Lyric Theatre Belfast / Abbey Theatre Dublin
“We are one.
You and I are one.
Why then are we at war?”
WWI centenary commemorations have been prominent in the national consciousness for the past four years, and especially in Arts communities. It’s no surprise therefore that I’ve worked on a variety of WWI related projects over this period, and my most recent project has been as Sound Designer on a new production of Thomas Kilroy’s fascinating study of identity and propaganda ‘Double Cross’ (a co-pro between The Abbey Theatre, Dublin and the Lyric Theatre in Belfast). The script calls for significant integration of multimedia elements and so here was an opportunity for some exciting creative exploration.
This particular play, written by one of Ireland’s greatest living playwrights, remains as challenging and relevant to our times as when it was first performed in 1986. Telling the story of two Irishmen who, using the media and propaganda tools they had available to them in the 1940s, reinvented themselves in order to pursue their own beliefs, ambitions and sense of national identity in a war-wracked World. Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s wartime ‘Minister of Information’ (who according to George Orwell was the inspiration behind the character of Big Brother, and not just due to the initials ‘B.B’) goes head-to-head with William Joyce who, during the war years, broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany under the sobriquet of ‘Lord Haw Haw’. The contemporary relevance is striking.
The Art Of (White) Noise
A 1940s wireless is both a key plot device and also an important design feature throughout the play. William Joyce’s Nazi propaganda transmissions need to emerge, out of static, and on cue from amongst streams of other period broadcasts. At the end of Act 1, as Bracken becomes gripped by his fevered obsession with Joyce’s broadcasts, the Wireless comes alive on stage, blasting out Joyce’s relentless and despotic rants whilst Bracken frantically pulls it apart in front of the audience.
So any practical remote speaker fixed inside a period wireless shell had to be both tough and ultra-reliable. So I opted for a pair of Minirig speakers. Made in the UK these are by far the best portable, battery powered speakers I have come across: well built, rugged, reliable and with an impressive sound output in terms of power and quality. Although aimed primarily at the domestic market, they are perfect for stage use. I used the larger ‘Minirig 2’ as a practical for the wireless and the smaller Minirig Mini as a phone practical secured under a desk to provide the numerous phone effects and noises required throughout Act 1.
As mentioned above, the wireless is also a crucial plot device and almost becomes a protagonist in its own right as the drama develops. Issues concerning propaganda, the communication of information and mis-information (or perhaps fake news as we call it today) are at the heart of Kilroy’s play. For these reasons I decided at an early stage in the development process to explore a sound world constructed in part from a palette of white noise. I sourced a well specified short wave radio from eBay - one that gave me some good clean outputs - and set about recording several hours of white noise, interference and tuning effects from across the entire SW/AM frequency range.
Far from being a restrictive palette, white noise lends itself to many different flavours of manipulation and sonic sculpting. Technically, white noise is a random signal having equal intensity at different frequencies, giving it a constant power spectral density. In simple terms, it's a tangled mash up of every frequency within the audible frequency spectrum. So with the right signal processing tools it is possible to sculpt it into numerous forms. For example, early arcade game sound chips had white noise generators which were used to create many of their sound effects, and 80s mix engineers often used gated white noise as the basis for their snare sounds.
Here then are some results of the sound processing techniques I employed to cultivate a soundscape from a palette of white noise. First up, using some of my favourite plug-ins from the GRM Tools collection, plus additional processing from iZotope Trash 2 and UAD, here is a shimmering, tonal drone emerging from a bed of static:
Next up is an artefact I stumbled upon when passing static through a chain of distortion plugins. The result is something not unlike a mass of bi-planes approaching. Blended together with some brilliant surround recordings of Spitfires by award winning sound designer John Leonard (see below for more info), this was an effect I used at several key points in the production:
The legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop and its resident composers and engineers were well versed in using white noise generators to summon up the sound of galactic storms and sci-fi atmospheres. With my extensive recordings of white noise already ‘in the can’, I had some fun attempting to emulate these pioneers of electro-acoustic music and sound. Director Jimmy Fay was excited by the meta-realism of using suggestive sounds and ambiences and for some of the more abstract moments of the production these type of effects worked really well:
One of the set-pieces in Act 1 involves a rooftop scene during the Blitz which culminates in an explosion sequence followed by Bracken being traumatised into a flashback to his youth as a boy growing up in Ireland. I wanted to suggest the auditory symptoms of ringing in the ears and tinnitus such as those one might experience after exposure to high SPL events. Using iZotope’s RX software I was able to nominate and then extract several frequencies to create a stylised re-imagining of this phenomena:
Early on in the production process Jimmy Fay explained he was keen to explore low frequency effects as a further sound-based narrative throughout the piece. We installed Subs under each of the seating banks and I set about designing elements, again out of static and white noise, that would get the Naughton Studio at the Lyric trembling, this time with a little help from some Soundtoys plug-ins.:
A Tale of Two Stagings
The Lyric production of Double Cross was designed around a traverse staging, however for the move to the Peacock Stage at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, the staging has to be converted to end on. Given that I was working with a surround-based design this created some initial headaches but the solution was to create a versatile output mapping in QLab which gave me the flexibility to route signals to either a mirrored or an a-symmetrical surround configuration on each side of the stage. Together with the two Minirig speakers fed via a ‘reverse radio’ kit, i.e. an IEM receiver, plus the two subs, we used 8 surround speakers (mostly EV ZXA1s) and for the move to Dublin four of these were removed from the rig without affecting my overall programming. The tension grid in the Naughton Studio at the Lyric Belfast is a Sound Designer’s dream (although a Lighting Designer’s nightmare) as it offers numerous rigging options that allow for plenty of height and space, giving the overall sound design room to breathe. I’ve designed a number of other productions in this space and have grown to love its creative potential from a sound design perspective. Using the aforementioned GRM tools suite, or to be more specific their plug-ins which are multi-output enabled, I’ve had great success in creating bespoke surround soundscapes in multiple configurations (4.1, 6.1, 8.1) within this venue.
I mentioned at the start of this piece how there is a significant multimedia aspect to this production. Working with talented artist and videographer Neil O’Driscoll, I put my trusty Zoom F4, Rode NT4 and Rode Blimp into good use recording the dialogue for a number of videos that were filmed for the production. Once Neil’s pictures were locked I was able to grab the audio and process it independently of his editing. The track I Am Here (see above) is an example of processed dialogue as recorded during the filming process. This recording is a two-channel fold-down of the original surround design, printed from QLab, but you can hear many of the static and white noise elements undulating throughout. Show control and playback was then tasked to two MacBook Pros running QLab and linked together via two word-clocked MOTU firewire interfaces. This ensured that sync between the audio machine and video machine remained sample accurate. All the video cues could then be fired via OSC from the audio machine, whilst I still had the creative freedom to route the time-clocked video soundtracks to wherever I needed in the space.
Production Dates: 10 - 27 October, Lyric Belfast 31st October - 10th November, Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Cast: Ian Toner, Charlotte McCurry, Sean Kearns
Creatives: Writer: Thomas Kilroy, Director: Jimmy Fay, Set Design: Ciaran Bagnall, Costume Design: Gillian Lennox, Lighting Design: Paul Keogan,
Sound Design: Chris Warner, Video Design: Neil O'Driscoll
Visit http://www.belfasttimes.co.uk for some more background to this particular production
For more information about Minirig visit their website at: https//minirigs.co.uk
John Leonard’s brilliant sound library of ‘Spitfires in Surround’ is available to buy from http://www.asoundeffect.com
For more info on the excellent range of GRM sound design plug-ins visit http://inagrm.com