Sound Effects for the Stage

Theatrical Meteorology – The Graphic January 23 1875

Sound Effects Timeline


How playback for sound effects and recorded music has evolved.

Live Sounds / Machines

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

  • Bell
  • 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.
  • Door Slam
    A wooden box with a hinged lid, fitted with door handles and a lock, which can be slammed offstage to sound like a full size door.
  • Giants 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.

Link to BBC News video

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


Amplified 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

1952 – Gramophone Playback was in common use, made possible by machines such as the Sound Console by Strand Electric.

Plenty of information about this era in David Collison’s The Sound of The Theatre book. Highly recommended.


1961Uher Report 4000 released – used by film, TV and radio professionals and for recording theatre sound effects.


1977: Revox B77 launched and used in many theatres for playback. 

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

Tape Cartridge machines (e.g. Sonifex Cart Machine) used in radio stations also found use in theatre sound playback.


1982 – The Compact Disc format is launched (up to 99 tracks, 16 bit, 44.1kHz sampling rate)
1988 – CD-R specification is published, enabling CDs to be created by end users. However, the first CD Writers (such as the Meridian CD Publisher, based on the Yamaha PDS Audio Recorder, cost $35,000 plus a computer to run it). The first recorder under $1000 was launched by Hewlett-Packard in September 1995. In the early days, UK sound designers had to send master tapes to a mastering studio in London, wait a week or so, and pay around £250 to get a digital copy of their tapes.


BBC Sound Effects are published on CD.

1990sAkai S1000 and other samplers available for sound designers to store high quality digital samples, and control the playback using a variety of MIDI devices, including control software such as G-Type.

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.

Computer-based audio playback became more reliable with each new operating system and as storage prices drop, becomes affordable, and a sensible replacement for disc-based (either CD or MiniDisk) playback. 

SFX by Stage Research (1990s)


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


QLab by Figure53 (2006)
Designed by theatre sound designer Chris Ashworth in Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Ableton is used by sound designers and composers to create soundscapes. 


QLab continues to dominate in the professional and amateur fields.