What is Sound Design?
Sound plays an important, but often understated, role in the theatre. The sound designer’s role is to source and play any sound effects required for the production, as well as setting up and operating any microphones that may be necessary. They should work closely with the director and the rest of the design team to make sure that their design is coherent with the rest of the production. As well as the conceptual design of how they would like the piece to sound, a sound designer is also responsible for the placement, setup and operation of speakers, amplifiers, microphones, mixers, and playback systems to implement their design. On a small production they are likely to do this themselves - most venues have sufficient capacity for you to play sound from a laptop through speakers facing the audience. If the show requires a video relay of the conductor to the performers and/or band, the sound department is also generally responsible for that.
The sound designer will source, record or compose effects, soundscapes, music and atmospheres that can be played back in order to create the desired emotional and dramatic effect in the performance. When designing your sound, think about how you can complement the show itself. For example, if your show is set by the sea, why not have a ‘soundscape’ playing in the background with sounds of the sea to set the atmosphere.
For more complex shows, such as musicals, you may need to amplify your cast and/or a band which requires experience in the mixing and engineering side of sound. It’s not recommended that you try something like this unless you’ve got some experience working with microphones, since radio mics especially can be difficult to get used to, so if you’d like to be involved in a musical try contacting the sound designer of an upcoming musical, who will be more than happy to give you the experience.
A designer of a large production may choose to have an associate sound designer and assistant sound designers. An associate tends to be an experienced designer who can provide an alternate source of experience and ideas for the show’s designer to work with. They understand the designer’s preferences and working methods and are permitted to speak creatively in the absence of the designer (though any large or irreversible decisions should of course be checked!) They should be invited to work through the design process with the designer, attending runs and paper techs, such that they understand the show, can help the designer with tasks and so that the assistant gains experience of what the designer does and can later go on to design shows themselves.
A Mixer (Sound No.1) is normally only found on musicals. They are responsible for mixing the microphones and band during the show to create the sound of the show, which can be a very demanding task depending on the speed and complexity of the show. They must work extremely closely with the designer to create their desired sound, while also typically being responsible for the technical performance and construction of the sound system. For example, the designer would specify a desired position of a speaker for a special effect, but the mixer would then work out how to rig the speaker safely and wire it into the electrical system of the theatre - freeing the designer up to think about the design rather than technical details.
Wireless microphones are often key to providing a balanced sound in a musical. They however require a surprising amount of care and attention to rig onto the cast such that they do not break and stay in place. The Sound No.2 (‘A2’) works closely with the Mixer to ensure that the microphones are rigged securely and consistently before each show, and monitor them during the show for battery and signal level to spot problems. They will also swap microphones between cast members as required during the show to reduce the number of microphones required with a large cast, which can save the production a lot of money. This role is often underappreciated but is critical to the success of a musical sound design - wireless microphones are notoriously finicky and any signal dropouts or mysterious clicks, bangs and pops will quickly be noticed by the audience. This is an excellent role for sound design beginners. OUTTS stocks a set of 12 radio microphones (in racks of 8 and 4), and regularly organises workshops training in the proper usage of these.
The sound operator (‘op’) is the person who operates the playback software (typically QLab) during a performance and presses “Go” on cues at the appropriate moments, either by following a marked up script or by listening to a DSM (Deputy Stage Manager). If something goes wrong during the performance, the op needs to know how to skip back or forward through the cues. This is generally an extremely basic job, which can be a good opportunity for a beginner to experience a backstage environment.
Most venues will already have the required licensing to play recorded music, but you should check this in your tech spec and/or venue contract. Note that musicals will generally be licensed separately under grand rights. The application of PRS (Performing Rights Society) fees is a complex process depending on how much music you wish to use and how it is used in the production, either as incidental scene change music or as an integral and unchangeable part of the sound design. You must consider it early as in some cases individual songs will need to be requested more than 30 days in advance of the production. Usually the fee involved ends up being very small.
