It seems, given recent events surrounding the Tony Awards, that there is some heavy doubt and speculation as to what a Sound Designer does, what a good Sound Design accomplishes, what role a Sound Designer plays in the creative process and whether or not sound is a valid artistic design discipline.
On June 11, a few days after the 2014 Tony Awards ceremony, the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League decided to eliminate the Sound Design categories from future Tony Awards without explanation. A couple of members of the Tony Awards Administration Committee stated (anonymously) that the decision was based on three factors.
From Patrick Healy, writing for the New York Times:
“Many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it; a large number of Tony voters choose not to cast ballots in sound design categories because of this lack of expertise; and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor.”
In addition, he reported that when pushed for an official comment, the executive director of the Committee, stated:
“It was determined that sound design would be more appropriately considered as a special award when there was an extraordinary achievement rather than continuing to have a separate category.”
There are so many reasons why this decision is a terrible one, and why the subsequent official and unofficial statements make the decision worse. Rather than educate Tony voters on how to listen for and assess sound design, the committee elected to eliminate the award; somehow sound design is more technical and less creative than any other design discipline; they’ll make it all better by handing out an award every now and then for the designs that really stand out (even though they still won’t know how to judge sound design).
The sound design community, the theatre community, the audio equipment and engineering community, even film and music communities at all levels across the globe have responded in – and with – high volume. Veteran Broadway sound designer John Gromada started a petition to reinstate the sound design categories the day after the announcement was made, and the petition instantly exploded with thousands of signatures.
As of this writing, that number is just under 32,000. The movement has garnered support from companies that make the equipment we use, companies that make the software that runs our shows, actors, directors and fellow designers with whom we work and audience members who understand the importance of sound design.
Here’s what you can do.
Please support everything you hear.
Add your signature to John Gromada’s petition
The decision and reasoning by the American Theater Wing and the Broadway League to eliminate sound design categories shows that even they don’t understand sound design.
To end the confusion, I’ve written this article to help audiences better understand what they’re hearing, to start dialogues with my friends and family and any of you out there who aren’t sure what I do, and to teach judges and critics whose job it is to understand and critique what I do.
Most of the time, when you ask somebody what makes a good sound design, the response is something like “It’s best when you don’t notice it” or “Nobody notices it unless it’s bad.” In theory, that holds true. Even when watching film or television, audiences don’t really notice the sound unless it’s overbearing, poorly mixed, or intended to be noticed. In practice, there are obvious faults with this statement:
· It holds true for any design discipline. Lighting shouldn’t be obvious enough to draw attention away from the action on stage. In fact, a good lighting design draws focus and emotion to the action without the audience noticing. Good costume designs draw attention to period and character types without being so obvious that audiences stop paying attention to actors to look at what they’re wearing. Good scenic and props designs are the backdrop of the story, and should not stand out so much that they are the only things audiences see. Even projection design, whose purpose is to be seen, doesn’t draw attention away from the story when it is done well.
· More and more, productions are demanding that sound be a bigger, more integral part of the story. From the influence of film on theatre, scripts being written like screenplays and directors wanting “more, bigger, louder,” it has become increasingly difficult to not be noticed.
Sound Designs and Designers
A Sound Designer holds the same responsibility to any production as all the other parts of the creative team. If a sound design is bad, it can bring down the quality of the whole production, and make all the parts of the whole seem out of sync. The audience could end up being unable to focus, and won’t click in to the show.
If a sound design is good, it works with all the other parts to lift up the production to help create a comprehensive picture, focus attention and finesse audience emotions. The fact that sound is aural and not visual means that we have the flexibility to disappear sometimes and be in your face depending on the needs of any given moment and the production in general. All of this takes an incredible amount of technical knowledge, creative sense, artistic sensibilities and solid collaborative methods.
So, what’s Sound Design?
Sound Design is a general term in theatre that has many, many facets. From building sound systems to providing sound effects and soundscapes to finding or writing music to providing live sound reinforcement. A mentor once told me: “If the audience hears it, it’s part of the sound design.”
Think of it in terms of a painter:
Natural, or diegetic sounds, are often called for in the script. These sounds generally need to emanate, or appear to emanate from a source on stage and can be tied directly to an action – “We hear a car pull up outside,” “the phone rings,” “the doorbell rings,” “the radio plays music,” “there is a crash upstairs,” “the clock strikes noon,” “a helicopter approaches.“
Note the creaking of the rocking chair, the footsteps when one character gets up and walks across the room, the sounds of him making tea, even the dialogue. These are all examples of natural sound that help add objects and action to the environment.
Sometimes actors or stage crew can create these sounds, Foley-style, but often they come from creatively placed, well-hidden speakers around the set. On the surface there may not appear to be much creativity in providing these kinds of sounds, but underneath you’ll find that a true natural sound effect sometimes isn’t believable by itself and needs some creative tweaking to make it come to life. How far away is the clock tower (hint: it’s not just about the volume)? How do I make the pistol sound less anemic? How do I make it sound like the helicopter is circling around the theatre? This subset of sound is important to provide listeners with a sense of reality. It helps audiences relate to things they see and adds validation to physical objects on set.
