Sound designer mixing their sound in theatre mix

If I was to ask you to close your eyes and then play to you the sound of distant seagulls, in your mind where would you go?

Without moving a muscle, I guarantee you would be instantly transported to a faraway beach, maybe even one from your childhood, or a place you know visit every summer. You might even smell the salt in the air, feel the sand between your toes and the wind on your face, all from one perfectly chosen sound effect.

Sound can do so much. It’s immersive, expressive, and dynamic, and yet I feel that in too many theatre pieces it is an aspect criminally under appreciated.

I’m not saying every piece. Far from it. There are some fantastic sound designers out there who embrace sound and use it to its full potential.

I remember when I first got to experience first-hand what great sound design can do in a theatre. I was sat in The Royal Exchange in Manchester, watching Alistair McDowall’s Pomona in 2015. Between each scene was a black out, and during this brief period of darkness, there was a sound. A strange, blaring noise that chilled me to my core and forced me to the edge of my seat ready for the next scene.

These were no longer scene changes that pull an audience out of the world of the play. They were explosions of tension and energy, building on the already fantastic atmosphere. Sound designer Giles Thomas truly understands the power of sound in theatre. So does director Ned Bennett, bringing Thomas in from an early stage of rehearsal.

Sound has been a key part of theatre since theatre began. What is story telling except for the sound of someone’s voice whisking you away on a great tale of adventure as you gather close around the fire.

During the times of Ancient Greek theatre, machines were specifically invented to imitate the rumbling of thunder to announce the appearance of Gods. The sound had narrative importance, showing these characters as great and powerful and to be potentially feared.

From the 16th Century onwards, audiences expected to hear more realistic sound effects in theatre. As the performance spaces shifted from outdoors to inside professional theatres, this became much easier.

Looking more recently, to my great joy, there has been a surge once again of theatre makers using sound in ground-breaking, perception-shattering ways. Think only to Complicité’s The Encounter from a couple of years ago, which relied almost entirely on sound to tell a story.

Audience members wore headphones, while Simon McBurney, alone on stage, walks around a binaural microphone. This specialised microphone was inside a fake head and perfectly recreated full three-dimensional sound around the listener. Telling a story and using various props to create sound effects.

There was no set. No costumes. Minimal use of lighting. And yet… McBurney creates one of the most vivid and transportive experiences I have seen in years, and he did that using sound.

Sound in theatre is fifty percent of the tools you can use to tell a story. Unless you are bravely attempting to make Smell-O-Vision Theatre, which, if you are, I commend you.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in 2017, I experienced the intense kick-to-the-head audio nightmare that was Darkfield’s Séance. Only 20 minutes long, audience members are locked in a pitch-black shipping container. Deprived of all sense of sight, and given a pair of headphones. We heard the manipulative and horrifying sounds of a séance taking place. I still don’t think I’ve recovered fully.

And yet still, despite all this, some theatre makers leave it to the last minute. Downloading a few sounds from the internet and throwing them into a scene. I have been guilty of that myself, many a time.

When you are stressed and busy in the theatre-making process, it seems like something you can leave until last. In many smaller productions I have seen over the last decade, sound is forced to take a backseat, with little care or thought put into it. But, if you bring a sound designer in as early as you can in the rehearsal process, they can be part of the creative mixing pot.

Sound design can be much cheaper and more effective solution to establishing a location than a fully furnished set. They can listen to the sounds made live on stage and work with them, occupying the frequencies not used by the actors’ voices. They should be present during at least a few rehearsals, to get a feel for the performance and give them the most time to design the most effective possible sound for your piece.

Allow me, if you will, to take a brief little detour away from theatre to the world of its sister medium: cinema. But not to just any film, we’re flying off to a galaxy far far away. Star Wars a behemoth of a franchise. Its grasp on modern pop culture is unfailing. It is everywhere. However, I would argue that Star Wars would be nowhere near the world dominating success that it is today if it weren’t for its use of sound, and I’m not just talking about the music.

Much has been said about John William’s iconic score, but his themes and motifs make up only half of what you hear. If I were to ask you to close your eyes once again, and played you the sound of a lightsaber being ignited, or a Tie Fighter flying through space, or even one of the blaster bolts, most people would be able to identify in seconds what it was and what film it was from. How often have you seen people attempting Chewie’s roar? That is all sound design.

Pioneer of modern sound design Ben Burtt gave Star Wars a unique sound world with character and weight. His sound is tactile. You can feel it. I’m not saying you should attempt to create a franchise-wide audio universe for your play, but why settle for the bare minimum? Use every tool at your disposal. Bring in a sound designer as early as you can in a rehearsal process, and trust me, you will soon witness the results first hand.

I love sound design and I long for more creators to love sound design too, realising its full potential. Don’t give audiences fifty percent of an experience. Make sound. Give them everything.

Patch Middleton

Patch Middleton is a writer, theatre-maker and sound designer based in Manchester. Working as one-third of the newly formed theatre company Obscura, Patch is interested in creating strange and immersive worlds and tackling genres not often seen on stage.