A theatrical production’s sound design defines its overall atmosphere and its effectiveness at telling a story. It’s a critical component of the narrative and influences the audience’s perception of the play. Therefore, it’s essential to create sound effects and musical scores that communicate the story without overwhelming it or making it seem understated. The equipment used in this process, like speakers and microphones, are equally important as the sounds themselves.
So, what is theatre sound design, and how does it guide every aspect of a play? Keep reading to find out more about this art form.
Theatre sound design includes everything the audience hears, such as sound effects, music, props that generate noise and similar components. Effective and clear sound design is essential to creating an enjoyable listening experience for the theatre audience. Sound designers manage tasks like obtaining recorded or live sound effects, collaborating with the director on which sounds to use throughout the script and setting up the playback equipment within the venue.
The job duties vary for each sound designer and play, but they do a common array of things. These often involve making or remixing music and designing a sound system that works for each production. No two plays are exactly the same, and neither are the venues. Likewise, Illuminated Integration understands the need for unique sound design and specializes in creating original setups for sound solutions and audio remedies, including theatre environments.
Directionality is one of many significant components in sound design. The sound should originate from the same direction as the performers to provide a cohesive viewing and listening experience. This can be achieved using directional loudspeakers, which focus the sound to a specific area rather than spreading it across an expanse. Other essential elements of sound design include ambiance, voice-overs and Foley sounds.
Sound system design encompasses both sound design and all the components that bring sound to life — speakers, input devices like microphones, digital or analog mixers and more. A speaker system’s positioning and tuning greatly affects how the sound will be conveyed to the audience. These two elements play a crucial role in defining the directionality, which dictates where the sound comes from and how intelligible it is. These considerations are key when designing a sound system setup.
Each element of a theatre sound system works together, requiring them all to be compatible with one another. Otherwise, it would be difficult to achieve high-quality sound. Every sound system will consist of different devices, depending on what that particular production needs — that is why the sound designer’s role is so crucial to a successful play. They decide what kind of equipment is necessary to create a memorable experience the audience will enjoy.
Most theatre sound systems will have four main categories of components. From there, you can decide which devices would be suitable for your setup. Keep these categories mind as you think about how to design your sound system for optimal audio quality:
The input consists of devices like microphones, audio players and musical instruments. When using a microphone, the acoustics are transmitted through the air and converted into electrical signals that your sound system can process and amplify. If you’re using an audio player with a recording medium like a compact disc (CD), the player will convert the audio into electrical signals that the system can process and amplify.
Theatre sound system design uses various types of microphones. Two of the most common ones you’ll find in theatre work include condensers and dynamics. They both have advantages that make them great for live productions:
Sound systems that have mixers send the sound into a speaker or recording system through the mixer’s input channels. Channel grouping allows you to combine multiple inputs into separate groups — such as separating musical instruments from vocals.
This step is where the mixer plays a major role. Once the input devices’ signals are converted into electrical signals, these go into a mixer, which enables volume adjustment and output combination. If you have a dozen inputs, for example, you could combine these into just four. Some sound systems use a processor instead — which manipulates the electrical signals to add effects — or use a mixer and processor together.
There are several types of mixers available:
Digital and analog mixers generally have many of the same features, although digital models may be a better choice because they uphold the music quality over time. In contrast, analog sound waves can degrade.
The mixer or signal processor feeds into an amplifier, which increases the volume of the processed audio to drive the speakers. Amplifiers handle a higher amount of voltage and current than any other system component. They typically come with two audio output channels, although some systems have more or less than that — the kind you choose depends on how many speakers you’re using.
One factor to be aware of when selecting an amplifier is its root mean square (RMS) rating, which tells you how much power it outputs consistently. Speakers tend to be classified by their program power rating, which dictates how much power they need to meet sufficient sound standards. It’s often advisable to choose an amplifier with a slightly higher power rating than the speakers to give yourself some headroom. Headroom gives space for peaks in the audio to avoid audio distortion.
The speakers are the sound outputs and the last components in the line of sound system elements. They convert the amplifier’s electrical output into an acoustic sound. Speakers consist of voice coils and cones that work together to produce the resultant music or sound effect you’re aiming for. The amplifier’s electrical currents are sent through the speaker’s voice coil. The currents interact with the speaker’s magnetic field, causing the coil to be attracted and repelled by the speaker’s magnet.
