Sound is often talked about as a tool for DMs, and given its importance in our entertainment lives its value at our table is fairly apparent. Yet incorporating sound into our games can be a challenge.
Subtracting Not Adding
As a DM one of my first problems with using sound is incorporating it without distracting from the game. The sounds need to be immediate or timely, not too loud and in the case of music not distracting.
Personally I have struggled with the immediacy issue. Firstly having a song on hand that suits the mood of the game I wish to set and secondly songs (& action sequences in cinema) are rarely more than 6 minutes or so long, while a combat in a session will often run for 30 minutes or more.
The other distraction that music can bring is familiarity. That great bit of music from a movie immediately puts the players in mind of the movie instead of what is happening in the game. Similarly songs of a genre popular with the players (or unpopular) can derail things with horrible karaoke (or good if you are lucky) or association with other things (movies etc).
My prior experiments with soundboards were even worse than with music. Someone getting a soundboard can be a horrible problem at the table as well, fart noises, squealing monkeys and such can be funny once or twice but can quickly become a nuisance. Further, earlier soundboards were terrible to negotiate through to find the sound that suited the moment.
Adding A Lot
All of that negative said, persisting with sound can have big pay offs. If you are not sure about this, go back and watch the lightsabre duel at the end of Episode 1 without the sound on. Sound can profoundly influence the mood of something the difference between Yakkity Sax and In the Hall of the Mountain King for a chase sequence makes this abundantly clear. (Noting that In the Hall of the Mountain King is terrible background music for playing on repeat!)
Fortunately it has become much easier to find music for games, companies like Agate RPG (latest project on Kickstarter now) produce music specifically for use with their games to set the mood. Artists like Two Steps From Hell, Audiomachine and Phoenix Music are releasing albums of music inspired by movies and games (& often used in trailers or advertising now) that don’t have the same associations that using the Star Wars Soundtracks or similar widly heard music has, even when it suits the mood.
Star Wars bares a special mention at this point as an example of where music can be additive, even though it’s familiar. Queue that Imperial March, or the Duel of Fates and your players know what is happening. Tracks from every movie communicate so much Star Wars that it hard not to include them (& The Force Awakens offers some of the best tracks to loop).
Which finally brings me back to soundboards. When I last used them my experiences were bad. Now, I’m going to take the plunge again and try out Syrinscape. Certainly on the surface this product seems to offer the sort of features you want, and hopefully with some more experience with it I hope to get good effect.
One last thing on this post, where the sound comes from matters. If the sound is too loud it becomes a distraction, if it’s too close to the DM it can be hard to hear communication around the table (same for the players). My quick suggestion, for those who cannot furnish a serious sound system (like me) is to look into Bluetooth speakers. This should let you position the sound source centrally to the group, allowing a lower sound volume to get a good effect for everyone.