A resource for students
This rather long article is the result of replying to many students emails asking for various information. I hope its useful…
“What is it you do exactly?” is a question I get asked almost constantly and one that I often ask myself.
The really short answer is - “To use sound as a tool to tell a story”. The trouble with that answer is that it assumes an understanding of what sound is.
Sound as a concept is abstract. Sound as a tangible element doesn't exist. What we hear is simply one matter colliding with another, generating movements in air. Wind has no sound, nor does the sea or rain. Space certainly has no sound - until George Lucas installed it.
So the job of sound designer is to manipulate this abstract, intangible and imaginary element.
The job focusses on two broad areas - technical and creative. Both areas overlap at all times.
What we hear
Creative sound effect design is about collecting, creating and manipulating sounds that we all hear and recognize and then to replay in a story to help aid our imagination, to immerse us deeper into a story, to forgot our surroundings and be transported to another world. Thunder and rain to evoke a stormy night, birdsong for a sunny day or busy chatter for a bar or restaurant.
Some of these techniques are as old as storytelling itself. Big bass drums or sheets of metal to signify thunder, canvas running over a drum for wind and yes, even coconuts for horses hooves. We’ve moved on a bit but the fundamental is much the same.
Here’s where it starts to get fun. We all associate certain sounds with certain things. We all have sound memories. The sound of waves is a good example. Waves crashing on a beach could mean we think of sunny days, it could also mean drizzle and fish and chips, it might mean isolation and loneliness or even a shipwreck. The sound, like a smell, can conjure up images of memories that transport (the listener) to where the story is taking them. The job of the sound designer is to find the right sound that conjures the right image or memory - a memory shortcut. It’s unique, you cant really do it with light or even objects.
There are sounds that we all recognize; some real and some not. We’ve been taught certain sound languages through film and TV and some are part of our DNA. The sound of a telephone conversation, the wheels of a plane as it comes into land, the sound of a lightsabre or the TARDIS landing. Ever wondered why you hear a red fox when anyone is about to be killed in Midsummer Murder or why when ever you watch a funeral scene in a movie you hear Crows. We also think that Sharks sound like a Cello. Sounds stick in our head - the same way we remember tunes to song. Again, the contemporary sound designers jobs is know these things and then use them to their advantage.
I started my sound design life working on lots of contemporary drama at the Royal Court Theatre back in the early 90s. Plays had moved away from the 3 wall sets of drawing rooms or dirty London flats and into worlds that had dozens of locations with quick short scenes. Everything was at the speed of an 90s MTV video. The first show I worked on as a solo designer was called Ashes and Sand. It was about girl gangs in Brighton and one girl who had fallen in love with her probation officer (who turned out to have a fetish for girls shoes (told you it was the 90’s). The show was about 90 minutes long and had about 30 scenes. The key thing I learnt was that only sound could define the location. A pub, a street, a train station, a bedroom, or an empty office... the list went on. What I started to discover was that simply using the straight sounds of those locations didn’t work. Running a sound effect of the chatter of a pub over a dialogue scene at the realistic level just isn’t right - its too busy and you cant get the spoken word through it. The simple version is to start the sound effect loud and then fade it down a bit. That works but isn’t exactly helpful, creative or interesting - it’s a bit annoying and lazy and also gives the game away. Good sound effect work should only draw attention to itself when it needs to.
