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How to… design sound for the theatre

Paul Freeman. Photo: Rebecca Freeman
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1. Be holistic

A good sound design is more than a series of sound effects. It should feel complete and make sense as a whole. Think about the themes, settings and concepts in the play and imagine sound as a language that’s trying to express them. For instance, a play about a dystopian regime might be characterised by a sound design that feels precise, cold and clinical. Try to be responsive to the other design elements – set, lighting, costume, etc. Colours and images can often be a useful starting point for thinking about sonic atmospheres and textures, and you’ll end up with a sound design that feels embedded in the world of the play.

2. Be organised

Not the most exciting advice, but it will make your life so much easier if you get it right from the start. Over the course of a show, you’ll likely end up with hundreds of versions of files as you rework different elements of the design. Label files in a meaningful way (“dark_drone_56.wav” is going to mean nothing to you in a year) and date them. Organise your audio and projects so you know where everything is and what version you’re working on, so you don’t accidentally overwrite things (I’m talking from personal experience, here).

3. Be creative

There are plenty of sound-effect libraries out there, of varying quality and cost, but it’s more fun to make your own if possible. Collect anything that makes a noise and record it. Invest in a portable recorder and microphones, and make your own location recordings. Over time, you’ll build up a collection of sounds that no one else has access to.

Paul Freeman, Offie-award-winning sound designer working on Her Aching Heart at London’s Hope Theatre, was talking to John Byrne

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