Step by Step Guide to Sound Design

Note: This article was written in 1994 when 1/4 inch magnetic tape was still the most widely used medium in the theatre, samplers had 8MB of memory and computer based playback hardly existed.  Apart from a few obsolete references to this technology, everything else is still true - Mic Pool 2009


Text Analysis
Discussion With Director and Designer
Finding a Way In & Formulating a Brief
Beginning Work on Cues
Securing a Budget
Copyright Clearances
The Production Meeting
Attending Rehearsals
Formulating the CueList
Rehearsal Notes
Liaising with Directors
Liaising with other Departments
Designing the Installation
Drawing the Plans
Compiling the Performance Materials
Setting Up and Rough Plotting
Technical Rehearsal
Dress Rehearsals
Documentation and Safety Copies

This article describes the course of the sound design process from receiving a copy of the play through to performance. It is very much a description of the way things might proceed in an ideal world. It assumes the director of the production is experienced in the creative use of sound , that the sound designer has been engaged, or is free to work, ahead of the rehearsal period and that all other elements of the design input are on schedule and. The chronology of the events described will alter quite considerably on any project where the above assumptions are incorrect. If the play has been in rehearsal for two weeks and the designer has resigned before you start work on the project then things are going to be somewhat different. However all the processes described below will need to be performed at some stage if you are to create original work.

Text Analysis
As soon as you know you are going to work on a production get a copy of the script. If it is an adaptation of a novel get the novel. If you are unfamiliar with the style of the writing or find it difficult to fully understand get some reference material. Good annotated editions or even crib notes for classics, biographies of the author, literary critiques and books putting the authors work in a social or political context will all be useful. Reading other works by the author is also helpful. Do this regardless of how many other projects you have to complete before starting work in earnest on this project. Your best ideas will come when least expected and the more projects you have started in your head the more ideas you will have. The mind has a seemingly limitless capacity for holding information and rather than confusing the information on different projects will make connections between them that are often helpful.

On first reading a script try not to be to concerned with the specifics of the sound design. Aim to fully understand the plot and characters and get some feel for the author's intention. By the end of this reading you will probably have some instinct about some elements that could be incorporated in your sound design. Reread the script with these in mind and see if they form some pattern. At this stage you are looking for a very broad understanding of the interrelation of the characters and plot. Do not think in terms of period or location until you have discussed the play with the director, you may be surprised to find that the play you thought was set in Rome circa 300 A.D.. is now going to be set in Stepney High Street in 1950. Your clear understanding and knowledge of the text will allow you to be completely unfazed by this and immediately you will see creative opportunities for your work.

Discussion with Director and Designer.
As early as possible set up a meeting with the director. The aim of this meeting is not in any way to come up with a definite structure for the sound design, but is the first step on a long journey in realising the work of the author and the director's vision of this work. The most important thing at this meeting is to listen. The director will often be using these early meetings with the creative team members as a sounding board for his ideas and hopefully will talk freely and inspiringly about the play. Because of the investment you have made in reading and understanding the play all this should connect with your first formative ideas and your imagination should be fired. Share your ideas freely with the director. Instil him with confidence that you understand the play and his approach and that you can be relied on to produce exciting creative work in response.
Now consider how less worthwhile this meeting would have been had you not been fully conversant with the play and had to bluff your way through it. Then go and see the designer.

A discussion with the designer will be immensely useful. He will have had many hours of meetings with the director and will have sketched and modelled some of his ideas in tangible form. Through these sketches and models they have been able to work on the physical reality of the production, and the designer should be able to clarify questions about the intended style of the production. The words the director used to tell you of his vision were open to interpretation, in the work the designer has done you can double check your understanding of these words.
Discuss the mechanics of any scene changes. Has the designer created a design that will flow from location to location or does it look as if you will be required to create soundscapes of symphonic proportions to maintain the dramatic energy from one scene to the next.

Try and establish a good relationship with the designer from the outset. Later on you will require his co-operation in the siting of loudspeakers and concealment of equipment.

Finding a Way In & Formulating a Brief
Go back to the text. With all you have learnt so far about this production in mind, look for key elements that will form the foundation of your design. It might be some key symbolic natural occurrence, a locale that is rich in sound texture or required music. Produce some documentation of your intentions. This can take the form of a chart showing the sound elements and their relationships with each other, or a written outline of your intended approach or even informal lists. Being able to refer to this information will give shape and form to your work.

