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Using sound effects in your production

How to use sound in your production

Sound effects (SFX) are played during a performance to describe the environment in which the scene takes place – such as when a phone is ringing or a character walking off stage. These can be played back using the venue’s public address (PA) system or better through a speaker on stage. Much better though, for example for a telephone, is to make it practical by having the phone itself actually ring. This also has the benefit of adding authenticity for the actors and audience.

Soundscapes are used to create the atmosphere of a scene through sound only, so for example if the scene was on a ship, you’d expect to hear waves, maybe a ships horn, seagulls etc. When all put together with artistic timing this creates a soundscape.

An underscore is a soft soundtrack theme that accompanies the action in a performance. It is usually designed so that spectators are only indirectly aware of its presence. It may help to set or indicate the mood of a scene or perhaps be associated with a particular character.

Sound reinforcement is the amplification of voices on stage. This is especially useful in musical numbers, particularly when accompanied by a live band. 

Sound editing is altering an already recorded item to change for example duration, pitch, start and end points, reverberation, etc.

Sound cuing is the use of computers to play back digital sound files.

Related resources

Sound cueing systems

Sound has traditionally been played back from tape, CD and minidisk.  These are becoming rare though and more and more people are using computers to play back digital sound files.  There are several software products you can use.  Many are high end and designed for the professional theatre and are priced accordingly.  Free software is scarcer but here are two. 

If you use an Apple Mac, then the obvious app is QLab.

Sadly, QLab is not available for a PC but here is a couple of possibilities.  I myself use   CSC Show Control Free version, which does pretty well all I need.  Its updated from time to time – most recently November 2019.  It’s the same package as the paid for version but has fewer features (I don’t think you would miss them).  Another possibility is Multiplay but it has not been updated since 2013.

Sources of sound effects
FreeSound is a database of browsable, downloadable sounds under a Creative Commons License.
Royalty-free – but not necessarily free to acquire – sound effects. Partners in Rhyme
The world’s largest archive of wildlife sounds. Macaulay Library from the Cornell Lab of Orinthology
BBC Sound Effects
16,000 BBC Sound Effects are made available by the BBC in WAV format to download for personal, educational or research purposes. (Commercial uses require a license.)
British Library: English Accents and Dialects
Includes over 600 audio examples of English dialects from England and Wales.
IDEA: International Dialects of English Archive
“The International Dialects of English Archive was created in 1997 as the first online archive of primary-source recordings of English dialects and accents as heard around the world.


Additional reading

PDF guide

Understanding and designing theatre sound

A teaching guide giving an overview of the design process and implementation, and is a good place to start.

PDF guide

The Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook

A technical guide to amplifying live performances.


How to control feedback in a sound system


Eight Ways to Eliminate Microphone Feedback