Common Misconceptions of Theatrical Sound Design


I've been thinking a lot about some things I've read-- reviews and blog posts discussing Broadway shows, especially as they concern the use of sound in the theatre. There were a lot of misinformed comments on these forums; I am sure I'm not the first person to find some of the reactionary diatribes off-putting, but it has inspired me to become more proactive and try to educate.

I did some research on the internet, to see what was out there already when it came to sound design. I got sidetracked by cute videos of cute cats doing cute things, and then came to the conclusion that there aren't any sites to learn a little bit more about what we do. As much as I would like to, I cannot change people's habits, nor change the inherent desire for people to express their opinions, but maybe I can write a little about Sound Design and the Musical, post it on the interwebs, and see what happens.

Like all blogs and comment-based forums, everyone has their opinion. Not only does everyone have a different opinion as to their favorite type of barbeque, but everyone has a different opinion as to what good sound is. There are different types of meat, different cuts of meat, different cooking methods, sauces versus rubs, and so it is with sound. Not to mention that not every show can be designed the same way. Two people sitting next to each other may disagree on very basic tenets: too harsh / too loud / too much rub / too little moisture / bland and not dynamic enough / not smokey enough / too saucy / couldn't hear the vocals / couldn't taste the meat.

The context around the sound (i.e. the show) is also important, like the atmosphere and service of a restaurant. It is quite often just a matter of taste. You can't please everyone, but I feel it is important to know how the process evolved before simply complaining about the result, especially when discussing something so unquantifiable as sound.

Audience expectations have also changed; while it is possible to spend thousands of dollars on a high quality home sound system that does everything except masssage your feet, it is also possible to carry thousands of songs around in your pocket, data compressed almost beyond the point of recognition and played back through awful tinny (usually white) earphones. Even the New York Times has noticed that there is a growing discrepancy between "audiophile" quality and the more ubiquitous mp3; in an article from May, 2010, the conclusion quotes an informal study which shows that young people are starting to prefer the awful sound quality of their compressed digital music through their awful earphones over the more accurate forms of sound reproduction:

So, what can I teach today? I'm writing this in FAQ form, even though no one has actually asked me these questions:




The textbook definition of Theatrical Sound Design: it is the creation and execution of aural stimuli to enhance the mood of a stage work and/or to facilitate the telling of the work.

Depending on the type of show in question, the designer may be responsible for everything from creating aural "soundscapes" through the use of playback cues, emphasizing elements within a show via sound effects (crash! bang! boom! rain rain rain crickets), and/or amplifying (reinforcing) the performers so as to ensure that every audience member experiences a similar show and hears the story, which would otherwise not be naturally possible given the acoustics of the space, the type and writing of show, or the performers.

The sound designer has a great duty, partially due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound is so unquantifiable. Everyone hears differently. The sound of a show can change within seconds-- factors such as temperature, humidity, size of audience, a tired operator, warm or cold electronics, a hoarse singer, or a rodent running around the pit can change the way the sound behaves from Point A to Point B. Other design departments generally have more stable parameters: scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between-- short of catastrophic failure, it probably won’t stray much from Point A or B. Lighting instruments are generally predictable beasts, as well; of course voltage drops and aged filaments can vary the quality of output light, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Humans who control the automation or lighting consoles can have an influence on the look of a show, of course, but not so drastically as a sound opeartor.

Even in a perfect world, where all the variables are strictly controlled, there is yet another element contributing to the Sound Designer's work: other people. The director has an idea how the show should sound (or perhaps doesn't), and so does the designer. But let's not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the choreographer, and the producers. Then the cast needs to hear specific parts of the show onstage. Then the orchestra players need to hear their colleagues in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn't like the look of so-and-so's microphone. Then the lighting designer adds a bunch of instruments with VERY LOUD FANS. Then the scenic designer covers the entire set and walls of the theatre in sound-asborptive velour. All these people and their influence contribute to the politics of sound design. To paraphrase another Broadway designer once said to me, "Anyone can draw up designs and make equipment lists. The key is getting other people to do what you need them to." Theatre is a collaborative art, and no one knows that better than the sound designer.




No sound designer works in a vacuum; the sound designer is only one person in a group of creative individuals. At the end of the day, the director and producer call most of the shots, and the sound designer may have to contend with opinions and requests from the composer ("Needs more balls!"), music director ("The snare must be the loudest thing in the mix!"), choreographer ("More rhythm section! The dancing looks dull!"), book writer ("More words! I'd get rid of the orchestra if I could!"), as well as from the director ("Can't you make her sound better and, like, on key?") and producer ("Our subscribers are not used to Broadway-level shows; please turn it down!" or worse yet, "They're not laughing at that joke! Make it louder!").

