Creating effects is an holistic art form in itself. My career has meant that I started in straight drama so sounds effects work is key. I moved to musicals much later. So I had 10 years experience of pushing analogue and early digital playback to its limit before I had to start worrying about radio mics and live bands.
Sound effects themselves, in my working method anyway, don't exists and all have to be created in some way. The source material can come from an array of material. Sound effect CDs are the first port of call. These CDs aren't the ones you see in the soundtrack section at HMV for a tenner. They come from specialist companies, most aligned to Hollywood film studios or the big film sound mix companies. The thing you should know are that they are expensive. Around £60 a CD. They come in series. Some have 20 in a set some have 3. There are general ones and very specialist ones. I own about 100,000 effects and it grows daily. I take it all very seriously and despite my everyday life being chaos; my tax returns late and no MOT on my car, I always know where my FX library is. It’s all titled and laid out, ordered and categorised. It's an essential tool. All my effects are stored on a large portable hard drive. All full audio quality. They are all linked in a data base so I can call them up instantly. I collect them obsessively and spend a fortune on them.
The next source is field recording. This is a funny job but can be fun and almost always something you do on your own. Its the equivalent of train-spotting - people do it but know one likes to talk about it at dinner parties. I’ve recorded lots of stuff for my library over the years - some show specific and others just because I know one day it will come handy. Wind through hotel windows, neon light buzzes, old televisions, particular cars, street atmos, they are always useful and never for what you originally intended them for.
Next up is the foley work. This is unique art that started (and is still performed) in films. Its the process of recording in a studio, sounds to match a picture - in film this is often footsteps, doors, cloth movements and others. Its also about finding one sound that can be another - yes, coconuts for horses hooves and cutting cabbages for stab wounds. I like to do this for sounds that need to be beefed up - shovels hitting shovels for big swords strikes, throwing lumps of wood past mics in aircraft hangers for arrows in the air and emptying the whole of a fire extinguisher into a bath of water for the inflate of the car on Chitty. Again always on your own as its normally a bit dangerous and daft. I also do a lot of concrete breeze block scrapes for all sort of things - door opens in Moria for example.
Once you have the source the work begins. I work in lots of layers. The layering of sound I learnt from Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. I’ve never met either of them but read everything they’ve ever written and listen to every movie they have ever made. Im the sad loner that has listen to Star Wars a 1000 and sometimes just the surround track. Murch and Burtt, like George Martin were and still are the pioneers of film sound. Murch was probably the original sound designer and Burtt established the Holy Grail of sound design - Skywalker sound. Ive learnt so much from listening to their work - i’ve nicked most of their ideas too.
I start with the key sound sound - a gun shot say. I find a gun shot fire that I think will work for the context. I then think around what I need the shot to do - punctuate a scene, set up a scene off stage... so with the main gun shot decided I drag it from my data base into a digital workstation (I use Logic Studio). I first off look at the wave form - make sure its not distorted then add some EQ and maybe compression, lift the bass sound maybe or take the hi attack of the sound out. Ill then duplicate it several times and play with its pitch. Mainly as I want a big sub bass thump to give me a real film sound. Ill pitch it down then maybe add a sub harmonic - so ill take the low sounds and electronically alter them so the bass is much bigger. Knowing the sub bass speaker system ill be using in the theater helps as Ill make sure Ill only effect that frequency. Then I might look for another sound to layer in - a sharp thunder crack that will give me a good tail on it or a cannon that will give me punch. The Ill add some reverb to make sure all the sounds are in the same world, and another reverb treatment for the one ill use in the surround system - less bass, less reverb ring. Then ill “bounce” this file out into “stems”. This means that I take the treated files and compile them into one. Ill make 3 stems. Each different. Ill also do some options, bit more distance, bit nearer etc. Each one will have 3 version that in the show will all playback together. One for the US speakers, one for the sub bass and one for the surround. Simple.
OK a trickier cue. Rain. Rain is rain right. Well no, not really. First up you need to know where and when, who’s hearing it, where are we - the audience - when we hear it. Outside a house looking, inside the flat on a run down estate, on a porch as 2 lovers kiss, at sea, in the park... it all matters - to me anyway. Lets assume its a street and we follow the journey to an apartment block then we follow the lead actor down the fire escape to a cafe - alright its a scene from Brief Encounter.
