Advice to Bright-Eyed, Bushy-Tailed Youth


I receive many e-mails from youngsters asking how to get into this business, how they should go about it, what they should study, etc., etc., so I figured it would be useful to start compiling some of my answers into this online form. I'll try to add more information as I receive new questions (or think of things to write about). The important thing to remember is that there is no one way of doing anything— this is probably a statement that can be applied to life as well as to Sound Design— and that everyone’s path will be a little bit different, and that is okay.



These days there are a lot of good programs that focus on Sound Design— Ithaca, NCSA, Carnegie Mellon, DePaul, UC Irvine, CCM all come to mind (there are probably more). Most if not all of them don't only focus on sound design for drama but have incorporated sound reinforcement into their curricula.


I believe it's also very important to understand what everyone else in a theatre does, so the more varied the courses and the more varied the experiences, the more "whole" a person can become. I also know a few designers who have degrees in Not Theatre, and that is also a veey valid option— get a degree in something completely different, but do theatre on the side.






Music: A strong music background is always a good thing. The ability not only to read a score but to be able to communicate in a common language with the music department cannot be understated. Knowing how instruments are supposed to sound should not be overlooked— does a violin from six feet away sound like a violin mic six inches away from the instrument? Knowing your instruments, too, is a great skill to have. Learning a bit about vocal technique so you can help actors help themselves might be something to consider; you don't want to step on the toes of the music department, but the more cooperation and shared knowledge between the sound and music departments, the easier the process might be.


Drama: Being able to intelligently discuss character arcs or dramaturgy may not come into use while sound designing a musical compared to a play, but the skill sets and the processes of analytical thought when examining a piece can be very useful. Don't forget that some directors don't have much of a background in sound design, so being able to communicate with them in their own language may be beneficial.


Psychology: Anyone in the sound department can benefit from learning a little bit- or a lot- about how people think and work, and how to read them. So much of our job is to interact with people: to react to situations on stage, to collaborate with other designers, to take notes from producers and creatives, so learning more about human behavior can be very beneficial. Note that it isn't only about discovering how to get people to do what you need them to do, but also how to temper yourself to work within a group, and remember that you are merely one cog in a larger wheel until the time comes to fight for what is really necessary.


Acoustics/Physics/Psychoacoustics: All these topics can potentially add four, eight, or twelve years to your educational experience, but knowing a little bit about each can only help you as a designer. You do not necessarily need to know how a DSP chip is doing the AD conversion, but you should know that it exists, and what the larger ramifications of its existence could be. Understanding a little bit about architectural acoustics, and how to avoid some pitfalls, is also important; one thing I have learned is that you cannot fight the room; you absolutely have to work with it, and there are ways to make the theatre's natural acoustic work for you. Then there's our hearing and perception system; although there are quite a few textbooks on the subject, the truth is that we really do not know a lot about why we like some things; in the meantime, study how we hear and what can impact our aural experience, then delve deeper into the metaphysical.


But: don't forget to have a little fun as well.





There are also a number of good graduate programs in Sound Design— a lot of my friends and colleagues went through the Yale School of Drama program, for instance. But I do think it is important to spend some time in the real world after undergrad, and not dive right into another few years of school. This is just my opinion, of course, but I think Graduate School can be more useful when you've had some true hands-on time outside of school, and then you can discover more of what you want to learn, and incorporate those wishes into how you handle a Graduate program.






In 2015 I was asked to adjudicate the Southeastern Theatre Conference sound design student participants. This was the first year they had an outside person come in to judge, but I hope it wasn't the last. One thing I noticed was a little inconsistency in how the students were told to prepare their projects and portfolios. The following are merely my suggestions if I were in charge of these sorts of things:



            - give a short description of the piece and the intended goals of the sound design.

            - show a speaker plot, with annotations to justify locations, or to discuss an installed system that couldn't be modified and how you made it work to your needs of the show.

            - show a system plot, including what systems were used for audio playback, and any shortcomings you encountered.

            - provide audio samples mixed down to two tracks with a short description of their places within the piece.

            - separately, provide descriptions of the audio samples and discuss what choices were made; also talk about what elements were requested by the director, and how those goals were met.  Provide a little insight into the cues and how they were constructed, i.e. found sounds, prerecorded music, music that was composed specifically for the piece, etc.

            - discuss any inter-departmental collaborative elements, i.e. synchronizing with Projection Design or Lighting Design, etc.

