Ghosts are one of the most enjoyable things to create in the world of technical theatre, as they allow you to merge a live performance with technological enhancements to create something impressive and other-worldly.
These are a lot of fun, as you get to turn an actor essentially a classy cyborg. For me these are the most fun when you can conceal a radio microphone into the costume of the performer. Once you have their voice on a channel you can do all sorts of transformations with it some of which are below:
Adjust equalisation to change the tone of the voice
Route the sound to come out of specifically located speakers (say behind or under the stage)
Boost the volume to ride over music or texture effects
Apply any number of complex effects to the voice
Enhance gutterals, plosives hisses and other transients through microphone placement
All of these effects enable you to transform the sound to a greater/lesser extent. In some circumstances you may want to keep the sound subtle, in others you may want to go all melodrama with the ghostly presence. Miking up the performers in a ghost scene ables you to control the scene in such a way that the technology isn’t noticed but the effect is. I have worked on plays where a bit of simple reinforcement and bass-boosting, when combined with stage-fog and angular back-lighting, and of course a powerful performance from the actor, has got a standing ovation from the one speech.
An unseen ghost is simpler, as you can have a simple wired microphone, or even just shouting from the wings, with many of the effects above. Often, though, with an offstage ghost you will simply need to reinforce the sound so it can be heard in the auditorium. These are already (by their definition) other-worldly, but you can enhance this in some subtle ways so that the sound is taken out of the backstage curtains (which never sounds particularly ‘realistic’) and into the bowels of hell itself (or perhaps just the next room). You can also pre-record these lines to
Sometimes we do not need to see or hear the ghost to know that it is there. These situations give the opportunity for terrififying (or cathartic) sound composition, as we try to conjour up the emotional and spiritual state of the ghost, or perhaps the impact of the ghost on the scene. I like to transform real-world sounds into other-worldly echoes (see my post on soundscaping) and bring altered musical elements such as distant drums or harmonic feedback and sung voices. But of course the sounds you use will depend on the circumstances of the situation, as well as the length of the scene you are writing for.
Decisions that should be made are whether the ghost can be seen (and you are underscoring or mickey-mousing their actions), whether they are heard (against a supernatural texture or isolated and alone) or if we simply evoke the spirit of the ghost through musical and technological means. All of these can be done with a little effort, and you will often find all three variants in the same show.
Ghosts are hugely fun to create, and you get a real sense of control and artistic involvement when you design and operate a ghost in a theatrical setting. These morbid intrusions provide an opportunity for all elements of the theatre to come together to create something that can be moving, impressive, spectacular, emotional or entertaining, and with continual adjustment can provide a truly immersive theatrical experience for the audience.
The theatre provides an arena for the latest developments in musical and theatrical technology to be used in a practical context. This technological integration has both advantages and disadvantages for the development of live performance. Moving away from the traditional roles of amplification and reinforcement, advances in electronic and digital technology have allowed designers to replace live musicians and instrumental music with electronically generated or pre-recorded music. The resulting ‘score’ can then be replicated perfectly for every performance, giving an accuracy and reliability not usually found in pit orchestra musicians.
Developments in modern technology have provided theatre-makers with several new avenues to explore, with technology having both strengths and limitations when compared to live performers. Seen by opposing sides as either technological tools or technological shortcuts, the unique opportunities that digital sound technology provides to the theatre have resulted in a wide range of uses within the theatrical realm.
Advantages of Live Performance over Technology
Despite these advantages, the replacement of live performers with technology—digital or otherwise—can remove several key elements of the musical experience. A major advantage of live performers, in any ensemble configuration, is the adaptability of the music to the idiosyncrasies of dramatic performance. As previously shown, musicians are able to compensate for technical or dramatic delays in a way a recording can not. Although a recording may be perfectly replicable, acting rarely is: minor variations exist in each performance, and audience reaction may throw off timed cues. The ability of live music to flex around these variations is its major strength. Also missing in a recorded score are the aesthetic benefits of a live performance. The satisfaction of a concert performance is partially dependent on live musicians and the communal experience of concert-going: replacing an orchestra with a recording seems counterintuitive in this context. Why do we have different expectations of theatrical music from concert music? Similarly, the physical presence of additional people in the performance, such as a pit orchestra or stage-band, imbues meaning in the performance. The communality of the performance ritual means we can get the same enjoyment from this involvement as from seeing large groups in coordinated activity. From a more formalist perspective, removing the instrumental or live nature of the performance removes many traditional elements of orchestration and arrangement. The development of such an environmentally limited performance style causes a specific set of challenges to arise for the composer. Listening to how the composer has dealt with these challenges can be just as satisfying as an atmospheric or emotional depiction. This appreciation of compositional skill can be side-stepped in theatrical electronic scores, as they often seem designed to be unobtrusive and forgettable. A well-constructed work that maintains standards of orchestration, arrangement and motivic development, while still interacting with and supporting the dramatic work can be a pleasurable and memorable composition. Examples of these successful works can be found as part of the symphonic literature as suites or in non-dramatic full recording.
