At the Tony Awards in 2008, sound designers were among the recipients for the first time. Sound design is an art, after all, and finally, everyone knew it.
So when the Tonys decided to eliminate sound awards for the 2014-15 season, it surprised sound designers everywhere. Subsequently, an informational campaign began, and from that, a group of sound designers created an organization called Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers to educate average theatregoers, critics, award voters, and even the people who pay sound designers to do their jobs.
In April 2017, the Tony Awards Administration Committee Association announced that sound design awards for a musical and a play will be presented again in 2018.
Read the rest of the Tony Voter's Guide to Sound Design:
- Part One: But Are The Voters Ready?
- Part Two: A Subliminal Art
- Part Three: Dramaturgically Organized Noise
- Part Four: Suiting The Sound To The Space and Transcending The Room
Suiting The Sound To The Style
A sound system has to be suited to the style of the show. Jazz, rock, classical musicals all require different approaches. “You don’t put the same sound system in for everything,” Cricket Myers says.
Scott Lehrer says he makes many decisions while balancing a band with his sound mixer: placing the voice on top or inside the music, for instance, matching a reverb to a room to avoid creating an artificial reverb environment, selecting microphones, finding the right drum kit for the show’s style, deciding if the brass section should be bright or edgy. “In a traditional musical, it should get really quiet, so the audience has to lean forward,” he says. “Even though it’s reinforced, you want the audience to feel like they’re perceiving an unmediated moment some of the time. The band doesn’t sound like it’s being hyper-amplified, even though it is. One of the really great moments in South Pacific is Nellie on stage on the beach by herself, singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” almost a capella. It’s super quiet and devastatingly beautiful. People start crying. You would never want to overamplify that.”
For Waitress, in contrast, Lehrer says guitar, bass, and drums can’t be in the background. “In a rock show, I should be able to feel the bass drum in my chest. I would never want to feel the bass drum going to see South Pacific.”
But some people demand volume, style be damned. Lindsay Jones notes that audiences who have been attending shows for many years are used to hearing them without amplification, while younger audiences “have technology on their bodies 24 hours a day. They’re used to immersive sound. It can be a real struggle to make a completely acoustic transparent design, so a room of 1,200 people can hear something perfectly and feel it’s not amplified at all. There can sometimes be pressure from people who find loud shows more exciting, more commercially salable,” says Jones. “Part of what being a sound designer is, is creating an aesthetic for that show and then working hard to protect that aesthetic that you think will best serve the show.”
“We get a lot of pushback from the industry about volume,” Nicholas Pope adds, explaining that a super-quiet moment can be more emotionally forceful than something loud. “The audience goes dead silent. If you can make it feel like a whisper and still make it audible to the person in the back row, people in that room would be interested in what they’re whispering about. That takes unbelievable skill and artistry, and not a single person would recognize that as being difficult or unique.”
Pope says it’s even hard to have a conversation about this. The driving electric guitar stays, and that’s it. “They want it to be loud. Especially in the rock world, there’s a real skill in picking out your instrumentation to allow that score to come through in a way that also allows you to hear the acoustic live performance of the actor,” he says, explaining that, what once was the art of a great orchestrator has been left to the sound designer who must “carve out space [frequency and dynamics] within that aural environment for that to land, so you can easily listen to it.”
Working With Collaborators
One problem for the Tony committee and others is ferreting out just who does what, since creating a show is always collaborative. “Everybody had a hand in what a production will express. We’re all in support of the emotional journey of a story,” says Victoria Deiorio.
“The rhythm at which the lights are shifting should be similar to the pace I’m working at and the cast is working at,” says Myers, noting that it all should be in sync unless the purpose is to make audience feel uncomfortable.
One important collaborator is the orchestrator. When Deiorio did Five Guys Named Moe, the scenic designer put a wall behind and beside the rick band, creating a megaphone effect. “It made it much louder than seemed humanly possible. The orchestrator is really going to be your friend to help you combat what seems impossible in that space.”
“I’m always grateful when there’s an orchestrator or musical director who’s out in the house with me,” says Darron L. West. “I’m able to really get a lot of feedback instantly. It’s super helpful.”
Adds Pope, “Understanding how the music functions—how it’s intended—is unbelievably important. I work with them real closely.”
When Myers did a musical set in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the music couldn’t sound amplified. “The orchestrator said to me, ‘Let me rearrange the horns to get them out of your way,’” but sound designers don’t always want that. When voices can’t be heard over a rock band, Myers says a mediocre designer might ask the band to play quietly; a pro will let the band rock out and fill the room, using a vast array of technical skills to get a voice heard over the band.
To create a prayer-like sound, Deiorio wanted to remove all microphones for the seder scene in Fiddler. She had to convince the orchestra to play quietly. Getting them to try it was the challenge; once they did, everyone agreed it worked.