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Is Technology in Sound Design Eroding Collaboration?

When charged with the task to write about what is currently happening in sound design, I must pause and reflect on the past in order to evaluate where we are in the present. And what I find, when I look upon my own career, is confusing to me. I began my career at a time when technology was not as advanced as it is currently. It was a time when creativity in my field flourished because how we accomplished our art was equally as intangible as what we were striving to impress upon an audience.

With the growth of technology and the abundance of universities that are now producing sound practitioners, I have seen a change that I’ve been trying to define so that I can best shape my own students into artists who will bring the best to our field. At times it seems that anyone with a computer, who has the ability to search for music globally, and put that music together into a list that can be shared and listened to while reading the play thinks that this is what it means to be a sound designer. So when I think about where my field is now, when even the Tony Awards Administration Committee is publicly questioning what is sound design, I believe that technology is eroding the collaborative process. I can only speak to this from my own experience.

Sound design focuses on the emotional journey of the play. My job is to understand how the director would like the audience to feel at every moment.

In 1988, I began my career in Chicago, a city of theatre ensembles. I learned how to guide an audience on an emotional journey with the trust of collaborators who didn’t have to understand the workings of my pieced-together equipment to appreciate what I brought to the production. The focus was on what we were presenting, why we were presenting it, and how we wanted our audience to feel. This is the basis of designing for theatre. For this to happen, it is essential to have the respect and trust from collaborators, that we will bring our best to the production, because we have now formed a team that is going to accomplish great art.

When you work within a flourishing ensemble, every voice is valued equally as each artist’s contribution is purposefully dedicated to the whole vision. In time, if you do this often enough in your career, your artistic aesthetic develops into a directorial perspective. In an ensemble, the lines between the specificity of theatre disciplines are not so clearly defined. The collective artistry can add to the production, building upon each idea that is brought forward. An ensemble that works well together will see their artists in multiple roles as director, writer, actor, designer, and administrator. This is where I learned my craft, and this is what I pass down to my students. Being a well-rounded theatre artist can only make you better in your specific discipline.

Sound design focuses on the emotional journey of the play. My job is to understand how the director would like the audience to feel at every moment—from the preshow through every detailed emotional rise and fall, to how they will feel when they leave the theatre reflecting upon what they have seen and heard.

What is currently in question is how sound designers do what they do. My position is that sound design is not a seen, tangible art form; it is felt.

Sound designers work from an in-depth artistic approach. We will ruminate for a long time when approaching a new project. We consider ideas, do research, and think about what the playwright is saying. What is the director’s vision? What is the emotional journey of the characters? What is the emotional journey of the audience? How do people react to volume, complexity, instrumentation, and the actual sound waves that hit them? I intuitively take into account psychoacoustics to support what the team is attempting to convey to an audience. The show slowly takes shape in my mind before I put together a score.

a sound design operations board
A sound operations board. Photo by University of Illinois. 

The best moments of my career have been when an actor would say to me, ‘I couldn’t fully get to the emotion of this monologue until I heard your music, thank you.’

Anyone can design a script—I teach it in my classroom every year. But to support a production, not much can take place until you’re in rehearsal. That’s when you hear the actors’ voices, you see their choices, you learn what the director is working with, and how the goals that have been laid out in the early design meetings are being built. This is not to say that there is no work completed before rehearsals; I’m pointing out how artistry supports the work in rehearsal to bridge it seamlessly into production.

In artistic sound design, there is an understanding of the history of music and how that history affects a modern audience. There is an understanding of the collective consciousness that allows you to make choices knowing that everyone in the room will react the same way. There is an understanding of psychoacoustics that determine how you will manipulate emotion to support the journey.

And as an important side note—the word manipulation has negative connotations. I use that word in its true intention, to handle or control in a skillful manner. Sound design is effective because of its complexity and dynamics. Knowing when and how to use these tools skillfully is what makes a sound designer unique and successful.

Each sound designer uses these tools differently; we approach the psychoacoustics and artistry in our own way. There is never a circumstance of placing a cue in a production without the thought of exactly why and how it’s being placed there. I have never known an artistic sound designer to not think about all aspects of the production and then generate what that means in terms of their own discipline and how to support it. Our work doesn’t often get much attention, because when it’s integrated so well into a production, it goes unnoticed. The important distinction I would like to make is that going unnoticed never equals careless or imprecise choices. It is the exact opposite.

Now, why do I think that this is not understood in current practice? The change I see is the advent of the growth of technology in the field. Any good sound designer understands that technology is making our jobs more fulfilling and manageable. But it is also making it easy for noncollaborative design to emerge. Anyone can, at this moment, find a specific piece of music, from a specific place anywhere in the world, by clicking a few buttons on multiple devices. However, this does not mean that what is found is the right choice for the production. Anyone can take that music and put it into a playlist and share that with the director and actors, but that does not mean that those pieces create the best means to bring an audience on an emotional journey.

