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.


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!


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


(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


(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:


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.


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.