Guest post by James Richter
In 2007, I was invited to join Mutineer Theatre Company in Los Angeles, a new enterprise one of my colleagues was founding. Though I hadn’t participated in theater since high school, I jumped at the chance. I wasn’t getting many opportunities to use my composition training in film, and I was growing bored with mixing mono news pieces for public radio. When the time came to stage our debut play, Lie with Me, I was given the role of sound designer.
My teenage theater experience was as an actor, so I had no formal idea what I was doing on the tech side. But I found that theater met comfortably at the intersection of the artistic sensibilities I’d developed working with film and the live sound experience of putting a radio program on the air. I proceeded to design the audio for Lie with Me with a combination of instinct and pragmatism. Along the way, I violated several conventions of 50-seat LA theater productions without even realizing they existed. But I was vindicated when LA Weekly nominated my design for its annual theater awards.
I work in games now, and my time in theater sound was pretty useful in preparing me for this medium. Though a stage production follows a linear script, each performance is unique – something unexpected happens more often than not. The actors are players, right? As with games, a theatrical sound design should be implemented so that it can adapt to the variables of each performance. The qualities that make an immersive game sound design play out on stage, too.
Scene Transitions are part of the show
The default scene transition in a lot of theater productions goes something like this: Lights down, play some musical bridge, get the set arranged as quickly as possible, then immediately fade music out and lights up. This model views the time between scenes as an obstacle to the story rather than as an integral piece of the narrative flow. This is often the case in games, too, where we cover the transition between levels with a silent load screen. Instead, think of these transitions as punctuation on what we just experienced, or an establishment of what’s to come. Or both.
For the sound designer this means crafting a meaningful audio bridge between scenes. That’s hard to do when the duration of the transition varies from performance to performance. If you understand the choreography of crew and actors required to make the transition work, you can make a cue that is plenty long enough to cover their changes. If the music and sound in the transition is intentional and effective, it won’t seem too long even if the stage is set before the cue is finished.
There was a sequence in Lie with Me where one scene ended with the lead actress screaming at her mother, and the next began with her throwing herself at her boyfriend. In between she just had to cross downstage and start pulling off her shirt. I wrote a 6-second cue that started with the lights going out, very agitato. It ended cold without really resolving. The music helped propel the actress into her lover’s arms, and cemented the connection between her emotions in the previous scene and her actions in the new one.
Sounds tied to props should be tied to props
Even small theaters typically come equipped with stereo house speakers. A lot of sound design stops there, and if your show only calls for ambiences and musical interludes, that’s fine. But sometimes the action calls for sound cues to emanate from a particular area or object. 3D game soundscapes are much more immersive when sounds emit from point sources. The same goes for theater sound design, though it usually requires some extra setup work to sell those effects.
If you have sounds that originate from the wings, be sure and pan them accordingly. (It should go without saying, but I’ve seen too many shows where the actors reacted to their left but the sound came from dead center.) Or, better yet, have a crew member act as foley artist if possible. We had a gag in a production of M*A*S*H where the klutzy private tripped over something after his exit. I had him dump some junk into a box and we had an accident that sounded far more authentic and spontaneous than a recording.
Coordinate with the set designer to place special speakers (and their wiring) into the set. There was a scene in Lie with Me in which a female character used the bathroom in front of her sister’s boyfriend. It was an awkward situation, but I felt it would have become cartoonish if the toilet sounds came from the house speakers rather than from the toilet prop itself. Sooo, I recorded my wife doing her business, then played that sound and the flush out of a media speaker I hid inside the toilet bowl. I was there to make sure we drilled a special hole under the toilet during set construction for the wires. In video games or film, we may not need to drill holes and lay wire to emit sounds from point sources, but the results are the same: greater immersion and a more believable soundscape.
Sound can be the set
Budgets were always tight on the shows I worked on. Set and prop designers had to make compromises and leave certain things to the audience’s imagination. Sound design can fill in those missing pieces and make the limits of the set into a feature. This mindset can also be valuable for situations in game development where the visual artists don’t have the capacity to give the designers every asset they want. Sound can give a presence to things that can’t be seen.
