A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my cousin, Mona, in Farsi:
Remind me what you do besides acting?
Oh, I’m a sound… audio… Actually, I don’t know what the word is in Farsi.
You make the music? You’re a composer?
No. Not quite.
Well, explain it to me. Maybe I know the word.
I make the sounds for the show. The sound of guns or thunder or doors closing. Also, background sounds and things like that.
Hmmm. And you don’t make music?
Sometimes I do. Sort of.
But you’re not the composer?
No, I don’t really know music composition very well.
But you make music sometimes?
Sort of. I use software and other things. It’s normally less music and more bizarre background sound that creates a mood.
I see…. Well good luck with that.
I’ve had this conversation many times with family, friends, coworkers, and sometimes other theatre artists who don’t already know what a sound designer is and does. This isn’t out of ignorance. Sound design is, apart from projections, the youngest of theatre design practices. Set, costumes, and props have existed for millennia. Lights and special effects have been around for at least a couple of centuries. Sound design is younger than some living people. While music or even live foley artists have existed as a part of theatre from the very beginning, recorded music, effects, or sounds have only been used for the last century.
Stephen Sondheim — probably the greatest composer in American musical theatre; Not a sound designer | Source: Onstage Blog
To make matters more confusing, a sound designer’s responsibilities often overlap with those of a composer. This makes sound design a messy and intriguing job with few descriptors and some strong expectation management. And at the center of the uncertainty — alongside the designer — is the director who can confuse or clarify the role and tasks of the sound designer.
Simply put, the sound designer uses sound to:
- Indicate physical occurrences or actions
- Cover transitions or fill the space between scenes
- Establish the mood of scenes
- Highlight the themes of the play specifically
- Any combination of the above
This can take shape as:
- Music selection
- Music composition
- Diegetic sound effects
- Ambient/ethereal sounds or non-diegetic sounds
Often a sound designer is seen as someone who selects songs (generally popular and well-known) to be used during scene changes. That is often true, though the design doesn’t stop there. At its simplest, music selection can indicate the production’s time period, location, or population. One colleague of mine created a design for a production of Clybourne Park — the modern answer to A Raisin in the Sun — that was composed exclusively of hip-hop and R&B songs from the 1990’s. At its most complex, the song selection can also indicate changes in the play’s location, action, mood, or themes. On one of my own projects, the director of a production of The Metal Children wished for the music to be catchy alternative 90’s rock-and-roll during the New York City scenes and somber or dark country and bluegrass during the rural scenes, to give the audience a sense of where the play had traveled, literally and metaphorically.
Another straightforward use of a sound designer is in productions of psychological realist theatre, where the director attempts to duplicate everyday reality as closely as possible. In this case, the sound designer seeks out diegetic sound effects, or sounds whose sources are either visible or understood to be in the same dimension as the action. For example, the designer would look in the script for the sounds of doors opening or closing, birds chirping, floorboards creaking, food cooking, fire crackling, or music playing from a radio, and find/build those sounds for the play. In this way, the designer’s task is to add the sonic element that makes the physical environment feel real, tangible, specific, and active.
Steppenwolf’s trailer for Annie Baker’s The Flick, one of the best contemporary examples of using diegetic sound effects on stage | Source: © Steppenwolf Theatre Company/YouTube
Alternatively, most often in less realistic works, the designer seeks to fill the play with non-diegetic sound. Non-diegetic refers to sounds whose sources are not on the same plane of action as the performance — like narration, mood music, or ambient sounds used to highlight emotion or action. For me, these effects are the most satisfying to create because they demand I use my understanding of the piece to add important dramatic effects. This is also where role confusion between sound designers and composers can happen.
From the outside, a modern composer and a modern sound designer look very similar, even to directors and production managers.