This starting point will heavily influence the direction your work takes and it is very important that you have a sound basis for believing that it is central to a major aspect of the play, It is very easy at this stage to be seduced into creating a framework for your design that is superficially appealing, clever and that appears workable but which does not really further the staging of the play.

The best starting points are those that provide solutions to the realisation of some difficult aspects of the production. Tackle these sections early and try and find conventions and techniques that enhance the atmosphere, sense and meaning of these sections. Once these demanding problems are solved your area of work can broaden to provide stylistic continuity to other parts of the play.
If these problems are not addressed first, the greater number of options available to you in the rest of the play may cause you to embark on a form that may offer no satisfactory resolution of the key design elements.

You now have a broad idea of the direction your sound design is going in. By careful research you will find elements to flesh it out. Research can be divided into three categories. General research into period and location informs your ideas, research in finding sources of sounds and music leads you to material you can use or places things and people you can record, and then listening to this material will suggest ways in which they can be combined and treated to form the sound world you are to create.

Beginning Work on Cues
At this stage you will not have the necessary timings or specifics to create anything too finished for the production. Treat this early work as a sketch phase. Create impressions of the sound world you envisage, try out treatments of your material. Compile your work at this stage onto a reference tape. Listen to it often, think of new elements that will complement it, how it might be improved and revise your written ideas to accommodate the ideas generated by your experiments. Share this work with other members of the creative team.

Securing a Budget
By this stage you should have a good idea of the physical resources you are going to require to execute of your design. It is now necessary to ensure that the financial resources are in place to allow you to realise your design in the way envisaged. Just because a director has been enormously enthusiastic about your ideas should not lead you to assume that he has conveyed this enthusiasm to the producer or production manager responsible for the budgeting of the production or that they will bear in mind the likely cost of your work at budget meetings. When meeting to discuss your budget have a detailed estimate of all the resources you will require. This will allow you to discuss specific items and will enable whoever is in control of the budget to see precisely where the money is to be spent. This is far preferable to having a general discussion about gross figures.
Include all expenditure items there is any possibility of requiring, and do not be tempted to conceal any costs. This budget estimate should include:

•Studio time- if the producer does not have his own facility

•Additional recording equipment

•Cost of music and sound effect recordings.

•Cost of recording media Remember the tape to be used in performance may be distilled from hours of field recordings, multitrack tapes, samples on computer discs and other media.

•Cost of rehearsal materials

•Commissioning of composers and arrangers.-If a composer has been contracted to compose music for the entire show then this will not be your responsibility. If however as part of your sound design you require the services of a composer or arranger to provide music to your brief it will be.

•Cost of Musicians and Voice-over artists.-may be subject to union agreement

•Cost of special recordings- The owner of a sports facility etc. may be only too happy to allow you to record at his venue providing you pay the normal price of admission. (This will be a source of amusement in the production office when you produce a petty cash claim with two racing programmes stapled to it). The four hundred children you have brought into the theatre to record crowd effects will require transport and if the session is long refreshment. If you need to record specific cricket match strokes you will need to obtain a bat and ball. If you need to record the destruction of an item it may well require purchase. Overlook nothing!

•Hire costs for run of production-May be the entire installation or additional equipment for an established producing theatre.

•Crew costs for installation.

•Running costs-batteries for practicals and radio microphones.

•Engagement of Sound operator-if not permanently employed at the theatre

•Crew for get out.

If the production manager seems to be in difficulty allocating the necessary budget do not push him. He may have to analyse other areas of expenditure to see if money can be transferred between budgets or see if further moneys can be found from the producing management, this will take time. Ensure at this stage he fully appreciates the reasons for all expenditure items and set a time to continue the discussion.

If no further funds are forthcoming arrange a meeting with the director and the Production Manager/Producer to clearly explain the compromises that will be entailed by the financial restrictions imposed. When these compromises are agreed, continue to work creatively within these restrictions. However much your artistic sensibilities are disappointed, remember that you have been engaged to provide a product within the financial limitations set by the producing organisation.

