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The sonic artist

sound board with manual sliders and digital buttons

By Mike Lawler

For Rick Thomas, the fact that there is no Tony Award for sound design confirms that the theatre does not hold in very high esteem the design specialty practiced by what he calls “sonic artists.” A theatre sound pioneer and head of Purdue University’s design and technology program for almost thirty years, Thomas has been struggling for decades to get sound designers the credit they deserve.

person stands at sound board
Ben Marcum at the board in the Pamela Brown Theatre at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. (Photo by Don Corathers)

Lindsay Jones, a Chicago-based sound designer who is in high demand throughout the country, concurs. Jones’s long list of high-profile credits includes work at Steppenwolf, the Old Globe, and Actors Theatre of Louisville, and composing for world premieres of playwrights like Sam Shepard and David Mamet. “For some reason, sound is usually lower on people’s priority lists,” he says. “I’m not sure why this is. Maybe people think it’s not the same amount of work as designing lights, even though it actually is.”

Thomas admits, however, that industry recognition of sound design has improved, especially among the top designers and composers.

“There was no such thing as sound design when I broke into it,” he says. “You always had to fight to get yourself listed in the program as a sound designer. The fight to get on the title page with the other designers actually came later!” Thomas has designed all over the country and his credits outside the theatre include composing music for ESPN’s coverage of the Indianapolis 500. At Purdue, he leads one of the oldest and most highly respected sound programs in the country.

‘A palette of sounds’

Sound designers are responsible for a very precisely defined set of tasks. Their primary function is to fulfill the production concept of the director in terms of any sound that is part of the show. They must do this for all audio aspects in a practical and efficient manner that works within the capabilities of the space and the available equipment. “Basically, if you hear it, it’s my responsibility,” says Jones.

Once the sound designer has become familiar with the script and the director’s overall production concept, he or she will begin work on the design. The designer will consider practical matters, such as the possible need for sound reinforcement through microphones. This can be a difficult decision for designers who might prefer the natural, non-amplified sound of the performer’s voices. But for some productions, especially musicals in big houses, microphones are an essential part of the sound design world. The designer decides what type of equipment should be used, and will work with the director to set the mic levels that will be used during performances.

They will also consider abstract elements of the design, such as mood and rhythm. “I try to gather a palette of sounds for the show,” explains Thomas. “Examples of types of music that belong in the show, colors and rhythms, spatial conceptions, melodic lines, textures, that sort of thing.”

As an avid music collector, Jones first focuses on any incidental music that may be needed for a production that he is designing. “I start on the internet, doing research about where the show is set and what the characters are like, and what music might fit best into the environment,” he says. “Generally I try to buy fifteen to twenty research CDs per production. I may use some, none, or all of these in the final design, but I sit down and study these discs thoroughly. Then, from there, I usually select tracks if I’m using prerecorded music, or I begin composing melodies in the style that I’ve researched.”

Many sound designers spend a fair amount of their time composing original music for their designs. Thomas composes themes early in the process, and tries to make them available during the rehearsal process, so that they can be better incorporated into the show. “I’ll often videotape scenes so that I can compose specific ideas outside of rehearsal,” Thomas explains.

Another part of sound in the theatre is, of course, the reproduction of realistic sound required by the script or the director’s concept. Jones uses a variety of resources to find sounds that he may need. His already large CD collection includes most of the effects discs of both Sound Ideas and Hollywood Edge, two of the more widely used effects collections). When he can’t find the exact sound needed, Jones will record it himself. “I carry around a mic with me everywhere so I can record things on the spot,” he says. “I also collect weird ambient sounds from all over. I keep a fairly extensive library of strange and exotic sonic textures and I end up using these a lot.”

Integrating the sound design

A good designer will strive to maintain cohesion with other design aspects of a production, including lighting, choreography, and even scenery—especially in terms of what direction realistic sounds may come from. The designer will examine all possibilities throughout the pre-production process, during which time they may be responsible for drafting a sound plot and creating other needed paperwork so that the production’s sound engineer can properly prepare the system before the sound designer’s presence is necessary. Once the crew has prepared the equipment for the show, the designer will be present to instruct them during the tech phase of the process. Sound designers generally arrive with cues already written and at least roughly edited; they’ll be revised as necessary as they’re integrated into the production. The designer will work with other members of the design team, the director, the stage manager, and the sound engineer during techs and previews to develop the desired flow and execution of all sound cues (including levels, effects, reinforcement with mics, etc.) until the show opens.

