Sound Design for Plays with QLab
This is a new version of an article Mic Pool wrote in 1994 that was one of the first online theatre sound design resources available on the internet. This version is QLab-specific with regard to the playback software discussed in the examples, but is also a fairly comprehensive description of a method of sound design regardless of playback software. It describes an approach to the sound design of a text-based play, using QLab as the primary playback equipment. Musicals and performances that are not based on linear texts will require different techniques, although some of this chapter may be relevant to them.
This article describes the course of the sound design process from receiving a copy of the play through to performance. It is very much a description of the way things might proceed in an ideal world. It assumes the director of the production is experienced in the creative use of sound, that the sound designer has been engaged, or is free to work, ahead of the rehearsal period and that all other elements of the design input are on schedule and. The chronology of the events described will alter quite considerably on any project where the above assumptions are incorrect. If the play has been in rehearsal for two weeks and the designer has resigned before you start work on the project then things are going to be somewhat different. However, most of the processes described below will need to be performed at some stage if you are to create a stimulating and original sound design.
As soon as you know you are going to work on a production, get a copy of the script. If it is an adaptation of a novel, get the novel. If you are unfamiliar with the style of the writing or find it difficult to fully understand, get some reference material. Good annotated editions or even crib notes for classics, biographies of the author, literary critiques and books putting the authors work in a social or political context will all be useful. Reading other works by the author is also helpful. Do this regardless of how many other projects you have to complete before starting work in earnest on this project. Your best ideas will come when least expected and the more projects you have started in your head the more ideas you will have. The mind has a seemingly limitless capacity for holding information and rather than confusing the information on different projects will make connections between them that are often helpful.
On first reading, a script try not to be too concerned with the specifics of the sound design. Aim to fully understand the plot and characters and get some feel for the author’s intention. By the end of this reading, you will probably have some instinct about some elements that could be incorporated into your sound design. Reread the script with these in mind and see if they form some pattern. At this stage, you are looking for a very broad understanding of the interrelation of the characters and plot. Do not think in terms of period or location until you have discussed the play with the director, you may be surprised to find that the play you thought was set in Rome circa 300 A.D.. is now going to be set in a Las Vegas casino in 1985. Your clear understanding and knowledge of the text will allow you to be completely unfazed by this, and immediately you will see creative opportunities for your work.
Discussion with Director and Designer
As early as possible set up a meeting with the director. The aim of this meeting is not in any way to come up with a definite structure for the sound design but is the first step on a long journey in realizing the work of the author and the director’s vision of this work. The most important thing at this meeting is to listen. The director will often be using these early meetings with the creative team members as a sounding board for their ideas and hopefully will talk freely and inspiringly about the play. Because of the investment you have made in reading and understanding the play all this should connect with your first formative ideas and your imagination should be fired. Share your ideas freely with the director. Instill them with confidence that you understand the play and their approach and that you can be relied on to produce exciting creative work in response.
Now consider how less worthwhile this meeting would have been had you not been fully conversant with the play and had to bluff your way through it. Then go and see the designer.
A discussion with the designer will be immensely useful. They will have had many hours of meetings with the director and will have sketched and modeled some of their ideas in tangible form. Through these sketches and models, they have been able to work on the physical reality of the production, and the designer should be able to clarify questions about the intended style of the production. The words the director used to tell you of their vision were open to interpretation, in the work the designer has done you can double check your understanding of these words.
Discuss the mechanics of any scene changes. Has the designer created a design that will flow from location to location or does it look as if you will be required to create soundscapes of symphonic proportions to maintain the dramatic energy from one scene to the next?
Try and establish a good relationship with the designer from the outset. Later on, you will require their co-operation in the siting of loudspeakers and concealment of equipment.
Finding a Way In and Formulating a Brief
Go back to the text. With all you have learned so far about this production in mind, look for key elements that will form the foundation of your design. It might be some key symbolic natural occurrence, a locale that is rich in sound texture or required music. Produce some documentation of your intentions. This can take the form of a chart showing the sound elements and their relationships with each other, or a written outline of your intended approach or even informal lists. Being able to refer to this information will give shape and form to your work.
This starting point will heavily influence the direction your work takes, and it is very important that you have a sound basis for believing that it is central to a major aspect of the play, It is very easy at this stage to be seduced into creating a framework for your design that is superficially appealing, clever, and that appears workable but which does not really further the staging of the play.
The best starting points are those that provide solutions to the realization of some difficult aspects of the production. Tackle these sections early and try and find conventions and techniques that enhance the atmosphere, sense, and meaning of these sections. Once these demanding problems are solved your area of work can broaden to provide stylistic continuity to other parts of the play.
If these difficult sections are not addressed first, the greater number of options available to you in the rest of the play may cause you to embark on a form that may offer no satisfactory resolution of the key design elements.