The central difficulty of the sound designer’s work is distinguishing it from the work of a composer or music supervisor. This is compounded by modern technology. In the 80’s and 90’s, digital audio workstation (DAW) software was developed and spread as tools for sound designers in film, TV, music, and theatre, to create, refine, and duplicate sound effects. These tools digitized the manual analog work of printing vinyl or cut/pasting reel-to-reel tape. In addition, Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) simplified the production process for musician sound designers, via a computer protocol that allows musical instruments to interact directly with digital audio workstations with high levels of control. Digital instruments — by virtue of being digital and manipulable — provided efficiency and fluidity of creation with near total control for the designers. MIDI and DAWs meant quick, easy, and possibly mobile means to record music to use in designs, whether a cover, original composition, or just some noodling. With MIDI, you can play a piece and make changes or correct mistakes digitally, and with a DAW, you can record directly, cut or adjust pieces, and create easy-to-send files. For the designer who’s also a skilled musician, these tools saved time and labor, giving the designer more creative capability for the same amount of effort.
A modern MIDI music sequencer
For the non-musician designer, these tools opened up a whole new world. You no longer needed to know how to play an instrument or have formal musical training to write and produce music. For the designer whose only musical training was playing the recorder in elementary school, these tools provided the freedom to pluck out notes by ear and spend time editing those notes into usable pieces of music. This is true for designers throughout the field. The expansion of this technology brought forth a sound designer able to harness a loose understanding of music into a usable product. DAWs allowed them to supplement this freedom with even more adjustable elements, like volume over time (fade), stereo movement (pan), the intensity of audio effects (FX), and grouping of sounds (bussing).
Defying categorization, some sound designers have musical experience, and some do not. I’m definitely the latter designer, but hopefully I’ll be the former by the end of my career. While having maximal production options and minimal musical knowledge can be a very whimsical and raw design realization, it is more uncertain and flailing. Musical ability allows more precision and fullness for the designer’s work. In either case, it is this odd duality that causes role confusion between the designer and the composer.
At its simplest, music selection can indicate the production’s time period, location, or population […] At its most complex, the song selection can also indicate changes in the play’s location, action, mood, or themes.
A composer’s role is to compose music; that is obvious. However, a composer has access to the same technology that a designer does, and in the modern day, this means many solo composers without professional budgets use the same equipment to record and distribute their work. Some people have even become so skilled with digital instruments and editing software that they are successful musicians without musical training. From the outside, a modern composer and a modern sound designer look very similar, even to directors and production managers. A company may hire one professional, see the hardware and software, and start asking for things that are outside of their purview. That person may be willing to do the extra work, and it’s their choice to do so. However, that confusion also sets a high expectation for the designer, asking that they engage in two different creative processes. Here, it becomes important for a designer to understand their own abilities and means so they don’t set themselves up to struggle or fail.
Unlike squares and rectangles, a sound designer can be a composer and a composer can be a sound designer. They are, however, unique positions and, if they’re treated as such (meaning that the demands on them are laid out clearly from the beginning of any creative process), both can perform their own roles successfully and even take over responsibilities of the other as needed. With those responsibilities understood, the sound designer can most effectively participate in the whole creative process; this means they can then navigate the relationship with set and lighting designers’ work, in the production room, and on the day of technical rehearsals.
Talking about the close relationship between sound design and the direction of the play “Today Is My Birthday” | Source: © Sundance Institute & Sundance Film Festival/Youtube
From the first production meeting to the last, all designers must coordinate their design choices so the total show design is seamless and intentional. For the sound designer, this means regular communication with scenic and lighting designers. In relation to scenic, the sound designer must make sure that the sound effects logically connect to any set effects — like billowing curtains, window or door movement, onstage destruction, and so on. On the day of the technical rehearsal, the designer must negotiate any onstage placement of speakers or practical sound devices like phonographs with the scenic designer and technical director. With respect to the lighting designer, the sound designer must check for the same logical connections, but for lighting effects. Sound effects that are connected to changes in intensity, color, position, shape, or other lighting factors must be efficient in execution and storytelling. During the course of the tech rehearsal, the sound and lighting designers will demand the attention of the director and stage manager simultaneously and for hours at a time, so they must have an open and respectful understanding of others’ needs so that these rehearsals can progress unhampered. Perhaps they can even provide the solutions the other designers might need with changes in effects. In both cases, clear and proactive communication is vital and the sound designer must know how to collaborate with these individuals.
I imagine the definition of sound designer will maintain its ambiguity. With technology ever-expanding, I doubt it will be clarified any time soon. Meanwhile, I hope this article might shed a bit of light and even some curiosity on the matter. In the future, I might even find the right Farsi word for my job.