            - discuss what challenges were present in the piece, the space, or the system, and how these were overcome— or NOT overcome to your satisfaction.



            - give a short description of the piece and the intended goals of the sound design, and the aesthetic that was required of the piece.

            - show a speaker plot, with annotations to justify speaker locations, or to discuss an installed system that couldn't be modified and how you made it work to your needs of the show.

            - show a system plot and any other paperwork, i.e. input/output lists, microphone choices, speaker choices.

            - discuss what equalization was necessary and how system tuning was accomplished.

            - provide a short recording either directly from the mixing console or as a separate "mics-in-the-house" version.

            - discuss inter-departmental collaborative elements, i.e. speaker locations, microphone positions on actors, how the orchestra was laid out and what microphones were used, how, and why. Visual aids (photographs) are welcome!

            - discuss what challenges were present in the piece, the space, the system, or the talent, and how these were overcome— or NOT overcome to your satisfaction.




There is a plethora of experiences to be had all around the world, all of which can contribute to the betterment of your knowledge of sound design. It may not even be specifically theatre-related. Stagehand work can hone your skills as a team player. Anything related to music can sharpen your ear skills. Don't be afraid if, at the beginning, you're not doing exactly what you think you should be doing. And if you are offerred a job or a short-term gig that isn't necessarily your first focus, maybe that's okay- something that's a little outside your comfort zone can push you in new and interesting ways, and there may be a lot to learn.


That said, it can be easy to be pigeonholed into a category, like, "Oh, that person does load-ins downtown," or "That person is an assistant, not a mixer," or "That person does TV," so do keep track of time passing.




One of the hardest things to learn is that sometimes, you have to start at the bottom. There are a number of summer stock companies in New England that have openings for sound interns; the most popular seems to be Williamstown Theatre Festival, which produces a fair amount of new work each season, most often with New York-based designers. Other companies may concentrate more on dramatic works and may not have quite as extensive musical productions. Nevertheless, it can be a great way to be introduced to the real world and meet some professionals.


Interning for a New York-based designer is also an option; this industry is quite fickle, though, so not all designers will be working all the time.  Some designers will be working outside of New York, so if you are in or near a city that promotes new theatre (Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Dallas, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco/Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego), it may be worth seeing who might be in town.


Experience in New York is probably the best choice, though- very few opportunities can compare to learning how a show is put together-- from shop build through load in through tech into previews-- than seeing it all done in New York.


A caution, though; depending on the designer and the show, sometimes it is difficult for a designer or his/her staff to dedicate a lot of time to teaching—however, with some grounding in the principles of sound design, either from a school program or from books, there is a lot to be learned by merely observing... and running out for coffee from time to time.




The Labor Union situation in the entertainment world is quite confusing, and is particular to how things are structured in America. Stage actors and stage managers are covered by Equity, musicians by AFM, and stagehands by IATSE. Designers are covered by USA Local 829, formerly a separate organization called "United Scenic Artists" but now under the auspices of IATSE.


Not all venues are unionized, but all Broadway shows are unionized. First Class Tours are fully unionized, but on some other tours, the cast may not be part of a union whereas the crew may be. Regional Theatres may be under union jurisdiction, or they may not be. Designers working in smaller markets may not need to be union members, but designers working on Broadway must be union members.


Many sound designers in New York were originally mixers, which meant that they were covered under IATSE, either Local One (New York) or a different regional IATSE Local. Upon moving into the design realm, those engineers were required to become members of IASTE USA Local 829, so many sound designers carry two union cards, although they are both under the auspices of IATSE.


More info about these sorts of logistical situations can be found in Shannon Slaton's text, "Mixing a Musical."




If you are in an area with a strong IATSE presence, and a road house that hosts theatre as well as live music, this is also a great way to learn, by being part of the local IA crew, seeing how a particular show is structured versus another, and meeting the road crew (some of whom can be nice).


It may not be the most intellectual of work, but a lot can be learned, and in many cities, it can be lucrative. Having an IATSE card can also be useful making your way into New York and on to working on a show; some mixers have come through the regional ranks in other cities and have made their way into New York after having "proven themselves" on a touring production.


Regional Theatre is another excellent way to get some additional experience, especially if there is one near your home or school. Many designers will pass through their doors, and there is much to be learned by working on a crew. Not all of the regionals do musical theatre, so choose wisely if musicals are your jam; if you want to listen to people wax eloquent on the dramaturgical significance of a particular soundscape on an obscure Russian play, there are places for you as well.


