Q&A

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

If you’re after lots of quotes, check out my book! There are video interviews with me here and here. and some print articles here and here.

How has your training affected your work? 

Whilst I was at college, I took an adult education course at a local recording studio, where I learnt a lot about recording techniques and MIDI. I wasn’t interested in theatre at the time, and wasn’t really aware of the potential of doing a career in sound design in it. Fortunately, by chance, I ended up helping some friends out on a theatre show when their sound engineer fell ill. I pretty much instantly knew this was what I wanted to be doing. I’d done English Lit at college, so we’d studied Shakespeare a bit, and visited the theatre, so it wasn’t entirely new territory. I got a place at Central School of Speech and Drama on their theatre design course (which then was a mix of set, costume, lighting and sound design), and thanks to the adult education class, had a good understanding of how a lot of the equipment, and the theory behind it, worked. The first year of the course was a foundation year, learning all sorts of things, architecture, fine art, drawing, CAD, and various aspects of the design disciplines. 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. It took me a while to work out that half of sound design is in the sound work and the other half is down to communicating your ideas effectively. 

After graduating, I spent a few years working in an office, which paid the rent. During that time I was designing shows in fringe theatres, which didn’t pay the rent, but developed my communication and artistic skills. The office I worked in was an amazing acoustic consultancy, which gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about speakers and acoustics. I then got some longer-term theatre jobs, operating and mixing shows, and more causal freelance jobs (i.e. the odd day here or there) as a lighting and sound technician. Those jobs got me contacts within the theatre industry to sell myself as a designer to. Increasingly the design work increased to the point where I could do it full-time.

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 whilst I liked listening to music and radio, I didn't particularly connect with the process of producing studio-based music and radio. 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?

It's maybe overly-simplistic, but one way of viewing creativity is that it is simply coming up with ideas, and finding solutions to problems. Usually the director has overall 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 earning this respect by making directors feel that they can place their trust in me. With some directors I have a lot of creative input, and with others I may work creatively but in a more technical way. Often, the more I get to know and work with a director, the more creative input they will hand over to me. Since I began work in the mid 1990's, I'm finding that directors are increasingly sound literate, and keen to use sound design in their productions, which makes for an easier collaboration. 

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. If a director does 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 design jobs which are more about facilitating the vision of the director, then we are ignoring a chance of showing a director the creative possibilities of sound. 

Directors who expect us to be their tool are effectively designing 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, 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.

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

This is not an easy industry - the hours are long and unsociable. It can take a number of years before you establish a steady income stream. The career path is 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 large contact base to stay in work consistently. It’s easier if you live close to a major metropolitan centre to do this, though many commute long distances in order to avoid city living. 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.

Some people might not like it, but I love the variety and unpredictability of work. It’s very hard to get bored. And I mostly control my own hours, wear what I like and am my own boss.

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

i have learnt to be very diplomatic as tempers can get heated during production weeks. I have to be disciplined and manage my time and resources 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 first week of technical rehearsals typically run 10am - 10pm and is where we move the show into the theatre and all the elements together for the first time. At some point the show will open, which is when I leave that project and move on to the next one.

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!

Do you do plays and musicals?

Yes, though I’m known more for doing plays now than musicals. Whilst there are some sound designers who specialise in one strand or another, there are many who work in both strands. And equally there are many theatre productions that resist being easily defined into either of the above strands.

Traditionally, there have been two strands of sound design for theatre, but increasingly the demands to have more sound effects in musicals, and more music and vocal reinforcement in plays, is blurring the lines. So rather than say, this is what a musical sound designer does, and what a play sound designer does, it’s better to talk about what you do when you have a live band and lots of vocal reinforcement, and what you do when you have a big soundscape to produce.

When you have a band and lots of vocal reinforcement, then there will be a lot of psychological, technical and logistical management of those elements, to get the best performance and sound out of the band and there performers, in a way that supports the sound design. There will be an often large sound system to design that provides the audience with a high level of intelligible sound across the whole auditorium, that will also 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 probably 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 in the hairline, 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. 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 creation of a pre-recorded soundtrack (which can include sound effects, a more abstract soundscape, finding music, or recording and producing a musical soundtrack), can vary in workload as every show varies in how much, or how little, sound it needs. At the simple end, this may simply be providing a few doorbell/telephone ring/dog bark style effects. At the more complex end it may be developing long running ambient soundscapes that emotionally develop with the play, along with hundreds of sound effects and music cues. A lot of time is spent working with computers, creating and montaging sound effects and abstract sounds, working with a composer to record and produce their music, and then integrating everything into the show. Again, this can result in vastly complex sound systems.

Audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their understanding of sound, and have paid a lot of money for their ticket so they demand cinema quality sound. It’s becoming far more common for shows to have sophisticated soundscapes, vocal reinforcement and live music; requiring the sound designer and their team to be able to master many skills.

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, shows that you want to work with or on. 

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.

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.

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

One of my early projects investigating almost subliminal sound 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 these sorts of 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 atmospheric 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 tinnitus 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 40 watt 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, to be fair, they don’t know where I’m going to need to put speakers - and often neither do I at that stage of the process. 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, or 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.