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Page 00000001 RESPONSIVE ENVIRONMENTS: NEW TECHNOLOGY AND THEATRE SOUND Michael Kraskin Northwestern University Music Tech/Theatre 711 Elgin Rd. Evanston IL. 60208-1200 ABSTRACT Sound design is sometimes described as the "bastard child" of the theatre world. The term sound designer did not surface as an official job title until 1968. Since then, the term has most commonly referred to the individual who is responsible for locating and assembling a series of sound effects that are of absolute necessity to tell the story of a given play. Because of this primarily utilitarian definition, sound design is often marginalized in the collaborative process and is not regarded seriously as a discipline that may be used as a medium for artistic expression. The author argues that before the existence of recorded audio, this was not the case. Prior to the twentieth century, the locus of the body of the sound designer was in rehearsal, and effects were produced by the means of live foley. This allowed the designer to make real-time expressive choices. The advent of recording technology moved the job into the studio, distancing the designer from the collaborative process. He goes on to propose that technology has evolved to the point where the sound designers can re-introduce themselves to the rehearsal process, taking on a role in the construction of a play more similar to that of an actor, than that of the other designers. 1. INTRODUCTION The field of theatre sound design has in recent history been seen as a discipline of secondary importance to a production. According to British playwright and stage director Alan Ayckbourn, sound designers behaviour does not help to improve the image: "[Sound designers] are an odd species, often in my experience to be found fast asleep in the stalls during technical rehearsals, when not gazing at the screen of their laptop--apparently mixing F/X but actually playing a new video game. They have mobile phones that ring incessantly, as a result of their usually doing two or three jobs at once, one of them in Amsterdam. Many are unaccountably absent when most badly needed. 'He was here a minute ago.' To be fair, they are also a very sociable breed, with a good store of near-libelous anecdotes about disasters they have experienced."[ 1] This quote, while embarrassing to our discipline, points out the unique space in the theatre world that the sound designer has come to occupy given the history of the position, the rapid evolution of sound technology, as well as economic considerations. The central problem is that the traditional expectation of the theatre designer in the production describes a set of duties that, given contemporary technology, is quite easy to accomplish in a short amount of time. While this ease may suggest to some designers that they should maximize their profit margin by taking on "two or three jobs at once, one of them in Amsterdam," perhaps a better use of new technology could be improving the quality and contribution of our work. 2. EARLY ROOTS OF SOUND DESIGN Just as the general history of theatre discovers its origins in ancient religious ceremony, designers Deena Kaye and James LeBrecht claim the first instances of sound design can be found in "...ritualistic tribal gatherings... accompanied by drum," and go on to describe theatre "during the Bronze Age (4000-2000 B.C.) depended little on scenery or props, but was always accompanied and underscored by music and sound."  Though it is impossible to know the exact process that the collaborators in these performance events went through to arrive at the score for their performance, it is hard to imagine the same sort of discussion and table work, separate from rehearsal that occurs in modem theatrical productions. In fact, by looking at contemporary ritual performance in societies relatively secluded from modern sound technology, it is possible to see that the score is developed along with the performance as a kind of symbiotic feedback loop in which the performance influences the music which influences the performance, etc... In his book How Musical is Man, John Blacking describes domba, a music and dance ritual performed at various rites of passage in the lives of the Venda of the Northern Transvaal. "...the dance movement, the kind of musical development which the response is given, and the signals for the beginning and end of the dance movements are all generated by the expressive functions of the music." In this dance, as in most western theatre, there is a script (the traditional ceremony), familiar to all participants. The performers and sound designers (drummers in this case) may interpret this script to uniquely construct their performance. These interpretations are comparable to the choices made by an actor in a staged production of a play such as Shakespeare's King Lear. That is to say, there is no single "right" way to perform King Lear. Each member