You now have a broad idea of the direction your sound design is going in. By careful research, you will find elements to flesh it out. Research can be divided into three categories. General research into period and location informs your ideas, research in finding sources of sounds and music leads you to material you can use, or places, things, and people you can record, and then listening to this material will suggest ways in which they can be combined and treated to form the sound world you are to create.
Beginning Work on Cues
At this stage, you will not have the necessary timings or specifics to create anything too finished for the production. Treat this early work as a sketch phase. Create impressions of the sound world you envisage, try out treatments of your material. Get all the audio material onto a computer. At this stage some designers like to use other software to try out ideas that allow faster and more fluid manipulation of the source material e.g Ableton Live, but with the features that have been added to QLab over the last 5 years an experienced QLab user may find that QLab provides them with all the tools they require to experiment freely and creatively at this early stage of development. Listen to your source material often, create interesting techniques for using the sounds in combinations. Think of new elements that will complement them and how the individual sounds can be refined and manipulated. Share this work with other members of the creative team.
Securing a Budget
By this stage, you should have a good idea of the physical resources you are going to require to execute your design. It is now necessary to ensure that the financial resources are in place to allow you to realize your design in the way envisaged. Just because a director has been enormously enthusiastic about your ideas should not lead you to assume that they have conveyed this enthusiasm to the producer or production manager responsible for the budgeting of the production, or that they will bear in mind the likely cost of your work at budget meetings. When meeting to discuss your budget have a detailed estimate of all the resources you will require. This will allow you to discuss specific items and will enable whoever is in control of the budget to see precisely where the money is to be spent. This is far preferable to having a general discussion about gross figures. Include all expenditure items there is any possibility of requiring, and do not be tempted to conceal any costs.
If the production manager seems to be in difficulty allocating the necessary budget do not push too hard. There may be a need to analyze other areas of expenditure to see if money can be transferred between budgets or see if further money can be found from the producing management, this will take time. Ensure at this stage they fully appreciate the reasons for all expenditure items and set a time to continue the discussion.
If no further funds are forthcoming arrange a meeting with the director and the Production Manager/Producer to clearly explain the compromises that will be entailed by the financial restrictions imposed. When these compromises are agreed, continue to work creatively within these restrictions. However much your artistic sensibilities are disappointed, remember that you have been engaged to provide a product within the financial limitations set by the producing organization.
Do not think that by creating good work under these circumstances the director and management will be likely to think that your additional requirements were unnecessary. A good manager will be appreciative and may be sufficiently impressed to allow your work greater potential when considering the budgets of future productions.
All copyright clearances required should be negotiated as early as possible as they take some time to complete and there may be a minimum notice period required by a copyright collection agency.
Editor’s note: in the United States, the generally accepted practice is that it’s the producer job to secure clearances, and part of the sound designer’s job is to supply the producer with the necessary information to do so. It’s good practice to ensure that these expectations are set in your contract. United Scenic Artists’ contracts, for example, specify this arrangement.
The Production Meeting
The production meeting will generally be the first full meeting of the director, the creative team and the heads of department or contractors responsible for the fabrication and installation of the production. The final model will be shown and all the mechanics of the scene changes will be demonstrated. Use this meeting to assess anything in the other production areas that will affect you. Pay particular attention to the movement of any scenic items and try to get some feeling for the flow from one scene to another. Think how your design for these transitions can be in sympathy with the style of the changes.
If your preliminary work with the director and production manager has proceeded smoothly do not be surprised if the sound is mentioned in passing or not at all.
If the cast read through the play on the first day of rehearsals, attend. Usually, before or after this reading the director will give some general indications to the cast as regards the direction the production will take. Much of this will be a repeat of what the director has told you previously. However, it may be some time since you last met and the subtle shifts of emphasis on various aspects of the production should give clearer indications of how things are likely to progress. The designer will normally show the model and you may be asked to play some material if you have any ready. A couple of example cues to excite the cast will be sufficient.
The reading of the play is enormously instructive. Although the pace of the reading will be very different to performance (normally being some 30% shorter) it will be radically different to the pace at which you have read the script silently. Hearing the play in real time will alter a lot of your perceptions of pace and mood. Free of the need to concentrate on the printed page, during the course of the few hours of the reading the formative cues you have already created and those that exist only as concepts should gain life. New possibilities will present themselves and the total sound world which you are to create should become more concrete in your mind.
Between this reading and the run-throughs of the play at the end of the rehearsal process, try not to lose touch with the work in the rehearsal room. Ask the director to allow you to see each section when it is run in a rough state of completion. Bring material to rehearsals to try out. Carefully balance time spent attending rehearsal with the time you require to execute the recordings and other elements of the design. A correct balance will allow your work to grow organically with the evolving work in the rehearsal room. For productions with complex soundscapes agree on a schedule with the director where you will be based mainly in the rehearsal room. If possible all the sound in the show should have been worked and developed as part of the rehearsal room process before transferring to the theatre. This might involve attendance for the entire rehearsal period, or for less complex shows perhaps a few days at the end of rehearsals.
