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Staging Sound: Sound design allows for dynamic audio in plays

“Knock, knock, knock,” emanates from the stage as a character in the Ohio University production of Macbeth knocks on a giant castle door. 

Although the sounds match the actions on stage, what the audience is really hearing is the banging of steel pipe on plywood from behind the curtain.

That’s how sound designer John Salutz has made the sound sound right in theater productions for the past three years at OU.

“I don’t think I could have done it better with a computer,” said Salutz, a third-year graduate student studying production design and technology. “It had a great live quality in that theater, and it was gritty and strange in a way.”

Whether it’s digital or live, sound designers are tasked with supporting the production’s audio elements.

“Sound design, simply put, is the creation of an aural landscape that supports the storytelling process,” said Lowell Jacobs, heading the Sound Design and Production program as the staff master electrician.

Many sound designers write or choose accompanying music files to create sound effects that are loaded into a program called Qlab, which aligns those sounds in the order they should go off during a play. Designers watch for actor and lighting cues during the performance and launch the appropriate sound.

Designers also arrange the speakers in a theater’s space so audience members will be able to pick up on all sounds going on during a performance.

OU’s theater division offers a degree for both undergraduate and graduate students in production design and technology, of which one facet is sound design.

Other fields involve lighting, set design, costumes and stage-managing.    

Jacobs said that students are encouraged to try different fields to become more diverse in their learning by taking on hours of practical application and working in different shops, such as the Sound or Electrics shops in Kantner Hall.

“Lights, sound and projections work well together in the cuing process. But the more diversified one’s interests, the more interesting the artist,” Jacobs said. “There are no rules here, just unique and quirky artists.”

This OU theater season shows just how diverse designing sound for a play can be.

Metamorphoses, designed by Salutz, featured music and birds chirping made entirely of the human voice.

“I did some digital manipulating with a computer, but I didn’t use any synthesizers or traditional music instruments besides the human voice,” Salutz said.

Swimming in the Shallows, designed by Garrett Hood, showcased guitar and samples played from a keyboard played live by Hood every night to accompany the action on stage.

Other plays such as Cloud Nine had a score written by graduate student Megan Culley, which started off Act I with just acoustic guitar and bass and transitioned to a punk style in Act II with electric guitar, keyboard and computerized drums, Culley said.

“I decided that since a lot of the same issues in Act I were still relevant in Act II, I was going to do the entire show in the (open D) key,” Culley explained. “It’s the appearance of being different while it is still the same.”

Different still was the approach taken with Klauzál Square, designed by graduate student Phillip Johnson, studying production design and technology. His design centered on droning sounds that reflected the dark mood of the play, which followed a girl who befriends a ghost while being bullied by other girls in Klauzál Square.

Johnson said he attempted to illustrate the play’s many changes in mood from the present to the past by making the different time periods sound like a completely different world.

“I tried to make the world of the young girls realistic and the sound was almost non-existent in those places,” Johnson said. “… But when they flashback, all of a sudden we’re in a movie. That was kind of the idea.”


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