Fewer people have crossed the lines to work internationally, but it does happen from time to time. When a show moves from Broadway to a first-class international city, in most cases the Sound Designer is involved, and may participate in the international production or send an associate. Very rarely does a mixer from New York end up working on an international production but exceptions do exist. Some sound people start out internationally and eventually make it to New York, but it can be quite complicated due to the archaic work regulations and VISA processes of the United States, not to mention getting a Union card for operator work.



There have been many different roads taken. Some depend on what path you want to take to becoming a designer— and again, there are no hard and fast rules. Historically, some current designers have come up as assistants, some as mixers, some as a combination. Some start downtown, some start regionally, some get their chops on the road, some start off doing studio work, some start and remain in New York.


If you live close to New York, and can live at home while you get yourself situated, you're super fortunate, and don't ever forget that.


There are numerous opportunities to start in New York; I often recommend the Public Theatre as a place to begin a career— many designers pass through the building and the Theatre provides a great breeding ground for young sound people.


Going a different way and getting in touch with Production Managers is another way to get known and hired— for off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway work. Some Production Managers may branch out and do industrials and one-offs, which can also be a good way to make some cash and get your name out there.




Shop work— preparing the sound system for installation— is another great way to get involved and start learning how things are done. When a show is designed, the equipment list is bid out to sound companies in the area, and for most off-Broadway and Broadway shows, the show's sound team gathers a few other sound people to go to the sound company that is awarded the show to prepare the equipment— install it into racks according to the designer's specifications, wire, label, and test it all prior to going into the theatre; this period is called the "Shop Build." For a large Broadway show, this could take three weeks with a staff of Associate Designer, Production Engineer, Head Mixer, A2, and three other people (this is a generous example, though).  For a small off-Broadway show, this could be three days with only two people TOTAL. Regardless, the rates are generally pretty fair, workdays are usually eight hour weekdays only, and it is a great way to learn and get your hands dirty.


Another alternative is to actually become a shop employee, working for the sound company that is providing the equipment for a show, and helping to support the crews that come in to build their respective shows.  There are three primary shops in the New York area: PRG Audio (New Jersey), Sound Associates (Yonkers), and Masque Sound (New Jersey); if you are looking for a way in, they may be a good place to start.




Generally, level of responsibility. A good associate is someone the designer can trust to give the correct answers at a meeting, or do some of the system work in the theatre during tech, whereas an assistant is someone who can be more responsible for paperwork upkeep and may give an answer such as, "I'll pass this along to the designer." But it really depends.


In some cases, there is a difference in pay, but sometimes there is not, and for some designers, the difference in nomenclature is not quite as important. There are very few designers who have managed to secure both an associate and an assistant for a show, but I feel that this situation may change for the better as time goes on and shows become more complicated.




Both my parents are classical musicians, so music was always a huge part of my childhood; I took ten years of classical piano. Initially I thought I would want to be a recording engineer since that path seemed like the best amalgamation of music and technology. In junior high I was introduced to the drama program and stagecraft, and discovered that sound for theatre was an option, and THAT was an even better mix of music and technology (and physics, and psychology). It also meant I could skip gym class occasionally, which was an added perk.


I went to a high school at a time before digital consoles; we had a shitty auditorium and a "good for speeches" sound system, but fortunately no one was there to tell me I couldn't do something, so I had many opportunities to just try things. Sure, it is possible that some things broke because I tried the wrong thing, but most of the time it was a great way to learn.


I also dabbled in lighting, in scenery building, in stage management, in most every other facet of theatre, and although I've not kept current with many newer trends in technology, understanding what other departments do, and the challenges that they face, has only made me a better collaborator. Even though sound design is often the most misunderstood discipline, being able to understand what challenges other departments face, and to communicate in a common, non-technical language.


While in high school I also did sound for a local live performance space— mainly high school-age bands and the like, which let me learn a little bit more about a different side of live sound (and learn that you can do pretty much anything with an SM57).


In college, things were much the same— I did a lot of extracurricular theatre in a variety of spaces, sometimes working with graduate students from the School of Drama, and sometimes just working with felllow undergrads. Our equipment selection was limited, and budgets were low, but we made it work.


[At some point in this story I should point out that I grew up close to New York City— about an hour away by car, and went to college about two hours away from New York City; I didn't realize how lucky I was until much later in life.]


