What happens to an artist's thought process when the driving purpose behind their work is to serve as a component of a larger production? In this episode, Jeremy Bloom and Evan Cook break down concepts from sound design for theatre, and the lessons they share are applicable to any kind of creator.
Jeremy Bloom: http://www.jeremyb.com
Evan Cook: http://evancook.audio
Original music by Pierce Engineer
Transcript: 002. Sound as Story
Jeremy Bloom: So I am a life-long musician, I started playing the violin at the age of four…
Evan Cook: In fifth grade there was an opera and there was an opportunity to run two spotlights and I did not get to run a spotlight, and that dissatisfied me, because I wanted to run a spotlight, for whatever reason it was, I thought it was super cool…
JB: And I was always sort of involved in theatre in high school and that kind of thing…
EC: This resulted in me finding an opportunity to run a spotlight in the sixth grade…
JB: And then when I went to college my work study job was working as a scenic carpenter for the drama department so I was building the sets…
EC: So I did three years of middle school tech crew, and then…
JB: Um, at some point, although I wasn’t a drama student, the drama knew me because I was working for them everyday…
EC: And then I was thinking my freshman year of high school that I was going to be in the lighting department, like for the school shows…
JB: And they knew that I was a musician…
EC: And the sound person that ran sound the last year tried out for varsity basketball and made it…
JB: And at one they needed to sound design a play and they asked me to do it, and I did it…
EC: And then when I realized I was really loving the mixing and decided I should try to pursue it into college, and then I found a place that would let me study sound design for the theatre…
JB: Um, and then it kind of like, sort of one thing led to another from that…
EC: And I haven’t looked back.
EC: Uh, hi I’m Evan Cook.
JB: Hey, I’m Jeremy Bloom.
EC: Uh, I’m currently a sound design BFA student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in sunny Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
JB: And I’m a sound designer in New York City and I work across podcasts and theatre and film and some museum exhibits.
You’re listening to The pATCHES Podcast, I’m Dan from pATCHES.
In this episode, Evan Cook and Jeremy Bloom discuss sound design for the theatre. This could seem like somewhat of a niche topic, but the thought process designers use to choose sounds for a production reveal concepts that are relevant for anyone doing creative work.
So with that in mind, let’s take it from the top.
EC: Ok so, sound design for the theatre, uh, you go and see a play, and there is a person that has been working on that play before opening night, and they are the sound designer. And the role of the sound designer is to control everything that has to do with sound in the walls of the theatre.
And while the soundscape of a theatrical production involves a lot more than just music, even when a designer is working with sound effects or dialogue or noises, the process is still very similar to composition and arrangment, just with a wider variety of tools to work with.
JB: And I really strongly believe there isn’t much of a difference between being a composer and being a sound designer. It’s really just a matter of instrumentation. You know, I’m organizing sound – that’s what a composer does too. The sounds that I’m drawing from might include traditional instrumentation and then expand out of it to naturalism or weird abstract stuff, or whatever, and I need the technical skills of a sound engineer to execute some of those things, but, at heart, I don’t really think there’s much of a difference at all.
This is what you should take away from what Jeremy says – in the same way that learning how to play and produce one genre of music is transferable to any other genre of music, the concepts behind sound design for the theatre are useful for any kind of creator to learn.
EC: Because like, art and design is an iterative process. In my experience I have never had, like, the flash of inspiration that becomes the final product. I make a draft and iterate the draft, and work on the iteration and make another draft, and another draft, and eventually I’ll come to something that fits in the production, maybe. But finding that fitting piece of content or that fitting sound effect or that fitting manipulation of the sound system comes from understanding what role the sound system is playing in the production.
And this is the humbling core concept behind sound design for theatre – it is a component of the larger production, because theatre is the result of an interaction between many cooperating departments.
JB: Then usually the story, at least in theatre, is being told through multiple senses and multiple departments. You know, there’s the actors themselves and the text that they’re speaking and their visual blocking, but also the scenic design and the costume design and the lighting design, and all that, and so sound is just one more element that serves to support and unify the whole story that’s being told.
This is why I think theatrical sound design is useful to learn about. Art has a goal beyond its own existence. In a lot of disciplines, creators tend to forget that the thing they are making is just a vehicle for a message. Taking the coolest photos or producing the coolest music isn’t what makes the art meaningful – there must be some purpose beyond the surface level that drives the art to be impactful.
What’s great about sound design in theatre is how implicit this concept is because it is a piece of a puzzle there are no illusions about it being for its own sake. And what you hear from Evan and Jeremy is how clearly they understand what the larger goal of their work is.
