For over 250 years Bristol Old Vic sound engineers have been making live sound effects offstage during performances, to enhance the action and enchant our audiences. In theatre we refer to these live effects as ‘Noises Off’. Even though sound engineers now have range of digital sound mixing technologies at their disposal, sometimes only live effects will do.
Sound engineers mimic the actions of the actors on stage, producing sounds such as gunshots, car engines, footsteps, slamming doors and rustling papers. They have to work very closely with actors and musicians to do this. If a sound is early or late the scene is ruined.
The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley was first performed in 1925 at St Martin’s Theatre in London. Over 70 years later, in 1998, it was performed at Bristol Old Vic. A group of railway passengers who are stranded overnight in a remote train station are the focus of this thriller. The play’s writer, Arnold Ridley, was inspired to write the play when he was stranded at Mangotsfield railway station and he heard the sound of the Bath to Gloucester express train pass by unseen on an adjacent track.
Ridley insisted that every production of The Ghost Train used only live effects. Recorded effects, he felt, lacked the essential vibrations needed to fully immerse the audience in the world of the play.
At Bristol Old Vic, it took 11 people to create every sound effect live each night. To do so, they used this bizarre list of instruments and materials:
- 1 tubular bell (E flat) with small padded mallet
- 1 garden roller pushed over bevel-edged struts screwed to the stage 30 inches apart
- 1 18-gallon galvanized iron tank with large padded mallet
- 1 bass rope drum and a pair of sticks
- 1 side drum with wire drum brush
- 1 side drum with medium padded mallet
- 1 thunder sheet
- 2 compressed air cylinders
- 1 train whistle fitted to one of the cylinders
- 1 tin amplifier/megaphone fitted to the other cylinder with counterweight to place in its mouth (to vary the steam hiss sound)
- 1 stationmaster’s whistle (for mouth)
- 1 milk churn with lid
- 2 electric or hand-driven motors
To create your own ‘Noises Off’ at home you don’t need a team of 11 or a galvanised metal tank. You can make incredibly effective sound effects on your own using things you have around you. This transformation of the everyday into the incredible is what makes theatre artistry so unique.
To get you started, here are some things you can try:
- Celery = a bone breaking. Hold some celery stalks together and snap them in half to make the sound of a bone breaking.
- Empty crisp packets = a roaring fire. Scrunch up a packet then release it slowly to make a burning and crackling sound.
- Metal spatula and baking tray = a sword fight. Drag a metal spatula across a metal baking tray to create sword fight sound effects.
- Newspaper = walking through grass. Place some shredded newspaper in a bag and gently hit or rustle it to create the sound of a person walking through grass.
- Rice = walking through snow. Crunch some rice or flour in a bag or sock to create the sound of a person walking through snow.
- Rubber gloves = birds flying. Flap a pair of rubber gloves to create the sound of bird wings.
- Straws = wind. Blow through a straw to create the sound of the wind whistling through some trees.
Once you’ve made these sounds, you can experiment with their pitch and volume. Finding the right pitch and volume is an important part of creating a convincing sound effect. A whistling wind needs to be high pitched and a roaring fire needs to be loud.
The pitch of a sound is how high or low it is. The pitch of a sound depends on the speed of the vibrations. If an object vibrates quickly we hear a high-pitched sound and if an object vibrates slowly we hear a low-pitched sound. The size, length and tightness of the object which is vibrating will affect the pitch of the sound it produces. You can investigate this at home by cutting the straw you are using to make wind effects shorter and shorter. As the straw gets shorter the vibrations will get faster so the pitch will become higher.
The volume of a sound is how loud or quiet it is. A weak vibration makes a quiet sound and a strong vibration makes a loud sound. Sound is a form of energy so if we put more energy into making a vibration it will be louder. You can experience this at home by rustling your crisp packet or flapping your rubber gloves gently and then again with as much energy as you can manage – the volume will change a lot!
Sound waves get weaker the further they have to travel from the source of vibration to your ear. This means even if you put a lot of energy into making a strong vibration, someone standing far away will only hear a quiet sound. You can try this at home by listening to someone make a sound effect standing right next to them and then on the other side of the room – how does the volume change?
Now you’ve learnt how to make your own ‘Noises Off’ why not trying putting everything together and creating a soundtrack for a play of your own.