Q&A

Quotes for student use, extracted from various questions people have asked me about sound and design.

Are we there to be artists or tools of the directors? Would you rather give up work than get hired as a sound designer and treated like a technician?

We create the market we work in. Directors often may not know what a sound designer does, or what they can do. They may assume we are technicians because they mostly see us playing with technology. If we turn down the technician-style design jobs, then we are ignoring a chance of converting a director to the creative possibilities of sound. This is not an easy task, or even a possible task in some cases.

Directors who expect us to be their tool are designing (and I use the term loosely) the sound themselves because they haven't learnt to trust anyone else to do it for them. Designing the sound for a show is a responsibility, a power almost, and not something that a director will easily relinquish unless it is to someone they trust. And that is down to perception. If you sell yourself as a creative then gaining that trust will come a lot easier.

How has your training affected your work? 

I trained originally in recording studio techniques, whilst doing A level Physics, Maths, English Lit and Psychology - at that time I hadn't discovered theatre and was looking at doing a course in Artificial Intelligence. Through fluke I discovered theatre & sound and changed direction to that - and at that time I had a good solid understanding of both sound theory and to a lesser degree part of the artistic side (the psychology of perception and english literature). So when I started at Central I knew most of the sound theory and how the kit worked. My class was the first to do the sound design degree at Central and it was still in its infancy. The part of the course that was most useful for me was the first year - which was a foundation year in all sorts of things from playing with all the design disciplines to looking at architecture, fine art, etc. This opened my eyes up to a lot of stuff that I had previously known nothing about and would prove to be a foundation for how i could discuss ideas and concepts creatively.

In the following years we did lots of paper projects and the like, at which I did very badly on the whole. I looked around at the other students and realised that the work we were doing wasn't that dissimiliar but when I presented my work I usually managed to shoot myself in the foot somehow or another. I worked out that half of sound design is in the sound work and the other half is down to communicating your ideas effectively. 

This order of training co-incided well with the jobs that came my way - first doing technician jobs to pay the rent and to get to know the industry and equipment, whilst I worked away in fringe theatres brushing up the communication and artistic skills. When I felt confident enough, I used my contacts from having worked as a technician to launch myself as a designer.

The training courses I did compared nothing though to what I learnt by working in the industry.

When did you begin to focus on this subject? Was there a turning point for you?

I was always interested in sound & music but overlooked theatre because there wasn't a good theatre in my home town. Initially I tried music production and radio but didn't find them appealing. I discovered theatre by chance and was hooked immediately. I then did a lot of research on the industry: looking through career packs, talking to people in the industry, reading The Stage, etc and eventually decided to take the plunge.

What is your definition of being creative? Do you always take complete creative control?

Being creative is simply coming up with ideas and finding solutions to problems. The director ultimately has creative control, and for each project I negotiate with them how much creative input I'm going to have. Sound is a developing art in theatre, so respect does not come automatically, it has to be earned. 

I have to be very diplomatic in this respect by making directors feel that they can place that trust in me. With some directors I have a lot of creative input, and with others I work creatively but in a techincal way. The more I get to know and work with a director, the more creative input they will give me.

What sort of advice would you give to someone who wants to enter this field?

This is not an easy industry - the hours are very long and unsociable. The money is poor and the career path is very variable and subject to luck. If you love it, do it, but be prepared for a long haul. Most of the learning takes place when you finish studying.

You work for yourself, what advantages and disadvantages are there in doing this ?

You have to maintain a very large contact base to stay in work consistently. You need to live close to a major metropolitan centre to do this. Being self-employed you receive no benefits or holiday pay, and you have to keep careful track of your finances and bookings.

Work is often at short notice so it is difficult to plan long-term commitments such as holidays. On the plus side you mostly work your own hours and you can wear what you like! 

How important have other skills like organisation, communication and networking been to your career? 

i have learnt to be very diplomatic as tempers can get very heated during production weeks. I have to be very disciplined and manage my time and resources very carefully - my deadline is 1000 people listening closely to my work- you can't cover it up if you are late or your work is sub-standard. If I blow it someone else will get employed next time. So you also have to be good under pressure!

Do you have typical days?

I have no daily routine, but I work a similiar schedule often when shows are opening. I will often spend day-times of the last few weeks of a shows rehearsal in the rehearsal room watching how things are developing, and often creating sound in response and adding it into rehearsals. The weekend might be spent in the theatre running sound checks to optimise the sound system. The first week of technical rehearsals typically run 10am - 10pm and is where we move the show into the theatre and add the visual design elements. At some point the show will open, then we have a lot to drink and a chance to recover.

Working in the performing arts is more of a lifestyle than a job - it takes over every aspect of you. It is very demanding but can be equally satisfying. You have to make it happen yourself, you have to push yourself forward. The sooner you step into a theatre the sooner you can start working in it. You can learn a lot by watching shows, even if to see how not to do things!

There are 2 strands in theatre, each quite different.

One strand that is design for musicals, and is a mix of technical skill and project management, though there is very much an art to doing it well. You are basically working with two elements: the cast singing onstage, and the musicians playing, often in a pit. Your job is to design a sound system that provides the audience with a high level of intelligible sound (across the whole auditorium), to provide the musicians with foldback of the cast, and the cast with foldback of the musicians. Sounds easy, but then bear in mind that the band are in a very confined area, the flute mic may only be 1 metre away from the Kick Drum, the mic’s the actors wear usually have to be concealed behind one ear and are omni-directional so you also pick up the band foldback in a reverberant state, the actors move around the stage a lot so system delay time's have to be shifted as they move so the direct sound precedes the amplified sound for imaging purposes. Audiences have paid a lot of money for their ticket so they demand cinema quality sound - but it's live! Nowadays, sound systems for theatre musicals are more complex than any other sound system you will ever come across- 100+ simultaneous inputs and dozens of outputs are common.