In turn, the cone that the coil is attached to also moves, and the cone’s physical motion creates pressure waves that are recognizable as sound. When developing a theatre sound system, you can choose from numerous speaker system types — line array, point source and horn loaded. Within those setups, there are different speaker designs, like mono, stereo and Left Center Right (LCR).
Your theatre sound system does more than make your production sound good — it shapes the entire storytelling and viewing experience. Without the right kind of sound at the right moment, it is difficult to immerse your audience in the scene. Many people know how jarring a sudden, misplaced noise can be, whether you’re watching TV or seeing a live play. When people see entertainment in person, that 3D experience makes all the good parts of sound design — and the mistakes — much clearer.
Here are a few ways that sound design quality influences theatre productions:
A play’s plot moves the action along and enables the actors and directors to tell a cohesive story — and so do the visuals and sounds associated with the narrative. A plot exists as a collection of words until it’s brought to life through physical action and sound. The auditory aspects of a production can come from added sound effects, music or sounds made by the live actors and props.
Sound is unique from visual content in that it can be heard outside of a scene, adding extra layers of narrative context without being in the audience’s immediate viewpoint. Within a narrative, sounds and music are often categorized as diegetic or non-diegetic. Diegetic sound is anything that the characters can hear, whereas non-diegetic audio consists of things like musical soundtracks — which are meant for the audience’s entertainment.
Underscoring can exist in both a diegetic or non-diegetic sense, though the former happens more often in musicals where characters sing along to an accompaniment. By experimenting with sound using these two senses — within or outside of a scene — play directors and sound designers can shape a script and add layers to it that can’t necessarily be conveyed with words alone.
Visuals are essential in creating a scene, but the auditory aspect takes them from being pretty pictures to immersive experiences. A scene that takes place on a jungle set is much more convincing if there are sounds of wildlife all around, rather than silence or even unrelated noises. Balance is always key here because you don’t want to overwhelm or distract your audience with a cacophony of animals in the background. You must also ensure the actors aren’t drowned out by the noise.
Sound has close ties to physical space. If you see a door shut, you expect to hear the resulting noise. If someone drops a cup, you anticipate the sudden shattering of glass. People have been developing their own sound sources since the early years of theatrical productions, where sound designers used everything from brass balls to photographs. Such inventions allowed them to describe a space accurately using more than just visual components, which changed how audiences perceived scenes.
Sounds, like tastes or smells, can evoke memories and emotions and create the feeling of returning to a previous moment in time. One study on the influence of music, memories and pictures on emotions found that music strongly evoked positive emotions in the context of personal memories. The researchers reasoned that music plays such a significant role in inducing emotions because of its everyday presence in our lives. Certain songs become tied to pivotal or even mundane events.
The immersive characteristic of theatre music is amplified by the fact that, in real life, no two scenes will sound exactly alike — there are always nuances and small variations in sound. These differences create a more realistic scene and enable audiences to suspend their disbelief, believing that this fictional world has become real. Effective sound design can help you bring the audience into the play by extending the physical space that the action and sound occur in.
Even without the use of a musical soundtrack, sounds have a musicality of their own. Arranging them in specific ways can create rhythms that inspire an audience to feel happy, sad, fearful, excited or a range of other emotions. Turning mundane, everyday sounds — like a pen scribbling or doors shutting — into a rhythmic sequence can help the audience step into that fictional world and understand that even the ordinary can be transformative.
Close attention to musicality can help a sound designer slow or increase a scene’s pacing, warning the audience of upcoming danger or lowering their excitement after an intense duel. The associations we make with the sounds we hear every day make this ability possible. For example, we tend to relate major chords with positive emotions, whereas minor chords are more commonly thought of as sad.
Of course, there are variations in how we think of music across different regions and cultures. However, without these learned connections, conveying the appropriate musicality for the right scene would be much more difficult.
Theatre sound design consists of many working parts, from the audio itself to the tools used to communicate it. Sound designers know the intricacies of using sound to influence audience emotions and change a scene’s tone. Working with a company that has expert knowledge of how sound works in theatre environments can take a project to the next level and ensure its success.
If you’re in need of theatre sound system design services, Illuminated Integration can help. We provide audio, video and lighting services for a range of organizations, including schools, museums, theaters, corporate businesses and more. No matter how big or small a project is, we can tackle it with a unique design every time, forgoing the cookie-cutter approach to AVL. We walk you through every step of the process, handle all the work and provide long-term support, even if it’s years after installation.
Contact us today to start work on a new project or ask any questions you might have about our services.