Again I start with the basic sound - rain on tarmac. This will be the basis for the Up Stage image. You need to make sure its just rain and has no traffic or birds - not always easy. I then keep duplicating it till its long enough - trouble is at some point you’ll notice the loop - so to mask it I use another similar sound and ensure the loops never align or fall into a pattern. Thats the base. Next Ill look for detail - a wider recorded rain for the surround and add some HF EQ to make it sparkle and pull focus - Ill use this in the transition moments. Ill look for a overflowing gutter sound for detail, maybe rain into a puddle to give a bit more bite. Ill also find a rain hitting a window - again 2 sounds to avoid any loop issue. Ill also have ready some thunder rolls and some winds to keep building the picture.
Ill “stem” these out in the same way as the gun I made earlier. I can then move between them in the theatre.
Thats the simple ones - waves, wind, thunder, birds, etc are all made in the same way. The fun starts with sounds that have to tell a complete story - that don't exist in our reality. I like creating sounds that could be from our world but aren’t. Thats where I work best. The Chokey In Matilda, or the Amanda Thrip throw, The Balrog in Lord Of The Rings, The Walk To Arkham in Batman, the journey to Cyprus in Othello, Chitty falling off the cliff. The big scenes are the ones I love. They present real challenges but telling a story with sound is a great joy.
Ive never put a cue into the show that hasn't been through some kind of process. So the theory that you just take a sound from a BBC effect CD couldn't be further from the truth. You could do it but it wouldn't be very good.
So once you've made the cue - how do you play it back? Well today you use a computer. I use a pice of software called Qlab that lets me play lots and lots of files all at the same and adjust their level to their destination. The trick is knowing the software really well so you can get the cue from your laptop and into the auditorium at speed - normally as the director is calling for it or the change. Never say you'll do it later - do it there and then. Many a time we’ve on standby in a tech with the cue still bouncing out. The fun is getting there just in time before the GO is called. Magic times.
Its hard to explain but you need a system that is essentially an infinite array of CD players all capable of sending audio to anything up-to 56 different speakers at any one time. You need to be able to put cues into groups with different time offsets you need to be able to fade things down or out or move them from one loudspeaker to the other. You'll just have to trust me - its fun.
Don’t take from this I start working in the tech. I normally have every cue laid out and at least a starting point in the cue list - but live theatre is a constant changing entity and you need to respond quickly to whats happening on stage. Some changes I can do by making something louder or quieter, changing the timing, changing its placement. Other things need remaking and others just mean starting again.
In a musical the process of music is pretty set, You might work with the MD or Orchestrator, Dance Arranger etc to make sure the weave of the dynamic is going to work but the actual music, the dots is all done. You rarely have to worry about it... well almost.
Straight Drama is another matter. Again, back in the old days music was played by a live band - the minstrel gallery. Music has always been a big part of theatre. This has stayed with us but the method of creating and delivering the music has changed - massively. Now, not all shows are the same. Some shows still use live musicians, but its rare outside of musicals. And even musicals try and get away with as few a musicians as possible. So where has that left the straight play? In a bit of a mess. The National and RSC still use live music, some of the other alternative theatre companies do. The rest is trickier. Today shows still use composers but without a live band to work with its become tough. This means that the composer often turns to the sound designer to produce their work. I’ve worked with some of the great theatre composers (most of them now do film and TV) and some of the best times I’ve had in theaters and studios have been working with them. However times are now tougher. Composers find themselves with no musicians and having to work in a world they didn’t chose - with samples and virtual orchestras.
Making a composers music work can be brilliant as much as it can be frustrating - it all depends on the composer. Ive been lucky - I've worked with some great composers.
So what happens when you reverse it and the sound designer does the music. Well, its rare. They are such different disciplines. Often a show uses found music. Stoppard, for example always has found music, many contemporary dramas do. I love these shows. I love exploding apart well known songs and stitching them back together again so they work for the production. I love finding music for a show. It takes me back full circle to where I started; recording records off the radio on a reel to reel tape machine and cutting them up and splicing other drum breaks or dialogue into them to create something new - I use lots of compositional tools to do this and have re-arranged many bits of music in my time. Im not the one to judge if that’s composing or not - seriously. What I do know is that the line between sound and music blurs daily.