Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Bells Are Ringing

Many impro shows incorporate sound effects of one sort or another in the show. Sometimes they work, sometimes not so much, Sound effects always seem like a good idea, but I think often they don't work as well as they might.

Pre-recorded sound effects

I have a few (like 2 or 3) sound effects built in to my keyboard. I think I have a helicopter, a telephone, and a seashore. Ooh aah. On the plus side, because you perform them, you can make them behave as you like, getting louder or softer, changing the timing. As a downside, you have so few of them that they are super conspicuous when you do use them.

In the past I've used custom software to store and quickly recall a big set of sound effects during shows. It isn't hard to get a good sized library of different sound effects; you can download a zillion of them from the internet. All you need is a way to recall them quickly. Canned effects like this are pretty static; you can't perform them and change their behaviour.

The biggest downside to me is that the audience doesn't need high fidelity sound effects to hear the right things in their head. If you have two actors on stage playing tennis, when they swing and hit the ball, do you really need to hear a canned effect for the ball hitting the racquet? The audience is going to hear the sound in their imaginations anyway. If you play a sound effect, it's not going to be timed just right, or sound just right, so it's not going to be anywhere near as good as what they were imagining. It will break the spell a bit.

I've been told one of the components of hypnosis is using either sparse or elaborate descriptions of things to sink the subject further or pull the subject out of a hypnotised state. If a hypnotist encourages someone to see "a dog", the subject will quickly form a picture of a dog, a particular dog, in their head. (Right now - what kind of dog is in your head? Take a sec to picture it clearly before you read on.) Their imagination is in charge and working, and that's drawing them deeper in to that trance-like state. If you later say "The dog is back, it's a white scottish terrier, and it's yapping at you while the bell on its collar jingles", the thing you're describing most likely clashes with what they were picturing; that jarring shift pulls people out of that state and closer to normal awareness.

To me, playing sound effects is a bit like describing the dog in more detail. If the scene takes place at a racetrack, the audience will imagine an appropriate background sound. If you lay your own interpretation of what a racetrack sounds like on top of it, it won't match, and you'll pull them out of the scene.

Organic sound effects

I had the pleasure of seeing Comedysportz (now Impulse Theater) a few times when I lived in Denver. When I saw them, they had an off-stage improviser playing the part of "Mr Voice" (I think), on a microphone, providing voiceover work sometimes, and sound effects other times. The classic scene I remember had a character on stage go to the fridge to get a beer, and when they opened the fridge Mr Voice made a frozen-tundra-howling-wind sound effect; when the character closed the fridge again, the sound suddenly stopped. Mr Voice could perform the sound effect, starting, adjusting, and stopping it when he wanted, and he has an infinite repetoire.

For some reason, I think this sort of sound effect doesn't pull the audience out of their trance. I can't quite figure out why I think that.

The one with the canned laughter

When I was carting around sound effects, I had a set of seven or so chunks of canned laughter lifted from one episode (thirty seconds!) of Friends. I had that queued up to a key on my keyboard, for really instant recall. My good friend Roger Beames is a fine MC, but he tortures me. (You know what I'm talking about Rog.) On occasion I get revenge. As an MC he'll make a gag now and again that will just fail completely, no audience reaction whatsoever. I'll leave a good solid second of dead air, then hit some canned laughter. Now the joke hasn't just failed, it's failed spectacularly, I look good, and the audience has a big laugh at Roger's expense. (Damn, I just realised it probably also serves the show by helping it to recover from an awkward moment.) Better luck next time, Mr Beames.

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