The Sound Design “Game” of It’s A Wonderful Life

This week’s Playhouse Perspective blog comes from It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Sound Designer Joel Abbott.


Hi, I’m Joel Abbott, the sound designer for It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. This is a BIG sound show.

The sound design “game” of a radio theatre show is that you are limited to using real objects to make all of your sound effects. As a working sound designer, I travel with a couple of hard drives filled with millions of little sound files in thousands of categories: insects, auto, airplanes, thunder, footsteps–and my job is usually to find all the sounds I need and to program a computer to play them during the show. But in radio theatre, you need objects that sound (literally or abstractly) like what the story needs from moment to moment. As a spectator, I find a lot of enjoyment in watching how a radio play production justifies and solves all of the necessary sound events that a script calls for.

I started my process by marking up the script with all the different Foley sound needs (named for Jack Donovan Foley, the Universal Pictures sound designer known for performing and recording live sound effects in synchronization with early movies–which is why Foley is capitalized), and making a big list of sound items, and emailing it to the Gulfshore Playhouse props master, Andrew Carney. And then over the next few weeks, I started getting video emails from him as he found and collected the Foley items. Andrew had a great attitude about the vast and nearly impossible task of finding all of these items, and he did it. He’s a treasure, and Gulfshore Playhouse is lucky to have him.

In addition to all of the Foley sound effects in the show, there are also many transitions and moments where musical underscore is needed. So the other half of my job was to create all of the music for the show.

Early on in the process, I decided I would try to do the whole thing on a creaky old B3 organ that probably has never been serviced in its lifetime. I auditioned several of my virtual organs in my computer, and chose a fairly theatrical B3 organ, which I sent through a wobbly tape emulation and a microphone emulation from 1938 (the same microphone used by George VI in “The King’s Speech”). I wanted the instrument itself to sound like it had some history. I also made up a story for myself that the guy hired to play the organ was a local “gun for hire” musician, who usually plays for radio westerns and comic book hero shows, and who *maybe* was able to attend one rehearsal prior to the live air-date, and has been given a typed up list of the scenes, but mostly he just improvises along with the story.

The sound of this show lives in two worlds, one that is both visual and auditory, and another that only exists in sound. When you are attending the show, I encourage you to close your eyes for a *long time* (without falling asleep :), and let the voices, sounds, and music work on your imagination.


Tickets to It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play are available for purchase by going to

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