Each shift in location - the transition - was the key bit. This is bit where the lights would fade from one scene to another or there would be a scene change. This could be as short as a few seconds but could be 30 seconds or longer. All that dead air time to fill and keep the story going. In my early work I would focus on the main interest of the sound cue being in the first few seconds - say a pub, I’d put in a One Arm Bandit sound and a cash register at the top of the cue. Then i’d thin the sound out to an underscore of chatter. I kept working on this technique - aided by other designers at the time, Paul Arditti was my boss and doing much the same work but in a slightly different way,
I realised that I didn’t need to stay naturalistic in these transitions. I could explode the sound of things - manipulate the sound to aid the story more. I could move away from merely using the natural surroundings. In sound design language these are referred to as concrete sounds. I could start to look at other ways to make the sound more interesting. Maybe the traffic outside wasn't just traffic, maybe over time the car horn sound fell into a rhythm as the drama became more intense, maybe the sound of a car driving over a manhole cover could become the rhythm for the music into the next change. I wanted the sound of the show to be a constant blend, one idea to seamlessly morph into the next. All with an eye for forwarding the story - to lull the audience into the scene or the the characters mind. Maybe I could enhance the audiences fears, or build their expectation. Ever wondered why that Jaws theme works? I did. I studied films endlessly for clues as to how film sound design worked, I listened to all the great sound tracked movies. I learnt and stole their techniques. I started to use string sounds in wind textures, choral tones. I started to blur the line between music and sound. There is some overlap between theatre sound and film sound. Both techniques rely on getting the audience lost in the dark and suspending disbelief. Ive never worked in film but am and always will be fascinated by it.
How did I start...
Of course, people had been doing this kind of work for years - except not always in theatre. The roots for me weren't theatre at all but early hip hop records. I know; a weird leap. But Hip Hop was at the time taking old records and cutting up the good bits - the drum break or the vocal hook and splicing them with other records to make a whole new soundtrack. I must have been about 13 when I discovered this music, by chance one night searching out pirate radio stations in my bedroom. I listened to the music and taped the shows on TDK cassettes. I bought old reel to reel tape machines at jumble sales and an editing kit from Tandy and taught myself how to splice 1/4 tape. I never knew at the time I’d end up doing it for a living. I made echo machines out of tape loops strung across my bedroom floor and round broom handles. I bought 2 record decks and, by my late teens, owned 1000s of records - still no girlfriend surprisingly. I got work as club DJ and worked on various pirate radio stations all through my youth and even when I was at Guildhall training. This work was seemingly unrelated but now when I look back it was the best apprenticeship ever.
Of course, Hip Hop didn’t start it. The french had, years before with the musique concrete movement. Using everyday sounds to make music. The sound is pretty dreadful and unlistenable to be honest - at least Ive never understood it. Classical composers like Alvin Lucier were also working with sound in strange way - as where the more fashionable (and more listenable) like Steve Reich and later Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Gavin Bryers. The other genius at this were the BBC Radiophonic workshop and Deliah Derbyshire. After Princess Laila in Star Wars and Clare Grogen from Altered Images - she was my intellectual crush. She produced the original Dr Who theme and invented the Tardis sound - just so you know. I was also in complete adoration for George Martin - The Beatles producer.
One big thing was changing that wasn't to hit the hip hop movement till later and theatres later than that. Sound was going digital. Until then then the process of recording and playing back sound had been an analogue affair. A method of capturing impulses on magnetic tape. Digital meant storing it as a series of ones and zeros. Computers were still things that played chess at IBM or ran NASA space ships but the process of sampling sound - storing tiny fragments digitally was coming. It arrived in the early 80s and by the 90s was available - just - in the theatre sound world in the form of the Akai S900 sampler. (Theatres couldn't afford Fairlights) It's moved on a lot but for us lot the digital switch over happened 20 years ago.
Sound System Basics
Sound designing for theatre is not all studios, rehearsal rooms and thinking. Theres proper work to be done. The system.
Some theatres have a “house system” other theatre’s are empty and everything needs to be brought in. All require thought. You have to work out a way in which the audience are going to hear the show, the actors and the music, be it live or recorded as well as the sound effects. The whole thing needs to be one sonic picture. This could mean microphones on actors, musicians, playback system...it will always mean loudspeakers.
Lets take a musical in a west end theatre. The work scales up or down depending on the size of the show and budget but the fundamentals are constant. First off, west end theaters are empty except for the seats and on Broadway not even that. The 1st thing that has to be drawn up is the bid list. A list of all the sound equipment the production needs - not just sound equipment but also communication equipment. A long way away from the fun of making sound effects. So thats first bit of my job. What do we need?
