Step Eight: It’s Showtime!

Once you have all of your cues loaded into QLab, it’s almost showtime!

In this post, I will prepare you to run sound during the show. I have never run sound for a production, as this is typically a job for a crew member, but some directors might ask you to. You will need to ask your director about the specifics of your theater, but you will likely be responsible for speakers and amplifiers as well as the computer with QLab.

In order to prepare QLab for the show, open the Lists, Carts & Active Cues sidebar using the button in the bottom right (circled in red). Here you will find a list of all the active cues, as well as stop, pause and play buttons.

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These will all be useful for you in case you need to make an emergency stop, but the main button you want to know is the GO button. This button, in the top left (it’s hard to miss!) is the button you will use to trigger each sound cue.

Again, practices differ for each theater, but a stage manager will likely be standing by on the script to call when sound and light cues should be triggered.

During dress rehearsals, you will likely get the chance to see your sound design matched up with the entire production for the first time. You won’t want to make any drastic edits during the phase, but feel free to follow your instincts in making tweaks and minor adjustments.

After the dress rehearsal(s), it’s finally showtime! At this point, you have to step back and have faith in the sound design you created. If you followed each of these steps, you should be in good shape, and any insights you gain in retrospect can be used in your next sound design.

But for now, sit back and enjoy the show!

Ask questions and leave feedback in the comment section below. What have you learned? Is there something I forgot to mentioned? Follow Staging Sound to stay updated!

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Step Seven: Digging Deeper in QLab

Now that we have discussed the basics of QLab, we will look at a few other features that might be useful to you.

We learned how to have music fade out, but fading in is slightly more complicated. Let’s say that we want to fade in a song at its middle. First, we would enter the Time & Loops tab and drag the starting point of the cue to the point where we will want to start fading up.

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Next, we will drag the volume slider to the bottom to have the sound start off silent. Then, we click the Fade button again to create a fade cue.

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Again, we will drag our desired cue (in this case, cue 3) to the fade cue. This time, instead of dragging the volume of the fade cue to the bottom, we will enter the number 0 (or whatever volume we want to fade to) into the master volume box.

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Again, enter the Curve Shape tab to specify the duration of your fade-in.

Say we want the sound of crickets to start automatically a minute after the song begins to play. First, change the Continue settings of the first sound cue to Auto-continue. Then drag in the cricket sound effect. The problem here is that while the two cues are connected, we don’t want the second one to begin for another minute.

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This is when we use the Wait tool. Under the Basics tab of the second sound cue, the crickets in this case, find the Pre Wait and Post Wait boxes. Using these, we can cushion the time around a sound cue so that it or the following sound will wait to play. In this case, we want to use the Pre Wait box to tell the sound to wait 1 minute before beginning.

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Say now that we want the cricket sound to continue for the whole scene, but the clip is only around 2 and a half minutes. This is when we use the Loop tools under the Time & Loops tab. We can choose to make the sound play a specific amount of times using the Play count box, or we can cause the Infinite loop tool to cause the sound to continue indefinitely. You will likely want to use a Stop or Fade tool to create a cue that stops it at the end of the scene, however.

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Using combinations of these tools, you will be able to create a variety of different effects in your sound design. Again, there are many more features to explore within QLab, so make sure to play around with the software to get a feel for it.

Next, we will look at using QLab during the show.

Ask questions in the comment section below, and make sure to follow Staging Sounds for more information about theatrical sound design!

Step Six: The Basics of QLab

Once you have selected all the songs and sound effects for your sound design and made the necessary adjustments, it is time to start using QLab— a multimedia playback cue-based software designed for theatre and live entertainment. Although there is other similar software on the market, QLab for Mac is easy to use and free to download.

Below is the basic QLab workstation.

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We will start with something easy: inserting pre-show music. First we will use the Group button (top left, circled in red) to create a group of sounds— think of it like a folder.

Next, drag your pre-show music from the file folder on your computer into that group.

It is a good practice to rename and number your sound cues so that you can avoid confusion further down the road. I numbered my pre-show music group as “Preshow music” and gave it the number of sound cue 1, as it will be the first thing that will be played. I numbered the songs within the group as 1.1, 1.2, etc., because they will be triggered immediately when the preceding song ends.

(Note: to delete a sound cue or group, highlight it and press command+delete on your keyboard.)

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So that the sound board operator doesn’t have to start every song individually, we will program the songs to play one after another using the Auto-follow tool.

Under the basic settings of each sound cue, you will see the Continue dropdown menu. The options are: Do not continue, which will cause the audio to stop at the end of that cue; Auto-continue, which will automatically play the next cue on your list at the same time as the current cue; and Auto-follow, which will play the next cue when your current cue ends. We want to select this third option for each of our pre-show cues. You will likely want to play around with these options later on in your sound design.

