Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sound Effects

Now that things are rolling on Project Movie I'm starting to get the wheels turning on what I'm going to do for sound design. Which brings me back to some territory that I haven't visited for a while. When I work in theatre these days, it's usually for a school or community theatre group. These can be tiny productions on kitchen table sized stages, on up to productions with budgets of $50,000 or more in 1200 seat auditoriums. In either case, there's typically not a lot of sound effect work for me. Usually just what's called for in the script and if I'm lucky there will be time to add a pinch or two of SFX magic.

When I was in college I had a lot more time on every student run production. We usually started production meetings about twelve weeks out. The directors there weren't just pointing out SFX that were called for in the script. In fact, if I was going to go ahead and do those, they usually wanted to hear why I thought we should use them, justify them as being able to enhance the experience. There was also a lot of room to do things like add atmospherics. We were most often working in a black box theatre that was set up in the round. 
I would get to do things like fly in flamenco guitar tracks or night sounds. Surround sound speaker setups were a possibility. On one show I recreated the start of a WWII bombing using eleven positions and subs under the seats (11.1 enthusiasts eat your heart out, that was in 1998!) In that same show I had a piano on stage that had to be played by a real musician and also "played" by an actor who couldn't carry a tune in a road case. Other sound designers were using things like the hiss of ovens in a kitchen that grew to a disproportionate roar as the show got more intense. 

The point is, sound design can and should be more than just the "practicals".  Those are the sounds that you would expect to hear in the normal course of life. In a movie that's things like foley, footsteps, door slams, car bys, and so on. In the theater it can be even more heavy handed than that. In Beauty and the Beast a character hawks into a spittoon in the middle of a song. It was funny when I flew in a "ding" with my sampler, but even funnier when a musician in the pit hit a note on the bells. There was a definite design decision involved there. I never use effects when I'm in the theatre, but there was one instance in Jesus Christ, Superstar when Judas shouts and I threw a triple tap, long delay on his last syllables. "I... don't... KNOW HIM!.... KNOW HIM!... Know Him!... know him..." It was powerful.  Going back to Beauty and the Beast I did a trick with the actors' mics where just the beast was routed to the subs as well as the tops. He had this extra presence, especially when he growled. So now that I've given away all my best tricks let's move on.

When you set out to create a set of effects for a show, or movie, or commercial or whatever... there's a real temptation to just grab one of those bundles of CDs with "1000 Awesome Sound Effects!". I'll cop to owning a half dozen of these myself, but I almost never use them unless it's a last minute scenario, and even then I'll heavily edit them. What's better by far is to go out and make your own. Something like an elephant might be tricky, but if there's a zoo nearby, you spend the day near the elephants waiting for a good bellow. With the advent of better quality hand held memory recorders it's getting easier all the time to go and get the stuff you need. 
(BTW there can also be copyright issues with CD sound effects. There is free stuff on the net but it's junk. There are also professionally produced libraries that you can license clips from for different prices depending on what you're producing. The point is, DON'T STEAL!)

The real trick is to find the effects you need in the stuff you have around you. I needed a sound for a huge steam driven contraption driving on stage once. The prop itself was a rubber wheeled cart with a cardboard superstructure. No sound coming from it at all, not even a squeaky wheel bearing. I needed the effect in a hurry so I grabbed my laptop and started walking. Half an hour later I was cutting together the sounds of a bicycle air pump, an old film projector, some pots and pans being hit with a crowbar and a few random bumps and bangs. In five more minutes I had a clanking, squeaking, hissing steam buggy sound. There's a great documentary piece that has a few minutes in the middle about the SFX from Star Wars. There's hardly a time when I do sound effects when I don't think about Ben Bova tapping a telephone pole guy wire with a wrench and that becoming the sound of the blasters.

This is getting to be pretty long so I think I'll lay it to rest for a while. But stay tuned Brethren of the Knob and Fader. As Project Movie and the summer theatre season progress there are sure to be lots more ideas to float around. While you're waiting, why don't you share some of your own experiences.

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