26 December 2015

Spatial awareness for theatre sound effects

Spatial positioning

Sound direction

When using Ableton in theatre situations the sounds have to convey natural phenomena, such as wind or storms. However, it is also their function to call forth moods and feelings the audience will recognise. To do this effectively the sounds must be believable. They must have sufficient quality but also, to imitate the physical actions on stage, must be correctly positioned spatially.

If the target of the sound effect is upstage right, then the audience will not expect the sound to appear to originate from the centre position on the stage as normal stereo panning would provide. You will need to pan appropriately.

Here are the classical stage positions you need to represent when applying sound effects.

Stage positions

Using Ableton Drum Rack to trigger SFX from a midi trigger, such as a keyboard, you need to consider the pan position of each SFX as shown below.

The pan should represent where the audience expects the SFX to come from. In our example if a duck is seen upstage right, the pan position should be set as shown.


The next point to consider is how far away the item should sound to the audience. Does it fit with what they see on stage? If the action takes place in a small room, clearly the SFX must not sound like it comes from within a cavern (comic effect excepted). Fit the reverberation to the physical space and keep all SFX consistent within that space.

The distance of items can be controlled by careful use of EQ, reverberation and occasionally delay (echo - where you can clearly distinguish the original sound being repeated).

Of course this sounds obvious - but the farther things are away from you, the quieter they are. If you want a SFX to sound far away, you have to turn it down! (Don’t worry, there’s more to it than that. Keep reading.)
Think about when you’re outside a party where loud music is playing. You can’t hear the music perfectly clearly - it sounds muffled. In other words, the high frequencies are being dampened.

The further the distance that sound travels, the more it gets muffled. Low frequencies can travel far, but high frequencies don’t make it as far. Another example of this phenomenon is thunder. If you were close to where lightning struck, it would sound like a loud crack. However, when you’re miles away, you only hear a low-frequency rumble.
So when you want to push one of your SFX back into the distance, you have to dampen the high frequencies. You can do that by putting a low-pass filter on the part you want to push back. For a natural effect, try a gentle slope (like 12 dB/octave, which is a 2-pole filter). Try setting it at a frequency somewhere in the range of 3000 - 15,000 Hz, depending on the SFX and how far you want to push it back. Use the filters provided in the Drum Rack and use your ears to tweak and get the amount of dampening you want.

All of the above aspects are important, and without keeping them in mind, it will be hard to convincingly push your SFX backwards, but we often think of reverb and delay as the effects that make the biggest difference in creating a sense of depth and ambience in your mix.

Using Reverb and Delay

If you want to push a SFX backwards, do all of above stuff in this article, and then send that drum to an aux/send track with a reverb effect on it. There are lots of different kinds of reverbs, and there’s more than one way you could use reverb to push your SFX back, but a hall reverb is a good place to start for creating a sense of depth.
  • You can add sends to your drum rack by clicking the 'R' icon to show/hide your Drum Rack return chains.
  • Clicking the 'S' icon will show/hide the send level amounts for each SFX in your Drum Rack

Do not overdo the application of these effects - they need to be believable. You should also consider the difference when the theatre is full of high frequency absorbing people.

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