It is rare that a sound designer designs a show that actually sounds the way he or she wants. It is always a compromise. [Those quotes in the previous paragraph? I didn't make them up.] And the sound designer has his or her own aesthetic that influences how he or she reacts to the plethora of comments from the rest of the creative team.

Then there are the other factors that are beyond the sound designer's control: the scenic design can preempt optimal locations for loudspeakers, the lighting design can provide lots more ambient noise to contend with (moving light fans are the biggest culprit), the costume design can preempt optimal microphone positions (i.e. hats). The orchestrations may be such that an electric guitar solo is competing with a vocal line. Maybe the producers cut down the orchestration so much of the warmth of a brass and/or string section has been replaced by a harsher keyboard sound.

This is not to say that the sound designer is a pariah-- that may have been true thirty years ago when sound reinforcement was not accepted as a design discipline in professional theatre, and this is not to say that the sound designer is a blameless martyr; the way in which a sound designer solves some of the complex multivariable external problems when designing a show are conscious choices that affect the sound of the show. And yes, sometimes we make the wrong choices. But we rarely make mistakes alone.

A review of a rock-and-roll musical I designed recently criticized the sound design for the fact that the actors sounded like they were screaming all the words to the songs. I was a bit taken aback; one of my least favourite sounds is the sound of screaming, and I had done everything in my technological power to mitigate the annoying sound while still preserving intelligibility (after all, screamed or not, the words make up the story). But there is only so much that can be done when the show itself is written in a rock-and-roll style, and the vocal style is written to match. In this particular case, the actors sounded like they were screaming everything because, most of the time, they were, but that was a stylistic constraint dictated by the composer of the show, exacerbated by actors who weren't necessarily all professionally trained, having to perform choreography in addition to acting and singing; it was not a choice of the sound designer; I did not wake up one morning and think, "Wow, it would be great if I made it sound like they SCREAMED THE WHOLE SHOW." We can only work with what we are given.




As we've stated previously, theatre is a collaborative effort. The Sound Operator's primary responsibility is to execute the sound designer's vision for the show (whether it be the designer's 100% vision or a mix of opinions from the entire creative team) show after show, night after night. The Operator must perform every show, just like the cast or the orchestra, and maintain the sound of the show-- not changing the sound of the show willy-nilly, making it really loud one night and really soft the next.

P.S. 99% of the time, the Sound Operator does not mix the musical from a booth. Although many plays are operated from a booth or less-than-optimal location, the Sound Operator is in the audience seating area so he or she can hear what the audience is hearing, and adjust accordingly. That person in the back of the theatre in front of that thing that looks the cockpit of an airplane? That's the Sound Operator, and we do not control lighting, scenery, or the heating/cooling system in the theatre. And yes, we know what all those knobs do.




One of the most evident technical mistakes in a musical theatre performance is the dreaded "missed pickup," when an actor's mic is not turned on in time for his or her line. Although we are constantly striving to make a perfect sound operator ("Sound Eugenics"), sometimes we make mistakes. One can just hope that one mistake does not lead to another.

But also know that there may other contributing factors: sudden changes in timing and performance, as well as unscripted ad-libs, can all contribute to a circumstance in which the sound operator cannot predict what is going to happen, or who will say the next line. Many sound operators live by the mantra, "If it isn't in the script, it's not turned on," for this reason.

It should be noted that the same reaction does not always exist for other disciplines: if an actor misses a line, or a musician plays the wrong note, or a lamp burns out, or a set-piece does not move-- these errors are often overlooked.

Maybe what really happened is that the sound operator simply became distracted by an audience member's inappropriate candy unwrapping. Or maybe an audience member's mobile telephone started ringing. That is unforgivable.




No. Not only would such a condition create howling feedback, but it wouldn't sound very good. Microphones are stupid, and pick up ambient noise as well as an actor's voice, and the more microphones that are turned on simultaneously add more noise and delayed copies of voices, making it more difficult to maintain sufficient intelligibility.




No. A sound system provides a means of ensuring that the majority of the audience can hear the show equally well, not for polishing vocal performances. A mumble through a sound system is just a loud mumble. Actors sometimes forget that a stage whisper is different from a real whisper, so sometimes intimate scenes get too intimate, and although the sound engineer can adjust the balance, there exists the risk of feedback or additional, distracting noise.