Page 00000002 of the collaborative team, including actors, designers, and the director makes his own choices to contribute to the central vision of a given production. The critical difference in the construction of the sound design between the traditional domba and the modern performance of King Lear is the location of the sound designer in the process of creation. In the domba the sound and performance is symbiotic in nature. It would be nonsense to try to create the two separately. In modem western theatre, however, it is customary for the performers not to hear the sound until the final days before the production has a public opening. This separation is largely a result of the twentieth century shift of the tools of sound design moving from live instrumentation to recorded media. 3. THE AGE OF RECORDED AUDIO As theatre matured and formalized as a discipline, so did sound design. In 16th century Italy the form known as commedia dell'arte used sound effects to heighten comedic actions such as slaps and other impacts. Over in England, Shakespeare used sound to stand in for events that would be impractical to show on stage. In King Lear, when Edgar says, "Give me your hand. Far off methinks I hear the beaten drum. Come, father, I'll bestow you with a friend" the audience hears the drums of war. In these ways, sound created by an operator whom we would now refer to as a foley' artist is used to enhance the aesthetic and narrative properties of the staged event. With the advent of accessible recorded audio in the twentieth century, the mode of playback as well as the process of the assemblage of sound effects was forever altered. In the 1930s, theatre directors such as Bertolt Brecht popularized the practice of using sounds on vinyl records . The use of recorded media allowed for a larger variety of sounds to be introduced to the theatre than was previously possible. This larger palette was likely somewhat inspired by the ever increasingly dense acoustic world that was developing in urban areas as a result of the industrial and electric revolutions, as discussed in R. Murray Schaffer's The Tuning of the World . It also allowed for a greater control over the volume and eventually spatialization of the playback. However, other levels of control were lost. Typically, the foley artist will use a pre-existing object to create a given sound. In the King Lear example, an actual drum would be used. This is an expedient process that allows the foley artist to focus his attention on nuance and subtlety in the performance of the sound. The foley artist can regulate how he plays the drum to mix with the rhythm and volume of the scene, and even make variations in the timbre so that the sound is sculpted in the moment of performance. The same cue in a recorded medium does not have this flexibility. The sound on the record (and later the reel to reel tape, CD and sampler) is the only sound that can be played. With recorded media the job of the sound 1The term "foley artist" is homage to film sound pioneer Jack Donovan Foley (1891-1967). designer moves outside the rehearsal. He must first choose the sound of the drum, find talent to perform the sound, record the sound, and cue it for playback all outside of rehearsal and sans the input of his fellow collaborators. With this change, the same cue that was at one time a simple matter of playing a drum off stage becomes an hours long process of assemblage to create something static and un-malleable. On the other hand recorded audio allowed for the play to have sound on a different scale. Instead of a single drummer, we could hear an army of disembodied drummers, more befitting to the sound of a war. With the introduction of tape and multi-track recording, that army could be mixed with the sounds of soldiers marching, armor clanking, and whatever other sounds the designer could imagine and build. The addition of recorded technology allows for the palette of possible sounds to grow, but limits the sound designer's ability to participate in the real-time feedback cycle that once typical to performance collaboration. While the obvious compromise would seem to be a mix of live foley effects when possible and recorded effects when not, the current state of theatre sound design is such that recorded sound is the assumed standard, and foley has been relegated to the role of a novelty act, as seen in plays such as the recent American play Kid Simple by Jordan Harrison. A likely reason for this is that given the choice between the mutability of a limited palette of sound developed in rehearsal, and the static but near limitless palette of sounds developed in the studio, the premium is placed on the large palette. Perhaps this is somewhat driven by the romantic notion of the "magic" of the theatre. Going back to the King Lear example, a single drum played back stage may help to tell the practical story of the scene, but does nothing to transport the audience to a larger world that the characters continue to inhabit even when they exit the stage in the way that a larger than life recorded sound might. 4. WHY NOT HAVE BOTH? 4.1. The Promise of New Technology Several relatively recent developments in digital audio technology have provided the tools for the modem theatre sound designer to re-insert himself into the rehearsal process. These advances have the potential to allow the sound designer to participate in the process of real-time collaborative discovery that actors and directors have always enjoyed. The first major development is random access media. The idea of being able to instantly access a variety of sounds theoretically introduces the possibility of an improvisational relationship of the designer to the rehearsal. In reality, the use of random access media such as the compact disc does not deliver this ability. There remains the physical delay of cuing to the correct track, often a process that takes several seconds. The greater the number of randomly accessible sounds exist on a given CD, the longer cuing to the desired track will take, causing a less than ideal inverse relationship