A collaborative process with a director is about bouncing ideas off of each other in order to come to a focused point where we can create the emotional journey in our own unique style. It’s an exchange of words at first, then music and sound to follow, with a fully realized design in the end. However, if the collaborative process is curtailed by technology (i.e., influencing rehearsal with music that has not been discussed with the designer because it’s accessible immediately, or handing a sound designer a playlist to be implemented into the show), it becomes more of a dictating of ideas rather than an exchange between artists. This places the designer into the facilitator role assembling another’s ideas. The ease of technology makes this possible, and it happens more often than you would think.

The question that arises is whether this is a good thing or not. Sure, the director gains complete control and specificity of their ideas, and the actors may feel they have jurisdiction over their characters. But is that accommodation worth sacrificing the collaborative process? In my opinion, no.

Think of what is lost without the exchange of ideas and the depth of knowledge and experience the sound designer brings to the process. Collaborative directors and designers feed off of those thoughts from others and each one layers upon the previous one with respect to the artistry of each person’s addition. If you remove one of those voices, you lose an entire layer of artistry from your production.

Sound design is a deep and thoughtful process of integration of all aspects of theatrical expression. The best moments of my career have been when an actor would say to me, “I couldn’t fully get to the emotion of this monologue until I heard your music, thank you.” Sound design is the support for the script, direction, action, and emotional expression while always keeping in mind the impression upon the audience. When you hire an experienced sound designer, you have that perspective in good hands. You can trust that they will always support and enhance for the good of the production, and will always listen to everyone’s suggestions.

I’m saddened by the decline of collaboration in sound design because the access to immediate music and sound makes some undervalue my job. It makes us feel as though there is no trust for our knowledge and expertise. However, it does make me extremely grateful for the true collaborators that I work with who understand the value of putting the weight of the emotional journey in the sound designer’s hands. That’s when sound designers are able to use technology to make the production flourish.

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Thoughts from the curator

Interviews with women designers around the country in which they reflect on their careers.

Designing Women


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I have found the same to be true. As others have remarked, the problem may start with a director not allowing for collaboration in the first place, or can begin with the new digital playground we have today.

In the community theater sphere, I've been lucky enough to work with many directors who simply need to allow delegation of design to continue. They're already swamped with other worries that revolve around the actors. A few times, I have had directors who barely acknowledge the title of "sound designer," possibly because they've rarely met anyone willing to do more than rip 'n burn SFX from pirated CDs. In those cases, I try to get ahold of a script early on, so I can suggest a few ideas and generate sample sounds, while there's still a chance. Sometimes, access to a script can be incomprehensibly difficult.

A few times, the very nature of the play has allowed me great participation. In "Jake's Women," the protagonist hears an offstage voice that he assumes to be his mother's. It gradually shifts, so that it begins to sound more like his own voice. Directing a couple of on-set recording sessions gave me a chance to capture what I needed to build the final effects. In that case, the director knew he wanted to achieve that with my help.

In other, less collaborative instances, the best strategy I've hit upon is to corner the director with, yes, the expected SFX, but also two or three other versions I've created. Even if that particular show is more or less off-limits to me as a designer, the small pond environment could mean that my demo sounds will win me a seat at the table next time.

The attribute of emerging technology you've encountered here is ease-of-access, which has affected all sorts of design components. The internet has provided us with Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Spotify and many other sites that curate "artistry" and regurgitate it. What young designers need to learn is, as you were saying, to find the right way to support a script. These sites make it dangerously easy for anyone to design something, leaving behind the critical eye (and ear) as a relic.

Thanks for sharing your reflections. The information age is powerful, and taking a step back and reengaging the process question is increasingly necessary.

This was beautiful, Toy. The specific problem with technology didn't resonate exactly for me, so it was really interesting to consider, and the rest of the essay spoke perfectly to what I think about violence design (and what makes it more than just fight choreography, which anyone can do by watching some YouTube videos) and how violence designers ought to think about their discipline.

Ultimately, a director making decisions for designers is not collaboration and very frustrating for the designer. However, I would contend this is not the fault of technology and a problem spanning all design areas. A lighting design equivalent would be a pre-tech meeting where the director insists upon seeing each channel alone. Fundementally, this is matter of collaboration. No theatre artist should have an expectation that they should be solely in charge of a production. This happens to auteur directors as well as designers who refuse to alter their visions based on the input of others. More frequently today, designers themselves don't intermingle and rely on the director to ensure designs will cohease. To fix this problem, one should not blame technology. Indeed as technology brings us closer faster, we should embrace technology as a solution to a lack of collaboration. We must train young artists that theatre is born through conversation and that no one voice (not the designer, director, or even playwright) holds the correct answer.

This is a topic that haunts my nightmares, but I've found that I hardly run into this predicament. Probably because the artists that I work with have a lot of respect for the art form of sound design. I know this has been a problem on a smaller scale since way before the internet.

I remember an instance early in my career. I met the director at his office and on his table were a stack of CD's, he had labeled with sticky notes every moment with track numbers, time, and placement in the script. At first I was taken aback, and almost stormed out of the office. Instead I took a breath and said that I was hired as the sound designer not the DJ and I think this is a great stepping off point, but I would really like to collaborate on the choices. The director, who I've worked with now for nearly two decades, could see how frustrated I was and agreed that we should maybe look at some other ideas.

This is a topic that we have to continually address. Especially to young career designers, to stand up for themselves, and to young directors to understand the role of the sound designer.