Sound Designer

  • Sound Designer

The sound designer’s work should go unnoticed by the audience, and yet still subtly affect them. Unlike the composer or performer, whose efforts are meant to be heard, this person aims to create an aural environment that insinuates emotion, rather than insisting.


Duties

This artist does not write the score or engineer the live performance, but rather is responsible for both the conceptual and technical design of all auditory elements, except original music. To evolve the sound concept of a theatrical play, the designer may be required to select existing songs, as well as creating the recorded sound effects that support the action on stage and amplify the director’s intended emotion in the scene. For musicals, operas, and concerts, this person is also tasked with determining how the audio signals are mixed through the front of house console and delivered to the stage monitors and audience speakers. Collaborating with the FOH engineer, the sound designer layers together signals from the band or orchestra with vocals to produce balanced sound. He or she doesn’t run the console during performances, but trains the engineer and composes cues for the technician to follow that detail timing, fade, levels, and compression.

The technical design element of the job refers to planning the sound reinforcement system. In pre-production for a resident theatrical show or touring concert, the sound designer works closely with the director or tour manager and producer to identify the needs of the production, the budget available, and the unique challenges of the venue. The sound designer must requisition the appropriate vocal and instrument microphones, audio arrays, monitors, consoles, and any other necessary auxiliary components. Most important, he or she determines the arrangement of signal outputs to fill the room and envelop the audience. Front fills, side fills, and delay arrays are placed to ensure that every seat receives the same quality and balance of sound (though you may notice that the best place to hear a show is from a location near the FOH engineer’s position). Touring productions are considerably more difficult to plan for, as every venue is unique. Careful consideration must be given to how the gear will travel, the space allotted for transportation, and the versatility of the rig to meet the needs of any arena or amphitheater.

Skills & Education

Sound designers must have both a theoretical knowledge of technique and acoustics and a fundamental technical understanding of sound amplification and manipulation. Proficiency with audio mixing consoles and editing software is required, as is expertise in the operation of microphones, speakers, and other related equipment. It is not necessary to play an instrument, though having that talent is invaluable. A college degree is not required but an education in theatrical design, show production, or recording arts will provide in-depth training that may take considerably longer to acquire for the self-taught professional.

What to Expect

This career field is significantly different from those who work in film, television, or video games, though many of the same skills and techniques are employed. It is possible to parlay experience in live entertainment into work in these fields with additional specialized training. Sound designers typically start as stagehands or audio technicians, then gain professional experience toward gigs as a monitor engineer and FOH engineer. This is primarily a freelance career that lives and breathes on the individual’s ability to build professional relationships in the industry. Sound designers may become members of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents artists and technicians in live production, film, and television.

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