I start with the loudspeaker system as that's what we will all be listening too. I look at the all the drawings of the theatre and often sit quietly in it for a while trying to imagine. My job here is to ensure that each seat is covered by a loudspeaker. To expand on that I need to understand how sound travels through air, I need to have an understanding of acoustics and detail physco-acoustic theory (ie how we perceive sound).
Some basics - don’t worry about them just bear them in mind; it will help. Sound travels at a constant speed (768 miles per hour), sound is a logarithmic scale and the higher the frequency of sound the more directional it becomes, that solid objects reflect sound and soft objects absorb it. Also know that speakers are just paper cones with magnets at the end of them being driven by electrical impulses that vibrates the paper cone that moves the air. Knowing these basics helps more than anyone ever realizes. I’ll explain why as I go. Maybe...
Speakers, surprisingly, do develop in technology. In fact everything in sound does. One of my jobs is to stay up-to-date. There are many different types, functions, shape and sizes of speaker. The job is to pick the right system that will work in the space. Its also a major part of my job to get the speakers into the right place. Quite often scenic designers, directors or producers will ask you to move speakers. This is always annoying. There are very few placements for speakers and their positioning is crucial. Putting a speaker too high means that the sound image will be to high and not connected to the stage, to far off and the image gets wide and the first few rows wont hear. How can you tell? Well speakers work like a maths puzzle. They have a vertical sound dispersion as well as a horizontal one. Or at least they all used to until a few years ago. So in the olden days you knew that a speaker was 60º horizontal coverage and 90º vertical. It was pretty simple to work out where the best place was. Modern loudspeakers - the banana shaped boxes you now often see work in slightly different way. These speakers cover only the width of the box vertically but are 100º (usually) horizontal. They offer much more power and are much more accurate. However they are not a cure all solution. For a start you need lots of them and they are bigger than conventional systems - and of course more expensive. Working out which speaker to use is key and then finding the best position is next.
There are lots of audio prediction bits of software where you can virtually model the auditorium and work out how the speaker will react in it. They are helpful but due to manufactories ambitious claims they not that accurate and judgement and luck play a huge part. I use them on the big shows as they are great for rough calculations and also as a visual aid when talking through a placement issue with a producer or designer.
Of course there’s not just the main proscenium system to manage. There are lots of other speakers to deal with. A modern musical like MATILDA has around 140 speakers on the rig all doing different jobs.
Trying to squeeze quality sound under balconies in west end theaters is always a challenge. The main proscenium speakers may not “see” all the way to the back of the stalls so you need to use a fill speaker. This is a smaller speaker just to fill in the audio in the back few rows - same in the circle and balcony. Now remember the notes from the top about the speed of sound. This is where the knowledge has a real world application.
If Im stood on stage and talk to you, you know I’m there - shut your eyes and you can still locate me. Our visual relationship to the world relies on our hearing, as does our balance. If I talk to you on stage wearing a radio mic and you hear my voice from a speaker the ears tell the eyes where I must be - where the speaker is. Now if you are sat at the back at the auditorium your hearing my natural acoustic voice, my voice coming from the pros loudspeakers and another coming from the fill speaker under the circle ledge. Thats just confusing and a bit like an echo. If you’ve ever left the radio on in a bedroom and then put the same channel on the radio in the kitchen you'll hear what I mean.
However you can cure it, just by understanding that sound travels at a certain speed. This is what is meant by delaying sound. I would delay the sound of the Pros speaker back to the actor standing on stage (it will only be a few milliseconds but the ear is quite discerning and I can certainly hear the change of delay in half millisecond steps - we all can we just haven't worried about it before. I would then delay the fill speaker (you can see why they are called delay speakers now) back to the actor - probably quite a bit. Its maths and judgement. We know that sound sound travels at 768 miles per hour - or about a foot a millisecond. The further the speaker the longer the delay.
Ok so thats a simplified version of it as it doesn't account for temperature or latency in audio equipment or any of those things but it does explain it a bit. Now imagine 120 speakers all need there own time calculated back to one spot in order to deliver a coherent system. Thats one of the reasons the sound designer gets cross when someone one wants to move one as it doesn't just effect that speaker it effects the relationship to all the others.