The Sound Designer is the head honcho (or honchess) responsible for creating, along with the other creatives, the "sonic signature" for the show in question. Much more than simply, "Is it a loud show or a quiet show?" the sound designer is responsible for selecting equipment from microphone to loudspeaker, and he or she is responsible for finding appropriate physical locations for both microphones and speakers to facilitate his or her acoustic vision.

Next in line is the Associate Designer, who takes the brunt of most paperwork duties to fully document each and every signal path, fader position, knob settings, and microphone/speaker placement so that some consistency can be maintained throughout the course of the show's run, and facilitate future companies.

The Production Sound Engineer is on par with the Associate in terms of responsibility. In America, the Production Sound Engineer is often also the mixer of the show, and responsible for the installation of the show and full execution of the designer's wishes prior to even turning on a microphone. In other countries this is a separate position, enabling the head mixer of the show to focus more on the script and learning the show in rehearsal. There are pros and cons to both methodologies.

The Head Mixer is responsible for the operation of the show on a nightly basis, for learning the nuances of the acting company, noting his or her script appropriately, and recreating the sound designer's vision, performance after performance. The Head Mixer has the authority to vary the sound of the show only within a very confined box as set by the designer. From performance to performance the actors, orchestra, house counts, audience response, temperature, and humidity can all change, so it the Head Mixer's responsibility to herd all the variable cats into a cohesive-sounding show. The Head Mixer is also responsible for maintaining the show and training substitute mixers, ensuring that they, too, can mix the show within the same box as set by the designer.




Although there are different styles of shows and of sound designers, not to mention different levels of trust between sound designers and sound operators, the basic goal of the sound engineer is to replicate the designer's intent, night after night after night-- to maintain the decided-upon sound levels and relative balance of instruments and voices, yet adapt to the constantly changing myriad of variables that make live theatre so exciting-- from different actors to different players in the orchestra, to changes in temperature, humidity, and audience size and response.

Some designers leave it at that, and essentially lock out other forms of adjustment so that the engineer can only mix the show, but other designers may be a bit more open to new suggestions, allowing the engineer to try a new type of microphone on a new actor with a different voice, or a different EQ curve when the seasons change in the building.




Musical styles have become more electronic compared with musicals of yesteryear. Whereas old musicals were loosely based on operas, operettas, or the big-band styles-- the popular music of the time-- recent musicals, also following changes in popular music, have become more rock and roll oriented. More keyboards, more guitars, and more playback are dominating shows. Electronic instruments are also seen as a perfect replacement for live musicians-- instead of hiring a harp player, an accordion player, and someone who can play the celeste, it is often advantageous to a producer (who controls the money) to trim the numbers of musicians in the orchestra pit and replace them with electronics.

At the same time, sometimes composers and arrangers forget that sometimes, less is more. Although there are some orchestrators who do not care for sound designers and engineers, thinking that all sound engineers do is sabotage and manipulate the piece in malificent ways (perhaps occasionally this is true), there are now other orchestrators who absolutely rely on sound amplification to realize their goals: electric guitar line simultaneous with a vocal? No problem— just ask sound to TURN IT UP. Oboe line during a drum fill? Just TURN IT UP. Five part vocal harmony spread over ten actors during a complicated dance section? TURN IT UP.

A not-very-in-depth study comparing "old-style" musicals versus modern musicals illustrates many of these key differences: acoustic instruments, arranged such that when a lyric was sung, less things in the orchestra would play, carving a bit of an "orchestral valley" in which the vocal can comfortably sit. Let's not forget the reprise, taken to extremes by Mssrs. Gilbert, Sullivan, Rodgers, and Hammerstein: repeat the vocal text many times, knowing that in a world without artificial reinforcement, the audience might miss a few words the first time. Nowadays, there seems to be a trend to pile on the instruments and multi-part vocal harmonies on top of each other ad nauseam, and it becomes more difficult for a listener to determine what to listen to.

With technological advances beginning somewhere around the Walkman™, and extending to the mp3 player, home theatre, rock music, and Hollywood cinema, the listening experience has become less interactive. Instead of an audience that leans forward to listen to the dramatic whispers on stage in an otherwise silent theatre, we have become inert audiences who want every word and note handed to them on a plate. There are exceptions to this, but there is a startling lack of a middle ground-- many sound operators have experienced the post-show audience commenting about the sound of the show: one person thinks it was too loud; another person, sitting nearby, thinks it was too quiet. Sound designers try to find the middle ground, but it is a very, very small piece of land.