The design should be malleable, Thomas says, so that it fits as an element of a cohesive production when it’s added to the show. “Almost always, I’ll have the sound well integrated into the production about a week before the technical rehearsals begin,” he explains. “For me, technical rehearsals should be times for getting all of the various components of a production to gel together, not a time to see if your contribution works.”

man sits in front of a sound board
Rick Jones in his studio at Purdue. (Photo by John Underwood / Purdue University)


Jones sees the up-to-the-minute capability of the constantly improving technology used by sound designers as a way to keep the final product of his designs flexible for as long as possible. “The concept of walking into a tech with all your cues as a fixed and finished product is now a thing of the past,” he says. “You can think more abstractly in the creation and layering of sound—more like a painter and less like a technician. As a result, the creation of a cue is actually several levels that change and can shift constantly until opening night.”

Art and hardware

Both Thomas and Jones have backgrounds in acting, but were lured away by the artistry of sound. “I definitely feel that actor training is a very valuable thing for sound designers,” says Thomas, who believes that two very different personality types tend to gravitate toward sound design. Some designers are “pure artists,” he says, who are primarily interested in creating an aesthetic experience for the audience. Others focus on gear and the highly technical aspects of sound. Fortunately, there is plenty of room for both personality types in the field, and they can compliment each other quite well when collaborating on a project.

person leans over their desk to look at a computer monitor
Lindsay Jones working on a production of that Scottish play at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. (Photo by Michael Broh)


Jones falls into Thomas’s “pure artist” classification. “There is an immediate visceral connection between performer and audience that is unique to theatre,” he says, “and I want the sound to have that same visceral impact.” He sees his primary design responsibilities as both supporting and intensifying the mood and concepts of the production. “That’s what I’m committed to,” he says.

Andrew Keister, based in New York, has been involved in technical theatre since he was in the seventh grade, studied theatrical design and production at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, and could probably be considered a more technically oriented designer. “My designs tend to have a lot of technology involved in accomplishing the artistic mission,” he says.

Flooding the stage

Sound designers, like their scenic and lighting colleagues, are problem solvers above all else. When they design a production, they must find ways to create a sonic environment for the show while overcoming obstacles like small budgets, limits on the capabilities of available equipment, and the acoustic properties of the physical space in which they are working.

“I tend to get hired on shows that are very technically complicated,” says Keister. He relates an interesting problem he ran into while designing Alan Arkin’s Broadway production of Taller Than a Dwarf in 2000.

“Very early in the script, a pipe breaks in a bathroom that is offstage and water flows out and soaks the apartment over the course of the show,” Keister says. “Obviously, we would have the sound of water flowing, but it’s critical to the plot to establish that the floor in the apartment is getting drenched. We discussed lighting solutions; we discussed changing the carpeting during scene changes to make it look wetter. Then I had the idea that if every time an actor walked across the carpet in the ‘wet’ area we heard the ‘squish’ a wet carpet would make, the point would get across to the audience.”

After Keister came up with the concept, he then had to design a system that would make his idea come to life. “We built a matrix of switches into the deck and fed them into a computer,” he explains. The wet carpet sounds were created using a semi-random set of MIDI notes.

Keister experimented with several different realistic sounds that he recorded for the effect. He repeatedly encountered problems, however, when the sound in the recording studio differed significantly from the sound coming from the deck speakers in the theatre. Eventually he found a series of “boot into medium-heavy mud” samples on a sound effects CD. “They sounded completely wrong when we listened to them in the studio environment,” he explains. “But when played back through the speaker in the deck, they read correctly.

“The MIDI was fed into a sampler that was loaded with a few different sets of squishy sounds, which were then fed back into a speaker built into the deck so the sound would come from the correct location.” Each time an actor stepped on a part of the set where there was a switch, it would trigger the computer to generate the squishy sound of walking on wet carpet that Keister was going for. “It’s a very complicated solution to the problem, but it worked beautifully once we worked the bugs out.”