Characteristic sounds, or sound design elements, are sounds that aren’t found in nature and don’t need to relate directly to a specific object. These sounds speak more to “heightened reality” moments – emotional and dramatic moments where we are in the character’s head, or we need to help build a little tension, or there is an aside that we can help accentuate. Anything from barely perceptible bell tones to startling whooshes. I can use these types of sounds to create gentle beds of sound that float around the room or complex sound-based underscores and punctuations.
The ambience of cicadas is slowly taken over by the sound of a car driving from the inside perspective. Meanwhile, the conversation itself goes through a transformation of sound that turns it into a sound effect. By the end the shift, we’ve moved from the inside of a cabin having a conversation to travelling in a car listening to that conversation on tape.
If a music- and design-heavy show is done well, it can be hard to tell the difference between the music elements and sound design elements. Which means it’s working. This last section introduces characteristic sound and the use of music as sound to increase tension, all over a layer of natural sound. We hear the car pull up and stop, a car door open, footsteps on gravel, and some kind of shop door open. Over that, we hear a distorted conversation, metal scrapes, bell tones, a distorted and affected version of the main theme music and dissonant chords. All of that drops out towards the end, and leaves us with a diner ambience. The man in the car pulls up to a diner and as he walks from the car to the diner he has a flashback to a difficult conversation and is snapped out of it by someone in the diner. Now here they are all together: You’ve been listening to part of a segment from an episodic radio theatre project I worked on several years ago called Troublesome Gap featuring Stephen F. Schmidt, James Konicek, MJ Casey and Colleen Casey. You can listen to the full episode here.
If a music- and design-heavy show is done well, it can be hard to tell the difference between the music elements and sound design elements. Which means it’s working.
This last section introduces characteristic sound and the use of music as sound to increase tension, all over a layer of natural sound. We hear the car pull up and stop, a car door open, footsteps on gravel, and some kind of shop door open. Over that, we hear a distorted conversation, metal scrapes, bell tones, a distorted and affected version of the main theme music and dissonant chords. All of that drops out towards the end, and leaves us with a diner ambience. The man in the car pulls up to a diner and as he walks from the car to the diner he has a flashback to a difficult conversation and is snapped out of it by someone in the diner.
Now here they are all together:
You’ve been listening to part of a segment from an episodic radio theatre project I worked on several years ago called Troublesome Gap featuring Stephen F. Schmidt, James Konicek, MJ Casey and Colleen Casey. You can listen to the full episode here.
Our brushes are the systems we use to create the design. The computers and software that enable us to balance sound systems and record, create, edit, mix and play the cues you hear. The sound systems that help us ensure the audience hears everything clearly. In some markets the theatres have a house system in place that just requires some retuning and adjustments for each production. In other markets, sound systems are built from scratch for each production.
Either way, it’s up to the sound designer to make sure there is a system in place that will provide good clear even sound to every seat in the house. Much like a lighting designer is responsible for plotting out, installing and focusing a production’s lighting rig. The sound system is the vehicle that sends audio from a source (voices, instruments, computers running software that controls playback) to the patrons’ ears. Through many pre-production meetings and collaborative discussions with the director and the other designers, we figure out the audio needs of the play. It takes a great deal of creativity to build the right system with challenges like interesting speaker-placement needs, poor acoustics, aging equipment and budget limitations.
So yes, sound does often need a lot of technical elements to work. But it is no more technical than lighting, which requires the plotting out, focusing and use of a lighting system. And sound design takes huge amounts of artistry and creativity to build just the right sounds for each moment in addition to an overall tone for each production. It’s why you hear us playing the same cue over and over and over again during tech – those are the tiny brush strokes while we’re trying to get it just right.
The canvas is the wraparound, non-linear and multi-dimensional slate on which we paint. It’s the story we’re trying to tell, the performance space where we tell the story, the other design elements with which we create. Every room is different and takes different types and shapes of canvases to work; every play is different and adds varying depths and styles to the canvas.
A Slightly Different Palette
Designing sound for musicals takes a slightly different set of paints and brushes than designing for plays. Though there is much common ground, there’s an entirely different set of collaborators when designing for live sound reinforcement. The director, the musical director, the conductor, the orchestra and the cast all take part in collaborating with the sound designer to create an aural experience that no one really notices. There is an undeniable amount of finesse and artistry that goes in to getting a good mix within the ensemble, a good mix within the orchestra, a good mix between the ensemble and orchestra, working around the often terrible acoustics in a theatre, and making sure every audience member can hear and understand every word and walks away with the same experience.
It is the job of the sound designer to bring all of these elements together – sound system, effects, music and reinforcement – into one cohesive design that supports, accentuates and helps sculpt the story. It’s an art form.