Do not think that by creating good work under these circumstances the director and management will be likely to think that your additional requirements were unnecessary. A good manager will be appreciative and may be sufficiently impressed to allow your work greater potential when considering the budgets of future productions.

Copyright Clearances.
All copyright clearances required should be negotiated as early as possible as they take some time to complete and their may be a minimum notice period required by a copyright collection agency.

The Production Meeting
The production meeting will generally be the first full meeting of the director, the creative team and the heads of department or contractors responsible for the fabrication and installation of the production. The final model will be shown and all the mechanics of the scene changes will be demonstrated. Use this meeting to assess anything in the other production areas that will affect you. Pay particular attention to the movement of any scenic items and try to get some feeling for the flow from one scene to another. Think how your design for these transitions can be in sympathy with the style of the changes.

If your preliminary work with the director and production manager has proceeded smoothly do not be surprised if sound is mentioned in passing or not at all.

Attending Rehearsals
If the cast read through the play on the first day of rehearsals, attend. Usually before or after this reading the director will give some general indications to the cast as regards the direction the production will take. Much of this will be a repeat of what the director has told you previously. However it may be some time since you last met and the subtle shifts of emphasis on various aspects of the production should give clearer indications of how things are likely to progress. The designer will normally show the model and you may be asked to play some material if you have any ready. A couple of example cues to excite the cast will be sufficient.

The reading of the play is enormously instructive. Although the pace of the reading will be very different to performance (normally being some 30% shorter) it will be radically different to the pace at which you have read the script silently. Hearing the play in real time for the first time will alter a lot of your perceptions of pace and mood. Free of the need to concentrate on the printed page, during the course of the few hours of the reading the formative cues you have already created and those that exist only as concepts should gain life. New possibilities will present themselves and the total sound world which you are to create should become more concrete in your mind.

Between this reading and the run throughs of the play at the end of the rehearsal process, try not to lose touch with the work in the rehearsal room. Ask the director to allow you to see each section when it is run in a rough state of completion. Bring material to rehearsals to try out. Carefully balance time spent attending rehearsal with the time you require to execute the recordings and other elements of the design. A correct balance will allow your work to grow organically with the evolving work in the rehearsal room.

Formulating the Cue List

You should now have sufficient information and ideas to produce your first cue list. Work on the individual cue sequences now becomes an ongoing process, the order the cues are produced will depend on availability of resources, requirements of the director and cast for material to work with in rehearsals and inspiration.

Constant revision of the Cue list and audio material in response to the work in the rehearsal room is essential. Organisation of your lists either in folders or in a computer database will allow you to be up to date with all requirements without losing sight of the overall structure of your design.

As sections of the work reach completion take accurate timings of all events that will effect the length and execution of your cues. You can never have too many timings. Time every cue you know about and write timings at the top and middle of every page. Then if a cue is inserted you will have a rough idea of its required duration and how long an operator will have before and after it.

Rehearsal notes
In a well organised production all members of the creative team and production departments will be kept informed of developments in rehearsal through notes from the Stage managers. Read all the notes as well as those directed specifically at you. The stage manager may not be aware of all the factors that will affect your work and may fail to draw attention to crucial things like a large text cut, where he was not aware that you had any sound cues. Sometimes you will have discussed an element of your design with the director, who will casually mention it in the next days rehearsals. The stage manager will duly note this requirement to you. This will be slightly irksome as the source of the idea will appear not to be your own. Do not however remonstrate with the stage manager about this, they have enough to think about without having to attribute all creative ideas to their originators, and it is important that they continue to pass all information on to you.

Liaising with Directors
Arrange to have regular meetings with the director to review your work. Always play any recorded material to a director on a system that does it justice. This is particularly important where the rehearsal sound system is of poor quality. If the director has heard a cue sequence as it will sound they will not be unduly worried hearing it on the rehearsal system in less than perfect fidelity. It is also important to explain to the director how complicated cue sequences will be broken down so that they will precisely fit the action on stage. A sequence that you have designed to run on three machines can then be mixed to rough timings onto a single rehearsal tape. The cast can get some idea of the intended effect and the director can reassure them that they do not have to lock their actions to this composite tape. Some directors when they are confident that the design is going in a satisfactory direction will be happy to let you get on with it, others enjoy the atmosphere of the recording studio and will want to get involved with the smallest details of your work.

