Just as set designers create visual worlds on stage, sound designers create aural worlds for theatrical productions. While specific duties vary depending on the needs of a production, sound designers generally deal with two main tasks: creating sound effects, textures, atmospherics, and ambience that enhance the show's storyline, dramatic arc, or subtextual themes; and planning microphone and speaker placement such that the audience has the best possible sonic experience. In this sense, theatrical sound designers are both creative artists—contributing to the show's content and aesthetic—and engineers—improving the show's technical clarity and quality.
Sound designers must also be excellent problem-solvers, capable of quick and clearheaded thinking when something goes wrong.
In addition to handling sound effects and miking actors, sound designers also assist in the integration of music. If a show is scored with original music, the sound designer works closely with the composer and musicians to ensure effective microphone placement and configuration. The sound designer could also make acoustical adjustments to the set and theater to achieve the desired sound quality or improve resonance. If recorded music is used, the sound designer often edits and mixes the songs.
Finally, shortly before the production goes up, the sound designer plans and creates a bespoke sound system tailored to the demands of the production and theater. In some cases, the sound designer might also work the soundboard for each performance, triggering effects and recorded music and fixing audio problems as they arise. Usually, however, this task is left to an assistant.
Sound Designer (Theater) at a Glance
Some theatrical sound designers come from a sound-oriented background, beginning their professional lives as live sound systems engineers, post-production audio editors, or musicians; others come from the world of technical theater, and often have experience in lighting, painting, carpentry, and stage management. Regardless of how they get there, what's most important for sound designers is broad knowledge of audio editing, microphone selection and placement, electrical engineering, and acoustics combined with a creative background.
Successful sound designers are hired for higher-profile and bigger-budget shows. Sound designers with a broad technical skill set might go on to become technical theater directors, who often oversee or collaborate with sound designers, while sound designers who are more interested in recording and editing might shift to the film and television industries, where they could work in production audio or post-production effects. Those who enjoy creating sound effects but not designing live sound systems might be suited to similar jobs in the video game industry.
Most sound designers are independent contractors who work for theater companies, producers, or venues on a show-by-show basis. However, it's also common for companies to have a go-to sound designer, who may even receive a salary as a full-time employee. Like most jobs in the theater world, positions are likely to be found through word-of-mouth, although some are advertised on theater-specific websites.
- Sound effect design and effects libraries
- Sound systems and audio distribution
- Microphone selection and placement
- Electrical engineering
- Digital signal processing
- Programming a soundboard
- Technical theater experience
- Great ears (detail, nuance)
- Music history
Sound designers work as part of a team, and therefore need to be good collaborators and effective communicators. They must also be excellent problem-solvers, capable of quick and clearheaded thinking when something goes wrong—as it invariably does when sophisticated technology and live theater are combined. Exceptional attention to detail is vital.
Sound designers work different hours based on the production cycle. At the beginning of the process, sound designers can do much of their work remotely: locating, recording, and manipulating sound effects to fulfill certain needs in the script. During or before "tech week," when the play is staged, sound designers shift to more demanding hours as they install the show's dedicated sound system. From then until opening night, hours tend to be long and irregular, based entirely on the demands of the day (e.g. miking actors, testing audio cues, etc.).
Like many in the technical theater world, sound designers often work simultaneously on several productions. Most have some kind of day job: working as technical support staff for conservatories and universities with theater departments, for example, or doing contract work as an acoustical consultant.