Thinking About Thinking About Theater Sound

I’ve been trying to think a little more analytically about my philosophy of sound in a theatre environment.  I think I may have stumbled onto a simple organizational tool.  Maybe this is obvious but I find that I categorize my responsibilities something like this:

  • Overall sound design
  • Sound for the audience
  • Sound of the actors/singers
  • Sound for the actors/singers
  • Sound of the band
  • Sound for the band
  • Sound environments and sound effects

I woke up this morning with a thought – thinking about all the possible  interactions might lend itself to a matrix, where all the OUTPUTS (things projecting into the space) as rows and all the INPUTS (things listening/hearing) as columns.  I’m literally trying this on the fly but it really does seem to be a good way of thinking about all the possible permutations.  Some of the intersections (cells) don’t make any sense.  And some don’t make sense for a particular show.  But most of them do and I think a matrix provides a methodical approach to make sure all the possible interactions are considered.

Audience Actor/Singer Band Booth
Sound Env
Sound FXs

I’d appreciate your thoughts on the usefulness of the matrix.

The top priority is always to make sure the paying customers have the best experience possible.  So this means making sure everyone in the audience hears all the sound elements of a given show – the actors’ dialogue and vocals, the band and the sound effects.  The art here (hear?) of course is to deliver all the elements in a well-balanced fashioned.  And none of it should distract from the story being told.

In my blackbox space, projecting the sound of the actors is never a given.  We don’t always use mics, especially for plays.  Sometimes it’s just reminding someone to speak/sing a bit louder.  Sometimes it’s getting the band to play softer.  Sometimes it’s putting a mic on a single actor who is just less strong then the rest of the cast.  But we rarely go into a production with all these decisions made up front.

In order for the actors/singers to do their job, they have to be able to hear – the music, the sound effects and themselves.  At the moment, the stage monitors are two overhead speakers hard-wired to the main house feed.  It’s basic but works for most situations.  My long-term plan is to create an independent  mix and feed for the stage.

Projecting the band in a small room is generally not an issue.  In fact, part of the musician’s craft here is their ability to play softer than they might normally play.  What is an issue though is getting and maintaining a good balance amongst all the instruments – especially when not mic’ing the whole band.  I have a good relationship with all my directors and music directors so they often ask for my feedback on the overall balance in the room.  On one show, I recommended mic’ing the cello in an otherwise un-mic’d band to improve the overall balance.  And it’s definitely not unusual to suggest volume adjustments to individual musicians – overall and for individual songs.  Experienced music directors understand that there is always a difference between what they hear sitting with the band compared to the sound heard by the audience.  Part of the collaboration is learning to trust each other, not always an easy thing.

There are plenty of follow-on discussions to be had.  Each one of those cells in the matrix can be a separate topic.  Can the band hear the actors?  Can the actors hear the band?  There is one aspect of sound engineering  for a small room that is fundamentally different from a  large theatre.  I’m not building a complete mix on the sound board; it’s augmenting the natural sounds with selected amplification to achieve the right balance.  And many times I’m just suggesting acoustic changes to improve that balance.  But I’m definitely  always using my ears, and that’s a the real art in all this.

What’s your environment like?

How do you think about all the interactions involved with theatre sound?

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