This October I joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on their production of Rebel Music, a play that dramatises the genesis of the Rock Against Racism movement and subsequent rise of 2-Tone music in Birmingham in the late 1970s.
After a week working with the production team, assisting the music supervisor and sound designer with recording and editing duties, I went on to operate sound for the show’s initial run at The Rep, followed by a three-week tour around the communities of Birmingham and its surrounding areas.
It’s the sweltering hot summer of 1976. The country is in economic turmoil. The far right is on the march. Rock Against Racism puts white punk bands and black reggae bands on the same bill – determined to win the culture war and defeat the National Front.
Three teenage music fans, Denise, Trudi and Andrew, join the fight for the soul of working class Britain. The trio navigate racial politics and social upheaval in Birmingham alongside their own turbulent teenage years. Can their friendship survive?
The new play from Robin French (BBC’s Cuckoo) and JMK Award-winning director Alex Brown is a celebration of the diverse musical legacy of the Midlands. The REP have united with award-winning gig theatre specialists Middle Child (All We Ever Wanted Was Everything) for this raucous story of people power, set to a soundtrack of Punk, Reggae and 2Tone. Join the rebellion.
I had the pleasure of collaborating with the Shooting Fish Theatre Company again recently, designing sound and music for the production of The Murderess—a Victorian thriller that tells the story of Margaret as she confesses her sins to a ghost-writer from a prison cell on the eve of her hanging.
For this article I wanted to try something a little different and instead, as the title suggests, talk more about my approach to the preparation and planning for the project while interspersing with examples of the music I created for the production.
One aspect of being freelance is the need to be self-motivating and organised, and with projects made up of so many small parts, such as sound effects and musical elements, it is useful to have a birds eye view in addition to the smaller, individual details. Having a road map ahead of time can certainly help to keep track of both specific items and overall progress.
My approach is based on past experiences and my own tendency towards order and logic as means to minimise stress and oversight, allowing me to get on with the job of being creative without the niggle of some potentially missed item. This process is one that has evolved with me over time and can be adapted to meet the specific requirements as I move from one project to another.
First Impressions Before any work can begin, I first need to understand what it is I’m working on. In the case of The Murderess, that started with the script. The first read-through allowed me to get a feel for the story and enjoy the plot, as any reader would, before even thinking about sound. It was a chance to familiarise myself with the overall tone and set my subconscious mind to work. For the second read, I went through the script scene-by-scene and made notes of any ideas that came to mind against specific lines or directions so that I had at least a few ideas to bring to the table for the next phase.
Spotting The term spotting is one I borrowed from audio post-production, whereby the audio team will meet with those concerned, such as the director, for a spotting session and go through the program or film to discuss sounds to be added in post.
Similarly, for The Murderess I met with the director over Skype and we combed through the script highlighting areas requiring sound or music and discussed what was needed.
Collating Spotting invariably results in a lot of scribbled-down notes strewn across multiple pages of script and so now it was time to organise these into a neat checklist that I could access at a glance. For this task I used a spreadsheet and listed all the required elements from the script, with separate sheets for sound effects and music. I included the scene and page numbers before every item so that I could quickly reference the script again if needs be, and I included detailed descriptions for each list item as well as any notes on sound sources or methods that will aid in achieving the finished sound. I also utilised a colour-coding system to keep track of where I was with any particular sound; such as in-progress, completed, and delivered. I actually get a lot of satisfaction working in this way—perhaps from a life of watching on-screen progress bars fill up to herald a task’s eventual completion! The spreadsheet also helped to keep track of feedback on sounds and to record any changes required.
Filing& Delivery For the finished sounds I created a folder for each scene and numbered each sound therein depending on its order of appearance in the script. I do this to make the resulting multitude of sound files as organised and intelligible as possible. I then zipped each folder prior to delivering as an additional way to keep track of what’s been sent and to minimise hard disk space when archiving upon the project’s completion.
Working with the Shooting Fish Theatre Company, I recently developed sound effects and composed music to accompany the production of 10:01 The Minute They Came, a psychological thriller conceived and created by FLARE students as part of a community learning initiative in Gainsborough.
The play incorporated fantastical elements that offered an amazing opportunity for a sound designer to get their teeth into: from Wiccan rituals to an alien abduction!
Below is a composition I created for one of the more pleasant Wiccan rituals in the play:
Being my first theatre project, I was keen to see how my experience in film and games would transfer to this medium. One challenging aspect came from working remotely since I would not get the instant visual feedback I’d become used to working with video files. Fortunately, I had frequent correspondence with—and feedback from—the production team which helped immensely. I was also able to sit in on rehearsals towards the end and hear my sounds alongside the action, allowing me to go back and make tweaks where needed. But for the most part, I would work from the script out of my home studio relying on daily feedback to steer my course.
Ambience Environmental ambiences were created to underpin scenes and help describe the world beyond what was immediately visible—whilst in some scenes also functioning to create mood and atmosphere.
In one scene, set during the day at a farmhouse, two of the main characters are engaged in discourse. Much of the drama in the scene comes from the dialogue between the characters, so the ambient sounds of the functioning farm are purely incidental: describing the wider environment in which the drama is taking place, without getting in the way. Despite playing a more passive role, these sounds are important as they help cue the audience into the present location as scenes move from one place to the next. In a film, these changes would be more obvious since there is also a visual shift of location to cue the viewer in. But in theatre, the visual changes are more subtly limited to what you can arrange on a fixed stage during a transition, and so sound can help to bridge that gap when orienting the viewer.
Another scene, set late at night outside the farmhouse, required the ambience to take more of an active role in creating mood and supporting drama. Here, gusts of unrelenting wind created an ominous atmosphere as the characters frantically searched the exterior grounds following an abduction. These sounds would play loud, forcing the character’s dialogue to compete, and functioning as though indicative of a dark, unseen presence in the scene.
Alien Abduction Designing sound for an alien abduction was one of the most creatively stimulating aspects of the project; a sound designer’s dream, indeed! In the play, an infant is lifted from its crib via the machinations of a mysterious white light. Whenever I think ‘alien’ I always consider some kind of synthesis for its ability to create otherworldly, inhuman sounds not possible with conventional instruments. The presence of a bright light also inspired the notion of shimmering, high pitched sounds, as well as the idea of something metallic or mechanical that would allude to a nearby alien craft not actually depicted in the scene—for, as a sound designer, I am concerned with describing that which exists beyond the confines of the frame, or set.
The basis for the abduction sound was indeed metallic: utilising drum cymbals but in an unconventional way. By scraping across the top surface of a cymbal with a drumstick, you can create some interestingly jarring and otherworldly effects that shimmer and sing in a most unsettling way! Synthesis played its part in the way I processed the original cymbal sounds, using granular sampling techniques to stretch and extend the samples, whilst pitching and modulating to address the various layers of the finished composite sound. For example: using an LFO linked to a panner allowed for undulations in the low-frequency layer, suggesting the presence of a large craft complete with propulsion, while slight distortion in the upper layers suggested a sharp, piercing quality to the bright light.