JB: And so really, no matter what you’re doing, whether you’re being sound design for theatre in creating sonic environments to immerse the audience, or if you’re doing sound design for a film, or a video game, or a podcast, or whatever, the thing that unifies all those mediums, although the lingo might be different and the tools might be different, is ultimately, your job is to use sound to support the story that’s being told.
So you have to zoom out and figure out what it is that you’re really trying to do and make all of your decisions to better accomplish that goal for any creative work, even outside the theatre. When you write a song, what you’re doing is creating a message and you just happen to be sharing it through the medium of music. In the same way, sound design in theatre is helping to tell an aspect of a story, and it just happens to be doing this through sound.
So in what ways does sound help tell a story?
EC: At the root of sound design is the suspension of disbelief in live theatre.
The suspension of disbelief is a willingness to ignore the critical thinking faculties we use in the rest of our lives for the sake of enjoyment. It’s what happens when we get on a rollercoaster, knowing that we’re perfectly safe, but still being able to enjoy the thrill of being scared. In the same way, when the audience enters the theatre they allow themselves to become observers of the action and story.
EC: There is a scene in West Side Story where somebody gets shot. If the audience the person was actually going to get shot, they would go up on stage and try to do something about it. Like, if they truly invested in the theatre, they would be like “No, please, please don’t shoot him, that’s bad!”. But everyone just sits in the theatre and watches this happen, which, looking at it from a bird’s eye view, is really odd, if you don’t understand that it’s theatre going on, it’s like wow, these people are messed up.
If used correctly, sound helps an audience suspend their disbelief, so being selective as a designer is really important. Because there are infinite sounds to choose from,
EC: But not all those sounds are going to sound correct, or, not all those sounds are going to have the correct visual context, um, especially if you’re looking to do unique fantastical worlds…
So at all points designers must ask themselves not only “does this most effectively serve the story?” but also “does this fit with the rest of the aspects of the play?”. In other words, the sound will not be experienced in a vacuum by the audience. It’s as though the sound is produced behind a curtain and its success is determined by how well it can match the silent visuals on the audience’s side of that curtain.
EC: So, the idea of the acousmatic curtain – this is the idea that a sound, without its corresponding visual, doesn’t always sound like what it’s supposed to sound like. A great example of this is, if you play the sound of rain with no visual association that “hey, audience member, it is raining,” it can be mistaken for bacon frying. So, this is a problem, because if you would like it to be raining and your set has a kitchen in it, and they are also cooking bacon in this scene, but they’re not cooking bacon yet – it starts raining first – then suddenly you will have magic frying bacon and that will be confusing. Um, if you want to make a rainstorm, the best way to make the audience suspend disbelief that it is a rainstorm is to put thunder in front of the rain. Because it’s like, “hey, thunder!” And then the next thing that’s logically in your mind is rain, not thunder and bacon frying. So this goes back to the suspension of disbelief, if you don’t understand how to navigate the obstacle that is the acousmatic curtain, the suspension of disbelief is broken because you’re playing a sound, but the audience doesn’t have an understanding of what the sound is based on the context.
But this doesn’t mean the only useful way to match sounds to visuals is by realistically reproducing their sound.
JB: Yeah, I mean I think it depends on the style of the director you’re working with and the play that you’re doing, but, um, the audience inherently knows that they’re in a theatre and what they’re watching is make believe.
And it’s because the suspension of disbelief keeps the audience engaged, the designers aren’t restricted to the confines of reality. This allows for new opportunities to make creative decisions that better support the story.
JB: I really believe in a lack of redundancy between the design departments in theatre. I think it can be more effective, let’s say the play takes place in the subway. So if the scenic design looks like an amazing subway station, and again it depends on the genre of the play, but that’s a part of the story that’s already been told, and ideally I want to find another part of the story, another piece of information about the time period that the play takes place in, or its location, or the emotional state of the characters in it that isn’t superfluous and isn’t redundant with other parts of the story that are already being told but adds to it instead. Because the audience knows they’re not in the subway and you’re not going to fool them. You can sort of subconsciously suggest different things so I think I could draw from elements of that and refine them and really bring out certain sounds that really bring out the drama and I think that kind of style is sometimes more effective.
EC: It’s called vocabulary. So, in like, a show, the vocabulary is what events sounds like. So, in super abstract theatre, gun shots are not gun shots, they’re like the plucks of a piano or like a pizzicato cello note, or something. So you have to train the audience to be like “hey guys, this is how we’re talking about things in this world, like, just between you and me, ok? Great. This is a gun shot”. And you do it enough times and then people will suspend disbelief and it’s like, “ok, yeah, gunshots are cello pizzicato”.
So, in theatre, designs are more than aesthetics – they establish the rules and language for communicating ideas with the audience.
