this design, and finally to listening to your composed sound in the theatre. You get your hands on the software and hardware and learn how to use it.”

This summer we’re also adding classes in Theatrical Rigging and AutoCAD. CEUs are awarded for each class. For more information on the classes and to register, please visit or contact Jason Romney at