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!