There was a time, when I first started designing, that I would have agreed that sound design is mostly a technical design discipline. I was an audio engineer and technician first, so when I started designing I was content to keep my head down, stay in the background and not say much. I would find out what cues I needed and put them into the show.
As I became more comfortable with the work, and I watched the other designers and directors have discussions about concept and ideas and problem solving, I found that I had a voice. I started being more involved in the creative process, taking part in conversations about storytelling, and helping to find creative ways to get from one place to another. Eventually I got to the point where I felt out of place if I wasn’t a part of those conversations. I can’t imagine going through a tech process where the director, lighting designer and I aren’t in constant communication about what’s working, what’s not working, how do we make something time out right, how do we help accentuate some moments and let others go by unnoticed. Sound is and should be considered as much a part of the collaboration that goes into telling a story as any other discipline.
So what does all this talk of design and equipment and collaboration mean in terms of listening? If you’re not paying attention to what you hear, it doesn’t mean much. You’ll leave the theater feeling like you’ve been completely immersed in the world of the show you just saw. The scene changes were seamless and didn’t make you feel like you were about to go into a commercial break; you never had to stop and question where you were in any given scene; you never felt like your emotions were out of sync with what you were seeing. In short, you didn’t notice anything because we all did our collective jobs well.
If you are paying attention to what you hear, maybe you notice the slight and subtle shift of background ambience when a scene goes to a new location. Maybe you start to feel a little uneasy and you notice a slight shift in lights and sound – the ambience drops out and leaves you with nothing, or leaves you with a subtle tension-building note or tone. Maybe you feel emotionally connected to a tender scene, and you notice faint strain of music or light rain or a warm ambience.
Sound becomes a little easier to comprehend if you think of it in terms of film and TV. Find your favorite horror/romantic/adventure movie, and go to the scene with the murder/first kiss/big final battle. Note how the music and sound builds as the action unfolds – you feel creeped out as the murder unfolds, or slightly teary-eyed and emotional as they kiss, or your adrenaline is pumping as the armies approach each other. A lot of what you’re feeling is due to the music and sound creeping in or soaring or pulsing or even dropping out.
Test this theory – watch these scenes again with the sound muted, and see if you respond to the action as much as when the sound was on. Can you imagine what the One Ring falling would sound like without sound design? Like a ring. A trinket. Instead, it sounds like the passing of huge windmill arms every time it flips over, the strike of an anvil when it lands, and huge stone slabs when it rolls on the ground. It sounds like a thing that needs a three-film story arc. It took a team of designers whose sole job it was to imbue that ring with such weight.
Of course, these instances are all fairly direct – sound and music are there and intentionally present to help drive the prevailing emotion. The trick is remembering that sound is always there. Whether there is a slight shift in the background when the mood changes, a small adjustment in which certain frequency ranges are more prominent. It’s always there. Just because sound is more noticeable when it’s loud doesn’t mean it’s absent when you don’t notice it.
In theatre, sound permeates and speaks to your emotions as directly as the dialogue you hear and the action you see. That’s not to say that without it, you won’t feel anything. But sound surrounds you, immerses you and draws you in to what you’re seeing. It influences the vibrations within every person in the audience. It changes the air in the room. It heightens internal emotions – makes you feel sad/happy/scared without the characters having to tell you that they’re feeling sad/happy/scared. Sound can even affect you physically. It can make you feel chilly in scenes where it’s cold outside or there is an approaching storm or warm and sticky in hot summer day scenes.
It’s not just audiences that are unsure of what Sound Design means. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to justify and explain what I do to theatre staff. I’ve been called in at the last minute on productions because they picked a few sound cues, thought they could work it out themselves, and realized at the last minute that they needed a sound designer. I’ve worked with theatre companies, who neither recognize nor hire sound designers – or they hire people who aren’t sound designers to design sound – instead they hire sound “consultants” who do all the things a sound designer does.
Sound design is a vital part of the live theatre experience, and has been for decades. It becomes more and more vital with each passing season. It can anchor a production and provide the thread that holds together the entire arc of a show. As equipment and software continue to evolve, and designers continue to solve challenges, experiment, learn from each other and collaborate, sound will continue to be an artistic foundation embedded into the evolution of live theatre.
Now, once again, I ask that you not let my profession go unrecognized.
Add your signature to the petition by June 30, 2014 (you may want to “login/join” at the top of the page.)
Tweet using the hashtag#tonycanyouhearme and the handles@TheWing (the American Theatre Wing) and@TheBWayLeague (the Broadway League).
— Matthew M. Nielson is a producer, engineer and the house composer and arranger for Sound Lab Studios in Asheville, NC. He is a multiple Helen Hayes Award winner for Outstanding Sound Design for his work with Washington DC area theatres. His full bio is here.
Have something you’d like to read in our Ideas columns?
Email: [email protected]