Blog Archives

SPECIMEN Update: New Ship Map

If you’ve been following us through the development of the Specimen board game, you know that our original game board featured a map of the space freighter TCS Brown that was pretty basic. It worked fine for playtesting, but wasn’t very visually interesting. We actually did get some compliments on the utilitarian simplicity of the board, but we wanted something a wee bit more fancy. So we teamed up with Chicago area graphic designer John Eiberger, who created our new ship map. We still have to add all the game mechanics to it, but we feel like the new ship design looks fantastic!

Watch this space or the main Toxic Bag website for an announcement about our Print and Play version of Specimen, coming very soon!

Watching the players jump is a beautiful thing

Buddy Hackett: Now you have to ask me, what’s the secret to comedy?

Johnny Carson: Okay, what’s the se–

Buddy Hackett: TIMING!

Andy/GGG at Geek’s Dream Girl writes in a recent blog post about a horror game:

When I was running my tabletop Cthulhu game, I occasionally set up phone calls to come in at particularly tense moments…often just as I said the phone rang…or I would drop a book or hit the table from underneath when everyone was whispering and quiet. I once waited til no one was looking at me, then screamed…or played a glass-breaking sound-effect through a hidden speaker. Watching the players jump is a beautiful thing.

He also had some great ideas about using darkness, camouflage, and even a (fairly graphic, by the sound of it) fake dog corpse to freak out the players.

But the sound stuff caught my ear. Not because the sounds he used were really complicated, or required lots of specialized equipment –they weren’t and didn’t– but because they were dead simple and relied entirely on timing. One of the key things about his approach (it seems) is that, as a GM, he’s tuned in to where his players are at emotionally, and knows just when to hit the sound cue for maximum effect. Ever play a sound you thought was going to be totally awesome and freak everybody out, only to find half your players missed it because they were still discussing the last roll, or wondering when the pizza was going to show up? Sure, you can play stuff again (and for expository sounds you may want to), but it will never have the same impact.

The right sound is only the right sound if it’s played at the right moment. Timing is everything.

Announcing Space Monster!

Over on his blog, Steve (Mr. Blood) has announced our forthcoming product, a card-driven board game called Space Monster. He’ll be posting a series of blog entries about the evolution of the game and the ongoing results of playtesting, artwork development and release dates. The first post describes the setup of the game.

Read the announcement here.

Visit the Space Monster page on

GO. Did you go? I said “go…”

The April 2011 issue of Live Design magazine contains a fascinating article by Fitz Patton about using motion sensors to trigger sound cues in theaters. Patton points out the very real issue of visual latency in cue-calling (especially in large halls), which is compounded by the inevitable lag time –caused by neurological latency– between when the stage manager gives the cue and the operator hits “go.” He then describes a scenario in which a sound cue needs to sync up with an actor leaping from an orchestra box to the stage, and how the use of motion sensors under the stage enable precise triggering of the desired impact sound.

I don’t know that any of the theatre companies I’m currently working with would be able to afford this kind of setup, but it’s still pretty flippin’ awesome. Check out the Live Design website for some of the results of their human-reaction time research.

The de-evolution of phone rings

Or when is an emblematic signifier no longer emblematic?

Back in the 1990s, when a radio script would call for a telephone ring, we’d generally put in a 1980s-era bell telephone ring, because it was still a sound most everyone associated with a home telephone. Office phones and cellular phones could have an electronic beep, but even though more and more home phones were electronic we still hung on to the Ma Bell sound, because it was the simplest and quickest way to communicate “telephone” to a mass audience.

But that was the ‘90s. It’s a whole ‘nother world – not only have I only seen one or two old bell-type phones in use in recent years, but a phone ring…isn’t a phone ring anymore. Barring exceptional circumstances, you really can’t use the Ma Bell ring in a contemporary setting.

Before we go any farther, I want to point out that I’m not some old fuddy-duddy wanting things to go back to the way they used to was. I like being able to customize my phone ring. I like that I can have certain rings for certain callers. It’s all cool. This is more about the challenge in sound design: what sound do phones in commercials and plays and movies make now? In an office setting, you can still do an electronic chirp, though one of my co-workers has his phone set to repeatedly ask “are you there? Are you there?” when he has an incoming call. In a home setting, I have yet to see anyone using custom ringtones…though I imagine by this time next year anyone who still has a land-line will have a phone capable of playing Lady Gaga when the telemarteters call to interrupt dinner. But a character in a contemporary play/film/spot who’s using a celphone? Here we have a challenge.

With that challenge we also have an opportunity. The simplest thing to do is use our 1990s logic, and hold ourselves back in time a little. Just use a standard electronic chirp, one of the preset rings on a phone that are generally too dull for anyone to actually use. But the opportunity we have is that we can use a ringtone to make a statement about the character. What kind of ringtone would this person put on his/her phone? Perhaps s/he is in fact straightlaced enough that one of the flat factory ringtones is just fine, but on the other hand, maybe not. In a production of Cupid & Psyche that had an extensive Radiohead soundtrack, we used a version of “Creep” for Apollo’s ringtone. This functioned on two levels: Apollo is the villain of the piece, and in that regard he is, in fact, a bit of a creep. But beyond just the title, because the song is about self-loathing and insecurity, the ringtone made a comment about Apollo’s character in the show as well.