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Lastly, I will show you how to fade the pre-show music out when you are ready for the show to begin.

First, click the Fade button (top middle, circled in red). This will create a new sound cue, but it will be blank. In order to connect it to the pre-show music folder, drag that group onto the fade cue.

This does little, however, until you adjust the settings within the fade cue. First, open the Audio Levels tab in the cue’s settings. You want the music to stop when the cue is triggered, so check the box entitled Stop target when done (circled in red). Next, you need to give the cue a fade destination, so drag the master volume slider all the way to the bottom. This will be the volume at the end of the cue.

(Note: You may also want to use the fade button later on to make sounds louder or quieter. In these cases, you would adjust the volume slider, but you would leave the Stop target when done box unchecked.)

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No one likes it when the music they are listening to stops abruptly, so you will want to give the music a few seconds to fade. I usually choose somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds, but it depends on the music.

In order to adjust the length of the fade, go to the Curve Shape tab and change the number in the Duration box. You can also change the curve type and play around with other settings to achieve the perfect effect.

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With these basic tools, you can begin to put your show together. There is much more that QLab can do, however, so feel free to dig around and experiment. In my next post, I will be looking at some of QLab’s more advanced tools.

Feel free to ask questions in the comment section, and make sure to follow Staging Sounds for more information about theatrical sound design!

Step Five: Perfecting your sounds

After you have found music and sound effects for your sound design, you will want to make sure they are just right. Sometimes a song starts at the wrong place or gets too loud at a certain point. Sometimes you need to loop a sound or add an effect to it.

Although my digital audio workstation of choice is Ableton Live, Garageband is free and comes preloaded on most Macs, so I will be using it for demonstration. It has many features, but I will only cover the ones most necessary for basic sound design. For a more detailed tutorial, check out Udemytutorials or Macworld. Below is the basic Garageband workstation.

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You will first want to drag whichever sound file you wish to edit to the track labelled Audio 1. From here, you can control its volume, adjust its length, and add effects.

First, we will adjust the length of a sound effect. I made a sound effect of a scream, followed by a gunshot, and I want to cut out the scream. To do this, I will drag from the top left of the sound file (circled in red) to the beginning of the gunshot so that only the second sound plays.

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Second, we will adjust the volume. I wanted my sound effect of dogs growling to fade out slowly after 5 seconds, so I clicked the fader button (circled in red) and clicked the yellow volume line to create three points (also circled). I then dragged the second two down to created a gradual fade out effect.

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Next, we will loop a sound effect. This can be useful if a sound needs to be playing throughout an entire scene. I am going to loop a sound effect of waves splashing. The sound effect starts with one loud splash that I only want at the beginning, however, so we will need to skip that for subsequent loops. I created a new track, and used my volume sliders to make the audio switch between the two tracks on a loop.

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Finally, we will add an effect. I want my gunshot to sound like it is coming from far away, so I am going to add reverb to it. To do this, I hit the mixer button (circled in red) and adjusted the reverb knob. Perfect!

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Feel free to ask questions in the comment section, and make sure to follow Staging Sounds for more information about theatrical sound design!

Step Four: Choosing the Perfect Music

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(Photo by Joe Flood)

After you have developed your “sound,” you will need to start to pin down specific tracks to your script. As you look through royalty-free music websites for the perfect music, keep your script nearby so that you can start to match songs to scenes.

There are three main types of music in theatrical productions:

  1. Diegetic music
  2. Incidental/non-diegetic music
  3. Pre-show/intermission/curtain music

Diegetic music

Diegetic music refers to music that occurs as part of the action (rather than as background), and can be heard by the film’s characters. For example, if a character in your play turns on the radio, the sound that emerges is diegetic. It is often a good idea to start with this kind of music, although not all productions will have it.

This type of music is often more specific to the play, so you may have less control in this area. While working on my current sound design for Antigone Now, I had one occurrence of diegetic when a character was listening to her iPod. The director and the actress picked the song she would listen to, so all I had to do was add it to my design.

Incidental/non-diegetic music

This refers to the music that the characters cannot hear; it is also referred to as commentary music, as it can comment on the action. It can set the mood or reflect the emotions of the characters. Some directors may not want to use incidental music at all, as it can detract from the realism of the play. If used well, however, this type of music can add a powerful layer to the play.

