I got a Billie award in Sound Design

Actually, it’s my second.  And actually, I don’t know if they’re called “Billie” awards anymore (originally a nod to the Tony awards for Broadway theatre).


Thanks to my Mom for snapping and sending this photo to me.

The NYA National Youth Arts Awards (originally NYT, since it started off as theatre-only) is an awesome organization started by Rob Hopper to honor and invigorate the youth theatre artists and community.  I had started working in youth theatre around the same time these awards began, and they were all the talk in town.  Getting nominated was super validating, and getting to deliver a winning speech was legit youth theatre street cred.

Before I dive in… I want to be clear that I am in full support of Rob Hopper and this wonderful organization and that I in no way intend to undermine their mission.  I am honored to have been recognized for my work in the community.

Babes In Toyland – 2007

I was waiting to hear back from an interesting theatre company about being musical director for their winter holiday show that I had sound designed the previous two years, which didn’t exactly have the highest musical integrity in my humble then-19-&-20-year-old opinion.  Not that I was the best musical option for the job, but at least a less-incapable option.  Plus, the show was presented at The Old Globe Theatre (at least until they could get rid of them).

Meanwhile, the beloved Artistic Director at Junior Theatre was waiting to hear back from me about being musical director for their winter holiday show.  I fortunately quickly-enough realized my vanity in the former intention, and accepted the position at JT.  (I never heard back from the other company, nor did they ask me to sound design again.)

Woo-hoo, I’m a music director!  The Babes In Toyland score was well-arranged for a terrible pianist and the next two months proved to be just enough time for me to learn it.  The kids were great, and put so so so much effort into everything.  Side note: this was one kid’s first show.  She was 8 years old.  I just finished designing sound for her last show at JT, and she’s now off to college.  How time flies…

As the production neared opening night, two issues revealed themselves:

  1. The director wanted a few sound effects to accompany some moments of slapstick comedy.  Specifically, 237 moments that my SFX operator triggered.  Not including compound sound effects… 304 total cues programmed.
  2. The previous-bridal-shop and current-bike-shop makeshift blackbox theatre at 250 Third Ave, Chula Vista, was not acoustically resonant, and actors’ voices were not distinguishable when facing away from the audience.  That would have been fine, but the audience was situated in a sorta-round arrangement, meaning that at no point was an actor facing any more than half the audience.

I foolishly thought a few sound effects would be no big deal, and volunteered to make that happen (since you know, I didn’t want some other sound designer messing up my show).  I did not expect a wasteland of onomatopoeia.  It ended up that I just grabbed whatever sound was first available and threw it in, and maybe adjusted the level.  It was a mess.  “Whatever, stupid sound effects.  It is what it is and I’m moving on to the music!”

Since I was the music director, I wanted all my [the kids’] hard work to be experienced and understood by the whole audience!  Sound Designer me took over, and sought a solution for the half-the-audience-can’t-hear-them-sing problem.


The blackbox (with white and blue walls) accommodated only about 120 audience, about 40 to each of the three sections.  I painstakingly hung (no real grid) a small speaker for each section.  Then I brought in the 8 Shure U4D receiver channels (with WL-50 lavaliers, which I promised to protect with my life!) from the mainstage theatre, and proceeded to experiment.  It was a small and intimate space: As soon as I put any helpful volume through the speakers it was distracting, obviously amplified, covered up the piano – basically it was just chaos being introduced into an already compromised environment.

I whispered to myself, “How the hell do I make this work?” and the whisper was my answer.

Have you ever whispered to someone, and realized that they are fully intelligible without any tone/pitch whatsoever?  The lower frequencies where the voices happens, though not totally loud in this theatre, is also much more omnidirectional than the higher frequencies of a whisper; of the information of speech.  When facing away from the audience, you could still hear the tone/pitch of the kids singing, you just couldn’t understand what the words were.

So I threw a crossover into the mix.  I high-passed everything going through the speakers at 6.7kHz, if I remember correctly.  This removed all the extra muddling chaotic energy I had been amplifying, and introduced only the intelligibility part of their voices.  Then I put a slight delay on the speakers so that the natural voice on stage would arrive at the audience’s ears slightly before the amplified sound.

The result?

I couldn’t even tell that there was any amplification until an actor faced away, and only then did my ears drift slightly upward toward the speaker.  Since the pitch of their voices had always been present-enough, it worked to make each singer perfectly understood at all seats in the house, no matter where they were facing.  I even got the artistic director to cover on the piano for me so that I could go out and listen to the result.  It worked so well!  A very proud moment for young’un me, and a great learning experience about psychoacoustics.

In a previous post, I mentioned keel-hauling my sister through my practice of how sound should be done.  Well, she offered to run sound for this show, and I didn’t have to tell her anything.  She made her own script, adjusted levels totally appropriately, did all the careful and invisible mic’ing of the actors, etc.  Saved my butt.  Proof that doing things right the first time will benefit in the long run.

Here’s a clip taken from my point-and-shoot camera that should give a visual sense of the directionality issues (there’s another full audience section to the left of the frame).  It’s difficult to hear the actors from on top of the piano – this is not an example of being able to hear the actors from the audience.

I got an award for my sound design!!!

The [then] NYT winners list had come out some months later, and I had won an award for my sound design of Babes In Toyland!  I was so freaking stoked that someone had noticed how well my psychoacoustic high pass speaker array had worked to broadcast clear vocals through the entire show!  What I remember from the awards ceremony is that I didn’t have anything prepared, and that whatever I did say was a good reminder that I’m very bad at extemporizing.  Regardless, I was very proud that my good work was recognized.

That is, until a couple years later when the person who nominated me for the award recounted their reasoning for it:

“There were so many sound effects!”


I had all but forgotten about that crash-boom hell, in lieu of my actual accomplishments for that show.  But as it turns out, normal people don’t go to a theatre production to analyze sound sources… fair enough.  It also doesn’t help that the rest of the world doesn’t exactly consider sound engineering to be part of sound design.


A Wrinkle in Time – 2017

If I had an award for every decade I spend in theatre…

Since I was awarded in 2007 for the magnitude of sound cues, I will assume that this 2017 show received the same attention, and deservedly so.  227 total cues programmed, but only 71 operated triggers (lots of auto-follows).  This also included running two projectors (that’s 3 screens total on a 2004 PowerMac G5).  It was a LOT of programming, and lots of sound effects that I actually carefully created.  This is a design I was more proud of, and am flattered to have been noticed for it.

Allow me to ramble for a moment: Often, sound effects will be repeated in a show.  Thunder, door slam, time machine, dog barks, etc.  Though it takes way more time, I like to put variants of these sounds into a show so that each time they happen, it sounds a little bit different.  Side story: I ran sound for a musical medley of 80’s songs for a few months, about 5-6 times per week.  The snare drum sample on the Roland electronic drum kit repeated so many times in my ears that I could barely hear it anymore as the sound it was supposed to be.  An acoustic sound will always have slight variances.  I have to cringe when I get lazy and don’t emulate that variance in a sound design.

I didn’t realize I had won this award (it’s a little difficult to keep in touch from 500 miles away) and didn’t have the chance to get someone to collect my award for me. But I’m still very thankful to Rob Hopper and National Youth Arts for their recognition and their continuing contributions to the creative community.


2 thoughts on “I got a Billie award in Sound Design

  1. Pingback: Failure is Ideal | A Sound Engineer's Weblog

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