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SOUND EFFECTS For Middle Earth
by David Ian
02/02/10
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Sound Effects For Middle Earth

Willamette Radio Workshop’s live performance of “The Hobbit” adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien presented a number of challenges to incorporate live sound effects for the event. At a basic level, this was an alien landscape of things which don’t normally have an associated sound: hobbits, goblins, trolls, wargs giant spiders, etc. and their accompanying soundscapes, none of which are familiar to the ear. While this first might seem as an advantage that one can do whatever they wanted to and get away with it because who is to say otherwise, actually becomes a drawback on a number of levels.

First of all, it means that if you are going to attempt to establish a sound, it has to be accurate, because the audience’s mind isn’t going to fill it in for you. Secondly, most of the audience are fans of the literary work, and so they may have imagined expectations about how sounds in a hobbit-hole would be like, or scrabbling giant spiders.

Fortunately, I found that to keep many of the sounds as “organically elemental” as possible kept a consistancy which seemed to carry through the production. This would include thick wooden sounds for furniture, lots of earthy stone and metallic sounds, water and sandpaper, using a minimal of plastic items for something necessary like bubble wrap for fire noises, for instance.

The response from the audience was delightful, as even the simplest of soundscapes created a rich backdrop by which the actors played their parts aptly and moved Tolkein’s story forward. A sterling example was the scene in Gollum’s cave, by which the only sounds provided for the setting for most of the scene was an intermittant “popping” sound of the lips to make water drops into standing water augmented by echo reverb from the sound tech. Several people closed their eyes with a smile on their face and traded their reality of viewing a performance with transporting themselves into the scene by virtue of imagination, sound and character suggestion.

The most challenging scene in the entire performance involved all the “organic elements” coming to critical mass and each one being in their own extreme as well as differing intensities. This occurred during the Battle of Lakewood when Smaug the Dragon unleashed his fury upon the Lakepeople. It’s one thing to create at one level a certain element, but then it becomes more difficult when you need to present differing intensities of the same element in contrast to each other.

In this, we had to have a gentle night wind to open the scene countered by the great rush of wind being beaten by Smaug’s wings as he flew out of the mountain, as well as the wind of a great rush of arrows through the wind (which we solicited from the audience). Great fires issued forth from the dragon’s maw and fires of buildings of lessor intensity but much closer to the POV of the narrated scene spread about Laketown. Also included in the earthen elements were wooden bridges being hacked down along with the stone and wooden structures and buildings falling in upon themselves due to the fire. Since Laketown is surrounded by water, we had water being thrown upon burning buildings, wooden boats set upon the lake (which were later to be burned) and the great splash of Smaug as he plummeted into the lake to his death resulting in huge steamy waves upon the water’s surface. The result being, it was not enough to make a splashing sound, or a fiery sound, but differing levels of intensity of each element throughout the scene.

I had two personal favorite effects for sound for this show. The effect to be made was the sound of trolls turning to stone, as of course we all know is what happens when trolls are outside when the sun comes up. To make this effect, I used something entirely out of the “element” as it were, and instead of using something involving rocks or cement blocks, I employed a large handful of thick corn chips. At the critical time in the story when the trolls turned to stone, I crushed the chips in my hand which created the perfect sound of flexing crackling stone. The nice additional feature was the slow disintegration of the chips as they were being crushed created their own crescendo, loud and sharp at first and getting finer and softer as the chips turned into chip-dust in my hand.

My second favorite effect for sound is also tied to the form by which the sound was created. At differing times there called for a horn sound, either one of alarm as in the Laketown crisis, or one signaling war in the Battle of Five Armies scene. For this I went in search of a sound device to build at one of my favorite sound effects supply shops: Home Depot. I had a vague idea of what I wanted without specifics, which gave me the latitude to experiment on various pieces of hardware equipment in the presence of some very patient store employees. After some trial and error I was able to put together a sort of English Hunting Horn using a PVC coupler for a mouthpiece, plastic pipe “T” split for a bell and a coil of polyurethane tubing for the body. It still looks unlikely that the contraption would emit such a true sound, but with a bit of brass horn experience of mine helping to form the proper embouchure, the results were beyond satisfying when it was unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience. Had I produced a real brass horn and blown upon it, it wouldn’t have been half as surprising as when I put this curiosity to my lips.

The other significant challenge of this particular Willamette Radio Workshop performance came in the nature of its structure; that is, to make the production more entertaining for an audience for which many have quite probably experienced this production before (it is an annual show), or in order to make it different for everyone who is quite familiar with the story, the bulk of the scenes were randomized, not known which would be next until a scene was, quite literally, “drawn from a hat”. This meant that I was not able to employ my usual method of set up and process elimination of props used, because I would not know at what point props would be called for, or in what order they would be employed.

To accommodate this, I organized props in groups by scene, and laid them in order at various spots under the tables, keeping only the largest or bulkiest items like the wind machine or gravel box permanently on the table surface at all times. When the next random scene was called, I would consult my props list arranged by scene, and pull the resulting prop pile for that particular scene, plus any other props which may be used in multiple scenes. By this method, and also the use of a very capable assistant, we were able to set up for the scene called for in short order and minimal delay. Part of the show’s entertainment, as it turned out, was watching which sound effect prop was pulled out for the accompanying scene, giving a sense of anticipation for what was about to unfold.

As I had mentioned this was an annual event, and in past years I had done all the prop and sound manipulations myself en solo, but this year as I mentioned earlier I employed an able assistant who not only aided in prep and breakdown for each scene, but also provided an extra pair of hands to manipulate sound props for the scene, which in effect doubled my ability to produce live sounds for the show. This was especially effective in doing complicated scenes like the Laketown battle, and allowed for subtle additions which I wouldn’t normally have been able to afford having only two hands, such as adding a thud of Gandalf’s staff along with his shoes as he made his entrance to Bilbo’s abode.

Still, even with an extra pair of hands, I still distributed various items to the actors to keep the sounds full when called for, I distributed cricket noisemakers to help give a creepier sound for Mirkwood, along with sandpaper blocks to scratch for the giant spiders’ scrabblings, and metal kitchen utensils and garden tools to bang together for the Battle of Five Armies. The actor who played Smaug the Dragon manipulated a giant golf umbrella to simulate the flapping of dragon wings as he spoke his lines and inflicted terror upon the denizens of Laketown, and could coordinate the flapping with the actions suggested in the dialogue.

It should be noted here, and especially for this performance, that not all the sound effects for the show came from the Foley crew banging props together in front of the audience. Many sound effects were supplied either in whole or in part by sound files fed through speakers and delivered at the proper cue. In this way, many times, we would deliver a “layering effect” by providing digital sounds on top of the live ones, or just as often, laying a sound bed down as a base digitally and doing live sound effects to accompany it. Add to this some other technical manipulations, such as the echo effect in Gollum’s cave earlier, and the end result is the rich tapestry of sounds and resonances absolutely necessary to carry a live audience off into the magical world of Tolkien with his hobbits, elves, dwarves and dragons and keep coming back every year for more.


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