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 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.

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.