Advantages of technology over Live Performance
The most obvious advantage an electronic rig has over acoustic musicians is a physical one: in confined or limited venues a public address system reduces the amount of space needed to achieve a desired musical volume. It also enables designers to reduce the space needed by ‘flying’ the system above the stage or auditorium, a feat that is obviously impractical with live performers. Aside from these physical advantages modern sound systems open up new resources for the sound designer. The developments of digital (and analogue) audio effects have enabled designers to ‘process’ live and recorded sound with ease. Applying audio effects such as reverberation, echo, and delay gives designers access to sounds and timbres that were previously unavailable. While this can be used to process live sound (to make it sound like a singer is in a cathedral, or an instrument is playing from the grave etc.) it is often used in the generation of soundscapes and completely artificial scores. Using these resources as compositional tools allows composers to avoid the traditional requirements of conventionally structured music, and introduce ‘atmospheric’ forms which do not follow the traditional paths of harmony, rhythm and structure. Because of these possibilities, many modern productions now use computer-composed scores, using a combination of processed snippets of recorded sound and artificially generated noise to evoke tension and setting in the dramatic production. Audio technology is also desirable in a theatrical context because it presents complete control and reliability. A case in point is volume control: unlike acoustic instruments, it is possible to reduce the volume of any recorded sound without altering the timbre significantly. In practical terms this provides composers with increased musical resources for underscoring, as any instruments which would previously dominate a spoken voice (such as a brass fanfare beneath a stirring speech) can be reduced in volume without losing the emotive qualities of the music. The use of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) as a mechanism to interact with music synthesisers, effects controllers, and with more unlikely mechanisms such as lighting, pyrotechnic, and hydraulic control allows for a small level of interactivity between live performance and pre-coordinated technology. This, combined with the high level of micro-control, provides opportunities for technological synchronisation, and replicates to some extent the vamps and safeties of the acoustic score. Technological advances have also allowed economic reductions in theatrical music: systems available can replace the traditional jobs of copyists, arrangers, rehearsal accompanists, performing musicians and conductors. Although technology has provided some economic advantages to traditional composition (reducing the need for professional copyists and allowing exotic or multitudinous instruments to be synthesised in the pit) this technological approach to music presents many desirable advantages to the theatrical producer. The perfect replicability and accuracy of electronic systems coupled with the elimination of troublesome live musicians—with tea-breaks, pay-scales, and inevitable fatigue—makes any artificial system eminently desirable to the theatrical context at first glance.
Do we have a responsibility to keep musicians in employment? Are we somehow misrepresenting the theatrical experience if we use only a prerecorded soundtrack? To what extent is a musical score like a lighting design: as we no longer demand that every moving head must have a cheerful navvie perched behind it (and allow Computer Numerical Control to move and focus lights in performance) is it wrong to demand that the sounds we hear are made only by a trained performer. When does art become artifice?
I do not have the answers to these questions, and perhaps there are no concrete answers to them, but I think it is important to consider whether we have any responsibility in what we present theatrically to maintain a standard of ethical performance. It is difficult to separate these arguments from tradition and nostalgia, but creative industries have as much a need to retain and develop skills as they do to explore new avenues.
Phenomenological impacts of liveness
The main problem that arises with using live musicians on-or-under stage is that in contemporary theatre practise they impact the narrative of the play. With today’s realism-based performance style it becomes difficult to incorporate a pit orchestra into the performance as it challenges the fourth wall: if we are seeing a Chekov or Ibsen piece of small room realism, are we to believe that the room has a basement full of professional musicians, or do we decide they are sitting in the theatre with us. This blurring of the line between audience and performer can prove problematic for many productions, and the most appropriate use of music must be decided by those involved.
In more contemporary-style performances I have noticed two trends. First, the introduction of the ‘character’ of the musician(s) as an on-stage agent, where the musicians become actors within the narrative and engage with the plot in extra-musical ways. Secondly, the ‘band’ has moved out of the pit, appearing now on galleries, upstage, gantries or roving front-of-house to directly challenge this old method of performance. It is no longer fashionable to pretend that the music does not exist, rather, we incorporate it into the performance in an often meta-theatrical way. The crucial element is that the method must be appropriate to the specific production of the specific play, and while sometimes a pre-recorded score is the only suitable medium, a creative approach to the staging of live music within the play can prove excitingly fruitful.