In my opinion, musical theatre sound reinforcement is the best mix for me since it is a great combination of physics, music, and psychology. Live sound for rock and roll, while it has its share of challenges, doesn't always allow for the level of subtlety that I enjoy.


One summer I was introduced to some staff from Sound Associates, one of the three primary companies that service Broadway shows (among other types of events), and I would rent equipment from them for high school and college shows. I did work there for a few months one summer, which was a fantastic opportunity to meet some Broadway sound people, to see some of the paperwork they were using, to see how a big Broadway Tour was assembled and prepared.  I gave them a resumé and eventually received a call from one of them and soon enough, I had a job working with Tony Meola. Sometimes timing has a lot to do with it, too.




Getting through it? Getting my job done in spite of many factors stacked against me? Maybe that one. I won't name the show, but I'll give some background: rock musical based on a (living) rock star. Music supervisor came from a studio background and had no concept of how live sound, especially for a musical, was done, but he had some false ideas about how it was done for rock and roll.


First there was the monitoring fiasco; we were using headworn (boom) mics, but the band was in a separate room, so we had complete control over stage monitor levels. It's a wide stage, but we managed to put a lot of speakers up for the best possible coverage— from lighting ladders, downstage hidden in the deck, in the turntable in the center of the deck, etc., etc. And in typical fashion I dialled in only the instruments I thought were necessary for the actors to keep pitch and rhythm, and at a tolerable level. Well, my friend the music supervisor went up on stage once and started screaming that everything had to be louder, basically like a pair of headphones in a studio, and then by the time he was happy, we needed to up the level of vocals on stage (which I am not a fan of doing, but it's somewhat possible with headworn/boom mics) almost to the point of feedback.


Back in the house, now, since there was so much energy coming off the stage, the whole show got louder; this was a process, by the way, where we spent three hours so the music supervisor could listen to the kick drum, while the whole band was waiting to do a soundcheck. THREE HOURS. I do agree that the drums provide the base of any rock show, but this was not an efficient use of time.


Meanwhile there was some concern over the sound of the show but no one could fully articulate what they heard to be a problem, which made fixing the problem rather difficult. A little more tuning in the low frequency range of the main system helped fix some issues. The goal for me by that point was to just finish the show and get through opening.  It took me two years after opening to be able to go back and make some adjustments so that I was once again proud to have my name associated with the show, and fix some more things on stage to make the cast happier— things that I was prevented from doing when we were in production.




Other people. Sound, and especially sound equipment, are pretty predictable things. Sound waves travel a specific way within a space and sure, their paths can vary, but not a LOT. Sound in the electrical or digital format also behaves pretty predictably, but there are several human elements— before the microphone, at the mixing console, and beyond the loudspeakers— that influence how we do our jobs.


There are a lot of things that we can't control: how the show is written, how the show is performed, how performances vary night to night, and how the audience responds. Even how people who see the show each night, especially in previews, can have varying opinions. Parsing all these opinions and feelings into constructive progress is a huge part of the job.


An actor may be having an "off" night. A sub musician may be playing for the first time. The temperature and humidity in the theatre may have changed drastically. Even a sound operator could be having a bad show, or a technical problem could affect the show. Meanwhile, perhaps the composer had a lot to drink before the show and is leaning against the back wall of the theatre, far from any actual audience seats and therefore not getting the best coverage from the sound system. Maybe a producer is lurking in a corner away from any fill speakers. Maybe the audience isn't responding to some of the writer's jokes, so he or she thinks that is because the audience can't hear them well enough. When the notes and comments come in, it can be difficult to parse through to what is really a sound issue, and what can be fixed, versus what is merely a difference in perception. Of course the job of a sound designer is to take all these comments and address them logically and constructively. We have a saying: everyone has two jobs— theirs and sound.




We are sometimes the last design element to be hired and thus integrated into a new show, so as soon as I can, and as clearly as I can, I try to interface with all the other departments. One of my biggest priorities is ensuring I have optimal speaker locations for the audience, and this can sometimes affect scenic and lighting design decisions. I'm always happy to disguise speakers as something else, but that requires early consultation with the other departments, and sometimes those other departments don't share that wish. Sometimes it may be a budget consideration to fully integrate speakers into a cohesive visual picture.


I am sometimes miffed by design teams that are surprised that I need speakers in specific places for proper musical reinforcement. For better or for worse, sound is here to stay, and although the actual model of speaker may change, most sound designers are going to want some speakers in the center, over the proscenium, some speakers left and right of the proscenium, and some front fills close to the pit.


