Designing the sound for Our Country’s Good
8th Aug 2012
We spoke to Andy Smith about designing the sound for Our Country’s Good, and how he became a sound designer.
What does a sound design do for a production?
A good sound design enhances the experience for the audience and immerses them in the production. I tend to favour a subtle sound design when it comes to atmospheric ambiences, as I don’t like to distract from the dialogue. In Our Country’s Good a lot of the scenes take place outdoors and it would be quite dull to have no atmosphere at all, so these will be the scenes when Australia is alive around the actors.
Music is also important. It can be used as an emotional or atmospheric scene setter, or a way of suggesting to the audience the period the play is set in. For Our Country’s Good I’ve been listening to some amazing aboriginal traditional music, it’s really evocative. There won’t be music for every scene – it’s all about keeping it interesting and varied.
How far in advance do you start to work on a production?
I start thinking about the design when I first get the script. I read the play so I know what I’m dealing with; then I’ll go through it again slowly highlighting the stage-directed sounds and other points at which I think sound could be used. This is usually before any design meetings take place, so that any ideas can be talked about at that early stage.
Where do you source sound effects from?
I have quite a large library of sounds gathered over the years. They range from sounds sourced from sound effect collections and bought sounds, to sounds that I’ve created myself. No show is the same, so I am always on the lookout for new and better alternatives.
It can be necessary to create new sounds when there is something so specific to the piece that you’re unable to source it. For Our Country’s Good I’ve got an idea where I’m getting all my sounds from but there could be something that comes out of rehearsals.
More often than not, sounds that involve cast members offstage will need pre-recording, as the actors may be unable to get to where the sound needs to come from at that point in the production.
Does Our Country’s Good present any unusual or tricky challenges?
One of the first things Max told me was that there are many different types of Cockatoo and Kookaburra in south west Australia so I’ve got my work cut out trying to source them!
The challenge will be to help the audience know where we are in each scene without becoming too distracting. Also we have scenes at both night and day so along with Jo Town’s lighting, the audio atmosphere needs to change to reflect these.
Aside from sounds specifically required by the script, how do you and the director decide what is needed?
Max is very good at letting designers know exactly what he wants while allowing freedom to bring ideas of your own to the table. When I worked on Bang Bang Bang [a play about human rights defenders in the Democratic Republic of Congo] last year, he and Stella were keen to use a specific genre of music, so I looked at lots of music around that genre to choose what would work in which particular moment.
For the atmospheric sounds I managed to get hold of recordings from the places in Congo where the piece was set. I then designed a more elaborate soundscape based around the initial recordings and presented them to Max. He was very encouraging and most of the design made it into the final production.
A stage direction that specifies something simple like ‘a gunshot is heard’ or ‘a telephone rings’ is pretty self explanatory. When you are given a direction that just tells you where you are, it is open to your interpretation as to how you create the soundscape. I’ll create something, then run it by the director for their approval.
How did you get into sound design?
I have always been interested in sound. I was fascinated by my dad’s music and stereo collection when I was a little boy and have always taken a keen interest in music. At school I was really into drama and did sound for my GCSE drama exam, then went on to do TV and radio production at college.
Then I did a contemporary theatre degree where I was the only person on the course interested in the technical side. I did lots of audio and visual creative stuff there, and knew I wanted to do that sort of thing professionally. I was lucky enough to be given a chance at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton and have been their resident Sound Designer (and Chief LX) for the last 11 years!
I’ve been in bands and worked at loads of festivals and live gigs too, and have done lots of studio recordings, so my work is very varied and keeps me interested.