Page 00000003 of palette size to accessibility. Compared to actors, who are trained to access their palette of emotions, inflections, and physical gestures at a moments notice, several seconds is a painful amount of latency. Digital samplers offer more promise, but most theatres that can afford such a device have typically used them in performance only, not in rehearsal.' The second major relatively new technology is digital editing. Compared to tape editing, the process of cutting and mixing has been sped up immensely. Even early programs such as Deck and SoundEdit 16 allowed designers to focus less on the labor of assembling cues, and more on the artistry of developing a design. Along with digital editing, high-speed laptops allow the manipulation of sound to be brought directly into the rehearsal process. A designer now has the ability to continue to change and perform a sound while the actors rehearse the scene. This re-opens the door to a potential feedback based collaborative process. Most recently, the combination of massive laptop hard drives and mp3 technology deliver on the original promise of random access audio. Designers have the ability to assemble and store massive amounts of sounds on their hard drive. CDs, and even samplers, only offer a limited and pre-meditated palette of sounds. This technology combined with the search engines that are now native to all major operating platforms, allow a nearly unlimited number of sounds to be called up at a moments notice. My own hard drive currently has a collection of 4,376 sound effects and ambient beds with a total playing time of 2.9 days. 4.2. Why We Play Video Games With all these tools that should allow for a greater involvement in the collaborative process, one may wonder why Sir Ayckbourn catches his designers playing video games during his production's technical rehearsals. The answer is that while the technology has grown to allow faster cue building and a higher interactivity, the product that sound designers are expected to deliver has not changed. Before the technologies listed above, the process of assembling a simple sound cue in the past, say a telephone ringing, was quite a process. The proper telephone sound would have to be located, either recorded in a studio or taken from a sound effects record, edited to the proper length, and moved to the playback medium, all using analog equipment. Given this labor-intensive process, directors have grown to expect a minimum from their sound designers. However, on my hard drive, I have a choice of 22 phone rings that I can access instantaneously, edit nearly as quickly, and play straight out of my laptop. It is no wonder, then, that sound designers might be caught goofing off or taking on multiple jobs. We literally have hours of extra time for every sound cue in a show than we used to, and yet in the majority of mainstream theatre, the expectations placed on us have not increased at all. This is because most commercial theatres have one production in performance while another is in rehearsal. It is impossible for the two to share resources. The great irony of all of this is economic. A more integrated use of sound is something new that we have to offer, and is therefore experimental. Productions that have greater financial resources to offer, have more at stake financially, and are therefore less likely to take a risk with an experimental aesthetic. So it is left to smaller productions to work with sound in a more involved way. These productions, however, have less money to offer the designer. Therefore, when selecting work, the sound designer can either choose to receive a larger paycheck for less work, or a smaller paycheck for more work. With the economic realities of the world, the most skilled sound designers have more motivation to take the easier work that earns the most money. And for this reason, Sir Ayckbourn finds his designers playing video games to fill their spare time. 5. HOW TO OFFER IT ALL 5.1. Establishing a Palette Though it is possible for me to call up any of thousands of sound effects very quickly, the process is still not instantaneous. I cannot cal up a sound effect and play them with the same speed that the domba drummers can make choices about the sounds they produce. I can, however, offer instantaneous access to a limited number of sounds by buffering them in the memory of my computer, and connecting the playback of these sounds to the depression of keys on my keyboard with software solutions. By memorizing the connection of keys to sounds, I have instant, kinetic, access to a limited palette of sounds that can be produced in the exact same amount of time it takes for my brain to make a choice and send the signal to my finger to implement that choice. This makes the process similar to that of the domba drummers striking their drums. The traditional process of designing sound for a play is to read through the script, locate moments where specific sounds are called for, collect the sounds, and find a way to implement them. New technology allows for a different approach. Rather than the aforementioned top-down approach, the designer can take a broader look at the world the play exists in, and make more general choices as to what sounds might exist in that world. Are we outside in a city, or in a busy office? If so, what is the selection of sounds our characters could encounter? This palette, of course, would include the specific sound effects called for in the script, but has the potential to include many more voices that can be used to tell the story. 5.2. Controlling the Properties Beyond selecting a palette of sounds, it is valuable to decide on a palette of acoustic properties that the designer finds useful to manipulate. The software I am currently developing (see Figure 1) gives instant access to the volume, rate of playback (pitch), the ratio of