Liaising with other Departments
No area of theatrical activity exists in a vacuum. Many aspects of your design will need negotiation with other departments if they are to be properly fulfilled. If you need to suspend equipment discuss with the designer and lighting designer its positioning and, having agreed positions, make sure they are marked on the lighting and set plans. Items of scenery may need installed wiring and connectors or special shelves for sound equipment. Liase with the carpenters and metalworkers to find out at what stage of the construction process this can best be accomplished. Wardrobe will need to be consulted regarding provision for the concealment of any radio microphones in costumes. Electrics, sound and props will all work together on certain practical props such as radiograms. The power for a light in such a piece and the loudspeaker wiring may need to share a common cable and connector. Decide who will do what work and in what order. As the production week approaches the production manager will start to allocate time for the get in of the set, rigging of sound and lighting equipment and plotting time. Negotiate a realistic length of time to plot the sound with exclusive use of the theatre, the set in place and if necessary crew to move any items of set that will affect the sound levels in different scenes.

Designing the Installation

Replay Machine Requirements

When the design is almost finalised consideration must be given to the exact number of replay machines required to operate the show. The figure should have been estimated with reasonable accuracy at the budget stage but there may be some leeway. The number will be that which allows all the elements of the most complicated sequence to be executed at the required cue points. Special replay formats may be required for certain cues, e.g. multitrack tape for surround sound cues, samplers for cues which must be triggered remotely or start instantaneously or continuous cartridge players for loop effects of indeterminate length.

Console Requirements

The console will require sufficient inputs to accommodate all the tracks of the replay equipment, microphones and effects returns required.

Sufficient outputs and switching arrangements if necessary will be required to feed all loudspeaker groups in the combinations required.

Amplifier and Loudspeaker Requirements
Decide on the positioning type, and power of all loudspeakers and their amplification requirements.

Drawing the Plans.
For anything more than the most simple show in a theatre with permanent facilities, a full schematic of the installation must be drawn. This will allow efficient installation and will be invaluable in the course of the run to aid fault finding. A good schematic will show all items of equipment using recognisable symbols, its interconnection, connector and circuit numbers, and all the information required for labelling the console and other equipment.

Ground plans and sections showing the location of all loudspeakers, microphones and any other equipment in positions not permanently and exclusively reserved for sound equipment will be needed. Often a sketch will suffice, but if the equipment is to be rigged in your absence or by staff not directly in your control full drawings will be required.

Compiling the Performance Materials
All the material required for cue sequences should now exist in an almost final state. Before assembling show tapes or other performance material for real, assemble them on paper first. Rule a page into as many columns as you have replay machines. Subdivide these columns into tracks. Now allocate your cues to these tracks to make the operation as simple as possible for the operator. If possible keep similar cues on the same machine so that the operator does not have to make too many routing adjustments. Go through the script dry running the sequences on paper to ensure that overlapping cues are on separate machines or tracks and that sufficient time has been allowed for tape cueing, cartridge changes etc.

Once the assignment of cues to machines has been refined the tapes can be assembled and labelled.

Full documentation should be produced. A complete cue list with page numbers should be given to the director and stage manager calling the show. A chart showing exactly what is on each tape will be invaluable during the course of the technical rehearsals.

Setting Up and Rough Plotting
After installation the entire sound system should be rigorously and methodically checked both to ensure the equipment is functioning correctly and that the loudspeakers are correctly oriented to cover the required audience areas.

A rough system balance should now be attempted. The aim of this is to give the operator as much travel as possible on the faders with which to execute the cues. If a show is plotted and you discover that all the levels are on the bottom inch of the fader the operator has no hope of being able to repeat the levels or fade cues well.

A tape machine used solely for low level background effects can be lined up to a low reference level e.g. -10dB on the desk for a 0dB test tone.
Amplifiers should not be set much higher than required for the loudest cue they will be required for. Multiple loudspeakers fed from a single group should have their relative balances set at this stage.

If a show has most cues at a moderate level and one sequence at an extremely high level, plot the majority of the cues with the group masters at a mid position. This will allow greater travel on the input faders to reach the required level. The level of the group Masters can then be increased for the duration of the loud sequence.

Do not begin plotting until you are sure that a good rough balance has been achieved, that allows some headroom for additional volume if required.

