The Soundscape Part 1

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Image credit @The_Soundscape

Your haunt LOOKS great! How does it sound? Is it quiet until the monster pops up? Is it loud all the time? Does each scene have a soundtrack unique to it? The soundscape can really help immerse patrons in your nightmare world!

The word "soundscape" was coined by Canadian sound author and composer R. Murray Schafer. His concept of a soundscape was essentially an auditory landscape, almost exclusively applied to outdoor locations. It's about all the sounds that give a place its feel. The soundscape at a lake may be the water lapping against the shore, the whisper of wind in the trees, the splash of a fish, the call of a bird, the chirp of a chipmunk. The soundscape of Central and Washington in Phoenix in 2019 would include the wind between the buildings, the sound of the tires on the road, the engines of the cars, the bell of the light rail and the hum of it rolling on its track, the sounds of the people on the sidewalk, the occasional honk of a horn or squeal of brakes, maybe someone hawking water or a parking attendant enticing people into his lot, those kids of things. In April of 2020 it would just be the wind...

Of course, haunted houses have soundscapes as well - and we can make them anything we want!

Image credit House of Restless Spirits

I believe soundscapes should be designed in layers. Actually, I feel the same way about costumes, makeup, character design, story writing and lasagna...

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The first layer is the constant that all others build on. The water against the shore, for example, never changes no matter where you are at the lake, nor what time of day it is. The "ambient" sound in a haunted house may be a little harder to define. In a normal house, the hum of the heating or air and the refrigerator are common sounds we only notice when they start or stop. Maybe haunted houses have none of that.

One way to get an ambient "base layer" for a haunted house would be to actually go to an empty house and record the room. It's not silent, any more than a seashell is silent when you hold it to your ear. Another way might be to start with low-volume white noise, just loud enough to hear.

There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Tin Man" where the titular character was a living ship. The sound designers could not come up with a proper ambient sound for the ship from their libraries. What they did was feed someone some pepperoni pizza. They put a microphone against his belly to record the sounds as it digested. Slowed down and played at low volume, it gave an organic sound that set the scene inside the ship. I think that would be an interesting base layer in a house or cave.

Reducing the speed of playback is a good trick that lowers the pitch as well. A song played at 2/4 speed starts to sound drunken to me. At 1/4 speed, it is barely recognizable. At 1/10 speed, it is hard to hear it as music at all. It can be great ambient sound! You can even record random sounds, like playing notes on a piano or guitar, maybe billiard balls smacking into each other, cans dragged along the pavement, etc. Played at very low speeds, these would be interesting and unrecognizable.

I believe the base sound should play throughout the haunt, tying the scenes together, albeit in a nearly subliminal way.

Once the base layer is established, decide what background noise should be in each specific room. Does wind make sense in the foyer? What about the hum of the fridge in the kitchen? Is a TV or radio on in any room? Is that TV or radio playing static, music, or maybe a newscast you want the patrons to notice? They all have different effects. Is there water dripping somewhere? If there is, is that dripping sounds in a place where there is usually water, or is it in a bedroom, study, or attic? Again, the sounds set the scene. Sounds that do not belong can be unsettling.

So far, these sounds have been passive - with the possible exception of a newscast imparting important information about the haunt. These are "background" sounds. Background sounds are more or less constant and kind of fade below conscious perception.
The "foreground" sounds are what you want the audience to focus on.

I would suggest the first layer of foreground sounds would be sounds you want the audience to notice, but are not the main scare. The sound of someone walking on gravel or digging a hole would be sounds you want in a graveyard scene - especially leading up to a scare. The sounds of children laughing, maybe with a little reverb added in, is creepy just about anywhere.

Wind would be background if it was playing throughout the haunt, but foreground if it is specific to the scene and you want the patrons to focus on it. For example, if there is a fan blowing the curtains around, and you want it to seem like the wind is coming in through the broken window. Crickets or chittering bug noises might be appropriate. People talking with no one around could be good. Whispers too. Are the whispers in a real language? Something alien? Maybe English spoken backward? Use it to drive them crazy.

Some foreground noises can be made by actors without being actual scares, of course. Scratching the walls or floors with a mini rake is just one example. Live sounds can be used to put them on edge.

Let's talk about scares in the next installment...
Happy Haunting!