Modern theatrical sound design is a specialized portion of the technical theatre field which involves manipulating, designing, and specifying audio elements for a theatrical production. In general terms, theatrical sound design may involve the creation of audio elements for playback during a performance, as well as creating a framework for the reinforcement of live audio sources. The role of the theatrical sound designer has seen a great deal of change, and as a individual production role, is somewhat new. Modern audio creation and reinforcement technology is dramatically expanding the possibilities of what can be done with audio in the theatrical context. Prior to the 1960s, the technical options for playback and reinforcement of sound during a performance were limited, and the responsibility for these aspects of production often fell to stage managers, electricians, or other production staff.
The technical aspects of sound design involve the assembly of a sound reinforcement system (otherwise known as a public address system) or the configuration of an existing system to meet the needs of the production. In the context of a performance venue, this technical responsibility can tie in with the designer's creative efforts. Speakers may be placed in non-traditional places to create the impression of events occurring in locations other than the stage. Audio effects for use on live audio may be added to the system, and the system itself will generally be optimized with the use of equalization and delay - the latter for aligning the arrival of sound from different sources to a given point in space. When a production is small, sound designers may also be tasked with providing on-stage monitoring, ensuring that all the performers can hear everything they need to perform without any impediments. In larger production environments, a designer will often only need to specify general requirements for the audio system, leaving the technical duties to others.
The creative role of the sound designer depends a great deal on the amount of freedom granted to the role by the director. In some cases, a designer will be entirely responsible for all aspects of what an audience hears. In others, the role will be more limited, though there is typically some element of creativity involved. A production that does not require it will typically not involve a designer for purely technical tasks. A limited role for a sound designer might involve editing existing audio to suit the production, or putting together a suitable collection of specified sound effects.
Some of the more creative tasks that can fall to the sound designer involve acquiring, recording, manipulating, mixing, and otherwise creating audio elements for playback. This can take a number of forms, ranging from basic recording and direct playback, to composition and synthesis of audio elements that can enhance the production. In such roles, the designer can become as much a musician as an engineer, taking the place of traditional musical accompaniment. For a designer in a role this heavily creative, the technical aspects of the audio system are typically handled by another person or even a team, and the designer is left to work in the creative domain.
With the establishment of the individual and separate role of the theatrical sound designer, the designer's tasks might have involved conducting exhaustive searches through record stores, among colleagues, within libraries, and through a limited number of commercially available sound effect collections. The availability of public-domain audio sources on the internet, and the development of higher-quality and less expensive recording and audio manipulation equipment has transformed the designer's creative role by shifting the bulk of the effort onto the creation, and away from legwork. Even moderately advanced sound design can often be accomplished anywhere on little more than a consumer grade computer system, which allows the designer to employ many of the same state of the art digital audio tools used by the recording industry, including multitrack recording and mixing software, and virtual (software) instruments.
Pushing the Envelope
Advances in sound reinforcement technology have also dramatically expanded the scope of what is possible in theatrical audio. Within the context of a well-equipped, modern production, the sounds created or manipulated by a designer can be mixed into and among an effectively unlimited number of audio channels, each of wich can be played back separately through a designated speaker positioned anywhere in the performance space. Complex modern audio systems offer the sound designer the opportunity to enhance theatrical productions in ways that even Hollywood (which must adhere to standards based on the audio capabilities of thousands of theatres) cannot replicate.
This technology, and the designers who define how it is applied, are pushing the boundaries of what is conventional. Some performance venues are beginning to use theatrical audio in such a way that both art and science are combined in new, unexplored ways. Experimental theatre often makes use of some of the newest techniques made possible by technological and design innovations. Productions that involve interactivity or improvisation can employ "smart" systems which enable audio elements to change dynamically with the performance. Improvements in digital connectivity can allow a production to be accompanied by an orchestra not in a traditional pit, but located in a studio on a different continent. The level of automation that can be achieved at the edge of the technological spectrum has in some cases begun to push the audio designer's role back together with that of the electrician, with complex, coordinated audio and lighting elements which shift in conjunction with predetermined or random elements of a performance. The field of audio design and production continues to develop, and it falls to the sound designer to shape it.
Article written by Carolyn J Todd