If the control position is open to or in the auditorium acoustic the designer will have the option of performing the cues at the plotting session. Because the feel of the execution of a cue is very difficult to define on paper, the operator will be able to hear the cue performed as the designer requires and can then notate it in a manner that will allow him to repeat it. As the designer will know the contents of the tapes this will generally be a far quicker method, and the time saved will probably be sufficient to allow the operator to run some of the more complex sequences for himself afterwards. This assumes that the designer is familiar with the equipment and is himself a good operator.

If the control area is isolated from the auditorium acoustic then the designer will have to plot the show from the auditorium. Communicating with the operator under these circumstances is quite difficult, as in order to plot effectively the designer cannot wear cans. If you are working with an operator for the first time make sure they appreciate this problem. Tell them to let you know as soon as they are ready to continue plotting whenever they have been writing cue sheets or preparing the console for the next sequence. That way you will not have to constantly ask them. Cans worn around the neck will allow the designer to speak to the operator and hear reasonably well the operators reply. The operator must be made aware that you will not be able to hear him while sequences are being run, if the headset has a call light facility he can use that to attract your attention.

The exact position the sound designer requires cues to be called should be established with the stage manager who will be calling the show, who should be solely concerned at this time with the sound plotting session. The Director will be in attendance. Some will involve themselves fully in the plotting session, sometimes spending too long defining levels or cue times that can only be realistically assessed when the cast are present. In order to complete the plotting some tact may be required to move the session on. Others will be happy to wander around the set and auditorium and will only comment if there is some element that surprises them.

Technical Rehearsal
At the technical rehearsal the cue sequences and levels will be refined, and integrated seamlessly with the other elements of the production, actors, lighting and scenery movements. Sound cue sequences may run across shorter sequences of other cues and their may be frequent stoppages within them. A good director and stage manager will decide where the rehearsal will resume before sorting out the problem so that other operators can set back whilst the problem is being discussed. Always try to ensure that the operator has run a complete cue sequence at one go before allowing the rehearsal to progress to the next section. When resetting complex sequences the stage manager and director should be made aware that running a sequence utilising many tape machines is difficult enough but is even more difficult to work back through, to reset. Again ensure the operator keeps the stage manager aware of his progress on any resets. The lighting department will be very smug at this point as their computerised boards allow instantaneous resets. If the sound operator is always thinking ahead these resets can often be accomplished before the myriad of activity which accompanies any stoppage is completed.
Ensure your operator is kept supplied with coffee etc. particularly if, as is often the case you require him to work through meal breaks.
The tech is the testing ground of all your planning and preparation. If you have done your job properly it should be enjoyable. If you have made some oversights and things do not go as well as intended, remain calm, sort out the problems as quickly as possible, and look upon it as a learning experience!
Many changes will probably be made to the intended running of the show. Some of these may require additional cues or extensions or alterations of existing ones. Use all the time available to the full. Use any periods of the tech that are clear of sound cues to re-edit and create new cues. If the tech goes badly there may be only a few hours between the end of the tech and the next rehearsal. Try and keep on top of alterations as they occur.

Dress Rehearsals
During the dress rehearsals you should be sufficiently confident to leave the main production desk area and listen to the sound in all parts of the house. Make detailed notes of any mistakes or changes required but do not worry the operator unless there is a serious error which requires immediate correction. Although the operator will hopefully have run each complete sequence, this is the first time he has run these sequences one after the other in real time.

By now all should be going smoothly. Seeing the show performed in front of the audience for the first time one is concerned with the effect they have on the timing and audibility of cues. But more importantly, after concentrating on the minute details of your design you can at last assess its contribution to the play as a whole. The director and other members of the creative team will also be looking at the show as a whole.
Previews are a working period and you should expect many changes, cuts, re-writes and rethinks on production elements.
Be brutally honest about your contribution to the show. Have frank discussions with the director about any elements you are unsure of. Be ready with suggestions to help sections of the show that are not working as well as was hoped.

Documentation & Safety Copies.
As soon as the show has opened copy all audio material used in the performance. Record on proper plot sheets the position of every control on every piece of equipment. Update your cue lists and other paperwork to form a full record of the production. Photocopy all plots and store with the audio safety copies in a safe place.

Online Edition 1.1 July 1996 © Mic Pool 1994.