OWEN RAFFERTY is a sound artist, applying the dedication and nuance of his craft across many disciplines. His work combines finely trained technical skill in audio engineering, self taught musical proficiency and a well developed artistic instinct. In particular, his work as a sound designer for live theatre has won a lot of critical acclaim for its commitment to detail and the subtle ways it is used to evoke worlds, set moods and further develop the themes of the text.
Whether it be in the medium of theatre, music, art installation or film, Owen's work thrives on a spirit of collaboration. Whatever world you come from, if you are interested in co-creating work that is new and challenging, please get in touch!
by Mighty Heart Theatre
Developed with Barbican Open Lab/HOME
by Babel Theatre
Developed in assocation with HOME, Manchester
by House of Orphans
in association with 59e59 Theatre, New York
Distinction in Audio Engineering Techniques and Technology from the School of Sound Recording
Level 201 Pro Tools from Digidesign/AVID
Professional Member of the Association of Sound Designers (profile)
BA (hons) 2:1 in History and Sociology from the University of Manchester
"The effects are completely immersive...
..and detailed" - Fringe Guru
"I see this play as having a lot of silence"
My journey with Parallel started when I went along to a rehearsed reading at the Royal Exchange Studio in ****** (Laura can you insert the date here as I can't actually remember it was that long ago!). I had worked with the writer Laura Lindsay on her first play – Hidden - a couple of years earlier, and I had been invited along to watch and share my thoughts from a sound design perspective. At this stage, the play still was using a working title - Waiting for Light, and all I knew going in was that it would have 3 female characters, it would be set in a train station in the middle of the night, and it would be loosely based on Beckett's Waiting for Godot. And that was all I needed to know – Beckett is one of my favourite playwrights, and any project that aspires to emulate his style is one that I am keen to be involved in!
As a sound designer my job is to add sound effects and music that help give a play atmosphere and production values. Usually this process will start with me reading a completed script, then meeting the director to discuss creative vision and talk through some early ideas. So it was a unique experience to see a play I was going to design sound for already on its feet, being read script in hand to an audience of over 100 theatre-goers. And it was really good. The character's were compelling, the jokes were funny and the audience really enjoyed it. Which begs the question – does a play like this even need sound? After all, it already works without it. In true Beckett style, there is minimal action, which brings the focus on the characters and the dialogue. The worst thing I could do is design something that sounds great on its own, but which distracts from this focus. I am the first person to advocate for the importance of good sound design in theatre, but some of the best theatre I have seen didn't have any production whatsoever. I was worrying about all this when I realised I had barely anything written down in my notepad, and the read-through was nearly over.
“I see this play as having a lot of silence,” the writer admitted to me after the show, apologetically. “I don't suppose...that's something you would be interested in working on?” she asked, as if by focussing on silence more than sound, she was asking me to sell out everything I stand for.
“Awesome. I LOVE making silence... actually it's kinda one of my favourite things to do.”
Not the answer she was expecting, but this was truly how I felt. There is an art to creating silence, and it can be really effective dramatically. But that doesn't change the fact that it feels a bit weird to talk about. You end up using nonsense phrases like “creating” silence, as if that were physically possible, and it all ends up sounding like a cop-out for a lazy designer who can't be bothered actually putting together any sounds. This has turned into a bit of a running joke about how the “silence designer” doesn't have any work to do, so he can just put his feet up until show day.
But actually it isn't as straightforward as it sounds...in a way it is harder to create a soundscape that is stark and minimal. You have to be incredibly delicate, as every little detail matters. It's not a case of having total silence throughout, it's about using quiet sounds that emphasise the stillness.
A critic once said of Waiting for Godot that it is a play in which nothing happens...twice. And while there is some truth in that – there aren't any of the typical dramatic developments we are used to – it also misses the point. The lack of conventional drama (or sound or set) gives space to the characters and brings our focus in to the details of their speech. And that's what I am aiming for with the sound – sometimes “nothing” will happen, but making that work turns out to be a fascinating challenge.
So why is silence interesting to me? And how do you “create” it? I guess it has something to do with that odd thing that happens when a fridge has been humming in the background, you don't notice how loud and grating it is until it stops. The contrast between the noise of the fridge and the sudden silence really grabs the attention and makes you very aware of the sounds around you. And this is one of the easiest ways to create silence – play a subtle ambient sound long enough for people to take it for granted and start tuning it out, then fade it out for effect.
When I first sat down with director James Baker to discuss the sound, he was also keen on the idea of using silence. It was great to see that right from the start we were on the same page about how we wanted the atmosphere to be. And I was able to cite the example of a fridge humming to demonstrate that not only was I onboard with the idea, but I already knew ways to make it work. I use this example again and again in early meetings, especially if directors use phrases like “subtle”, “minimal” and so on. Most directors are wary that sound can get in the way, so it is very useful to have a concrete example you can use to show that you share their concerns and know ways to achieve atmospheric and dramatic results with a stripped back set of sounds.
The next step was to decide on our equivalent of the fridge hum, luckily we had one in the form of a vending machine on set. This opens up the opportunity to use the mechanical sound of the machine as a drone that can be brought in and out subtly at key moments of the play. The setting had changed from being a train station to being more of an abstract world that could be anywhere. Like many Beckett plays, it takes place in a vague purgatory that feels empty and lonely. So it's important that the sounds echo and reverberate to give a sense of the size and emptiness of the space.