So there you go - speaker system design. Lots of speakers all doing a job to deliver one harmonious sound into the auditorium. After that you have Sub bass speakers, foldback speakers - so actors can hear the band or themselves as well as effect loudspeakers, speakers built into props - some cabled and some wireless. All need to be designed, chosen, ordered and put into practice.
The next bit, along side the delay process is the EQ process. EQ is equalization. A bit of a misleading term to be honest. It suggest that every thing across the sound frequency range should be equal - and it shouldn't. What you are looking for and listening for is not equal but clear.
Sound that we hear works across a range of 20Hz to 20Khz. 20Hz is low and 20Khz is very high, really high in fact. A mains buzz is around 60Hz - the frequency of mains in this country. An old TV buzzing is 11Khz. A whistling kettle is about 3Khz. Some frequencies on the ear seem fine others harsh, others feel too loud. A flat sound, ie all frequencies at the same level would be pretty ugly. Thats the problem with letting technology EQ a system. What you want is warm and clear and for me that means losing all the annoying nasal, harshness, pushing the low end and pushing the very top end to add some sparkle. Everyone has their own taste but mine is based on what I like to hear and comes from a memory of listening to The Beatles Abbey Road LP on Dancette.
In the EQ process you are also looking to clear out any standing waves that the architecture of the building is causing. Earlier I said that solid surfaces reflect sound. A building with lots of sharp corners will cause the sound to roll around at certain frequencies so we use parametric equalizers to reduce these frequencies. You cant cure everything with EQ - getting the speaker in the right place in the first instance is the proper approach.
Also remember that all our hearing is very different, from the age of 3 our hearing has already started to deteriorate. Babies can hear dog whistles really clearly.
Oh yes one other thing. Scenic Designers, Directors and Producers love hiding loudspeakers. To be honest I like not seeing them also - I like the technology hidden. However I do accept their existence and need. Quite often complex negotiations have to be done with the other design departments about what is covering the proscenium. This is often tricky and requires lots of 3D rendering and complex technical drawings. This is often, and should be done, early in the process.
The bit you need to know is that for loudspeakers to sound best should have nothing between them and the audience they are pointing at. Anything on front of them has a detrimental effect.
So with the speaker system designed you need to be able to control the signals going to it. This means using a combination of amplifiers, EQ systems, time correction systems and fun things such as cross point level and delay matrixes. Don't worry about them but they are all there. They just change size with the size of systems. I tend to use a complex Matrix unit that handles all this work. I can design a system that means that I can accurately control the EQ and delay of each loudspeaker in the system and also control the amount of level going to that loudspeaker depending on what its source is. For example you may want less vocals from the ensemble cast in the stalls than you do in the front of the circle. You may not want much Drum or Percussion in the delays but lots of strings. Some designers will do this at the desk but I prefer to do it away from the desk. I also like to have the software that does all this on a tablet computer so I can sit in amongst the audience and work with the system as the audience are hearing it. On a musical the main body of the work can only occur when an audience are in.
After or before - depending on your point of view is the mixing desk or console. Again one needs to be specc’d that suits the show and the budget. They come in all shapes and some shows may have multiple desk doing different jobs. Im not keen on this method unless you need a dedicated desk for foldback. Desk size is determined by how many things you want to plug into it and how many things have to come out of it. A small play may only have 12 inputs and 8 outputs so a small desk, musicals often have in excess or 200 inputs and a 60 plus outputs. Running out of inputs and outputs is often a common issue and sometimes why the sound designer looks stressed when a director asks for just that extra instrument or extra effect speaker to be added. Its not the problem of doing it, its the fact that there is know where to plug it in.
Im not a big fan of comparing sound to lighting - the 2 disciplines are so different. However if you try and make a comparison to lighting bear this in mind - lighting have to deal with output only. Mains voltage going to a lamp - the net result is brightness. Of course modern lighting system are much more complex but its still focussed on output. So that’s like amplifiers - voltage to move air - loudness. Lighting don't have to trouble themselves with input. If, for example the incoming mains was random and from 200 plus sources and it all had to be manipulated live then a comparison to lighting is fair. Which it probably wont ever be. In short adding a lamp is about an available dimmer. Sound has 2 things to consider - whats it's source and where is it going.
