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Electronics, Sound and Fury at the RSC

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre book series (PSBMT)


This chapter turns to the development of sound design as an inseparable partner of music composition. As the tools and practices of creativity in sound design have undergone a process of transformation following the development of new technologies, so too, new listening practices and expectations of the immersive experience of theatre have emerged. Clearly such tools and practices don’t apply only to Shakespearean performance, and I refer to musicals as well as plays, but this chapter documents the changes in working practices and personnel resulting from the developing sound technologies available in the RSC theatres. The aim is to explore how the relationship between sound and music has altered since the middle of the twentieth century and what possibilities that creates.


  • Music Recording (RSC)
  • Sound Design
  • Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI)
  • Click Track
  • Sound Differences

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  1. 1.

    Bruce Smith describes the sound world of the early modern theatre in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England—Attending to the O-Factor (1999).

  2. 2.

    PA is the widely used term for the public address system comprising amplifiers and speakers used in theatres, cinemas, “and elsewhere”.

  3. 3.

    This was a device for playing discs on which sound effects and music were recorded and played back in theatres. Its operation will be discussed in more detail below.

  4. 4.

    The earliest mention of a panatrope is the launch in 1927 of the Brunswick Panatrope, but the device that was developed in the UK by Simon Sound just before the Second World War and followed by many other versions and editions became so ubiquitous that the word ‘pan’ itself was later used to mean a sound cue (Collison 2008, 84 and 127).

  5. 5.

    DSM is the widely used term for a Deputy Stage Manager who is responsible for noting all moves and changes in a prompt script and cueing actors, lighting, sound, “and all other” technical staff during the performance.

  6. 6.

    For a comprehensive chronology of key inventions from 1820 up to 1994 see Collison 2008, 66–104.

  7. 7.

    The suffix ‘scape’ can mean form, shape, scene, or view, or a specific type of space. The overall term soundscape is used throughout this book to refer to the creation of a background atmospheric context, whether environmental or musical, acoustic or electronic, within which theatrical performance is perceived.

  8. 8.

    Before this Collison had worked with Peter Hall on productions in the West End. First was Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre Club in 1956 and later Brouhaha in 1959, the success of which meant that he was later called on to work at the RSC when Peter Hall became artistic director there.

  9. 9.

    Ross Brown contests that Collison’s first credit as sound designer was, in fact, in 1959 for the repertory season at The Lyric, Hammersmith (Brown 2010, 34).

  10. 10.

    Dunn first worked at the RSC in 1989, worked at the Barbican, took some time out when the RSC withdrew from the Barbican, before returning to Stratford as sound manager in 2000, a job whose title changed to Head of RSC Sound in 2004 and in which he remains.

  11. 11.

    EQ stands for equalizer. Equalisation is the process by which sound is altered so that different frequencies (such as the bass or treble) are relatively more noticeable in the balance.

  12. 12.

    Making it sound too refined.

  13. 13.

    Much more detailed analysis of all Gerhard’s scores for the RSC is contained in Llano 2013.

  14. 14.

    For this score Gerhard was paid twice the average fee of £125 even though, as is common practice in live theatre, a number of cues were cut in the final stages of rehearsal.

  15. 15.

    A letter from Gerhard to the British Council, quoted in Llano 2013, 126.

  16. 16.

    A copy of this letter was provided to the author by David Collison from his private collection.

  17. 17.

    Tape compositions were created by manipulating recordings of natural sounds and voices, and later manipulating sounds created using electronics and early synthesisers, at the RTF in Paris, then in the Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète. This was followed in the UK in the early 60s by the inauguration of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (RTF was the national broadcaster of France at the time—earlier named RDF and later ORTF. It was here Pierre Schaeffer first experimented with sound technology).

  18. 18.

    There he worked with Edward Williams who was a proponent of electronic music and a great user of the EMS VCS3—the prime British synthesiser in the ‘60s and ‘70s, used by all the major pop groups. Williams went on to write the music for David Attenborough’s BBC television series Life on Earth (Leonard 2016).

  19. 19.

    Information derived from the cue sheets and production records at the Birthplace Trust Archive.

  20. 20.

    A ‘patch’ is the name given to an electronically created sound resulting from a particular combination of waves, frequencies, onsets, and so on and programmed into a synthesiser. Each synthesiser had ‘banks’ (A, B, C, and D in the case of the DX7), containing over 100 patches that were accessed by a combination of switches above the keyboard.

  21. 21.

    This production was screened as part of the RSC Live season in autumn 2016, and released on DVD in 2017. Opus Arte 1249D.


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Taylor, M. (2018). Electronics, Sound and Fury at the RSC. In: Theatre Music and Sound at the RSC. Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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