Film and television training for actors has ruined a lot of the stage experience. Gone are the days where actors are trained to "hit the back wall" of a theatre. Now they are accustomed to wearing microphones or having a boom mic just out of the camera shot, and now they tend to rely on them. Some sound designers spend a fair amount of time reminding actors that sound that comes directly off a stage (say, the third row) helps make a show sound more natural, and finishing the ends of words and sentences helps intelligibility for everyone.

There's a saying in sound: everyone has two jobs: theirs and sound. Perhaps with the advent of home theatre systems that can "tune" themselves and sub-$1000 digital audio workstations, this might partly be true. But owning the equipment is very different from knowing how to use it properly. I own an axe, but I don't call myself a lumberjack. I may even have a scalpel or two, but I don't call myself a surgeon. I have, on the other hand, worked very hard and learned an exceptional amount from my experience in theatre sound design; that is why I call myself a theatrical sound designer, and I am happy to continue learning as I continue to work. Nevertheless, there are always those who think they know better.

Lighting system noise. Big noisy costumes. Choreographic stunts. Acoustical changes in the space due to renovation (and usually enlargement of the audience area). Noisy ventilation. New, poorly-designed venues with bad (or nonexistent) acoustics. We work within the acoustic of the theatre— some venues simply sound better than others; some are more difficult to make sound good with a reinforcement system, and some lend themselves very well to a sound system. Concert halls designed for symphony orchestras are very difficult to make sound good (I'm looking at you, Bushnell, Hartford, CT). Other venues designed by world-renowned architects may look good, but they sound awful for musical theatre (Gammage Auditorium, Tempe). Older theatres designed for theatre tend to sound good, but over the course of time, many producers and theatre owners have noted that they could squeeze more seats in by reducing the size of the lobby. This means a longer underbalcony area, which doesn't benefit from as much natural sound from the stage or the pit, and there is a definite change in the acoustic signature of the space. Multipurpose venues, such as those designed for ballet-dance-symphonies-chamber music-opera and theatre quite frankly don't sound very good. The more we have to push the sound system to get people or instruments heard, the more pronounced it will be. But the more natural sound that comes from the stage or the orchestra pit, the more we only reinforce.




Some of our brethren in the industry still seem to have a difficult time accepting our role in the production. Those who control the money want great results for little money; sometimes, this is achievable, but not always. Those who control the schedule never fail to schedule time for Lighting Focus, so why is it that sound designers always have to ask for quiet time in this day and age? It should be a foregone conclusion that, no matter the type of show, the sound designer will want anywhere between four and twelve hours for this time alone in the theatre to listen to and tune the sound system to make it appropriate to the show and the venue. And many sound designers are happy to negotiate with other departments or work late or split meal breaks to get this time, but please, just start by putting it on the schedule.

Speaker positions are often another point of contention. Whether any of us like it or not, sound design is here to stay. Unfortunately, while it may be possible to build scenery out of carbon fiber, and lighting fixtures are starting to become more LED-based, we do not have the same luxury. Loudspeakers are boxy, big, and heavy. And in most circumstances, sound designers are going to want to put these big, boxy, heavy loudspeakers around the proscenium. This is just the way it is; in a perfect world, we would put loudspeakers at about head height on the stage so as to preserve imaging (the illusion that the sound is coming only from the actors on stage), but that is out of the question, so the next available place we have is above, below, and to the sides of the proscenium opening. Sound designers will argue among themselves for days as to what kind of boxes to put around the prosc, but we all might as well get used to the fact that sound designers want speakers in certain places. Most designers are happy to work with scenic and lighting designers to negotiate space or aesthetic concerns, and in our collaborative art form, this is a great thing, but there are still some stalwarts who forget. "What do you mean, you need to put speakers around the proscenium?!" Sigh.

By and large, theatre critics have not helped the role of a sound designer. When, for whatever reason, the show is too loud and deemed "overamplified," it is immediately the fault of the sound designer. However, when the orchestra sounds "lush" and the voices are "crystal clear" and the microphones are "invisible," there is-- most of the time-- no mention of the sound designer. Who decided to mic the orchestra in such a way as to bring out the fullness and sense of envelopment of the music, or tune the system such that the actors' voices are clear and yet still dynamic? Who consulted with other departments to ensure that microphones and wires were well-hidden? Was it the scenic designer? The lighting designer? The costume designer? No, for fuck's sake, it was the SOUND DESIGNER.