We tend to categorize emotions in music into four categories—happy, sad, scary and serious—but it is important to look past these initial categories for a more nuanced design. “Sad music” has its own cliches; somber piano tunes with high violin notes has been used over and over. Sometimes it is more effective to find songs that are soft, but sound almost happy. For Antigone Now, I found soft and hopeful acoustic guitar songs and played them during sad scenes. It gave the scenes a bittersweet mood and made me feel emotional even as I read the script along with the music.

Pre-show/intermission/curtain music

Music before and after (and in the middle of) your play can keep the audience interested, but its most important function is to set the mood. You can take greater liberties with this music, but it still a good idea not to stray too far from your “sound.” For example, I used instrumental acoustic guitar music heavily during Antigone Now, but I used songs with acoustic guitar and vocals for pre-show and intermission music.

Follow Staging Sound for more tips and tricks and information about theatrical sound design!

 

Step Three: Finding Sounds

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(Photo by Ernest Duffoo)

Now that we have developed a sound, we must find music and sound effects that we can use in our sound design. Although small theatrical productions usually fly under the radar of copyright law, and can therefore usually get away with using almost any copyrighted material, it is better practice to use only sounds that you have created yourself, those that have been licensed under creative commons, and those in the public domain.

Creating your own sounds

You should always figure out which sounds you can create yourself first. This can be more difficult than pulling sounds from the Internet, but it will assure that the sounds are not protected by copyright. Additionally, you can record them exactly how you want them.

Microphones can be expensive, but sometimes you can get by without buying fancy equipment. Some schools have microphones that can be rented or borrowed, so it is a good idea to check with your theatre/music/production department. If not, the microphone on your computer or phone can often pick up acceptable sound.

Finding sound effects online

Below is a list of the best free sound effect websites:

  1. freesound.org
  2. audiomicro.com
  3. freesfx.co.uk
  4. soundbible.com
  5. flashkit.com/soundfx
  6. 99sounds.org/free-sound-effects

Even more high quality sound effects are available for a price across the web, but you will likely be able to find almost any sound effect you need through these websites.

Find music online

Music can be much trickier to find than sound effects. A gunshot is a gunshot, but one poorly chosen song can change the mood of an entire play. This is where the previous step comes in. Below is a list of websites where you can find free music. If you were open a website and pull whichever songs you came across for your sound design, you might have a very disconnected end result. As you listen through the music in these websites, keep your desired “sound” in mind so that you can stay focused. It is okay if your sound changes as you listen to music, but make sure that you maintain cohesion.

  1. incompetech.com/music/royalty-free
  2. danosongs.com
  3. mobygratis.com
  4. ccmixter.org
  5. publicdomain4u.com
  6. jamendo.com

Using these websites, you will never need to pay for any music you use in your production. Just make sure to credit the original creator of any sounds you use!

Follow Staging Sound and stay updated to learn how to choose the perfect music for each scene.

Step Two: The Exploration Phase

After meeting with your director, it is a good idea to start listening to music to develop a ‘sound’ for the play. You can use Spotify, Youtube or another streaming platform to explore a nearly endless amount of music for free.

When I began working on Antigone Now, I juggled a number of different ‘sounds’ during this phase. As the play is a modernized version of the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone, I thought the music should reflect both the play’s modern setting and its ancient roots. I listened to dozens of contemporary film scores in order to get a broad sense of what kind of music is being used in films today.

I boiled my search down to a number of ‘sounds’ that could work. These were an acoustic guitar-based Americana sound, a ragtime inspired piano-based sound or a modern, synthesizer-heavy sound. Then I played a sample of each as I read various scenes from the play. This process is fairly unscientific; it mainly just helps you find a musical direction. Designers must develop their ear to be able to determine what music fits with which scenes.

None of these ‘sounds’ matched the script well, however, so I had to return to the drawing board. I liked the acoustic guitar but I didn’t want to completely abandon the possibility of incorporating synthesizers into my design. I searched and listened and searched and listened, and I couldn’t come across any soundtracks that fit my desired ‘sound.’

I decided to retreat into my personal music collection and see if I could find any inspiration. I ended up listening to a abstract vocal song from an avant-garde Italian soundtrack from the 70s, and inspiration hit. Soundtracks from southern Europe in the 70s experimented with synthesizers, but also used traditional instruments like acoustic guitar and strings, sounding both new and old. Moreover, they held a certain Mediterranean musical quality that could evoke the play’s Greek roots. Using a songs from a number of these soundtracks, I created my ‘sound.’

The problem? This type of soundtrack is generally copyrighted. I would advise not to get too attached to the songs you find in this phase, because your director may require that you only use music that is in the public domain or licensed under creative commons. Follow Staging Sound and stay updated to find out how to find music you can use for free in your sound design!