Historical perspective on live musicians (Wagner and O’neill)
For the historical composers, music was always live. Even O’Neill, writing in the dawning of the recorded age, saw no other way than to use live musicians. However by this point the actual presence of musicians on the performance was starting to prove problematic, and so we desire not to see them. To have all of the musical qualities, without ruining the illusion with the visible work of performance. Wagner, in the creation of his theatre at Bayreuth, revolutionised the theatre in two ways: he plunged the entire theatre into darkness, and he buried the orchestra pit below and beneath the stage. These conventions quickly spread to dramatic theatres, and by the twentieth century the pit had become a standard theatrical feature. Mark Lubbock, writing in 1957, remarks that “in a Theatre the orchestra should always be hidden”, and cites dramatic reasons: “otherwise the lights and movements of the conductor and players intervening between the audience and the stage prove very distracting. Apart from this, hidden music greatly adds to the illusion.” However, this impact on the dramatic meaning of the work, while vital, means the requirements of the performing musicians are sidelined: the pit is dark, has a “long narrow shape” where cramped musicians are “packed close together”, and is the perfect receptacle for dust and debris rolling off the stage.
Therefore producers directors and composers have to balance the impacts of live music with the problems, and the problems that the solutions to the first problems raise. In my opinion the presence of talented musicians adds enough to the performance to easily outweigh the difficulties involved, but of course this varies from production to production.
Finding and using the right sound effect is difficult when starting out. While sound effects libraries aim to make finding the exact right type of running-water effect a simple task, the money needed to buy and license these effects can be prohibitive.
Record Your Own
By far the best method of getting sound effects is to record your own. You get the most control about the exact sound you get, and you own the intellectual property of the recording. It is surprisingly easy nowadays to get a usable sound effect recording: I have recorded items on my iPhone voice recording app (other smartphones are available) and then edited them in Audacity to make an effect. You can also use a handheld field-recorder or even a full-blown foley studio or field-recording kit, but the principle is the same. You get a microphone and hold it near the source of the particular noise, and then ask the actor/passerby/machine/animal to make that noise for you. Of course, you don’t have easy access to all effects. What if your play is set in the First World War, or the African Jungle? You probably don’t have access to heavy artillery and a tame lion. This is when we start hunting online.
The wonderful thing about the internet is that someone, somewhere, has found a series of heavy cannon, a biplane, and a tame lion, and recorded them. I don’t know why, but they have, and often a simple google search will turn up exactly what you need. The problem comes from how much they are asking for the recording. For a historically accurate biplane recorded in surround sound, they’ll probably ask a gefty whack. For some modern small plane recorded in mono at a low bitrate mp3 they’ll give it away, but it might not be worth it. In these situations I find the best solution is to compile your own. Cant find a battle sound? Pull together effects of guns, mortar, horses, footsteps, voices, wind, rain, machine and engine noises into one complex soundscape. You can even combine these sounds with your own recordings (get an actor to bark military instructions, record the cast marching on gravel etc). In this way you can get the perfect sound effect for your production with as much or as little detail as you need.
Keep them Legal
Make sure when you pull together sound effects that you keep track of what sound you are using, where it came from, and the license under which it is issued. Many sound effect sites use creative commons licenses, which is great, but you need to make sure that you are able to use it for what you need. If your production is charging for tickets you need to make sure it is suitable for commercial use, and if you want to mix it into a landscape of sound effects you need to make sure that they allow modification of their original source. Most creative-commons licenses ask for attribution, and it is up to you to decide how you attribute the sources of your sounds. Remember, this person braved a lion to get you that sound, at least acknowledge that!Some sources of sounds (free and legal)
you can trim smaller effects out of larger clips or pieces, but be sure you do so legally.
or just google untill you find what you need…
Once you have collected the sounds you wish to use for your effect, you will probably need to do some basic transformations to make them usable. This usually involves trimming off the excess sound before and after, increasing the volume (normalizing) of the sound, and perhaps basic noise removal. This should give you a clip that is only the sound you want, nice and clearly, all ready for you to drag into your mix.
You may also want to do some more advanced transformations, including (but not limited to) pitch/speed/time stretch, retrograding (flipping it backwards), or perhaps any echo or reverberation effect. All of these are best done in the DAW (digital audio workstation) of your choice, and you’ll have to look up how-to’s for these elsewhere.