Lighting positions can be compromised by large speaker systems so that becomes another negotiation. Onstage speakers for foldback monitors usually require less precise locations, so that process is an easier compromise. In my head I often have "perfect world" locations, but I also understand the need to collaborate, so I also have "still totally acceptable" positions prepared as compromises.


With costumes and hair, I try to start a dialogue early about intended microphone positions; I'm usually less concerned about transmitter positions unless we're dealing with a lot of hat mics or children. Obviously things can change, especially on a new show where every department is beginning their process, but I like to get as much information out as possible so nothing can be a surprise.


On the logistical front, I'm often in very early discussions with the music department to discover about orchestrations and instrumentation, to ensure we have space in the orchestra pit, or the ability to accommodate the musicians' placement in other locations (some theatres on Broadway weren't necessarily designed with musical theatre in mind), or their layout on stage if we have an onstage band, including conversations about acoustic absorption, video feeds of the conductor, and audio monitoring solutions. Some shows call for personal mixers, like an Aviom or Roland system, while others may be better served by zoned monitoring using small loudspeakers whose feeds are controlled by the front of house console.




Prior to the shop build, the designer has undoubtedly been in negotiations with the sound rental company to accommodate budget versus equipment availability; since most shows on Broadway use rental equipment, it is sometimes difficult to convince a sound company to purchase a totally different, esoteric piece of equipment, because the sound company must factor in the purchase cost of the equipment versus how much they can charge for it as a rental item, versus the projected length of the run of the show. Broadway is a fickle business.


Usually the designer hands off the nitty-gritty paperwork, like rack drawings and cabling, to the Production Engineer (who could be the main mixer) and Associate Designer, and it is up to them to generate the required paperwork prior to going into the shop.


The shop build process, which for a small off-Broadway show may be three days long, or for a big Broadway musical may be three weeks long, brings together the associate/assistant, the production engineer, the A1, the A2, and perhaps a few other freelance sound people to put the show together. This includes putting the actual equipment into equipment racks according to the wishes of the team and the needs of the show, patching as much as possible, and labelling absolutely EVERYTHING. As much of the system as possible is tested using all the requisite cabling, all speakers are tested and hardware checked. This also includes any intercom and video systems required for the show.




• QLab, either v2 or v3, depending on the anticipated complexity of the show.

• I build sound effects, or at least find initial elements, in ProTools; some people use Logic, but I've always been a ProTools guy.

• for some shows I have used Native Instruments’ Kontakt software sampler; it depends on the needs of the show.

• I've played with a demo version of Ableton and some other software; all very cool, but not necessary for the types of shows I do.

• I've always used Mac, and Mac OS' networking and screen-sharing makes our workflow very efficient, although the rest of the OS keeps getting dumber and dumber, imho.




• Microsoft Word handles the initial paperwork documents, like the equipment list.

• Microsoft Excel handles some of my initial thoughts and lists, and later on aids in tracking equipment settings.

• my drawings are generally done in VectorWorks. Some other designers, usually scenic designers, may use AutoCAD, but most theatre designers stick to VectorWorks.

• other tracking and cabling paperwork is generated in FileMaker Pro; I've created a template called ShowTracker that other designers have used. As FileMaker has become more user-friendly, more young'uns have created their own templates. Whatever contains the information in a clear format-- that's what matters.




Ugg, math is hard:

            Allegiance: 124 inputs, 10 mono groups, 10 stereo groups, 16 mono matrix, 12 stereo matrix, 16 mono aux, 12 stereo aux.

            Follies: 126 inputs, 26 subgroups, 22 matrix outs, 16 auxiliary outs

            Hinterm Horizont: 150 inputs, 24 subgroups, 28 matrix outs, 16 aux outs

            On the Town: 128 inputs, 34 subgroups, 36 matrix outs, 24 aux outs




Prior to the shop build, the designer has undoubtedly been in negotiations with the sound rental company to accommodate budget versus equipment availability; since most shows on Broadway use rental equipment, it is sometimes difficult to convince a sound company to purchase a totally different, esoteric piece of equipment, because the sound company must factor in the purchase cost of the equipment versus how much they can charge for it as a rental item, versus the projected length of the run of the show. Broadway is a fickle business.



This interview was for the Contemporary Musical Theatre blog in June, 2015. It has some excellent questions, and my answers.


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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. 28.01.16