Although there are scientifically measureable differences between, say, analog and digital, or 48kHz/16bit digital versus 96kHz/24bit digital, ultimately the thing to remember is that the equipment is merely a tool. And with so many other variables in the theatre, sometimes it isn't about the equipment, but how it is used. An amateur violinist may not make a Stradivarius sound good, but an experienced pro may be able to make a cheap, Chinese plastic violin sound good.

There are definitely advances in technology that have assisted sound engineers and designers in all disciplines to create a more efficient sound system, but, like with an technology-based industry, there is also a lot of hyperbole.




The term "sweetening" comes from the studio world and I have seen it used often on the message boards. We are referring to any prerecorded bits of a show-- be it cast, chorus, or orchestra-- and for the sake of clarity we will divide them into the following categories: sound effects and click tracks.

The former are generally special aural effects that either need to be preprocessed to give them a different character, or are of a nature that makes it difficult or impossible to replicate consistently, night after night. Big ghostly effects that make the audience jump out of their seats-- these are best left to being recorded. Other very strenuous vocal lines (usually involving screaming) that have the potential of harming an actor's voice if done repeatedly are also good candidates for prerecording. In some circumstances, critical timing issues require a specific start and end point to a sound effect, and a recorded version means consistency.

Click tracks are prerecorded chunks of a song, or songs, that usually contain vocal parts that augment an existing sung line (hence, "sweetening"). They are called "click tracks" because of the metronomic click that is recorded alongside the vocal parts to synchronize live action with the recording. How this works: the conductor starts the playback at a specific point in the music, hears a few measures of the metronomic click in his headphones, and synchronizes the orchestra with the click that he hears; if all goes well, the prerecorded vocal comes out of the sound system, mixed with whatever live vocal is also occurring, and no one is the wiser.

[Note that just because a conductor wears headphones does not imply that there is click track used in the show; many monitoring systems used in musical theatre now allow the conductor to balance his or her own mix of instruments and voices and listen to it via headphones.]

Choral click tracks usually occur when a composer/music director wants more "body" to a chorus sound that would otherwise be unattainable with the size of the cast, or when the actors are physically unable to sing in a specific section of the show, possibly due to a difficult costume change or a formidable dance section. The predecessor to choral click tracks is the vocal booth or "pit singers," either additional cast or swings singing along with choral parts backstage in a small booth; they are unseen to the audience but add to the aural experience of the show.

In America, there are many Actor's Equity (union) rules applying to the use of prerecords, which makes it very difficult to use very many of them; the union stance is that if a show requires more vocalizations, the producers should hire more actors. However, Equity will usually accept a petition to prerecord difficult sections of a show that are impeded by quick changes or extended dance breaks, but they are very stringent about the exact number of musical measures that are allowed to be recorded.

The same thing goes for musicians in America; the American Federation of Musicians stipulates minimums for the amount of musicians in Broadway orchestra pits, and also petition against prerecorded music tracks, even if they are played alongside live musicians.

Overseas, the rules are much more lax; European shows are often full of click tracks and even full-on lip-syncing. The theatrical market is smaller, which means there is often less money to capitalize a show compared to its Stateside versions; the talent pool is somewhat smaller, so finding powerful ensemble singers is more difficult, and European musical producers find that audiences are more accepting of the concept of prerecorded music or voices. European audiences, not having had the history of Porter or Gershwin or Merman and the unamplified musical, seem to want more of a "cinematic" sound, and achieving that quality with a live chorus only is far more difficult.

Detractors maintain that it takes away from the "live" aspect of musical theatre, and say that no prerecords should ever be used in theatre. However, the writing of modern shows, often more in the rock-and-roll style versus the classical/jazz style, sometimes creates situations that are less than ideal for most normal singers. Composers write shows that require more belting, or supremely high notes, and creative teams often want a big sound but producers don't always want to pay for a huge cast.



At a conference recently, I was asked how we design for a touring version of a Broadway musical. The best answer I could give is that we try for a best-case scenario for every venue.  I have not finished writing this answer yet.



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Comments, More Questions, and Additions should be addressed via e-mail to Kai Harada. Not responsible for typographical errors. - © 2016 Kai Harada. 25.10.12. 28.01.16