So I should probably get back to it. That lack of sound isn't going to design itself! I'll just sign off with this awesome video I found online about the use of silence in cinema. If you're still not sure of the dramatic benefits of using silence, this explains it much better than I ever could.
First published for 24:7 Theatre festival's "Foot In The Door" scheme
It's important to discuss ideas with the director and communicate effectively with the creative team so that everyone is working towards a common goal. Even the most impressive sound design in the world will come across as a horrible distraction if it doesn't fit with the overall artistic vision of the show. High-concept experimental soundscapes may be the most fun for a designer to make because they get to play around with a bunch of cool sound effects, but if everything else about the show is understated and naturalistic, it probably isn't going to gel!
Not that your relationship with the director is a one-way street – the conversation is important because it is also your opportunity to talk about your vision and your ideas. So the ability to communicate those ideas is key. Think of some key reference points for your design – if you have favourite films that you want to borrow ideas from, or pieces of music that you think might work, start with them. Having something concrete to talk about will engender trust in your ideas. You can try making a lengthy explanation of an abstract concept you have in your head, but it works a lot better when you can just play a scene from a Kubrick film on your phone and talk about how you want to create a soundscape influenced by that.
Sometimes you go to a show where the sounds are impressive and demonstrate great skill, but the sounds are also distracting and don't quite fit with the show. To me this is the sign of a designer who hasn't spent enough time in rehearsals, or one who hasn't used that time effectively. The best sound designers aren't just people with great audio skills, but people who can use sound in a way that is sympathetic to the story being told. Your audio skills can be developed by practicing with your software and equipment at home, but the story-telling skills you need can only be developed by making use of your time in rehearsals.
Sound designers aren't expected to be in every rehearsal, and how much involvement is expected will vary from project to project, but expect to be at about one rehearsal a week on average. Ideally you want to go to one or two rehearsals early on just so that you can sit in and get a feel for the show. So just watch and pay attention to the overall tone of the piece and the direction it's going in. Identify moments where the mood or pace changes. Consider any ways sound could be used to support these transitional moments. Make sure you have a notepad with you so you can write down any ideas.
Then sometime around the mid-point of the rehearsals, you ideally want to be at the point of testing the first drafts of your sounds, to see how well they fit with the action. So bring your laptop in with a pair of PC speakers and play your sounds under a scene. You may find that the sounds that seemed great when you were playing them at home don't actually fit the scene particularly well, but that's to be expected sometimes - context can change a sound dramatically. And the whole point of using your rehearsal time to test out your sounds is that you find out what works and what needs to be changed.
If you have made good use of your rehearsal time, then the final week of rehearsals can be just about adding the finishing touches to your sounds and giving the actors the opportunity to practice the show along with the sound cues.
It may seem simple and obvious, but listen to what other sound designers are doing and see how they are using sound to create mood and to evoke settings. Listen to what effects sound designers are creating in theatre, film, radio plays and music. Even if you're dead set on theatre sound design, take in as many influences as you can!
The other thing that's good to listen to is... the world around you. That may sound like a joke but I am in fact being perfectly serious. Wherever you are – if you're walking down the street or sitting on bus – just listen to all the different elements that make up the “soundscape” around you. Notice what sounds stand out, and what sits subtly in the background. Do the sounds create a certain mood? If you closed your eyes, would you be able to figure out where you are? The more you think like this, the better you will be at choosing the right sounds to evoke a sense of mood and place.
Between the wide availability of free learning resources and software on the internet and the falling prices of computer and microphone technology, there are a lot of resources available to a budding sound designer, even on a limited budget. Free software such as Audacity will allow you to edit sounds and has many of the effects that you would expect from professional software packages. It may not have quite the same sound quality and amount of options, but it is a great place to start. If you need to learn how to use Audacity or any other software, a quick search of Youtube will give you plenty of free lessons to get you started. If you are looking for sound libraries, I recommend www.freesound.org, which provides you with useful pre-recorded sounds, royalty-free. And if you can't find the sound you need on the internet, then you may be better off recording your own...
Recording equipment is very affordable nowadays, with home vocal recording packages making it possible to get a decent microphone, sound card and headphones for under £200 from any music store. These are great for recording vocals or foley. If you are looking to record outdoor sounds, you can get portable digital audio recorders for under £100. These are very handy, as sometimes the only thing that will sound convincingly like the bustle of a busy Manchester street is an actual busy Manchester street that you record for yourself!
Now for the bad news... as well as all the fun teamwork and creativity of being a sound designer, at some point you will also have to learn the basics about the science of sound. You don't necessarily have to learn the intricacies of Nyquist's digital sampling theorem... but if you want to work with sound, it's important you learn the fundamentals of what sound is and how it works.
The following video is a very comprehensive summary of all the science you need to know. They cover everything I learned in the first 4 weeks of my audio engineering course in just 17 minutes, so don't try to learn it all in one go!
And if all that scientific theory gets boring, just watch this to remind yourself how amazingly cool sound can be: