Well, we didn't cover the use of music and sound as deeply as I had hoped because we were trying to get through a lot of voice mails, so I'm going to go rogue here and add some more thoughts about that. I'm an evangelist about this topic, so forgive the soap boxing. I just believe strongly in the power of sound to transport players into a setting, especially with horror gaming! And this is an open invitation to any Keepers out there who want to try but need some help – I'm more than happy to give more specific tech advice if you want to try some of these things. I hope other keepers who regularly use sound might also respond to this thread.
First, I really do think it's possible to run your games with lots of ambient sound and musical changes without breaking the flow of the game, and I don't agree that you should only ever do it if you have a second person to run your tech for you. It would be an awesome, welcome luxury to have a second Keeper to do things like that, and I'd jump at the chance to do it that way, but I've never been in that position and have still managed to pull off some fancy audio stuff during games. I've done it with linear one-shots and I've done it during a semi-sandbox campaign in which I had only ever had a vague idea of where players would go and when they would get there. It can work, I swear. More on that in a sec.
Second, it's not something I think is in any way required. Like with props, there's no expectation that you should spend all that extra time on special effects, but if you're inclined to do it I'm here to encourage you. The payoffs are worth it. There are many levels of audio trickery you can delve into, from the relatively simple scene-setting opener that Oscar mentioned, to full-on background sound effects or a fully thought out musical score with changes in tone and ambient immersion to fit the session – which Oscar also mentioned doing with a Robotech game of Dread.
Third, don't bother with a lot of sound unless you can prepare ahead of time and control the audio seamlessly. So many tiny things can go wrong with the simplest setup, and if you spend even two minutes troubleshooting in front of your players, you can kill the mood. People are there to role play, not to listen to a concert. It should never pull focus away from the storytelling.
Here are my tips on how to make it work.
1. I create playlists in iTunes on my PC, manage them in my iPod and play them on a cheap boom box that has an iPod dock. I like a boom box instead of a laptop because I can control the volume with a physical knob instead of menus and mouse controls. I also hacked my iPod so it doesn't make Apple sound effects when I pause and play, but that's not a huge issue.
2. Each key setting or scene in the story has its own playlist. Settings are assigned descriptive names, like “Country House at Night, Seashore, Drippy Cave, etc. Scenes are numbered and called things like “01 Act I Plot Thickens, 02 Act II Being Followed, 03 Act III Chase Scene, etc.” Some of the playlists might have one specific sound effect or cue that's needed in a scene. There is a scene in Bret Kramer's Ghosts of the Florentina that references a specific piece of music, for example. The numbers in front of the file names keep the playlists roughly in a predictable order.
In my sandbox-y Kingsport campaign, I had a playlist set up for each of the five key settings that the players visited often, including a newsroom, a country estate, a seashore restaurant, a Portuguese restaurant, a jazz club and the harbor. This is where brainstorming sessions would often take place, so I could play these sounds and let the players discuss evidence and whatnot. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive about this little trick. I had players talking in character about where they wanted to go based on whether they felt calm or uneasy there -- and this was based on how the sounds affected them. As a side note, I started increasing the amount of whippoorwill calls in one of those tracks as the campaign wore on. This really unnerved my players when they realized what was happening, because whippoorwills were a harbinger of certain dark entities in the game.
3. I set my iPod to “shuffle” and “repeat” so the playlist order is randomized, and so I can more easily reuse the same playlists from session to session. Usually for ambient sounds in a scene, like crickets or seashore waves, the playlist contains just one long track that repeats. For mood music, the playlist might contain 6-10 songs that I've picked ahead of time. Try to match the tempo and tone as much as possible. I'll often use multiple songs from a single artist in one scene, just to keep it consistent.
4. For ambient scene-setting background, I often mix my own long tracks in Audacity and import them into my iPod. For example, to make a New England Woods track for a game in Kingsport. I mixed crickets, frogs and night birds into a single 15-minute track. Check out freesound.org and archive.org for ideas. Mixing your own is easier than you think!
5. Figure out exactly how your whole sound system works long before you attempt using it in front of players. Do a dry run before players show up, even if it's not being hosted at your house. As mentioned in this episode, you'll have enough curve balls to deal with in the game, with unpredictable players, crazy PC logic and unexpected side plots. Managing those things is your highest priority. One of my players hosted a session at his house once, and when I showed up just a few minutes before start time only some of my audio would work on his system (thanks, Apple Police). Better to quickly abandon ship than to make your players wait around and get less invested in the game.
Dan and I both responded to a really great thread about ambient music and sound effects in a YSDC thread that you can check out here
I also started a thread with some specific music recommendations here
YSDC forum poster MechSpike made a thread about the same thing before I did, and it has scads of great musical recommendations
Again, I hope this encourages some of you to try using sound to support your games. Please let me know if I can help!