Friday, July 2, 2010

Lazy Sound Design

(You may notice that I'm responding to somewhat old things... today is my monthly "clean out your backlog" day.)

This post from Fragments about lazy sound design:
With the advancements in technology for theater, there is no reason as to why a theater that claims to produce professional quality productions can’t do more with their sound design than placing some music on a CD and transferring that music to a computer. Programs like qLab and Audacity are free; at the very least, sound designers should be playing with these programs to see if it works for them.
I vividly recall talking to a tech student a few years ago (when I was still two years into college), and I said, "I honestly don't know what the point is of sound designers in small productions. Every sound designer I've met basically puts some songs onto their iPod and plugs it into the sound system."

Even in more professional productions I'd been in, I'd never seen a show and gone, "Oh dude, that sound designer really made a difference to the show." I'd felt that about lighting designers, set designers, composers, and of course directors, but I'd never felt that about sound designers.

Then I worked with Kate Marvin, who sound-designed our production of Hamlet.

The thing that struck me the most first was that she attended every rehearsal. This is not something which I've observed in a lot of designers in general -- she watched every rehearsals, and was trying different sounds on her laptop each rehearsal. She had some simple mixing equipment, and at any given time she could be trying out two different sounds at once.

Secondly, she had an incredibly reservoir of music. When she used a recognizable song, it was because she wanted to -- otherwise, she could bring together a vast soundscape of music that was from every genre possible. Our Hamlet soundtrack included some opera, some blue-grass, some indie-rock, and a Cyndi Lauper song. There, in fact, was barely a single moment of silence in the sound.

Because she was there from day one, and was so close to our director and his vision for the show, the sound was inseparable from the production. And that's really the goal, the thing that so much sound design fails to do -- to really become part of the show, rather than the dressing.

And on top of that she had the best work ethic of any designer I'd ever worked with.

Anyways, partly this is a missive on what sound designers are capable of, and part of this is a missive on what Kate is capable of.


Monica Reida said...

Wow. I'm pleased to see that post prompt your post.

I believe that depending on the theater or the sound designer, some will sit in on the entire rehearsal process or most of it.

In regards to putting "some songs onto their iPod and plugging it into the sound system," I know a costume designer that used to do sound design for a theater that would take the free downloads that iTunes has every week and usually see if those worked in the show because those were usually more obscure songs. Although she also burned a CD with the music for the play and there wasn't real editing.

If you're going to use music that might be on your iPod, I think it works better if you do some editing so that we, the audience, are not just hearing the first 30 seconds of the song. If a sound designer looks at what parts work well for transition music (and I know some that do), they should edit the track so that it's the only part we'll hear.

CultureFuture said...

That post definitely touched on something I wish someone had told be about a while ago. It was also a good excuse to publicly embarrass Kate Marvin as being a fantastic sound designer.

I think too often, the engagement with picking a song is "we need a song that provides ______" and then the person selects the song, instead of actually linking up the sounds within the song with what's going on onstage. Like you said about "don't just use the first 30 seconds", you have to figure out what parts of the song work with what's going on onstage, and be willing to mix a little to make sure that it's really going along with what's going on onstage.