The Difference Between Sound Design and, um… Sound Design

Today I preach from atop the musical theatre soapbox

For what it’s worth, let me say that this is thus far the most challenging post I’ve written.  And that I believe this to be fundamentally important for a successful production.


Wikipedia says that sound design is “the process of specifying, acquiring, manipulating or generating audio elements,” and I have to disagree, in part.

“Manipulation” of “audio elements”, in this case does not refer to the audio systems and engineering involved in disseminating live voices and music to the audience.  In short, the universal understanding is that a sound designer makes sound effects.  This I find to be short-sighted.

In lighting design, the artistic intention is not dependent on subjective technological choices made by technicians.  The lighting designer can specify, “what,” “where,” and, “when;” the master electrician will specify “how.”  Point, lock, record.  Such divisions of technology and responsibility are not so straightforward with sound.  Audio technologies are not independent elements as are lighting instruments and their parameters.  Audio (in all practical cases) is a bottom-up translation: everything comes out of speakers, through amplifiers, from signal processors, past the mixer, which ingests the sound designer’s sound effects together with all the other amplified elements. Here’s a terrible infographic to help illuminate this:

Sound Design A3There are plenty of steps after the “sound design” which affect the effect it will have [everything in green].  Furthermore, the voices and the musical instruments are also being amplified, and through the same systems as the sound effects.  Though the sound designer does not specify the voices nor acquire the score (thus does not “design” those elements), she IS [often] responsible for designing how it will be presented and perceived.  Regardless, the sound design is inextricably confined to the provisions of the sound reinforcement system; the sound system is necessarily part of the design.

So what’s the problem?

None at all!  Unless the Fellowship of the Production requires one being to do them all.

I made the case that sound design involves both the sound effects and the sound engineering.  Now let me make the case that they require totally different skillsets.

Some audio engineering is necessary to perform sound design.  Some proficiency in the design of sound is necessary to perform audio engineering.  But the disciplines are not interchangeable.  Here are some examples of what each professional may not be able to do in the other’s field:

Sound Design B4 v2.jpg

This is an example, not a thesis. May not reflect real-world circumstances.

A sound designer is [generally] not responsible for designing, installing, nor maintaining the sound system.  Their discipline is the artistic.  The well-being of the sound system is left to audio systems designing craftspeople.  A lighting designer [generally] does not program the lighting board, hang/focus/gel lights, or fix lighting instruments; that’s left for lighting technicians.  The difference between lighting and sound in this case is that lighting instruments and technologies are less-varied, more consistent, technical but non-artisan, and not an independent discipline.  Not to bash lighting technicians… but the depth of audio engineering is far greater than lighting systems. Lighting systems don’t require a technological artisan to appropriately disseminate the designer’s intentions, and sound systems do.

Evidence of the need for, and divisions of, both.

Let’s look at what some Sound Design programs offer in the way of sound engineering:

Of 14 courses offered in UC Irvine’s Sound Design MFA, only 3 deal at all with amplified sound systems.  http://sound.arts.uci.edu/about_curr.html

CalArts has a seemingly more varied curriculum based on the course titles, though I haven’t read the actual course descriptions.  6 out of 24 courses should address sound engineering.  https://catalog.calarts.edu/requirements/theater/Pages/default.aspx#mfasound 

As for Purdue’s program… https://www.cla.purdue.edu/academic/vpa/theatre/documents/SoundSequencingRevised.pdf  …my students at Junior Theatre, having ranged 11-18 years of age, continually receive the same education and experience as Purdue’s upper level undergraduates in the 368 and 353 courses. (I’m probably not getting paid enough!)  The graduate level 553 course will have students “learn the basic signal chain involved in sound system design and apply that knowledge to a design and specification of a complete audio system.”  Is a “basic” theoretical understanding (not hands-on “do it or fail trying” ability, mind you) enough for a sound designer to successfully calibrate a sound system to suit the show’s artistic needs? My students with similar or greater experience than this masters program provides would be only partially able.

This is only to say that certificated sound designers may not have the expertise to properly care for the sound system that they are working with.

Then who actually makes the sound system work?

Looking at the staffing from some of San Diego’s largest theatre companies:

Lamb’s Players Theatre has an Audio Master.

San Diego Repertory Theatre has a Sound Supervisor and an Audio Engineer

The Old Globe Theatre has a Sound Director, and 3 Master Sound Technicians (one for each stage)

That these audio system management roles exist as staff positions, it should indicate there is a full-time need for this skill.

So THAT’S the problem.

Regardless of a sound designer’s proficiency with sound engineering, she can’t just walk into a theatre and enjoy an appropriately functioning sound system, if it has no curator.  Furthermore, if she is not capable with the idiosyncrasies of that specific system’s particular equipment, it will likely become less-functional [read: more-damaged] making the system progressively less capable of doing its job well. You will not have a well-functioning sound system if you don’t have a qualified “department” overseeing it.

Curating a sound system is not in and of itself sound design, but it does affect the sound design.  This role belongs to the audio system overseer, who may also provide the engineering that I do consider to be part of sound design. But unless she happens to also be the sound system’s official curator, a producing company has no business making the sound designer responsible for curation.  In lighting, there is a designer and a master electrician – to work with the artistic needs and the technological needs, respectively.  Sound is less controllable, more anomalous and nebulous, and with deeper extremes of specialization, than is lighting.  Yet, a sound designer is often tasked with doing it all; artistic and technical.

What the hell is my point?

If you are a smaller theatre company that has or shares a sound system, without a consistent and qualified designer-engineer to regulate it, your equipment is being damaged and the quality of your productions is compromised.  That’s all!

If you have a sound lockup that you direct each show’s designer toward, in order to pull out the gear that they need for that show… it’s probably a mess.  It’s probably half-broken.  It’s probably carelessly stored.  You probably don’t have an inventory, nor know what has gone missing.  And your sound designer will probably not want to work for your next show, exacerbating the problem.

I made the case in this previous post that sound connects people, and is the single element that truly breaks theatre’s fourth wall.  Yet, in most of my smaller-theatre experiences, sound has taken the backseat to all other design elements… not in what is expected, but in what resources are provided.

Is this reminiscent of your theatre’s circumstances?  Have you had a sound designer in the “must do everything” role, who gets vague and defensive when you try to address audio problems from the last rehearsal? You may have plopped her into a position of minutia and idiosyncrasy that is too great for any individual given the available time until opening night.  You can’t afford to compromise your audience’s ability to connect with the story that you’re hoping to tell. Why else should they come back?

4 thoughts on “The Difference Between Sound Design and, um… Sound Design

  1. Pingback: Theatrical Sound Design – 500 Miles Away | A Sound Engineer's Weblog

  2. Pingback: I got a Billie award in Sound Design! | A Sound Engineer's Weblog

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