Theatre sound design: phone rings
a sound design mini-tutorial
If you’re doing a design for a show that’s set in modern times, there will likely be telephones that have to ring during the show. Not in the audience, though sadly that’ll probably happen. No, at some point a phone on the set is gonna have to ring and an actor’s gonna have to pick it up.
I know that some designers will rig a telephone to actually ring on stage, and that’s awesome. Other designers, though, will just play a phone ring sound effect over the speakers (though hiding a speaker near the prop phone is a good idea). It’s simple: the sound op (or stage manager, on small storefront shows) plays the phone ring sound, and when the actor picks up the receiver, the op/SM stops the sound.
Depending on the phone though, it’s not quite so simple. See, for modern electronic phones that make a beep or sustained chirping noise, that’s fine. Once the receiver is lifted, the electronic sound generator in the phone just stops cold. No problem. But phones from the 1940s/50s/60s/70s and even on into the 80s had actual bells in them, which continued to vibrate for a half-second or so after the receiver was picked up. I recently attended a play where the sound effect for such a phone was cut off abruptly when the actor picked up the phone, and it took me out of the show a little.
Here’s one of what I am sure are myriad fixes for this challenge. You need to be using a computer program such as SFX or QLab to pull it off really precisely, though I’m sure a skilled op could do it with 2 CD players.
Grab your phone ring from your sound effects library. Then in your DAW/sound editing program, grab just the very tail of one of the rings –just the wee back end of the bell settling down to silence. Make that a new file and call it something useful, like tailoff.wav or maybe “fred.”
Let’s say the actor is going to pick it up on the third ring. You build a 5-ring cue just in case, load it in to SFX and call it Q10 (or whatever). Then you build your STOP cue, or if you prefer (which I do) a FADE cue that fades the ring out (and stops it once the fade is complete) in 0 seconds. That’s Q15. Right on the back of the FADE cue, make a WAIT of zero seconds and then a new cue containing fred, er, the tailoff.wav sound you just made. (In Qlab, make the fade and the tailoff cue part of a group of cues that all fire simultaneously). So Q15 does two things: it stops the phone ring, and it fires the tailoff sound.
Now what you’ve got is a sequence where, once the actor picks up the phone and the SM/op stops the phone ring effect, your new bell ringoff sound will play simultaneously with the main ring sound stopping, creating the illusion that an actual physical bell is no longer being rung inside the telephone and is settling down to stillness over a half-second or so rather than being immediately choked off. If there’s a small gap between when the main ring stops and the tailoff starts, increase the FADE time to a tenth of a second or so (salt to taste).
Important: you must get the actor in on this! He or she must be told how the cue is working, and told that s/he must pick up the phone during a ring rather than between rings. If s/he picks it up between rings the tailoff cue will sound from nowhere, as if a dormant telephone bell was suddenly set in motion. And that would make for an exasperating night at the theater for Sir Isaac Newton.
As I said before, there are many ways to skin this particular cat. But that’s a method I’ve used a few times with great success. Have fun!
Joe is using all electronic phone rings for his current production of Machinal. It’s nothing personal.