So, you have all your sounds cleaned up and ready to go. Some of these can just be plugged straight into your show-cue system and built into the show (phone rings, doorbells etc), but others will need layering into a more extended soundscape. Here you can fire up your artistic ears and select the right sounds for the situation. If you drop these all onto separate channels of your DAW you have the greatest amount of control over every nuance of the sound, and can set individual levels, panning and effects for each sound, and even automate these to change during the clip itself.
Creating an aural space (panning, distance)
While there are no hard and fast rules on how you build your effects it could be wise to use the framework that R. Murray Schafer, a canadian electronic musician, wrote about when he coined the term Soundscape:
The basic foundation for a soundscape. The keynote sounds may not always be heard consciously, but they “outline the character of the people living there”. They are created by nature (geography and climate): wind, water, forests, plains, birds, insects, animals. In many urban areas, traffic has become the keynote sound.
These are foreground sounds, which are listened to consciously; examples would be warning devices, bells, whistles, horns, sirens, etc.
This is derived from the term landmark. A soundmark is a sound which is unique to an area.
In practical terms a theatrical score will primarily make use of a texture of keynote sounds with a couple of establishing soundmarks, and only use sound signals when indicated in the script.
You will also want to create an aural space through the illusion of space and distance. This is basically accomplished using panning (moving the sound left or right in a stereo mix or placing it within a surround sound layout) and reverberation or delay combined with judicious volume setting to create a sense of distance from the listener. Again, use your judgement and the cues given by the script.
In summary, you will collect and process sounds from a multitude of sources and use them to create a tapestry that provides a physical and emotional setting that envelops the audience and the production. How you do it is up to you, but many tools work in similar ways. A good soundscape is like an electronic composition, perfectly placed sounds interact with each other to develop the narrative and contexts of the play. A bad one is like a shuffle mix of a CD of sound effects, and adds nothing to the drama. Mess around with your resources and see what you can come up with, but make sure your end product is a work of art: subtle and perfectly placed. If you do it right, no-one will notice. Then you have won!
Underscoring (the process of accompanying speech or action with sound or music) as a science as much as it is an art. It requires a careful understanding of the action onstage and a sensitive tailoring of the music to interweave exactly with the narrative of word and action. Nowadays we are far more familiar with this technique as a filmic convention, but underscoring theatrical scenes involves a set of skills not needed for the predetermined world of the edited film.
Perhaps we should start with a short definition:
Underscoring refers to music which plays underneath dialogue and action, without ‘locking in’ with it or standing on its own. Generally quiet and unobtrusive, it supports the onstage action emotionally and atmospherically. It is not usually heard by the characters onstage.
It is similar to the technique of Melodrama, a form of writing that interlocks musical ideas with complex dialogue or action, but can be seen as a smaller component of melodrama: underscoring does not usually peek it’s head above the ramparts of the dialogue, instead providing a firm emotional foundation.
Perhaps the most important factor for the creation of underscoring is volume. Unlike in film music, where you absolute control of volume in recording, live music can easily overwhelm speech if badly written.
Perhaps the best thing to bear in mind is to keep the music as distraction-free as possible. This means not writing jaunty and catchy tunes or distinctively rhythmical accompaniment patterns.
The other area of techniques, aside from compositional, lies in the orchestration. If the spoken word is un-amplified you have to be careful not to overwhelm it with brass or percussion instruments. Some instruments (strings are traditional) are able to play at very quiet dynamics without strongly accented articulation, and so are able to maintain a low sound level over long periods of time. Other instruments such as flutes and some tuned percussion can also sustain quiet passages, but many other reed and brass instruments are difficult or tiring to maintain a consistent quiet pitch. Experimentation and intuition are the key.
Audio technology is often used in a theatrical context because it presents complete control and reliability. A case in point is volume control: unlike acoustic instruments, it is possible to reduce the volume of any recorded sound without significantly altering the timbre. In practical terms this provides composers with increased musical resources for underscoring, as any instruments which would previously dominate a spoken voice (such as a brass fanfare beneath a stirring speech) can be reduced in volume without losing the emotive qualities of the music.
However, using technological shortcuts can often result in a lessening of the impact that well-written underscoring can have. The embodied presence of live musicians interacting and locking in with the emotional arc of the narrative can create a more powerful performance than a accompanying recording. If done well this can be an enormously powerful technique for many different styles of theatre, but is perhaps more difficult in a live and acoustic setting. The challenges are worth it though!