These days desks are digital. This means that they can be smaller. Not all digital desks sound the same though. They all offer better manipulation of sound and make sound operation easier (to a certain extent). I haven't done a show on an analogue desk for years. However, having started in the analogue world means that at least I understand what I am doing. Much of the terminology in sound has its DNA in the old analogue and tape machine world - it must be so confusing to newcomers who never had to learn what a VCA was.
Once you have the output (speakers) and the control (Desk and Matrixes) next up is the input. To capture and amplify a live sound you need a microphone. There are 1000s of them. For now lets assume there are 2 main categories. Wired and Wireless.
Wired mics can be the standard mic on a stand that a performer sings at and the shape we recognise as microphone is the Shure SM58. Its been in use for 30 years and has never really changed. But there are lots of choice here and selecting the right one is again based on use, preference and budget. Microphones have pick up patterns and are called strange things; cardioid (the pattern is similar to a heart shape), hyper-cardioid, omnidirectional, directional. All have uses. A vocal mic needs to be cardioid in most environments but in high feed back environments a hyper cardioid might be better. Again lots of choosing to do here. Instrument mics are very specific. Most equipment used in theatre is rarely built for theatre but built for studio use. This often clashes with the stresses live work puts equipment under. Mics on instruments tend to be very expensive when you are looking for premium quality and decent flute mic for example might be around the £1500 mark. A sprung Neumann Mic (the big brother of all mics) can set you back around £3000. This is why sound people get upset when they get dropped. They are delicate. Some mics use very thin ribbon to pick up the sound and even putting them away if you slam the lid on the mic box can destroy them. (Done that before). Every instrument has multiple choices when it comes to mics. I learnt the old school way having been taught by mainly old-school teachers with beards. The lesson is that with the right mic with the right cable and with the correct amount of gain applied, being played out of the right speakers in the right position there should be no need for EQ or any other tricks we now regularly rely on. It should just work, and be as transparent as it can be.
How Sound Effects are Made
Creating effects is an holistic art form in itself. My career has meant that I started in straight drama so sounds effect work is key. I moved to musicals much later. So I had 10 years experience of pushing analogue and early digital playback to its limit before I had to start worrying about radio mics and live bands.
Sound effects themselves, in my working method anyway, don't exists and all have to be created in some way. The source material can come from an array of material. Sound effect CDs are the first port of call. These CDs aren't the ones you see in the soundtrack section at HMV for a tenner. They come from specialist companies, most aligned to Hollywood film studios or the big film sound mix companies. The thing you should know are that they are expensive. Around £60 a CD. They come in series. Some have 20 in a set some have 3. There are general ones and very specialist ones. I own about 100,000 effects and it grows daily. I take it all very seriously and despite my everyday life being chaos; my tax returns late and no MOT on my car, I always know where my FX library is. It’s all titled and laid out, ordered and categorised. It's an essential tool. All my effects are stored on a large portable hard drive. All full audio quality. They are all linked in a data base so I can call them up instantly. I collect them obsessively and spend a fortune on them.
The next source is field recording. This is a funny job but can be fun and almost always something you do on your own. Its the equivalent of train-spotting - people do it but know one likes to talk about it at dinner parties. I’ve recorded lots of stuff for my library over the years - some show specific and others just because I know one day it will come handy. Wind through hotel windows, neon light buzzes, old televisions, particular cars, street atmos, they are always useful and never for what you originally intended them for.
Next up is the foley work. This is unique art that started (and is still performed) in films. Its the process of recording in a studio, sounds to match a picture - in film this is often footsteps, doors, cloth movements and others. Its also about finding one sound that can be another - yes, coconuts for horses hooves and cutting cabbages for stab wounds. I like to do this for sounds that need to be beefed up - shovels hitting shovels for big swords strikes, throwing lumps of wood past mics in aircraft hangers for arrows in the air and emptying the whole of a fire extinguisher into a bath of water for the inflate of the car on Chitty. Again always on your own as its normally a bit dangerous and daft. I also do a lot of concrete breeze block scrapes for all sort of things - door opens in Moria for example.
