Well I’ve done it again. I just finished my work on the sound design for a new production of “Angels In America Part 1: Millennium Approaches”. My dear friend Cole Wimpee, the brilliant director and most elevated thespian, was directing a production of the play, in partial fulfillment of his Master’s Degree, at the University of Arkansas.
As most of you know, I’ve worked extensively with Cole Wimpee in the past, but always under the auspices of Aztec Economy. I am a member of Aztec Economy! (I went through an elaborate initiation ritual that I’m not allowed to talk about, but there was a coffin involved.) About eighty percent of my theatrical outsourcings have been with Aztec Economy. Some of my best friends are Aztec Economy. But this time it was just me and Cole, and we talked through the script on the phone over the course of about six weeks, I took detailed notes, and I only missed one thing! I didn’t know there was supposed to be rain in Act 2 Sc 3.
What a dope! But I did remember the other 58 cues, so that’s not a bad batting average. And four of those cues are 10 minute soundscapes that I made for each of the two intermissions. There are four cues, because the first two I created were completely wrong! And I had to redo them!
For my first attempt at the Intermission Cues I created two ten-minute soundscapes incorporating background elements from the scenes just before intermission. On top of those sounds, which the audience would have already heard and had been allowed to enjoy once again, I layered some music elements from the sound design for the show, notably, several distinctive drum cadences. I put these dozen or so drum cadences into a folder called “Gay Republicans”. That was my first instinct for the sound design for this play. Provocative, no? But there are gay republicans in the play, most notably the legendary political attorney Roy Cohn.
Unfortunately, in my first attempts at intermissions, I didn’t make the gay republicans loud enough for Cole Wimpee. He yelled, “We’ve gotta keep these college kids in the theater for three hours! Your brilliantly executed and lovely soundscapes will put them all to sleep!” You gotta hand it to Cole. He’s a great director. Because what happened next I can only describe as a complete surprise. I had already had more than a couple all night sessions working on the other 40+ cues for the actual play, plus a thirteen minute pre-show sonic montage that I had completed the night before.
I knew he wanted more drumming, so I re-recorded some of the earlier drum cues, and started layering a small number of elements, and then I was saved. I rediscovered the ‘space designer’ reverb plugin in Logic. Inside that are ‘warped’ spaces that contain resonant drones on top of the reverb, and the drums were totally activating the resonance of those silly drone spaces, and I said to myself, “Wow. That’s pretty cool. Military drums and electronica, together at last.” And I was right of course. They were together at last.
People ask me, “Hey you, what’s it like to make crap like that all the time? Huh?” But that’s OK. You can’t please everybody half the time, but you can please somebody all of the time, as Abraham Lincoln didn’t say. And if that person is you – even better! But the nice thing about being outsourced, is that you don’t have to worry about these things. You just make your stuff and try to imagine what the director is looking for. Most of the time this is simple for ambient noises, though I did learn that you really have to muffle the equalization for ringing phones and traffic sirens. Even when the board is set on the lowest level, those sounds still cut through unless you turn down their their fundamental frequencies. Sound is so cool.
So the intermission cues were for Cole. Cole said make it louder, so I made what I would consider to be my loudest twenty minutes. Keep in mind, its premiere was in a large University theater, with a sizable sound system. On opening night I wondered to myself what levels they set for that music. After all, there were hundreds of people for opening night – totally sold out of course. But it’s fun to make cool music for the young people, who really need cool music. And it is here that I need to share with you the greatest website for recorded natural sounds, all open-source community driven user-uploaded recorded sounds. I found some great wind, traffic, phones, distant airplanes, and all sorts of wonderful sounds that people record and share with the freesound.org community. I have not yet contributed anything of my own, but I hope to some day. Go to freesound.org and join for free and check out and download all the wildest sounds you’ll ever want to hear. From all around the world! The goto website for the low budget sound designer working in academia, and maybe for you too!
Here is the pair of my ten-minute musical adventures (Intermission 1 and Intermission 2) used in Cole Wimpee’s legendary production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America: Millennium Approaches” at the University of Arkansas.