Sound Design for USProductions

Last updated 2013-01-31 00:06:50 SGT

I've just finished doing sound design for the first (and probably final) run of People1, a play produced by USProductions. This involved about two months of solid work.

The work


While I signed up hoping I could get practice with composition (which I haven't had the chance to do lately), my ancient Mac decided to die on me before I could get anything done, depriving me of Garageband and Logic for the remainder of the production period, and the play of original music. This is regrettable, but unavoidable under the circumstances. Nonetheless, I had access to professional sound editing tools (Logic in the UTown media hub), although not for long enough to add sufficient polish to anything I might have written.

Broadly speaking, I would characterise the soundscape of the play as being largely amusical (except for brief periods). This had as much to do with directorial intervention as it did creative restrictions (e.g. only one character leitmotif survived; also some of the more musically involved scenes got cut at the last moment). In keeping with the director's wishes, the vast majority of sound support for the play was intended to stimulate diegesis, and was so mostly diegetic.

The making of

Because of this directorial choice, quite a large range of soundscapes had to be sampled. Aside from stock effects (e.g. car door slamming, helicopters, sirens, earthquake) which were difficult to obtain firsthand, I personally recorded (or got friends to help me record) many cues2. This included recordings of:

and several others besides. Obviously, I had to separately assemble others3.

At an early stage of the evolution of the script, there were two categories of scenes: monologic and naturalist. This distinction was later softened; however, I did not see fit to adapt the sound design accordingly. Despite directorial aversion to thematic audio, I did manage to get away with assigning each character a unique handphone ringtone, their choice of which I felt would somehow be indicative of character traits implied by the source material.

Fortunately for me, the source material was also heavy in explicit references to sound (more prominently, phones ringing, but also a few other things here and there). I spent two days in a soundproof box recording and (mostly) editing stuff. This abundance of output caused a few problems with cuing (we had more cues than lights, and unlike lights we don't have the option of pre-cuing) but at least it turned out pretty okay in the end.

I think the only truly experimental aspect of the sound design was in using two sets of speakers, with an auxiliary pair placed under our (very pretty and also hollow) set, to generate diegetic audio. This was only possible with the very gracious cooperation of Nicholas, our one-man set engineering department, and led to no shortage of technical headaches (culminating in the purchase of a very expensive sound cable and lots of tape and tangle).

In truth, this is not technically innovative, in that placing speakers under stages is often done for monitoring purposes for live performances. However, I've yet to see anyone else doing this for a stage production rely on it as heavily as we did (someone correct me if I'm wrong).


Much of my experience with sound engineering lies either in the synthesis of it (composition from software), in recording, or in dealing with live performances. In this respect, this production has had me do things in reverse. Moreover, this is the first time that I've been told to make something explicitly amusical. Live and learn, I guess.

On the whole, I would say that the sound design experience was fun, if not entirely enjoyable all the time. On the other hand, working under directorial suzerainty did curtail my creative freedom somewhat, but then I suppose that's what directors are for. It did suck to see scenes vanish and drastically change shape half a week before the first show, though4.

Working as the sound crew, on the other hand, was nerve-wracking, given the extensive and critical reliance that our production had on sound, minimalist though it were. Also there was a bug being passed around the control room5, which is more or less what happens when you're trapped with the same few people in a small, dark box for 12 hours a day for several days. 2/10 would not do again

Still, this was a very educational experience (e.g. I know where to buy custom-made sound cables cheaply now). I look forward to seeing what next year's sound guy will end up doing!

  1. You can find a review here

  2. I should probably thank Rachel for going to Tanah Merah twice for me 

  3. Because e.g. I don't actually frequent KTV lounges 

  4. I think I spent about an hour on average recording and editing one scene's worth of sound clips, each of which was liable to vanish over a five-minute decision. 

  5. god dab dis stubid dose 

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