Sound Effects for the Stage

Sound Effects Timeline


Before electricity came along, sound effects were created live, using a variety of ingenious methods.

  • Bird Whistle
    • Ceramic (and later plastic) device which produced a convincing high-pitched whistle / warble when blown into.
      A bird whistle that may have been used in the original production of Romeo and Juliet was discovered on the site of The Curtain theatre in London in May 2016.
      The Stage article
  • Crash Box
    • A wooden box with some broken glass or broken crockery which is dropped / rolled around offstage.
  • Giant Footsteps
    • A series of sprung wooden plungers controlled by a rotating cam fall onto a wooden box and produce a loud thud – used in pantomime productions of Jack and the Beanstalk for the approaching giant.
  • Thunder Run
    • Wooden cannonballs are run through wooden channels above the auditorium ceiling, producing a highly effective combination of sound and vibration. There are 3 theatres in the UK which still have Thunder Runs – the Bristol Old Vic, Her Majesty’s Theatre in London and the Playhouse Theatre in Charing Cross, London.
  • Thunder Sheet
    • A suspended metal sheet (around 2m long and 1m wide) has handles fixed to the bottom of it enabling it to be shaken, producing a rumble. An experienced thunder sheet player can produce a wide range of types of thunder.
  • Wind Machine
    • Also known as an AEOLIPHONE, this is a musical instrument consisting of a piece of canvas draped over a slatted wooden drum, which is rotated producing a convincing sound of gusty wind (see video below)

  • Rain Machine
    • A sealed wooden drum containing lentils or rice has a slatted interior surface which, when rotated vertically, agitates the contents, producing an evocative sound.

After the advent of electricity, sound was far slower to evolve than lighting. The first theatre to be lit by electric light was the Savoy in London in 1887.

Early radio drama makes use of mostly live sound effects and music played in the studio.


1950s – Tape recording technology becomes available for the first time


Uher portable recorders used for location recording

Revox B77 launched and used in many theatres for playback. 

BBC Records publishes an iconic range of sound effects vinyl discs.


BBC Sound Effects are published on CD.

1992 – MiniDisc (Sony) – replaced reel to reel tape almost overnight in many theatres. Still used in radio studios long after it ceased to be a consumer product.
1992 – DCC – Digital Compact Cassette – not adopted for theatre because although it was very good quality, access to tracks took time as the tape had to be wound forward / backwards, whereas MiniDisc was instant access.

1998 – The internet brings with it instant access to hundreds of thousands of sound effects, at the click of a mouse and payment of a small fee.


Digital recorders bring high quality recordings within the reach of every sound designer.