Equipment for Sound Designers
Sound for straight plays can generally be pulled off with limited equipment - all you really need is a laptop with QLab and a pair of speakers. More advanced designs might require an audio interface and additional speakers for surround sound, or boundary microphones for ambience and effects. Particularly innovative shows might use binaural sound (where the whole audience listen via headphoens) or piezo contact mics (for clever interactive soundscaping).
Musical theatre is much more intense equipment-wise. Typically you will have a rack of radio microphones, a mic for every band member, a full-range sound system for the audience, foldback speakers or in-ear monitors (IEMs) for the band, and boundary mics for the chorus. Typical sound budgets for musicals are around £1000.
Most of the usual Oxford venues have some sound equipment, but it varies wildly from venue to venue! Here are some brief summaries - these are not exhaustive, and you should always check with the venue's most recent published tech spec when deciding what additional equipment to bring.
Mac Mini with QLab Audio license and multichannel audio interface. Basic mixer, some microphones and DIs. 4-channel surround speakers.
Network connection between QLab and the lighting console
No playback computer - you will have to bring your own.
Basic mixer, with aux cable for connecting a laptop or phone. No microphones or DI boxes. Stereo speakers at grid level (not full-range).
Mac Mini with QLab installed. Soundcraft digital mixer with integrated 32-channel audio interface. Small stock of microphones, no DI boxes. Full comms system. Extensive and flexible speaker selection.
Hiring Sound Equipment
Sometimes (especially for musicals), you will need to supplement the venue's equipment with additional hardware. Here are some recommendations on where to source it:
This should always be your first port of call. Our flagship system is a set of 12 radio microphones (split into sets of 4 and 8), and we also stock plenty of XLR cable, some speakers and adadpters, all at extremely affordable rates. We have recently made substantial investments in sound, and are happy to provide advice and training on any of our equipment.
FishLasers stocks specialised, high-quality sound equipment. This includes high-quality wired microphones (e.g. for orchestras), DI Boxes, field recording equipment, a 32-channel Yamaha Digital Mixer and MIDI Controllers. FishLasers is based locally, in Jericho OX2, and offers a 20% discount to shows run by OUTTS members.
THAT Event Company supply Sennheiser radio mic systems with headsets, audio systems from d&b audiotechnik, and all the usual sound equipment. They are based in North Weston, Oxford and regularly offer good rates to student shows.
Based out of Henley, HTS are the biggest supplier of theatrical kit (sound or otherwise) in the area and offer a comprehensive service. Being further away, delivery costs can be higher but they are a great option for larger scale shows, and routinely supply equipment to Oxford Playhouse shows.
Software for Sound Design
Software for sound design is often a matter of personal preference. For basic playback of sound cues, the industry standard is QLab. QLab is everywhere - from small student shows in the BT Studio, all the way up to massive multichannel sound designs with hundreds of cues on the West End. QLab is free for basic stereo sound design, while more advanced designs (e.g. surround sound) will require a license. It does require a Mac to run, however the Oxford Playhouse, BT Studio and Keble O'Reilly all have macs already, so you don't need to bring your own. QLab can also connect to EOS lighting consoles and control them remotely, allowing synchronised light and sound effects (e.g. thunder and lightning). There are multiple versions of QLab available - we recommend using 4.7 as it is the most widely used in Oxford theatres.
Sound Editing and Generation
There are many tools out there for editing and generating your own sounds. Here are some recommendations on free/cheap software to get you started:
Fully-featured Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Harder to use than Audacity but also much more powerful. Highly permissive free trial license, and discounted licenses available for personal use.
Live Performance software combined with a DAW. Popular among DJs, EDM producers, and professional SDs. Expensive, but allows for sophisticated, non linear soundscape playback and generation.
Resources for Sound Designers
Recent OUTTS Workshop Handouts (hosted by FishLasers)
Websites About Sound Design
Sound Design For The Stage - Gareth Fry
Mixing a Musical: Broadway Theatrical Sound Techniques - Shannon Slaton
(we have copies of these books to loan - contact the committee)