Once you have the source the work begins. I work in lots of layers. The layering of sound I learnt from Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. I’ve never met either of them but read everything they’ve ever written and listen to every movie they have ever made. Im the sad loner that has listen to Star Wars a 1000 and sometimes just the surround track. Murch was probably the original sound designer and Burtt established the Holy Grail of sound design - Skywalker sound. Ive learnt so much from listening to their work - i’ve nicked most of their ideas too.
I start with the key sound sound - a gun shot say. I find a gun shot fire that I think will work for the context. I then think around what I need the shot to do - punctuate a scene, set up a scene off stage... so with the main gun shot decided I drag it from my data base into a digital workstation (I use Logic Studio). I first off look at the wave form - make sure its not distorted then add some EQ and maybe compression, lift the bass sound maybe or take the hi attack of the sound out. Ill then duplicate it several times and play with its pitch. Mainly as I want a big sub bass thump to give me a real film sound. Ill pitch it down then maybe add a sub harmonic - so ill take the low sounds and electronically alter them so the bass is much bigger. Knowing the sub bass speaker system ill be using in the theater helps as Ill make sure Ill only effect that frequency. Then I might look for another sound to layer in - a sharp thunder crack that will give me a good tail on it or a cannon that will give me punch. The Ill add some reverb to make sure all the sounds are in the same world, and another reverb treatment for the one ill use in the surround system - less bass, less reverb ring. Then i’ll “bounce” this file out into “stems”. This means that I take the treated files and compile them into one. Ill make 3 stems. Each different. Ill also do some options, bit more distance, bit nearer etc. Each one will have 3 version that in the show will all playback together. One for the US speakers, one for the sub bass and one for the surround. Simple.
OK a trickier cue. Rain. Rain is rain right. Well no, not really. First up you need to know where and when, who’s hearing it, where are we - the audience - when we hear it. Outside a house looking, inside the flat on a run down estate, on a porch as 2 lovers kiss, at sea, in the park... it all matters - to me anyway. Lets assume its a street and we follow the journey to an apartment block then we follow the lead actor down the fire escape to a cafe - alright its a scene from Brief Encounter.
Again I start with the basic sound - rain on tarmac. This will be the basis for the Up Stage image. You need to make sure its just rain and has no traffic or birds - not always easy. I then keep duplicating it till its long enough - trouble is at some point you’ll notice the loop - so to mask it I use another similar sound and ensure the loops never align or fall into a pattern. Thats the base. Next Ill look for detail - a wider recorded rain for the surround and add some HF EQ to make it sparkle and pull focus - Ill use this in the transition moments. Ill look for a overflowing gutter sound for detail, maybe rain into a puddle to give a bit more bite. Ill also find a rain hitting a window - again 2 sounds to avoid any loop issue. Ill also have ready some thunder rolls and some winds to keep building the picture.
Ill “stem” these out in the same way as the gun I made earlier. I can then move between them in the theatre.
Thats the simple ones - waves, wind, thunder, birds, etc are all made in the same way. The fun starts with sounds that have to tell a complete story - that don't exist in our reality. I like creating sounds that could be from our world but aren’t. Thats where I work best. The Chokey In Matilda, or the Amanda Thrip throw, The Balrog in Lord Of The Rings, The Walk To Arkham in Batman, the journey to Cyprus in Othello, Chitty falling off the cliff. The big scenes are the ones I love. They present real challenges but telling a story with sound is a great joy.
Ive never put a cue into the show that hasn't been through some kind of process. So the theory that you just take a sound from a BBC effect CD couldn't be further from the truth. You could do it but it wouldn't be very good.
So once you've made the cue - how do you play it back? Well today you use a computer. I use a pice of software called Qlab that lets me play lots and lots of files all at the same and adjust their level to their destination. The trick is knowing the software really well so you can get the cue from your laptop and into the auditorium at speed - normally as the director is calling for it or the change. Never say you'll do it later - do it there and then. Many a time we’ve on standby in a tech with the cue still bouncing out. The fun is getting there just in time before the GO is called. Magic times.