It is really important that the rehearsal room is equipped with proper playback facilities. At least two high quality, large, full range speakers, placed upstage of the playing area of the rehearsal room should be supplied. If union rules allow stage management to operate sound equipment during rehearsals, or if they are going to operate sound in performance, as is typical practice in UK (ed: and US) for smaller plays, then you might as well install a computer running QLab from day one of rehearsals. Then you only need to produce the materials used for the performance in the final show format and will not have to waste time burning CDs or producing rehearsal mixes of sequences as mp3s, etc.
Formulating and developing the Cue List
You should now have sufficient information and ideas to produce your first cue list. Prior to digital sound and computer-based playback this would involve reams of complex paperwork. Now, particularly if you have QLab installed in your studio and the rehearsal room you can save much time by using only a marked up script, and producing your lists directly within QLab itself.
One of the most useful methods of doing this is by using Group cues as placeholder containers for all the audio files you are going to use and all the other QLab cue types e.g fades etc. that will allow your design to be performed.
Where you want to have alternative versions of cues immediately available a useful technique is to put all the candidates in a “fire first child and go to next cue” group. This will mean that the first child will play, and if you want to try an alternative you just move that Audio cue to the top of that group. Any fades required can be set to target the entire group, so that anything that is playing will be faded.
The beauty of this approach is that your cue list becomes self-documenting. The groups form the headings of your cue list, and what is in the groups the subheadings. You can annotate with memo cues to make things clearer, but all the timings are explicitly stated in the cue lists and immediately visible without referring to notes. As you add the audio to the design you flesh out the bare bones skeleton of your placeholder Group cues until you have a fully populated cue list with all the elements required for performance.
In a well organized production, all members of the creative team and production departments will be kept informed of developments in rehearsal through notes from the stage managers. Read all the notes, as well as those directed specifically at you. The stage manager may not be aware of all the factors that will affect your work and may fail to draw attention to crucial things like a large text cut, where they were not aware that you had any sound cues. Sometimes you will have discussed an element of your design with the director, who will casually mention it in the next day’s rehearsals. The stage manager will duly note this requirement to you. This will be slightly irksome as the source of the idea will appear not to be your own. Do not, however, remonstrate with the stage manager about this, they have enough to think about without having to attribute all creative ideas to their originators, and it is important that they continue to pass all information on to you.
Liaising with Directors
When you are not able to be based in the rehearsal room, arrange to have regular meetings with the director to review your work. Always play any recorded material to a director on a system that does it justice. Some directors when they are confident that the design is going in a satisfactory direction will be happy to let you get on with it, others will want to get involved with the smallest details of your work.
Liaising with other Departments
No area of theatrical activity exists in a vacuum. Many aspects of your design will need negotiation with other departments if they are to be properly fulfilled. If you need to suspend equipment, discuss with the designer and lighting designer its positioning and, having agreed positions, make sure they are marked on the lighting and set plans. Items of scenery may need installed wiring and connectors or special shelves for sound equipment. Liaise with the carpenters and metalworkers to find out at what stage of the construction process this can best be accomplished. Wardrobe and wigs will need to be consulted regarding provision for the concealment of any radio microphones in costumes. Electrics, sound, and props will all work together on certain practical props such as radiograms. The power for a light in such a piece and the loudspeaker wiring may need to share a common cable and connector. Decide who will do what work and in what order. As the production week approaches the production manager will start to allocate time for the get in of the set, rigging of sound and lighting equipment and plotting time. Negotiate a realistic length of time to plot the sound with the exclusive use of the theatre, the set in place and if necessary crew to move any items of set that will affect the sound levels in different scenes.
For anything more than the most simple show in a theatre with permanent facilities, a full schematic of the installation must be drawn. This will allow efficient installation and will be invaluable in the course of the run to aid fault finding. A good schematic will show all items of equipment using recognizable symbols, its interconnection, connector and circuit numbers, and all the information required for labeling the console and other equipment.
Ground plans and sections showing the location of all loudspeakers, microphones and any other equipment in positions not permanently and exclusively reserved for sound equipment will be needed. Often a sketch will suffice, but if the equipment is to be rigged in your absence or by staff not directly in your control full drawings will be required.
Putting The Cues in the Book
One of the greatest advantages of working up the sound design in the rehearsal room is that by the end of the process everyone will have a clear understanding of where the sound cues go. Although much will change when the sound is combined with the other technical elements in the theatre it should be a rapid process to put a first draft of the cue positions into the prompt copy or calling script. This saves so much time in the technical rehearsal.