JB: You’re telling a fictional story so anything - as long as it’s a conscious decision that you’ve made, a choice – it’s true once you put it on stage.
And when you’re thinking about what the sounds will say, you have to consider all of the associations the audience brings with them, because noises carry baggage from our experience with them in life and other artistic mediums.
JB: And the really classic example of it is, if you’re watching a movie, the foley sound - the sound that’s added after the fact - let’s say in a fight sequence with the punches, that’s not what a punch sounds like the sound and it’s at the point where the sound of a foley artist slapping a cabbage is so ingrained in the public consciousness that that is the sound of a punch in all of our minds and if you were to do something different, um, there’s no rule that says you can’t do something different, but it would definitely be a very conscious choice that people would notice. But of course, you only want to do that if they’re going to serve the story.
EC: Most theatre process begins with a script. So, a director and a producer, or somebody, get together and decide that they’re going to do a show. And, they bring together creative professionals on the artistic side to figure out what the show is going to look like, both set and lighting -wise, and costume-wise. And then they bring in sound for what the show is going to sound like. So, we do script-stuff, and we talk about concepts, and then I’ll do a script analysis and sometimes I’ll go very deep into the motivations of the characters and what they want and what the obstacles to their wants are and what kind of conflict that produces. And what that all means within the context of the concept that the director is going for. Like, the motifs and themes are all avenues for how to talk to the director about what the world of the play sounds like.
Because the director’s job is to think about these larger goals, explaining what you’re trying to do from a technical standpoint may be lost upon them.
EC: Technical information is not useful to the director, because the director, hopefully, is concerned with the story of the production, not how it is technically implemented.
JB: If a director says, “oh, really, you know, I want the underscore of the scene to be more nostalgic“, what does that mean? what do I do to the music to make it feel that way? And that’s something that just comes with… I hesitate to even say that it comes from experience because for every director what they mean by that is going to be different. So really what you learn is what questions to ask to unlock that and as you collaborate with people more frequently, that conversation gets easier and easier.
Because the designer must be able to not only have the technical skillset to create all kinds of sound, but also be able to hold a meaningful conversation with those that don’t. It’s the same idea as singer who doesn’t have experience with production asking for the beat to be low-passed in a certain section. They might say “make it darker” or “put it underwater” and it’s the job of the producer to know what they’re talking about. The same thing happens in theatre because there are lots of people working together whose creative backgrounds don’t necessarily overlap.
JB: You know I think a huge part of a sound designer’s job is acting as a translator too, in that a lot of the other people telling the story might not have the kind of vocabulary to express what they think sound could do to help support that story. And often they can struggle to express that in a really sort of definitive way and a lot of a sound designer’s job is to listen really carefully to what they’re saying and sort of translate that into technical executions.
Once the concepts are communicated and established, the designer can get to work preparing the sounds they will use in the production.
JB: How I think of it is, I create a really big library for the show of sonic elements that I know I will need or I know might be useful. So for some shows, everything is very naturalistic and I’ll be drawing from really high quality boutique sound libraries, and for some shows it will be much more abstract I’m using synthesizers, for some stuff I go out and record myself for a show. I’m just sort of like, creating a whole pallet and I won’t go too crazy in over-producing stuff because I know once I show up everything’s going to change anyway. And then once I’m in the space with the actors, I’ll start assembling those in different ways and experimenting with ways they can work out.
And you have to stay flexible even after you enter the space, because one of the realities of live performance is that the timing of those things will change from night to night.
EC: So, sound for theatre is interesting in that an actor walking across the stage for transition can take different amounts of time on different nights, and ideally it won’t be hugely different, but you need to account for that while you’re designing. So, like, when I build a cue for a show, prototyping is done horizontally and then the implementation is done vertically. So, we sequence things left to right and then we go through them in playlists.
All this is to say there is a lot of preparation that goes into sound design to create the experience a show.
JB: The amount of time I have when I’m doing a theatre show, to work in the actual theatre space is very limited and there’s a lot of competition for that time. Because basically, the producers are rushing to get the show into a presentable state for as little time as possible so they can put it in front of an audience and start selling tickets, because every day that you’re in the theatre without an audience costs quite a bit of money. And so I have to prepare these shows at home in the same way that a music producer might be but I’m always thinking about how it will work ultimately in the space that its intended for and a lot of that means preparing things in a way that will be flexible once I get there. Let’s say I‘m writing music to underscore a play. If I was writing music for my album I would mix it fully and bounce it down to a stereo track and that would be done. When I’m working in theatre, I do that for reference purposes, but I don’t really spend that much time on it and ultimately what I’m exporting is a number of stems that I then mix once I’m in the space using the playback software. So I’ll just prepare things in a way that I know they’ll be super flexible so that I know when I get to the space I can work really efficiently.
