Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Post by Joe Calarco, Company member, casting director, and Sound Designer for Double Falsehood.

Sound design is a fickle beast. An idea for a complex design can develop relatively quickly when inspiration strikes. On the other hand, a single cue not working on a conceptual or technical level, even in a simple production, can result in sleepless nights.

My original design concept for Double Falsehood was the worst of both worlds… complex, flawed, and beyond the means of my equipment. For the first time in my experience as a sound designer, I had to learn how to let go of large ideas, and change quickly in order to deliver. This is not so much the story of what made it on stage, but more of a brief account of the design that never came to be.

Our production of Double Falsehood takes place in 1950’s America. When a concept like this is overlaid onto a preexisting text, the design elements must be solid. If they are not, there is a danger of the choice appearing to be arbitrary to the audience, no matter how relevant it is to the text. I felt that I had a lot of responsibility to fulfill.

I had wanted to take instrumental (i.e. karaoke) versions of popular 50’s music, and have singers re-record the vocals in Shakespearean language. I would choose sonnets and songs from other works in the canon that were metaphorically applicable to the themes of our show, and could also fit within the structural confines of the chosen music. I would then use various effects to “age” the recordings, and make them sound as if they were being played through vintage radio equipment on stage between the scenes. I had tried this on a smaller scale for an audio project in graduate school, and it worked quite well.

Not so much in this case. When constructing the graduate school project I had a professional recording studio, and countless audio “toys” at my disposal. For Double Falsehood I had my aging Macbook, a USB microphone, and a copy of Garageband. Not quite the same toolset, obviously.

I assumed that as I was going to be “aging” the finished tracks, the quality of the vocal recordings themselves would not be so important. My reasoning seemed sound. Did it work? Nope. Even after artificially lowering the quality and layering audio effects, it turns out recording in a room with soundproof walls is necessary.

I also found that quality karaoke recordings of 50’s music are not common. With the exception of a few Sinatra songs, tracks that utilize live bands are virtually nonexistent. Most tend to be largely synthesized, and thus impossible to place in a period show.

I tried everything imaginable to make the concept work. I even tried recording an original Shakespeare song in the style of 1950’s folk to see if I could expand on the idea. Blech. It was terrible.

But I kept going. And going.

It almost became an obsession. I was convinced that the use of actual 50’s music would be detrimental to the show. I believed that, on some level, the modern lyrics would take the audience out of the world of the play.

At the peak of my frustration, I had spent days on the concept and had not produced one usable cue. I lamented my situation to Kirsten Kuiken, who is both the director of the show and a dear friend. She said, quite simply: “Dude. I really don’t care if you use actual 50’s songs. ”

The clouds parted. Angels sang. Birds…tweeted. I realized that I was in a prison of my own making.

In the end, I was able to let it go. Once I did, I was grateful. Freed from these constraints, a new concept emerged…one that I could accomplish with the resources I had. Do I regret not being able to realize my original idea? No. Quite the opposite, actually. I am much happier with what we ended up with. More importantly, the experience of designing became what it should be–fun!

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