When most people think of sound design, they think about it in the context of film and video games. But sound design is just as critical in live theater as it is in other audiovisual productions. Sound designers working in live theater spaces require in-depth knowledge of acoustics, audio equipment, mood and atmosphere creation, and the training and oversight of other tech staff working on productions.
Some production spaces, mainly large and commercially successful ones, have in-house sound designers, though smaller ones will still engage sound designers on a per-project or per-production basis.
Why is Sound Design Important in Theater?
Unlike with film or television, the soundscape of a live theater production only gets one chance to get it right. A poorly designed or executed soundscape can ruin a live theater production, whereas a well-executed one can create a magical experience for patrons.
Because there are no second chances to get a live theater production right, sound in a live theater space presents unique challenges. The sound designer must work in tandem with performers, stage directors, and musical directors to balance the soundscape of the live theater production. A great deal of planning, organization, experimentation, and physical activity is required to ensure this balance.
To start with, sound designers must sit down with show producers to discuss the production, scene by scene. For many sound designers, reading the script prior to these meetings and making initial notes is a vital part of creating the right ambiance and mood for each scene. Not only must sound designers collaborate with show producers on ideas for an ideal soundscape suitable not only to the production and the space in which it is taking place but sometimes they also have to gently talk show producers out of sound ideas that might not be appropriate, or even possible.
Once a roadmap of the soundscape has been laid out, the sound designer must assess a number of things including the availability of sound equipment, the acoustic space, and sound creation mechanisms. After this assessment, the sound designer must plan how to use the available resources to create the desired sound effects throughout the show, and alternative methods of execution if something goes wrong with the equipment.
A successful sound designer will have a deep knowledge of sound concepts, equipment, troubleshooting, and repairs. Many are trained in music, film, game development, or theater through a minor, double major, or studio training in one or more of these fields. A sound designer must also have excellent skills in communication, planning and organization, and in some cases management. Finally, as many sound designer jobs are per-project, they must have skill or training in contract negotiation and marketing in order to put themselves forward for work in this industry.
Sound designers will wind up spending just as much time on a live set as the performers and producers, sometimes more. They’ll also need to work in tandem with performers during rehearsals to ensure a proper balance between the performers and background audio or music. This is the main (and most challenging) duty of a sound designer.
Balancing Sound and Voice in Theater
Along with the performers in a play or musical, the soundscape must tell a specific story, both the story of the overarching tale and the story of each individual scene. This work requires thorough knowledge of sound equipment and high levels of creativity to execute and balance in the final production. It is here that a sound designer examines not only musical soundscapes for plays, but foley-type production to enhance its realism.
Foley art, so named for Jack Foley, is soundscape engineering specific to television and film. However, the principles used in Foley art are also applicable to live theater productions. Foley categories are comprised of feet, moves, and specifics. Feet for walking, running and dancing, moves for ambient sounds of movement, and specifics for sounds that do not fall under either of these categories, such as the swish of fabric, the sound of an avalanche, or a rushing tide.
These specific sounds must be implemented in a way that creates realism for the ongoing production. This is where the creativity of the sound designer comes into play. They will determine the best way to create these sounds, and work with the tech crew to make sure they are appropriately timed within the performance.
The sound designer must also think in terms of style as well as function and implementation. Some live theater productions need fantasy sounds, some minimalism or realism. The production may also call for symbolic sounds. Sounds that are not directly related to action but to ideas presented in the performance.
Sound designers must treat the performance itself as a part of the auditory landscape. This means getting a solid gauge of each performer’s overall style, timbre, and volume. While also implementing available equipment in accordance with the acoustics of the space and the necessary balance of the soundscape.
For straight plays, the balance can be particularly hard to strike, particularly if the performers are not using microphones. While actors, like singers, are taught to project their voice in the production space, it is easy to outpace them with soundscapes projected using sound devices like stereos in terms of volume and EQ. The process with live musical productions can be somewhat more straightforward because for many musical productions, performers are using microphones.
To work around these difficulties, the sound designer must consider whether to implement pre-recorded soundscapes or live soundscapes, or a mixture of both. These decisions must fall in line not only with mood and style but must be made with consideration for the acoustical strengths and limitations of the space being used for the live theater production.
Every space has acoustics that must be taken into consideration when implementing a soundscape for live production. As the acoustics of a given space cannot be readily modified or treated in many instances, the sound designer must instead work the existing acoustic qualities into their roadmap.
The traditional “black box” set poses particular challenges. The black box is a historically recent invention, offering a simple space for live production performance and more intimate interactions between performers and audiences. Many live productions take place in black box sets, in part because they are more often readily affordable than larger production spaces. However, the black box set carries its own set of limitations. They are often small with very limited backstage space, and they are also acoustically limited, with very little natural reverb or echo present. This acoustic deadening can make the work of the sound designer easier, but it can often necessitate the sound designer framing their work through a minimalistic lens.
Working in larger spaces also carries unique challenges. Larger production spaces may have natural reverb and echo present, and so the sound designer must envision the soundscape with these elements in mind. In contrast with a black box space, heavy experimentation is needed throughout production to incorporate these elements effectively into the soundscape, or to limit their interference. This challenge can be made greater if the sound equipment available is particularly limited.
Do you have a passion for theater and sound? The role of the sound designer in live theater production is a very important one, and as a sound designer, your work can help send thousands of eager audiences on a journey of story and wonder.
Live Sound & Show Production Program
The Associate in Applied Science in Live Sound and Show Production is an occupational degree program designed to present sound and lighting performance enhancement through the blending of technology and aesthetic application. The live sound and show production degree program presents the fundamentals of acoustics, signal flow, color and light, basic electronics, audio, lighting and video reproduction devices. Live Sound and Show Production degree program students are trained to be audiovisual engineers and designers who are proficient in the creation, operation and planning of modern day musical, theatrical, event and corporate productions.
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