Page 00000004 sound sent to four discreet speakers (location)1, there is also a button that allows the sound to be looped. Figure 1. The GUI layout for a single sound. 5.3. Working in Rehearsal For actors and directors, rehearsal is a period of discovery. This is the time that ideas may be experimented with and choices are made prior to public performance. By using modern digital technology and carefully selecting a palette, the sound designer may treat rehearsal as a time of experimentation as well. For this reason, I refer to my software as "rehearsal control" to differentiate it from other theatre sound software like the popular SFX. "Show control" software like SFX intentionally limits the ability of the user to change properties of the sounds in real time. The lack of options for the operator ensures that playback during performance is reliably repeatable. The cues are arranged in a linear fashion so that they can only be played back in the order intended. Properties such as volume, speaker assignment, and fades are all pre-programmed. By contrast, working in rehearsal calls for a different approach. Software for rehearsal must be more complex so that changes can be implemented immediately upon conception. This means that there is much more room for accidents to occur. A fade produced by manually moving a GUI volume slider will clearly not have the same perfection as one that is controlled by a preprogrammed algorithm. But perfection is sacrificed for the ability to respond live. The goal in rehearsal, through both selection of a sound palette and properties to manipulate, should be to have just enough tools at the designer's disposal to approximate the sound design that he anticipates later building into a more static form of playback. He may not have instant, kinetic access to the perfect car engine sound, but as long as he can have a stand-in in the moment, perfection can come later. The important thing is to have the ability to respond to his fellow collaborators in rehearsal as an equal and essential member of the ensemble. The suggestion here is to set up the four speakers as two left, right pairs in front and behind the audience, though they could be arranged any way the designer desires. 5.4. Responsive Environments Imagine the scene in the 1931 classic film "Frankenstein" in which the monster is born. As the mad doctor explains his intentions to the assembled audience, thunder bellows to express the drama of his words. The thunder is sparse and distant at first, but grows in frequency and volume proportionately with the intensity of the scene. As the monster's body is lifted into the sky, the thunder roars to express the climax of the scene. And finally, as the doctor cackles "It's alive!" the thunder returns to laugh with him. This use of sound, that I dub a "responsive environment," casts the sound as another character, a narrative voice, in the scene. The sound helps to tell the story to the audience by using all the same devices that a piece of a musical score might use. The low pitch, and slowly increasing rhythm and volume of the thunder tells the audience that something ominous and climactic is approaching. The sound climaxes with the scene in much the same way that an orchestral score might, and finally, there is a coda as the thunder laughs with the doctor, leaving us with the sense that madness has been unleashed upon the hapless village. The sound designer of a film has an advantage over the theatrical sound designer. By rewinding the film, the film designer can have the actors repeat the scene over and over again without any fatigue or complaint. With theatre rehearsal time at a premium, it is rare that the theatre designer can ask this of his collaborators. Responsive environments, created in a collaborative environment are now possible in theatre. By having flexible rehearsal control software, with a well-chosen palette the theatre designer can experiment and build a sound design in response to the actors and director during staging rehearsals. This kind of organic process of creating a design introduces the potential for a new, more intricate and delicate sound aesthetic in theatre. The job can change from the simple assemblage of a linear list of cues, to the creation of an environment that is bonded to the production with the same intensity and completeness that an actor brings to the portrayal of his character or the drummers in the domba are able to contribute to their ritual. REFERENCES [ 1 ]Ayckbourn, Alan. The Crafty Art of Playmaking, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003.  Kaye, Deena and LeBrecht, James. Sound and Music for the Theatre. Back Stage Books, New York, 1992.  Blacking, John. How Musical is Man. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1973.  Willett, John. Brecht on Theatre - The Development of an Aesthetic. Hill and Wang, New York, 1964.  Schaffer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. Random House, New York, 1977.