Its hard to explain but you need a system that is essentially an infinite array of CD players all capable of sending audio to anything up-to 56 different speakers at any one time. You need to be able to put cues into groups with different time offsets you need to be able to fade things down or out or move them from one loudspeaker to the other. You'll just have to trust me.
Don’t take from this I start working in the tech. I normally have every cue laid out and at least a starting point in the cue list - but live theatre is a constant changing entity and you need to respond quickly to whats happening on stage. Some changes I can do by making something louder or quieter, changing the timing, changing its placement. Other things need remaking and others just mean starting again.
In a musical the process of music is pretty set, You might work with the MD or Orchestrator, Dance Arranger etc to make sure the weave of the dynamic is going to work but the actual music, the dots is all done. You rarely have to worry about it... well almost.
Straight Drama is another matter. Again, back in the old days music was played by a live band - the minstrel gallery. Music has always been a big part of theatre. This has stayed with us but the method of creating and delivering the music has changed - massively. Now, not all shows are the same. Some shows still use live musicians, but its rare outside of musicals. And even musicals try and get away with as few a musicians as possible. So where has that left the straight play? In a bit of a mess. The National and RSC still use live music, some of the other alternative theatre companies do. The rest is trickier. Today shows still use composers but without a live band to work with its become tough. This means that the composer often turns to the sound designer to produce their work. I’ve worked with some of the great theatre composers (most of them now do film and TV) and some of the best times I’ve had in theaters and studios have been working with them. However times are now tougher. Composers find themselves with no musicians and having to work in a world they didn’t chose - with samples and virtual orchestras.
Making a composers music work can be brilliant as much as it can be frustrating - it all depends on the composer. Ive been lucky - I've worked with some great composers.
So what happens when you reverse it and the sound designer does the music. Well, its rare. They are such different disciplines. Often a show uses found music. Stoppard, for example always has found music, many contemporary dramas do. I love these shows. I love exploding apart well known songs and stitching them back together again so they work for the production. I love finding music for a show. It takes me back full circle to where I started; recording records off the radio on a reel to reel tape machine and cutting them up and splicing other drum breaks or dialogue into them to create something new - I use lots of compositional tools to do this and have re-arranged many bits of music in my time. Im not the one to judge if that’s composing or not - seriously. What I do know is that the line between sound and music blurs daily.
Helpful hints, things to look for and things to listen too if you are studying sound design
There are loads of books on Theatre Sound Design which is a good place to start. John Leonard (my old tutor) wrote a great one and if Paul Arditti ever finishes his it’ll probably be good also.
There are some great film sound books that are worth reading - the ones I've read and found useful are
Film Sound - Elizabeth Weis and John Belton
Sound Design; The Expressive Power Of Music Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema - David Sonnenschein
The Sounds Of Star Wars - Ben Burrt
Music wise and inspiration - or at least ideas you can learn from, try
Raiding the 20th Century - this is hard to find now. I have it so email me if you need a copy. It was made as an online documentary and charts the rise of the mash up/bootleg industry, Very useful for understanding modern music and tracing its roots.
Medium is the Message - Marshall Mcluhan. You have to hear it - too complicated to explain. Google it if its not already on your reading/listening list. If you can find one, buy the CD.
Double Dee and Steinski - The Lessons. A weird choice but taught me more about sound editing than anything or anyone else. It might be on iTunes these days but often disappears due to copyright issues.
Alvin Lucia's - I am sitting in a room. Hypnotic stuff, great for understanding where electro recordings come from.
If you're looking for effects - be careful. Lots are pretty hopeless. Stay with the big sites when you're starting. Sound Dogs is very good, but be warned, these places are pricey. Sound Dogs sell all the main libraries and often have offers on. Start with a decent main library. Don't download illegally. I know its tempting but when you buy an FX CD you are buying the license to use the sound - you don't want a pirate sound effect in your show with your name on the poster.