How to design with sound: Come in early and yell ‘Going loud!’

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

Sound design ranges from composition to sound effects. Denis Clohessy is one of the people making the magic happen for Dublin Theatre Festival.

Doesn’t sound just happen?

With a talented sound designer on board, it can seem that way. Clohessy got into it helping friends out on a production of The Glass Menagerie in 1998. “They were looking for some incidental music,” he says of one of those chance moments that blossom into a career.

Do I learn it first or learn it by doing?

As with so many theatrical things, it can be a bit of both. Clohessy studied music at college, then did a UCLA-accredited course in film scoring that was run by Screen Training Ireland. Sadly that course is no more, but Clohessy got to learn with the late Don Ray, who composed the music for such classics as Hawaii Five-O and The Twilight Zone.

That’s fascinating but not much help to me

Good point, but we love a good anecdote. The Lir Academy’s courses include the technical aspects of sound design; the Rough Magic Seeds programme helps budding sound designers too.


What would I actually be doing?

You’re adding music, miking the stage, putting in audio cues. This can be anything from the ring of a telephone to a waft of tragic music. The cue gets played at a precise moment – Clohessy says it’s best when actors rehearse with the cues right from the get-go. At the early stages you’ll want to call “Going loud!” first, in case you frighten the bejaysus out of everyone.

Are we recorded or live?

Almost all of Clohessy’s work is pre-recorded, although the musical Gold in the Water, earlier this year, was an exception, as it had a live band. “There usually isn’t a budget for live musicians. Sometimes it’s just not the right choice for a particular production,” he adds, although he’ll often record musicians for the score itself.

You mentioned miking the stage?

“Sometimes you want full speaker coverage for a particular cue – usually music – or sometimes you just want a localised speaker, for a specific effect like a telephone ring or a crackling fireplace.”

Do I need any expensive gear?

Afraid so. “Creativity is your most powerful tool,” says Clohessy, but he adds that “at a minimum you would need a computer with sequencing software, allowing you to record and edit music or audio”. That’s the easy part. Apple devices come loaded with GarageBand, for example. But you might also want guitars, microphones and the like. “There’s a microphone called a Shure SM57 which retails for less than €150 and in some scenarios is preferred by sound engineers to mics worth thousands of euro.”

Any particular pitfalls or examples of greatness?

Beware of productions that bring you in too late – always, apparently, a recipe for audio disaster. “The hardest thing,” says Clohessy, “is the deadlines. The first performance will happen – with or without you.” Clohessy also works in film and TV as a composer, and recommends watching – and listening to – the opening 12 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West as “an example of great sonic storytelling”. He is currently working on Quake, set over the course of a year in a Quaker house. “It is ostensibly filled with silences. But we’ll be looking to curate those silences and make them theatrical.”

Quake, written by Janet Moran and directed by Conall Morrison, is at Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Co Wicklow, on Saturday, September 30th, then at the Samuel Beckett Theatre at Trinity College Dublin, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, from Wednesday, October 4th, to Sunday, October 8th, with a preview on Tuesday, October 3rd

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture