There’s an old saying, invoked by Abe Jacob, one of the forefathers of modern theatrical sound design, that everyone in theatre knows two jobs, their own and sound design. While that statement may be a comic exaggeration, it gets at the frequent confusion surrounding sound designers and what it takes to do what they do.
The confusion may be understandable, as the field remains among the newest distinct design disciplines in theatre. The job title “sound designer” didn’t even appear on Broadway until more than midway through the 20th century. Jacob is one of the first two men to receive the credit, for his work on Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. (Jack Mann received the title in 1961 for Show Girl.) For context, lighting design, also a relatively new designation, only became a Tony category in 1970.
Over the last 50 years or so, technology has increased what sound designers are able to do, making their work more integral than ever to telling stories onstage. The job description can range from using microphones as reinforcement in a straight play to balancing singers with an orchestra in a musical. It can mean finding existing music and effects that fit the script. There’s a technical side that takes into account venue specifications, house sizes, and acoustics so that speakers are placed in a way that ensures every audience member has a similar aural experience (see “Acoustics Are the Canvas). Then, of course, there are the designers who create their own soundscapes from scratch, using either music samples or completely original compositions.
Theatrical sound design has come a long way from the old days of having a stage manager or electrician backstage poised to drop a needle on a record player or hit play on a tape deck. The science and art of it have become more precise and complex, opening the doors for producers and directors to call for any number of ideas—and for designers to come up with creative and artful solutions.
The proliferation of possibilities means, as sound designer and engineer Charles Coes puts it, that there can be a perception that a sound designer is a “one-person band.”
“Being a sound designer is quite different depending on the context in which you’re doing it,” Coes explains. In film, he notes, the sound designer is the person who adds sound effects; in the music world, that’s the person who creates “a very particular sound that you hear when you press a key on a synthesizer.” But in the theatre, the phrase “becomes this catch-all.”
So while some designers are especially adept at the engineering side, at manipulating acoustics and speakers, others are particularly skilled at using microphones to reinforce actors’ voices in large venues. Where the line gets especially blurry, though, is when original music gets inserted into a non-musical play. All of a sudden the sound design job includes “composer.”
Elisheba Ittoop is a sound designer and composer who defines her responsibility, in its most basic terms, as “anything that makes noise in a theatre production.” The difference between her two jobs, she says, is that composing is only the creation of original music, while sound design encompasses everything on the technical side of things (speaker setup, microphones, etc.) as well as prerecorded music, sound effects, and soundscapes, and then structuring all of those aspects—including the music—in time and space.
“I feel like I’ve met a lot of people who are very pleasantly surprised, happy, excited, to find out when they interview me as a sound designer that I’m also a composer,” Ittoop says.
But a tricky conversation often follows. Indeed Ittoop had just this conversation in preparation for a rolling word-premiere production of Native Gardens that ran this year at Syracuse Stage, Geva Theatre Center, and Portland Center Stage. At a design conference about the production, director Melissa Crespo realized that Ittoop also composed music. It was a felicitous moment, but it led to a larger discussion.
“I initially signed on to be just the sound designer,” Ittoop recalls. “It took another week or two for us to have conversations with the powers that be. Then they were like, yeah, this makes the most sense for you to make original music for this show. So we’ll also hire you on to be the composer.”
While in this case the conversation resulted in a second contract for Ittoop, this doesn’t always happen. Some theatres go ahead and hire two separate artists, one to compose and the other to integrate the music into the larger sound design; others just see a way to save money with a two-in-one hire. But the jobs are distinct, and, as Coes explains, skimping on that separate composer contract can force the sound designer to go outside the normal scope of their job.
Of course, whether a production uses original music doesn’t always come down to a question of whether the play would benefit from it, but to whether the production can afford it. But there are no shortcuts, as Coes, a lecturer at Yale School of Drama who has designed across the country, points out: A sound designer who is mostly compositional might require the concurrent hiring of a sound supervisor or associate designer who can focus on the technical aspects. Conversely, a designer who specializes in engineering sound systems may require a composer who is more skilled at creating content.
Coes himself often works as the sound designer and engineer for Nathan A. Roberts’s music. Coes brings with him the strength on the technical side, while Roberts brings the musical know-how. That’s not to say that both artists can’t design shows alone (they have and most likely will again), but their individual strengths complement each other in a way that can maximally benefit productions.
“It’s a hard thing to convey, because you can be an extraordinary artist in one of those things and not great at another,” Coes says. “One of the things that’s very tricky is that producers and directors and collaborators don’t always know what kind of sound designers they’re looking for or how big the scope of what they’re working on is.”
One group leading the charge in these conversations around sound designers, especially those concerning proper compensation for compositional duties, is the Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association (TSDCA). The organization was born in 2014, when the Tony Awards suddenly eliminated the Best Sound Design category. David Budries, a co-vice chair on TSDCA’s executive board, describes that time in 2014 as a collective “WTF” moment.
“We realized that, collectively speaking, sound designers did not have a voice in this country,” Budries says. “We’re really about the intention of sound design and how to create some kind of voice for ourselves, some kind of common language, and some manner in which to both define and describe ourselves.”
TSDCA began with 17 sound designers and composers gathering informally, and has grown to include sound designers for Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional, and international productions. While United Scenic Artists Local 829 represents sound designers as a union and handles their contracts, TSDCA aims to create context for the work of sound designers, Budries says, and to find a common language to discuss their art.
“In some cases, a sound designer might be asked to come in as a sound designer, composer, musical director, arranger, all of these things, which are really four different jobs,” Budries says. “What’s that worth? If somebody’s asking you to do that, it’s probably a small company and they don’t have a lot of money. All of a sudden, you’re doing four tasks for less money than any one of those tasks might be worth in a larger professional context.”
To bridge the gap between expectation and reality for sound designers, there’s no substitute for learning the process and having honest conversations. Designer Cricket Myers notes that many young directors still view sound design as something as simple as putting together a playlist of their favorite songs.
Myers, who received a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for her design of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, says that while there are some directors who love and understand sound, others shy away from the topic. She’s had to learn the best way to talk to directors who don’t know much about sound and may even be hesitant or intimidated by their lack of knowledge.
“I don’t need you to understand anything about music or sound,” Myers says. “Just talk to me about story. Talk to me about texture. Talk to me about tone. I know how to translate that into sound.”
Finding a shorthand with the director is part of what excites Myers about each new project she works on. One director she works with, for instance, likes to put together a playlist of different kinds of music for her sound designers, creating a glossary of tones and moods.
Ittoop, who received an MFA from the North Carolina School of the Arts, wrote her thesis on the very topic of communication with directors. She warns young sound designers to steer clear of technical jargon or talk of frequencies and decibels, urging them instead to find a discipline the director knows well and use that language.
“We have to be mindful of where the director is coming from and what they’re comfortable with,” Ittoop says. “Maybe this director is more rooted in the vocabulary of lighting or costumes. That’s why I love talking with other designers. They might have a really good in to the story, and I want to follow along to see how to flesh it out with audio.”
Ittoop recalls working on a show with a director she’d never worked with before. The set designer, who knew the director very well, asked Ittoop to hop on a call, and the two of them spent close to an hour talking about the show. Though it was a simple conversation focusing on transitions and set changes, it gave Ittoop insight into the director’s process and impulses from a designer who had worked with the director many times.
This kind of collaboration can be crucial in helping sound designers create what designer Mark Bennett refers to as the “sonic world” of the production. For Bennett, who received a Drama Desk Award for his work on 2007’s The Coast of Utopia, the sonic world helps to tell the story of the play. It may include prerecorded textures, pre-existing music, or original music, or any combination of the three. Finding and mapping this world, Bennett says, is a large part of his job as a sound designer. And because sound design is an art that takes place in real time, Bennett says, working with actors and being present during rehearsals is key.
“I would say that 80 percent of the productions I do have me in the rehearsal room with the actors on an almost full-time basis from at least two weeks before I go into tech,” Bennett says. “Some shows, I am there from the very beginning and I never leave.”
For Myers, being at the first rehearsal helps a play come alive for her. She’s able hear it spoken aloud and to experience the world of the play through her ears.
“I love hearing the cast’s voices right from the beginning,” Myers says, “getting a sense of their rhythm and their cadence. It’s really important for me, because so much of that defines what my cues are going to be. The more I can be involved in rehearsal, the better.”
This isn’t just a matter of the sound designers’ preference; directors increasingly want sound designers and composers to be in the rehearsal room as much as they can. This expectation has evolved along with technology, as designers can now create and provide more content on the spot, and edit and adjust it quickly in response to notes. Back when Bennett started in sound design in the late 1980s, notes given during tech rehearsals couldn’t be acted on immediately, and changes would have to wait until the next day.
“You had to go home,” Bennett recalls, “you had to re-record it, you had to re-edit it, you had to re-splice the tape. Now because of what the technology allows us to do, we are able to operate ‘at the speed of light’—in other words, at the speed that lighting designers can change a cue in the space in tech, we can often come as close to changing many aspects of our content.”
Sound has traveled a long way from the days when Abe Jacob got his start. After touring and doing sound for Jimi Hendrix, Peter Paul & Mary, and the Mamas and the Papas, he made the transition to Broadway and found a theatrical sound landscape far removed from both the concert world, let alone from the digital ease of today.
“Sound design in the early days was a very rough set of pieces of equipment that didn’t always sound as good as we would have liked it to,” Jacob recalls. There was a different division of labor too: “The stage manager was the one who used to go and pull whatever sound effects from the prerecorded libraries and give them to the electrician. He would make the tape, and the electrician would hit playback on the stage manager’s cues.”
That electrician, Jacob explains, would be backstage operating the sound. From his experience working in concerts, Jacob changed the setup. He knew that someone needed to be out in the house to hear exactly what the audience was hearing. It was a simple change, but it signaled a larger movement toward designing shows around how the audience experiences the sound in the space.
Jacob doesn’t make himself out to be the most important figure, the “founding father” of sound design. He credits the concert and movie worlds for improvements in equipment, and acknowledges that other designers were working while he was; they just didn’t happen to get the elusive title of “sound designer.”
“It legitimized the work that we were doing,” Jacob says of receiving the credit. “It put us in keeping with the other disciplines of design so that producers, directors, and to some extent the audience began to realize that sound design was an important and vital part of the theatre world.”
Efforts to gain respect for sound as its own design discipline got a boost in 2008 when the Tony Award Administration Committee began to give them their own award—then abruptly suffered a setback when the committee reversed its decision and eliminated the category in 2014. (They changed course yet again, reinstating the award in 2017.) Budries, who chairs the sound design program at Yale School of Drama, had been brought in to talk to the American Theatre Wing when the initial decision was made to introduce the award.
Budries recalls explaining to the Wing at that time what the possibilities were and what to listen for during productions. Members of the Wing nodded and clapped and said the presentation was wonderful, Budries says. More than a decade later, even though the award category has been reinstated, Budries isn’t sure how much of his talk stuck with them.
“There’s a big challenge there, because there are so many ways to interpret sound in our world,” Budries says. “I mean, do they like it? Okay, they give it the award. I think it’s going to be another generation or so before we get people who really understand sound design in award granting situations.”
Despite the frustration, many sound designers get why it’s difficult for some to evaluate their art. Sound design sits right on the line between supporting and enhancing what’s onstage, while managing not to be distracting. Other design disciplines are crafted to be seen, but sound design must make its impact while remaining invisible. A phenomenal sound design is hard to notice because it will blend perfectly with the cast’s work.
“If you find yourself listening to the underscoring instead of listening to the actor,” Myers continues, “then we haven’t done our job. A really good sound design doesn’t draw attention to itself.”
This is even true when there’s a lot of sound, as in a rock musical. As with any musical, you want to be able to hear the singers, she points out. But it’s a rock musical—the band should be loud. A mediocre sound design would make the vocals heard by making the band quieter, but a great sound design keeps the lyrics reasonably clear while maintaining the rock aesthetic.
“There’s a style and there’s aesthetic and there’s a design choice to the way the music sounds in a room,” Myers says. “Which I think a lot of people don’t pay attention to. They say, ‘Oh, I could hear it.’ Which is good. But there’s a lot more to it.”
Proper evaluation of the aesthetic choices made by sound designers goes back to understanding and appreciating their different capabilities. There’s an art to audio reinforcement and using microphones and speakers, allowing conversational and intimate dialogue to be heard with crystal clarity. And there’s an art to crafting transition music and underscoring that pull from the emotional context of one scene and propel the audience into the next moment.
Perhaps Budries is right—it will take another generation before there are leaders in place who can truly and effectively evaluate sound designers. But theatre is a naturally aural experience. Every sound, or even the absence of sound, is an aesthetic choice by a designer. It’s their art, and it’s an art that remains a pivotal part of any production. Over the next generation Budries referred to, producers and audiences would do well to stay attuned to the way that art can bolster a production.
“When there’s a consistency of actor, story, direction, lighting, costume, scenery projection, all of the physical elements, the tactile elements with the ephemeral elements,” Budries says, “when there’s a consistency and everybody’s telling the same story, then, all of a sudden—I feel like it’s very, very successful.”
Jerald Raymond Pierce, a former intern of this magazine, is a writer based in Chicago.
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