by John Nevin
A common mistake made by choreographers is to think of their final sound design as one of the last steps in their process. Although the initial inspiration for choreography is often musical, the fine-tuning of the musical score is usually relegated to the final stages of the work, along with the costumes and lighting design.
In all three areas, there is expertise that a choreographer may need some help with, but sound design is so integral to the creative process of choreography that it needs to be included early and often. Doing so isn’t that difficult or that expensive, and in many cases it can be easy and free.
Naturally, if you’re choreographing a short work to a single track, or creating a piece that is essentially non-musical, there’s very little involved in the sound design. In every other case, a continuous awareness of how you’re developing your score can really enhance the development of the choreography. The question becomes how to do this, because for most dancers, the sound design process can be a little intimidating. Very often, the best way to begin something that’s intimidating is to think about how it should end, so let’s start with the ending.
The last step of the sound design process is to provide the production staff with a final copy of what will actually be played at the performance, and all we need to do is work backwards from that ending until we get to the beginning, like an outline in reverse, one step at a time.
The final copy you give to the production staff should sound the way that you want an audience to hear the score, so the levels between all of its parts should be set so that they’re strong and consistent. This is a process the music industry calls “mastering”.
Before you can master the project, all of the parts have to be blended together, so that they really work both for your movement and for the work’s overall through-line. “Mixing” is the blending of sounds so that they can all be heard, and heard in some artistic balance with each other. If you’ve combined different sounds, like sound effects with music, or different pieces of music, this is where you put everything together so that your audience is moved by the score but not distracted by it.
If, as is usually the case with choreography, the parts that you are assembling have to be chopped up to work rhythmically with your movement, before you can mix everything you may have to edit some of the sections into the right time.
In order to edit and mix the project, you have to have chosen all of the parts that go into it, and where each should go, a process we can call “arranging”.
Finally, before you can arrange the pieces, you have to find them.
Those are the six steps in sound design for choreography, but in practice you’ll usually work through them two at a time, so you can think of sound design in broad terms as a three-part process:
- Discovery and Arrangement
- Editing and Mixing
- Mastering and Completion
What is most often missed in the process is that by really looking ahead to the later steps, you actually make the earlier steps easier. A rough arrangement of what you have so far is the best way of judging whether you have all of the pieces you need. A quick edit and mix is one of the best ways of seeing if you’re satisfied with your arrangement. Making a preliminary performance copy for yourself will give you invaluable insight into whether your mix and sound levels are where you want them.
We’ll get more into the practical details of each of these phases in the next few articles.
Stay tuned for more!
Contributor John Nevin is the Resident Composer and Sound Designer for Thodos Dance Chicago, as well as an independent record producer, and a founding member of the group ‘ohana Dreamdance. In addition to his work as a composer, John works with choreographers and other artists in the sound design for their creative works, and writes extensively about music and dance at aotpr.com