so…what IS a sound designer?

I’ve been working professionally as a freelance theatrical sound designer pretty consistently since I graduated college in 2016. It’s a job that I never even knew existed until just before my final semester, and how lucky I am that my mentor & recording professor Jim Anderson introduced me to it. The NU Theatre department was looking for a student to design their spring production of THE HEIDI CHRONICLES, and while I was clueless as to what the job entailed, I knew it had to do with audio engineering, and that the program QLab was involved.

With 20 (yes, twenty!!! where did the time go???) productions under my belt, I have come to learn that being a sound designer can involve a lot of things:

-Programming a QLab show file with elements including sound cues, fade cues, effect cues, and other sorts of magic to move sound through a space while actors are in it.

-Reading the script, attending production meetings & rehearsals, and considering other aspects of a design (lighting, set, costumes, props) to thoughtfully create a sonic/musical language that carries throughout a production. It’s not just the what that a show requires, but the why. That’s part of what makes it a design process versus simply writing music that fits a mood.

-Designing a speaker setup that fulfills the needs of a show. This includes: Loudness. Making sure everyone in the audience can hear everything, everywhere. Creative speaker placement behind/above/below/within the set/furniture/walls/etc. Working around lighting grids to have the speaker placement make sense without blocking lights. When resources are tight, making use of what’s available to have the best possible sound.

-Loading in. Setting up speakers. Configuring the sound system layout to work with the available soundboard, amps, cabling. Hanging stuff on a grid. Running all the cable. Programming the soundboard with the right ins and outs from QLab, live inputs, etc. Tuning the system with my favorite well recorded & sonically balanced soundcheck song (Golden Age by Beck is my go-to!)

-Composing music for shows, including (but not limited to) music at the top and bottom of the show, music for transitions, underscoring, diegetic music (music coming from within a scene that the characters also hear, like from a radio), etc. This process involves a lot of prep, because once we’re in tech, if something isn’t working, we need alternatives.  This can be hard to anticipate at times, especially if something works during rehearsals…until it doesn’t. More on this in a future post!

-Creating sound effects & field recordings of “room tones” and real life ambiences like city sounds, nighttime soundscapes, etc.

-Reading between the lines and knowing what the director means when describing how they want things to sound. i.e. Interpreting variations on the following example statement: “I want it louder…but also quieter.” Not just knowing how to interpret this, but also how to make it happen!

-In the context of a musical as a sound designer & mix engineer, the job also includes: Setting up all the lavalier mics and EQ’ing them for the actors to achieve a natural but enhanced sound in the space. Building over-ear mic rigs with floral wire & medical tape. Mic’ing up the pit band. Setting monitor levels on stage and in the pit. Programming the board so you can mix the show line by line. Perhaps most importantly, keeping track of when to turn actor mics on and off! Fiddler on the Roof had 22 actor microphones + pit band, so you can see how this can get out of hand very quickly without a plan…

-Downloading, cataloging and organizing free sound effect libraries from various places on the internet.

-Compiling pre-show/post-show/lobby music playlists to get the audience in the zone.

-???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? (this is a big one!!!!) For me, a lot of things don’t make total sense with a show until I’ve seen actors in person at rehearsals. Actors bring so much to the text on a page, and many times it’s easier to track the emotional arc of a show once there are real people embodying the words. I’m pretty nebulous and abstract in the way my brain works, and sometimes I have to wait for lighting to strike to find the right direction. Directors drive the stormchasing truck and I tag along until I see the right shapes in the clouds and it all makes sense.

And there you have it, folks. If you’ve been wondering what I’ve actually been doing over the past few years in my never-ending stream of being too busy to do anything besides work, this is some of it. When I tell y’all to come see a show I worked on, COME SEE THE SHOW, I’m not doing this just to entertain myself!!!! Theatre is such a fleeting art form. Once a show is gone, it’s gone!

art, baby! we loves it!


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