Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Sound of Music

I’m a geek.  I embrace it.  I let my geek flag fly.  I have never used a pocket protector or strapped a calculator to my belt, but I like computers and spreadsheets and details.  I also love how tech tools can enhance artistic opportunities and expression, especially regarding sound engineering.  

I recently read how some professionals have done recordings using their IPad, and the author of the article wondered how long it would be until smart phones became portable recording studios.   I have long been a home recording hobbyist, so I found the concept sort of fascinating.  But since I just last week upgraded my recording software, and sit at my computer surrounded by my keyboard, mixer, external soundcard and comically large speakers (OK, I didn’t buy them mainly as computer monitors, but they happen to work that way!), I think I’ll keep what I’ve got.  These tools have allowed me to do not only recording, but lots of manipulation of sounds for theater projects.  (I’ve used software by Magix for years – inexpensive but powerful.  I just upgraded to Samplitude 11.5 Producer.) 

Most of the shows I’ve been involved with use prerecorded tracks, something I do not have the skills to create myself.  But it is often long after those tracks have been obtained that the need for changes is discovered.  Maybe the scene change music isn’t long enough – or is too long.  Maybe a song is in the wrong key, or a dialogue underscore section is too fast.  Usually there are a least a few sound effects, like a telephone or doorbell, that are easier to include right along with the music track.  Sometimes several sound effects are layered to create the right sound, or they may be intentionally left as separate sounds which must then be cued individually.  I did sound design for a show last year with thunder (sound effect) and lightening (lighting effect) that needed to be timed together, and they needed to be cued by dialogue, so it all had to be done on the fly.  I kept an endless loop of rain sounds running, and used a separate sound source for individual thunder claps.  No sleeping on the job for that one!

Another somewhat elaborate effect layered the existing background music, sirens, barking dogs and gunshots.  It was a 10 or 15 second clip that the audience probably didn’t really think about, but which heightened the mood and emotion of that scene.  I wouldn’t even want them to think about it.  Sound enhancement is often more about helping the audience to feel what you want them to feel than it is about expecting them to really listen.  And sometimes, when it’s done right, all they notice is the feeling.  

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