However, there’s a further issue in that most pop-song ringtones these days are mp3 snippets of the actual recording. This is a dicey thing when you’re dealing with diegetic sounds and scoring, because if the audience hears a short piece of music in a play or film, they’re not going to automatically think “telephone.” They might first think “radio” or “soundtrack.” You could make sure the song is filtered and sounds like a low-quality mp3 through a tiny speaker, but it still may not communicate “telephone” as quickly and directly as the electronic chirps. For Cupid & Psyche we addressed this by arranging the “Creep” ringtone using celphone chirps.

Perhaps I’m holding back too much. Maybe audiences are already cuturally conditioned to the point where an mp3 ringtone in a sound design will work fine. And I’m certainly fine with the old Ma Bell sound being a “period piece” sound effect. Let me know what you think.

using tools the “wrong” way

Sound designer Ian Palmer has posted some fascinating samples on his blog–he took the sonic “fingerprint” of one sound and then used it as a noise-reduction key for a completely different sound. A great technique and in his case it yielded some cool results!

Needless to say, this is not exactly using the noise reduction software for its intended purpose. But that’s a great approach to creative design.

Check it out here.

Mackers 2010 and the Waterphone

As I mentioned earlier, I revisited Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth this summer, having done a sound design for it at another school a year and a half previously. The challenge as I saw it was not to repeat myself or simply regurgitate my own sound design and music. I think I was pretty successful at that. The music and ambient sound for the 2010 production is not as heavy and industrial as the one I did in 2008, but still manages to be creepy and unsettling.

For this new Macbeth, I made liberal use of Todd Barton, Joel Henigson, and Richard Waters’ Waterphone sample collection. It’s set up for Kontakt, but I don’t own that software, so once I’d bought the sample set I built 2 sampler instruments in Reason, placing the samples where they seemed to make sense (one of the sample sets, Todd’s I think, came with a handy .pdf that showed how he mapped the samples in Kontakt, so I just aped that layout in Reason). I also threw some of the bowed samples way down in the lower octaves and they gave me some fantastic drones.

For $15 the Uncharted Waters Waterphone sample set is a great sound design tool. I recommend it highly.

I’ve also posted a montage of sounds from Macbeth on my Soundcloud page:

If I had it all to do over again…

And, as it turns out, I do.

I’ve been doing sound design for theatre in and around Chicago for about seven years. It’s a little strange that in that time I’ve never had to design the same show more than once (I have re-mounted shows, but that’s different). I know lots of designers who have done multiple productions of the same show over their career. I almost had two back-to-back productions of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure last year, but the director of the second production changed his mind and put up As You Like It instead. At the time I was actually looking forward to the challenge of doing one show, then immediately tossing out everything I’d just come up with and starting again from scratch. For good or ill, it didn’t go down that way.

This summer, though, I’ll finally be re-visiting a show I’ve done once before: Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. I did sound design and music (with a little help from Beethoven) for Oakton Community College’s Macbeth in 2008, and now Moraine Valley Community College is putting it up for their summer show. Not quite back to back, but it will still be a new challenge.

The upside is, I already know the show pretty well. The downside, of course, is that I still have associations that tie my previous design to the show. I generally avoid looking at other versions of a show (or filmed versions) when I’m working on it, to avoid stealing. Maybe this time I should watch a couple of movie versions of Macbeth, just to cleanse my palate.

One thing I know is going to be different is that on this show I am going to explore Tonehammer’s new Waterphone sample library to create the music for the show. That will definitely give this production a different sound and I’m pretty excited about it.

Designers and directors, please chime in: how do you approach a second –or a third or fourth—production of the same script? Do you worry about repeating yourself? Do you embrace the possibility of trying stuff you wish you had before? Do you ever deliberately recycle?

Everybody needs a Hero sometimes…

(but sometimes you don’t)

Tonight is final dress for Hobo Junction’s “The Regulars,” and tomorrow we open. I’ve been working since January on the musical arrangements for the show, and spent the last few days teching and tweaking. In the last few days we’ve added flutes, trumpets and many many more layers of electric guitar and moog synthesizer to the already epic score, making it even epic-er. The cast is kicking ass and taking names, and bottom line, you should come to see this show.

For more details on the process, please read Amy The Stage Manager’s blog, “Managing Hobo Junction’s Regularity.”

“The Regulars” runs May 7 – June 13 at the Apollo Theater in Chicago.

Part of the musical superduperforce behind "The Regulars." Dan Krall, Josh Zagoren, Joe Griffin

picture courtesy Amy Hopkins.

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.

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