Listening outside the box

Rick Thomas is a bold thinker, and he addresses his responsibilities as a trainer of up-and-coming designers with a great deal of energy. He has spent a career in the theatre questioning the status quo and infusing Purdue’s program with a spirit that challenges convention while searching for a new ways of thinking and designing. Discussing theatre with him is like talking politics with veteran officeholder. He knows theatre inside and out and has seen what works, what doesn’t, and what could. As an example, he brings up a student production of Picnic produced at Purdue many years ago.

“At the time our theatre still had the sound board operator behind a glass booth, with a loudspeaker program system in one ear, and a headset full of chattering run crew in the other,” he explains. “I was standing in the back of the house with the artistic director for the theatre during a performance, when the sound cue of the horseshoe game played out of the proscenium loudspeakers rather than the off stage left one. The level was right, but the location was wrong—people were playing horseshoes over the heads of the audience. I turned to the director and said, ‘You know the sound is wrong, I know the sound is wrong, everybody in the audience knows the sound is wrong. The only person that doesn’t know the sound is wrong is the one person that can do something about it, the sound board operator.’”

Thomas convinced the artistic director that day that placing a sound engineer behind a wall of glass to mix a show made no sense, and eventually the board was moved out into the house. (Even now, nearly twenty years later, the practice of mixing sound in a closed booth is still relatively commonplace in theatre.) Thomas also prefers to have two sound engineers running shows. One of them will act as the cue taker, in constant contact with the stage manager. The second operator is then free to mix the show without the distraction of wearing a headset.

Paths to a career in sound design

“The first thing you should do is start seeing a lot of theatre,” Jones advises future sound designers. Then you need to get out and introduce yourself to a local designer and offer your assistance. “Sound designers are a surprisingly accessible bunch of people,” Jones says, “and, believe me, we’re always thrilled to have extra help.” Once you’ve met designers in your area, keep in touch with them and pick their brains whenever possible.

Being persistent is very important. “Chances are not going to fall into your lap,” says Ben Marcum, assistant sound designer in residence at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Marcum, who has broken into the field without the benefit of having completed a college degree, knows just how hard it can be. (Marcum is an exception in a field where most designers spend at least four years in an undergraduate theatre program. He studied for a year and a half in Thomas’s program at Purdue, but decided that college wasn’t a very good fit for him.) He has managed to keep his foot in the door and expand into a freelance career by both working hard and excelling at the art of networking. “Now that I know many more people, things are getting a little easier,” he says, “but getting into new theatres is still a bit of a challenge.”

With stories like Marcum’s in mind, Thomas advises students to be sure to take a serious look at the financial side of the business before deciding to pursue a career in sound design. “If you are going to have a career, you need to understand what that means in terms of how you are going to live, and how to survive,” he says. “You have to be pretty sharp to understand all the difficulties involved, and smart enough to figure out how to rise above the challenges,” Thomas warns. He also notes that staying flexible will provide you with much more opportunity for doing the work you want to do and making a good living. “If you diversify,” he says, “you may have a better chance of finding a better career path down any one of the roads you are likely to travel.”

Keister, who has managed to sustain his sound career while living in New York, says simply, “design work on Broadway is feast or famine.” There are ways to make a good living in New York, according to Keister, but it takes an equal mix of strategy and luck. “The way a designer really makes his or her money is from royalties,” he says. “For the royalties to really add up the show needs to be a hit and have a long, healthy run and have multiple companies—a tour or two, a London company, et cetera.” Unfortunately, there is a better chance of a new production falling flat.

A good way for a talented designer to stay in the game is by working as a sound engineer (or sound operator) on other shows—preferably the hit shows. Keister is currently working as an engineer for the Hairspray on Broadway. “I have an arrangement that allows significant time away from the show to do my design work,” he explains. He has also paid his rent by running sound for Aida, Titanic, and Bring in ’Da Noise Bring in ’Da Funk, among others.

Thomas has this piece of parting advice to students who are drawn to a career in sound design: “Follow your heart,” he says. “It will always lead you to the right places.”

 

Mike Lawler is a theatrical electrician, scenic carpenter, writer, and founding member of the Wisconsin Story Project. This article is part of a series on design and production careers he wrote for Dramatics between 2005 and 2008. For more on backstage jobs, check out Lawler’s book Careers in Technical Theatre, which grew out of his work for the magazine.

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