Sound effects can add atmosphere to theatrical productions, add a spooky and ghoulish mood to Halloween and add fun to kids' parties and Christmas events.
Developments such as digital music players like the iPod have made it much easier to use audio and to cue sound effects from a library. In the past a theatre sound operator used to have to locate a track on a sound effects record, cue it up and play it out over the house audio system, fading up as the track started and fading down to lift the arm.
MP3 Digital Audio Files Make Theatre Sound Effects Simpler and More Foolproof
Nowadays, often the simplest way to to have sound effects is to use an iPod, where the sound op selects the track by name and plays it out. This is a great option for productions that do not follow a fixed sequence of sound effects.
However, many shows do have a fixed sequence of sound effects, but exact timing still varies between shows on how long the actors take. Padding the sound effects with silence gives the sound operator valuable thinking time after an effect has played, reducing the chances to the classic bane of DIY theater sound – the miscued next sound effect blaring out because the sound op didn't stop the tape.
Use Silent Tracks To Take Up Scene Timing Variations
The way to deal with varying scene timings is to interleave the tracks with a long silence, longer than the anticipated time before the next sound effect will be needed. When Play is pressed, the first sound effect will play, the track will end and the long silence will begin to play. The playlist thus looks like:
- 00:00 to 00:10 Sound Effect 1
- 00:10 to 30:00 Silence
- 30:00 to 30:15 Sound Effect 2
- 30:15 to 1:00:00 Silence
and so on.
On a MP3 CD player, each of the silences will have to be a separate track, but on a hard disk recorder a playlist can be set up which can repeat a single track of silence between each sound effect.
Initiating the next sound effect is then as simple as pressing the next button, which will skip to the end of the silence and start to play the next sound effect. By encoding the silence at a low bit rate it does not need to take up very much space on the hard drive, and the audio distortion that goes with low bit rates is not audible on the low replay volume of a silent track. The downside of this method is that the playlist looks cluttered, with twice the number of tracks as there are sound effects.
Use Trailing Silence To Take Up Scene Timing Variations
Alternatively, each sound effect can be authored with the long silence following it as part of the same track. This works best if the audio is encoded at variable bit rate, otherwise the silence will consume a lot of the storage space. A typical digital music player storage capacity is usually much longer than a show's length, so that is not necessarily a problem.
Use Audio Loops For Mood Setting and a Spooky Halloween
Short audio clips set against long silences is a good way to lend suspense to things like Halloween shows. Less is more with this sort of thing – soft strange sounds that listeners can't easily locate are far more effective than a continuous loop of ghoulish effects at a high volume.
By adding long gaps of varying length between ghostly rattles and distant low howls, the overall soundtrack can be looped, without having to bother about cueing the sound effects.