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Sound Effects for Audio Theatre

by Tony Palermo

In my live performances, recordings and workshops, I use a lot of manual sound effects, partly for the magic of making sounds through trickery and also I prefer the control of playing sound effects "instruments" to the electronic "sampler" keyboards that trigger sound effect recordings. (I don't use sophisticated electronic samplers (devices that trigger pre-recorded sounds) much for live radio gigs--even though I host the Kurzweil Launch Pad, one of the world's most foremost websites devoted to the powerful Kurzweil samplers. )

At workshops, I use manual sound effects because it's fun and it preserves this art from the golden age of radio drama. However, even in the old days, manual effects were not the only ones. Some sounds were cheaper and better as records, especially cars, planes, and weather.

A lot of the sound is how you manipulate the objects. You'll need to experiment to get just the right technique to produce the right sound. Also, test to see what your effects sound like over a microphone, something that sounds fine to your ears will come off as weak over a mike.

Useful tip: I often use an omni-directional microphone for sound effects--it picks up everything and adds a nice ambience (room tone) to the sound, making it appear more real than if you held the sound effect up to a regular uni-directional mike. And omni-directional mics makes life much simpler when you have a crew of five to seven sound effects artists all vying for the mic. See my page on engineering radio drama for more tips on using microphones for sound effects. 

To Sound Effect or Not To Sound Effect?

Please keep in mind that radio drama is not merely a play with ďlots of sound effects.Ē A good radio play is good drama, full of conflict and even action, evoked through dialogue, music and sound effects, in that order.

Sound effects are an important ingredient, but by far, the least important. In radio, the dialogue and narration contribute roughly 75% to the drama, with music another 15% and sound effects a paltry 10%. Sound effects merely sketch in the action or punctuate dialogue and donít generally provide the precise reinforcement of reality in the way sets or locations do in plays and films. Sound effects suggest action, but they can easily be confusing or misinterpreted if relied upon too heavily. 

Intrusive sound effects will make the dialogue harder for listeners to follow. Just the same, sound effects can turn a mere script into a real-time drama  as opposed to just a story being recited. 

Sound effects add realism, but should be used sparingly. In the production of radio drama, if a sound effect cue is missed, few listeners will notice. Use that as a guide and employ a minimum of sound effects. Only significant sounds are necessary. Sketch the scene, donít perfect it.

Sound Effects Versus Foley

"Don't call our art Foley!" That's what my mentor, Cliff Thorsness told me, years ago. Cliff was a sound effects artist at CBS's Hollywood radio studios from 1938-1962 and worked with Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, Jack Benny and all the greats. Radio sound effects are NOT the same as "Foley" used in film, although many people mistakenly call them that. A door knock is a door knock, but the philosophy and application of the sound differs.

Foley is a post-production technique used for film and deals primarily with human generated sounds (footsteps, keys jangling, hands brushing lapels, fist fights, guns being cocked, etc.) When a film is shot, only the dialogue is well-recorded. The door slams and paper rustling often aren't well-mic'd  because the film crew doesn't want the mics to be seen in the shot. So after the film has been edited for picture, "Foley artists" (named after Jack Foley who pioneered this use of sound) watch the film and in sync with the images on the screen perform and record certain sounds to reinforce the visual reality.

Radio sound effects artists do both the Foley-type human-generated sounds as well as car crashes, gunshots, bubbling vats, stampedes, machines, battles, even the destruction of planets--things done in film by a sound designer who will employ recordings or manipulate sounds electronically. Radio sound effects artists are called on to also do these sounds, often by mechanical means (wind machines, glass scratches, creaker boxes, thunder drums, slap-shots)--as well was using pre-recorded sounds. These faked sounds are often surprisingly convincing, and part of the charm of this sonic magician's art.

Los Angeles, foley artist Philip Rodrigues Singer, hosts a wonderful Art of Foley website devoted to this sister of radio sound effects.

Sounds like a Disaster!

So how far can you go with the illusion presented by sound effects in audio theatre? To illustrate the danger in relying too heavily on sound effects, I'll explain a failed comedy radio show I produced.

While experimenting with mic setups in the MT&R's radio production studio, we did a run-through of a script of The Lone Ranger, but the sound effects we had on-hand were from Superman. Since this was just a mic test, we did part of the show with the wrong effects--ray guns instead of six shooters, cars instead of horses, etc.

It was hilarious! I thought I'd found a way to do comedy radio workshops for kids--something notoriously hard to pull off because comedy requires timing and vocal inflection--which is difficult for amateurs, especially students. So, I decided to write a special script that used the "wrong sound effects" gag--timing and inflection wouldn't matter.

I wrote a 1953-style soap opera, complete with all the typical soap sound effects of the era--baking cookies, pouring lemonade, the phone, the doorbell, etc. (Soaps were a dull gig for a sound effects artist--nothing much to do.)

 As a plot device, the star of the show receives a mysterious voodoo doll, pricks her finger and faints. In a dream, she re-lives the previous scene, but now all the sound effects are wrong: dropping the cookie tray is now the sound of a bomb dropping; the phone ring is now a jackhammer; she answers the door and it's a train wreck, etc. What a brilliant conceit!

But the whole thing flopped! The kids doing the show didn't get it and it didn't work when we listened to it upon playback.

I found that even setting up the scene with dialogue like "I'm expecting Sam's phone call..." SFX: jackhammer, "Oh, That's him now..." didn't "read" right. The audience merely accepted the jackhammer as some type of noisy phone sound.

On the "I Love Lucy" TV show, this kind of gag would have you in stitches, but without the visual disparity of image and wrong sound, this gag just didn't work in radio.

So, as much fun as sound effects are, don't over-rely on them. At some point they just get in the way and become noise. While the lack of visuals allows radio to do many things (plane crashes, medieval wars, prison breaks), it does impose some limitations too.

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TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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Last modified: 03/02/11