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Backstage: Technical revolutions in sound

James Frewer: composer, musical director, sound designer – and instrumentalist. Photo: Facet Photography James Frewer: composer, musical director, sound designer – and instrumentalist. Photo: Facet Photography

Over the past decade, sound design has changed beyond recognition. Increasingly, theatre sounds more like film. With underscoring and detailed soundscapes, it’s all a long way from the old revox players and BBC sound effects CDs that were once so prevalent.

There are a couple of reasons for this shift in the scope and scale of design. One is the technology now available to almost anyone, and the other is the increasing use of a combined composer and sound designer.

It’s likely that the use of a combined sound designer and composer had pragmatic roots: a way of allowing a director to work with original music while the producer only paid for one member of the creative team. But artistically, treating the whole sound design as a piece of music underscoring the production has created some thrilling theatre.

I always try to grasp different outlooks, from the director to the cast members

James Frewer is one of the most up and coming of this new breed of sound designers and composers. His work is diverse, from musical director and composer on actor/musician pantomimes to sound designer on Deluge at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

While Frewer now works as both a composer and a sound designer, his background is firmly in music. He studied music at the University of Hull, and has since assisted the great, Academy award-winning composer Stephen Warbeck.

Frewer admits that this combined role “is happening more frequently due to huge budget constraints”, but he goes on to explain: “Combining the two jobs can be a really positive thing. It allows me to combine the world of the show, demonstrating all sorts of overlapping and keeping a consistency in all things sound and music.”

As a director, I’ve often found that when I start talking about sound to a composer, our conversations are very different from those I have with a ‘pure’ sound designer. We often start talking about rhythm, tone and mood as opposed to diving straight in to pinpointing specific cues.

“Music can enhance and benefit a play hugely or it can really ruin it,” says Frewer. “Music has an undeniable power to persuade. I think it has many roles – it can give an audience a location, a passing of time or an emotion. Leitmotifs can be used to tell an audience when a character appears or is being talked about.”

And Frewer relishes the ability to play with meaning through sound and music.

“Quite a few shows I’ve done recently looked at actors playing with and against the music. I get really fascinated with this directorial choice. A point can be strengthened with really opposing music playing in the underscore. It makes an actor work harder to convey an emotion and can also have really unsettling results.”

One of the reasons directors and sound designers have recently been able to have such in-depth collaborations is that technology has caught up with aspiration. And it isn’t just the big, well-subsidised venues that can use this software. The technology available to places such as the National Theatre can also be found in smaller venues. Sound design has been democratised.

If you went back in time by only five or 10 years, you would find most small and mid-scale theatres still operating on minidisc or CDs. There was much less opportunity to edit and control sound; you were always hampered by mixing between two unresponsive discs. Then came QLab.

“QLab is a powerhouse of a software and I’m constantly surprised and impressed by the technological possibilities and how sound and music can be manipulated by the slightest change within this,” says Frewer.

Elaine Cassidy and Charlotte Randle in Deluge, which featured sound design by James Frewer. Photo: Rober Day
Elaine Cassidy and Charlotte Randle in Deluge, which featured sound design by James Frewer. Photo: Rober Day

If sound in theatre is starting to sound more filmic, this is in part due to the flexibility and responsiveness of QLab, which allows sound designers to find a huge amount of precision that was never available to them in the past.

But Frewer warns: “Problems arise when technology is relied upon. The basic material and compositions must be there. Software such as Logic and Pro Tools are undeniably brilliant bits of kit, and they allow music to be very easily created and produced at a very high standard. It is easy to get carried away with making something sound nice and forget the job in hand. The original idea must be strong.”

So, how do you ensure a strong, original idea?

“I tend to sit down at a piano or a guitar and work from there slowly adding other instruments, trying to justify the reasoning for each one. I also think it is a great advantage to sit down with the director while jamming around ideas – it keeps a solid focus at the development stage.”

The mention of live instruments is timely. Increasingly, technology means there is less and less ‘need’ to have live musicians present. In a number of the bigger theatres, live musicians have played from offstage band rooms, and the sound is plumbed through to the auditorium electronically. If the audience can’t see live musicians, so the argument goes, and the sound isn’t actually very ‘live’, why not pre-record, which ultimately allows for more control over the sound?

When live music is scrapped purely for financial reasons, the Musicians’ Union becomes, rightly, very concerned. But is there ever an artistic reason why pre-recorded music is better for a sound design?

“It depends completely on the project. Personally, I much prefer live musicians but sometimes a play or production simply does not need live musicians and can really benefit from a computer-generated soundtrack. I think a lot of my job is musical dramaturgy and with live musicians come many theatrical language issues. There must be a coherent reason for what you are doing.”

One of the other big criticisms of such big, filmic sound designs is that the play becomes over-scored, and the music does all the work of the audience.

“Yes,” agrees Frewer. “I tend to find that when I have a really strong relationship with a director, it allows me to have very honest conversations about what is actually needed. It really annoys me when music is overused or shoehorned into a show. Music must have a purpose and work within the context of what the creative team is trying to do.”

With such a democratisation in technology, and the increasing presence of music in theatre (both live and recorded), it is extraordinary that awards ceremonies such as the Tonys have decided not to recognise sound design, apparently because the role of the sound designer is hard to understand.

Fewer explains: “Ultimately my job is to try to understand the piece from all perspectives. I always try to grasp different outlooks, from the director to the cast members. It is important to watch as much theatre as possible, both good and bad, because there is always something to learn.

“My advice is never be precious, and always be willing to have the conversations that will enhance the show in hand.”

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