The other field is design for "straight" theatre (ie non musicals). This strand tends to focus around the creation of a soundscape, sound effects and the musical soundtrack for the show, and every show varies in how much or how little sound it needs. This may simply be providing a few doorbell/telephone ring/dogs bark style effects, or developing long running ambient soundscapes that emotionally develop with the play. A lot of time is spent working with computers, creating and montaging sound effects, and then integrating them into the show. Of course, sometimes these shows also have music and mic.s etc, so you have to know how to do all the musical theatre stuff as well!!

What steps are there on the "career ladder" for a sound designer?

There is no formalised career ladder because there is no formalised employment process or pay scale. Once you've managed to achieve a position of being able to design full-time, there's not very far to go in a conventional sense. From then on, it's more about finding the companies, directors, venues that you want to work with. 

As a sound designer, you'll spend your time working with lots of designers, actors etc, but very rarely will you actually work with another sound designer. To create more of a sense of community between sound designers The Association of Sound Designers was formed.

For a while the big musicals were a big earner for sound designers - producers used to offer big royalties and small advances which paid out very very well on long-running musicals, but this doesn't happen so much anymore. Producers now prefer to offer an advance and a small royalty. Big musicals nowadays are very often done by sound designers attached to hire companies rather than freelancers.

A lot of production companies and venues don't pay enough money for the amount of time that the director wants the sound designer to be around for, so often we have to dovetail shows to make them work economically. Often, the more interesting a show is from a sound design point of view, the lower the fee offered, so more commerical shows are taken on to bolster the lower paying shows. 

Could you possibly outline some of the projects youʼve been involved in involving background sound? 

One of my early projects investigating background noise was The Oresteia at the National Theatre in 1999. We started off with a recording of a heating system to create a low rumble that played from before the audience entered. The effect was that the audience ignored the rumble, in the way that we filter out constant background sound - and theatrically, our brains try and filter out anything we think is not part of the theatrical world - we try to focus on the stage. We were then able to bring in abstract sounds - pitched down bowed violin and the like - to subtely underscore the emotional, dramaturgical shifts in the play. We were also able to very slowly increase the level of the boiler rumble over the course of the play, until at the very end of the show, when a gun is fired, we simultaneously muted the rumble creating an immense silence.

I use background sounds a lot when I'm asked to create a sense of silence, or focus in on a part of the show - I will put background sounds before and after the scenes when silence or focus is required, and take them out to create a sense of silence. This process is largely subliminal for the audience. The background sounds I use range from abstract sounds, through to naturallisitc atmospheres.

Do you find there are particular frequencies which get a stronger reaction than others? 

There are certainly different frequencies that have more emotional connections. For example, bass sounds I think generally adrenalise and excite us - I think we have a primal connection between bass beats and the sound of our heart thumping, and of running. There are sounds very high up, in the 15-20kHz range that are on the periphary of our hearing, that cause us distress. Try playing a sine wave at 15kHz very quietly, and it gives us that heachache'y feeling that I often associate with traumatic events.

You mention that the audience often filter out your work subconsciously, do you think this is reflective of our culture in general? 

We certainly live in a world of noise unlike any generation before us. Think back 150 years and what would be the loudest sound anyone heard during their lifetime? For most people, the loudest thing they ever heard would be someone shouting or the crack of thunder. Now we routinely hear sounds much louder than that on a daily basis. Traffic and aircraft noise pervades our every waking moment and is almost inescapable across the globe. The techniques I use rely on our auditory perception which has been part of how our brains work for many centuries. As we can't turn off our hearing in the same way we can close our eyes, or focus them on something, our brains have adopted many low-level filters to prevent us reaching sensory overload, to bring to our attention only the sounds that are important to us, and to filter out those that aren't.

In your work you clearly use the subconscious to your advantage however are you ever frustrated because of limitations based on you by other departments of the theatre? 

I do need a quiet environment to do my job, and the noise created by scrollers, moving lights, LED walls, video projectors, computers, aircon systems always cause difficulties. I can't blame people for needing to use equipment that creates noise as a by-product, but I do get frustrated when people fail to acknowledge that they are compromising my work when they use a lot of noisy equipment. If every speaker I used had a 40watt lightbulb on the back of it that lit the stage I would get shouted at by the lighting designer instantly, and justly.

Do you feel your role is ever compromised more than it should be or that audio is under appreciated in the design process? 

That depends on your relationship to the director. I'm lucky to mostly work with directors that appreciate sound design and want to integrate it into their shows. I find that the LD, set designer, video designers, costume designer tend to work together very closely, but they are all working towards the same visual look, which I don't have the same interest in. I find that my collaboration is more with the performers, the writer and director than it is with anyone else because we share the same aural world, though of course the sound design often interacts and shares cue points with other aspects of the design

Do you consider the dynamics of sound are under appreciated by designers both in the construction of buildings and sets? Does the design of those spaces make your job easier/more difficult? 

In my experience, set designers don’t generally consider where speakers can go when designing a set. But then they don’t know where I’m going to need to put speakers and often neither do I when the set is being designed. Integrating speakers into a set can be frustrating for all concerned, particularly if it has to happen after construction has been completed. Sometimes the set design takes a hit and sometimes I don’t get speakers where I’d ideally like them. But that’s life! Sometimes the set design can create acoustic issues and I’ll try to head these off before construction begins. Building design is another matter, but generally speaking most new theatres involve significant consultation with all departments. Though as with all things, what is good for one department is not necessarily good for another.