Sound Design

How does everyone design sound?? I am currently designing sound for our upcoming show, I have never really done this before I am pretty much done but I was wondering if most people write their own music or use movie soundtracks etc? We are using a compilation of movie soundtracks and manipulated them to the way I wanted it to sound


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The way I understand it, there are two sides to sound:

* Technical Sound Design (or Sound Engineering)
* Artistic Sound Design

Technical Sound Design has to do with the obvious -- setting up equipment, understanding acoustic concepts, and making everything sound good so the audience can understand and enjoy the performance. Generally I handle all of this, with the exception of setting the overall volume levels which will tend to vary based on the director's preference.

Artistic Sound Design has to do with picking the content and integrating it into the show. I will generally handle the technical and some artistic aspects of this, but will expect the director to be the primary supplier of source material and review anything I come up with. This also includes sound effects and voice-overs, which I can manufacture, but I will expect the director to review and approve.

Your level of artistic involvement will depend heavily on who the director is and what their level of talent and/or interest is on sound issues. And the more knowledge and skill you have in this area, the more they will tend to trust your judgement.

Also, sometimes the Music Director will pick the music to underscore the dialogue, and they may also be involved in making special effects. It all depends on their talent level as well. In our non-musical productions this year there has always been a grey area between me and our resident music director as far as what we each provided for the show. But basically we both chip in, and between us, the director, and the artistic director of the theater, we have enough ideas and talent to get the show to where it needs to be. (You have to leave your egos at the door, though :)


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Using movie soundtracks is against copyright law for the most part and legally you have to pay royalties on such music used..but there is a loophole to this in how much (time duration) of the music you actually use at one instant.

There is a lot of royalty free music out there--plus tons of instrumental stuff which you can adapt... In addition at least the way I also like do it is a can have an entire orchestra at your finger tips on a keyboard and even the cheapest keyboards out there can do a decent job--all you need after that is a type of track recorder or digital mixer and a way to compliate your stuff in mixdown...

For sound effects--you can either make yourself a foley 'studio' and make your own FX and record them yourself if you have time, or you can get tons of free sound FX to use....



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Wolf is right it's not legal to just say I like those sounds so I'm going to use them in the show without paying royalties. That isn't to say it doesn't happen every day... but it's not legal. If you can find a way to get some original music that's by far the best anyway. Assuming you are in high school talk with the music department about students who might be able to help you. Also as Wolf said all you need is a moderately talented musician and a decent synth. If you can't find anyone there, check the local college. Our college has a digital music program, we get students to compose and record original music for our shows as part of their class work... they get a grade, we get free music.

As for the artistic side. I always teach the idea of using a metaphor as a guiding concept for a show. The metaphor symbolizes the touch, feel, sound, meaning of the set, lights, props, costumes, etc... For example: last year we did a production of Midsummer. After several talks with the director she decided that in "Athens" the show is about cold steel, metal, hard. black and white. Once in the woods it was all about bright colorful pillows. We filled the stage with pillows of every color we could find. The faeries were dressed in wild colors a mix of circus side show, gypsy, and Hippie fashion. The lighting in the woods had very little white to it, it felt bright red, green yellow, orange... again carrying the theme of pillows. In the same way the sound (which was original music from a student) reflected this idea of colorful fluffy fun pillows.

It sounds like you are too far into the show for this to be a useful tool. But in the future I encourage you to talk with the director not about specific songs but about metaphors for what the songs mean and do for the audience. Also pay attention to how the costumes and set reflect the themes of the show. The music should be there to gently push the audience along guiding their emotions without them knowing. The more you can do to interact with all the design elements and stay close to the heart of the director's vision the better you will be.
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Ditto on what GaffTaper said.

Actually, before doing anything (whether or not a concept has been reached by the director) I'd create your own Sound concept. I do the same with every show I do lighting design for--it doesn't have to match the director's concept word-for-word. You can narrow it down to something that YOU relate to and feel comfortable with... Now, that's not to say you can't take the director's concept into consideration, you've got to make something that fits their concept too. But as I said, if they don't have one (which I hate working w/ people like that, to be honest), find something that you can work with that fits how the show seems to be going towards.

Also, if you go for the "illegal method" (which I don't recommend, but i've seen done SO many times), don't use songs that are well known... or at least related to your show. Nothing like hearing a song and going 'hey! that's such-and-such song'

Hope this helps,


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Drawstuf reminded me of an important concept I missed. That is what is your emotional reaction to the play the first time you read it. Try to really get into experiencing the words and characters. Then take notes about how you are feeling as you read each scene. Are you apprehensive about what's going on, are you relieved, are you touched by something sweet. All those emotional reactions are what your audience is going to feel as they watch the show. It's your job as the sound designer to guide and direct the audience to through their emotional reactions.

In order to teach good sound design I encourage my students to watch a movie that has a musical score by John Williams. The man is a master at having the music reflect exactly what is going on and builds your emotional reaction. If you know the film fairly well enough you can listen to the sound track and "hear" the camera shots in your head. Best example I think is "Indiana Jones and the last Crusade". The musical sequence that begins with them going underground and finding the Rats and ends with the fight in the ship's propeller is amazing in how it mirrors what is on screen, again the music that goes along with the big tank chase scene later in the movie is also great. Try watching the scene several times. Watch it with the music off. Watch it with the music on and your back to the screen. The man is a musical genius.

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