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!

Why Did I Become Theatrical Sound Designer?

Although I was acting in plays before I ever picked up a microphone or played around with a D.A.W. (digital audio workstation), I didn’t see myself as a theatre geek when I entered college as a music technology student. In my second year of college, I dropped my music technology major and began acting in every play that my school put on. I acted in six plays in two years, playing everything from a Shakespearian patriarch to an egg in drag.

Although I enjoyed acting, it was the theatre community that kept me coming back. The experience of a large group of directors, designers, stage managers and actors all working together to achieve a common goal was constantly exhilarating and immensely fulfilling.

My acting streak hit a snag, however, when I began taking the upper level classes that my major required. I no longer had time to spend most evenings in rehearsal and the rest of my free time memorizing my lines. I struggled to create a balance between the two, but I wasn’t ready to give up my place in my college’s theatre community. This is when my choice to become a sound designer fell into place.

After having acted in a number of plays, I had seen a deficiency in quality sound design. The designs were usually mediocre enough to go unnoticed, but they were clunky and didn’t serve the play as a whole. This essentially boiled down to the fact that the directors and producers did not consider sound design as important as props or set design. And in some ways, they’re correct. Productions with bad props or set design will be logistical catastrophes. The stakes are seen as much lower for sound design, so it’s often the case that little attention or care is put into creating a sound design that matches the quality of the show.

Coming from a background in music technology, I took issue with this assumption. Sound design may not be a core part of theatrical instruction, but it ends up having a large effect on the final production. A sound effect that sounds unrealistic can ruin the audience’s suspension of disbelief. A harsh or misplaced musical cue can ruin the mood of a scene entirely.

Furthermore, sound can be a powerful tool when used correctly. When used well, even the most subtle musical accent can inspire joy, laughter, shock, anguish or sadness. Simple sound effects in the right place can help create a rich and realistic environment. Sound can intensify scenes or soothe the audience. Knowing how to use these sounds can be incredibly powerful.

After I realized that my passion for sound and music could have a place within theatre, I signed up to be a sound designer. After serving as the sound designer for a number of plays, I am currently in the process of designing sound for a production of Antigone Now by Melissa Cooper. Follow Staging Sound to track my progress with this play and learn more about the many processes and technique of theatrical sound design.