Setting Up and Rough Plotting
After installation, the entire sound system should be rigorously and methodically checked both to ensure the equipment is functioning correctly and that the loudspeakers are correctly oriented to cover the required audience areas.
It is useful to have a sound check consisting of spoken indents routed to the relevant speaker. This is the least ambiguous method. If you merely have a piece of music panning from speaker to speaker you need to remember the order of these speakers to check that none have been cross-patched or are missing, but if each speaker clearly announces its own name there is no ambiguity. I will generally play this sequence before each session of technical rehearsals (and before every dress rehearsal and performance). Any misplaced or disconnected speaker should be immediately apparent. There is nothing worse than plotting an entire session of tech and then finding that part of your rig was not functioning and having to replot all the cues in that session.
In a separate cue list I also like to have a pink noise loop routed to each speaker. This allows the coverage of each speaker in its intended area to be quickly assessed by measurement with a sound level meter. It also means that if the production transfers to other theatres the levels can be rapidly repeated in the new space and in the initial production rehearsals, if you think that some cues sound different to how you remembered them, you can check the level of the speakers, to check that mixer and amp levels haven’t been reset. I generally use high pass filtered pink noise for everything apart from subs so that bass cancellations don’t affect the measurements too much.
There is another advantage to this method. If during the course of the run or tour, a change is requested when you are not present, you can calibrate a studio monitor system to simulate the performance levels using the device matrix and these test tones. You can then work on the changes required with a reasonable confidence that the changes you arrange to be carried out by others will be as you intended.
It’s also useful to have an asymmetric waveform phase check recording. This is used in conjunction with a metering device, either hardware or a phone app that uses this signal to determine if a speaker is in phase or not. Speaker Pop by Studio Six digital is a good example of such an app.
A rough system balance should now be attempted. The aim of this is to give as much travel as possible on the QLab sliders with which to set the levels of the cues. If the gains of the mixer channels and amplifiers following QLab’s cue outputs are set too high you will end up making all the adjustments required in a very small fader travel at the bottom of the cue output sliders.
If a show has most cues at a moderate level and a few sequences at an extremely high level, plot the majority of the cues with the cue masters at a mid position. This will allow greater travel on the cue output sliders to reach the required level. The level of the cue masters can then be increased for the duration of the loud sequences.
Do not begin programming in detail until you are sure that a good rough balance has been achieved, allowing some headroom for additional volume if required.
Plotting should be done from a production desk sited in a good representative position in the auditorium. Unless union rules forbid it, many designers will program the show themselves. This contrasts with the normal practice of the lighting department, but there is a good reason why they generally demand someone to program the lighting console. Lighting designers require their eyes to be focused on the stage, and it is a distraction if they also have to look at screens and controls. The sound designer is unaffected by this as screen work and programming does not involve the ears, which can remain firmly on the task of critical listening.
At the technical rehearsal, the cue sequences and levels will be refined and integrated seamlessly with the other elements of the production, actors, lighting and scenery movements. Sound cue sequences may run across shorter sequences of other cues and there may be frequent stoppages within them. A good director and stage manager will decide where the rehearsal will resume before sorting out the problem so that other operators can set back whilst the problem is being discussed. Always try to ensure that the operator has run a complete cue sequence at one go before allowing the rehearsal to progress to the next section.
The tech is the testing ground of all your planning and preparation. If you have done your job properly it should be enjoyable. If you have made some oversights and things do not go as well as intended, remain calm, sort out the problems as quickly as possible, and look upon it as a learning experience!
Many changes will probably be made to the intended running of the show. Some of these may require additional cues or extensions or alterations of existing ones. Use all the time available to the full. Use any periods of the tech that are clear of sound cues to re-edit and create new cues. If the tech goes badly there may be only a few hours between the end of the tech and the next rehearsal. Try and keep on top of alterations as they occur.
During the dress rehearsals, you should be sufficiently confident to leave the main production desk area and listen to the sound in all parts of the house. Make detailed notes of any mistakes or changes required but do not worry the operator unless there is a serious error which requires immediate correction. Although the operator will hopefully have run each complete sequence, this is the first time they have run these sequences one after the other in real time.
By now, all should be going smoothly. Seeing the show performed in front of the audience for the first time one is concerned with the effect they have on the timing and audibility of cues. But more importantly, after concentrating on the minute details of your design you can, at last, assess its contribution to the play as a whole.
Previews are a working period and you should expect many changes, cuts, re-writes and rethinks on production elements.
Be brutally honest about your contribution to the show. Have frank discussions with the director about any elements you are unsure of. Be ready with suggestions to help sections of the show that are not working as well as was hoped.
Documentation & Safety Copies
As soon as the show has opened copy all computer data and audio material used in the performance. Record on proper plot sheets the position of every control on every piece of equipment. Update your cue lists and other paperwork to form a full record of the production. Photocopy all plots and scripts and store with the audio safety copies in a safe place.