Jeremy places so much importance on the space because one of the unique opportunities with theatre is that the production is designed specifically for the environment it will be experienced in. Since it doesn’t need to be transferable to other venues, the design can take full advantage of the space and the best way to do this is to start from a clean slate.
EC: In commercial theatre, which is like Broadway and stuff in New York City, there’s this idea where you rent a theatre and nothing is inside of it. No sound system, no lights, no nothing. And that’s what the industry aspires to be, is like this idea of a four wall rental – nothing is in the theatre except for the four walls.
JB: You know, all you’re getting when you’re a producer renting a Broadway theatre, you are only getting those four walls, and you are getting the stage, essentially, and the seats, and that’s it. And all the sound equipment, all the lighting equipment, everything, the set, is all rented and from a creative perspective, I think that’s one of the more exciting things about working in theatre, is that get to you really get to customize your sound design and its delivery – which is the sound system that’s playing the design – in a really customized way that’s uniquely tailored to the show that you’re working on and the space that you’re doing it in.
So treating the venue as a blank canvas, the production can come together to create an immersive space that is able to transport the audience.
EC: Yeah, because when you step into a theatre, or if you’ve been to a theatre before, ideally the designers would have done something different enough to transport you into the world, so that you’re not like “Oh, it’s the theatre and there’s a different set in it” you look at the set and go “Oh, I’m about to explore that new world”. Um, the sound can be part of that.
It’s important to appreciate that sound is a component of that physical environment. The designers have infinite possibilities of sound to draw from
EC: Because, like, with the invention of the loudspeaker - and especially with the modern refinements of the loudspeaker – if you can put a loudspeaker somewhere, which is very easy… putting loudspeakers places is extremely easy you can just lift one out of a box that is shipped to you and put it into your theatre and that’s incredible! You can now play anything you could ever imagine out of that loudspeaker.
But when you create sound in a space, acoustics come into play and become a factor you have to account for.
EC: There is a trap in sound design for the theatre, and that trap is stereo. Because stereo when sound travels through the air is left and right making a phantom center. But, in a theatre, there is only so many center seats, so if you hang a left and right there are only a certain number of people getting that center. But if I sit all the way to the left then I will probably not hear the right, I will just hear the left, which, is ok, I mean, you can hang stereo left and right but then you do some tricks to make sure that its source is from the center.
And there are a lot of considerations like this that designers must make when they’re thinking about speaker placement.
JB: So when I’m designing the speaker plot, when I’m sort of selecting the locations of the speakers, it’s about creating the widest range of possibilities with the resources I have. I’m thinking about all the different places that I might want the audience to perceive sound from coming, and sort of prioritize what I think is important for creating the kinds of environments that the play calls for.
This can play out in all sorts of ways, and after working on so many projects, Jeremy’s found the techniques he likes to use.
JB: I will always have surround speakers to sort of immerse the audience and put sound behind them and aside them, as you might in a film. I will always put a pair of speakers upstage of the stage so I can create a sense of depth. Generally, I’ll have at least two speakers that, they’re above the stage and their pointing directly down with the idea that the sound sort of bounces off the stage and it creates a false image, like if you need a cell phone to ring on stage or something like that, that’s a pretty effective way, with some limitations. Recently, if I have the resources, I’ll have another set of speakers that I’ll put way up in the rafters above the audience for height. But other than that, it really depends on the show. And that’s why it’s important to experiment with new things on shows because that sort of adds to your portfolio of tricks that you can draw from later.
So this is the important recommendation Jeremy makes – try new things as often as you can, while you can. No one starts out with a full skillset and we must take opportunities to learn through trial and error in low-stakes situations.
Let’s just say, like, the first time I bounced speakers off the ceiling I didn’t necessarily know exactly how it would work and it wasn’t a totally essential thing, like it wasn’t going to make or break the design that I was doing, but it’s important to always push yourself to try new things on new designs. So, you can then go back to that whole portfolio, as you called it, of tricks and draw from them and know that they’ll be effective because you’ve used them before and you’ve had a proof of concept.
This episode was produced by me, Dan Hilse, and Pierce Porterfield with help from Lowell Thomas. Special thanks to Jeremy Bloom and Evan Cook for talking with us – they’ve both worked on some amazing things, so you’ll want to checkout the links to their works in the show notes.
The pATCHES podcast is a project of patches.zone, a website dedicated to creating resources for music producers. If you’re looking for sample packs, Ableton live tutorials, or music production guides, be go check out our page. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts to get all of our next episodes. Thanks for listening!