There’s a convention in theater to establish ambient loops and then fade them out once the dialog begins. In my experience, I find it more immersive to run them throughout a scene. Humans are great at filtering out background sounds. Properly leveled, your ambiences become audio wallpaper, but their constant presence helps to keep the audience anchored in the setting. Much like ambience in a video game or movie, we may adjust the sound in the mix throughout, but we want to maintain the background sound throughout to create that sense of place that allows viewers/players to truly immerse themselves in the world we are creating for them.
Sustained ambience in theater has an added benefit of provided context to the actors. I once did a scene that was staged in front of the curtain and was supposed to take place on a windy winter day. A critical part of the scene direction was for the actors to be cold. Maintaining that wintry ambient sound helped the actors stay immersed in the cold environment we were creating.
Another example took place in the hallway of an apartment building with a party going on inside one of the units. The door opened and closed several times over the course of the scene. Each time I opened and closed a low pass filter over the music and walla. This emphasized the choice the character was making between the pull of easy fun and the difficult relationship work he needed to do with his girlfriend in the hall.
Extend the Playing Space
We’re all accustomed to surround sound mixes for films and 3D games, and yet in a theater- an actual three-dimensional space- sound design is often rather flat. If the stage proves to be too small for the action the story is calling for, sound is a great way to take it out to the house. It requires more preparation in terms of hanging and wiring additional speakers, but the results can be highly memorable.
For M*A*S*H I used a couple of stereo effects of artillery shelling, where the distant cannons fired from the left, flew across the stereo field, and exploded on the right. I routed them so that the left channel originated from the rear surround speaker and the right channel went to the front right speaker. The audience felt like the shells were flying right over them. I used a similar technique to fly in some helicopters, have them hover over the audience, then proceed across the stage to land. Nobody ever saw them, but panning them across the theater, created the illusion of their existence, much the same way we immerse players and viewers with out surround mixes in games and film.
In The Mill, a ghost story, there were things going “bump” in the attic. I hung a pair of speakers from the ceiling and played the spooky bumps right on top of the audience. I also panned footsteps around so that observers could track the movement of characters walking around up there. Our ears and brain are constantly filtering sound and, providing motion tied to action, whether perceived or real, is a surefire way to immerse the audience in the experience.
Push for better tech
The theater that hosted my first sound design expected me to run all the audio and music from a pair of CD players and an 8-channel Mackie mixer. I pulled it off, but it required a lot training and coordination from the crew member tasked with executing the sound design at each performance. Many of my subsequent designs were too complex to make that kind of implementation viable.
Because I was consistently working with the same theater company, I was able to get budget approval for a more robust system. I chose QLab, a live multimedia triggering system, both for its reasonable price (it was $250 in those days) and my comfort working with Macs. It also supports a ton of common digital audio interfaces – I was able to hook it up to my old DIGI002 and get 10 outputs for my most complex installation.
QLab and similar tools enable a designer to chain complex sequences of events with a single trigger. Play a couple cues, wait 3.5 seconds, turn them down 15 dB, loop them twice, fade up to full after the loop breaks, etc. When I started designing events in Wwise a couple years later, I felt right at home. Much the same way Wwise can handle non-audio events such as vibration, QLab also has the ability to run lights (for an additional fee), providing lockstep sync for important transitions and effects. This type of implementation greatly reduces the opportunity for errors: the Stage Manager calls a single cue, our crewmember in the booth presses one button, and the action executes perfectly every time.
You don’t have to have a lot of theater sound experience to make great theatrical sound design. Experience in any sort of narrative sound design medium will apply to the stage. There are technical aspects to create a theater sound installation, but if you’ve ever set up a studio or home theater, you already know the concepts. Theater is just another opportunity to apply your ability to tell a story with sound. If you’ve developed that art somewhere, it will play anywhere.