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Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?

October 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. The Reader has accused me of being a tyrant. And it didn’t have anything to do with either this blog or the user interface of the CTDB! I feel honored.

Deanna Isaacs says this about the sound for Million Dollar Quartet:

I’m talking about amplification that distorts the music, assaults the audience (Didn’t they crank the volume at Gitmo?), and sends you home with a tinny ringing in your ears. In the case of MDQ, it’s also historically inaccurate. I left the Goodman thinking we need to end the tyranny of the great and powerful–and probably deafened–guy in the sound booth. It doesn’t look like this’ll change unless we speak up, so let’s hear from you now–while we can still hear at all.

It would be grossly irresponsible of me to get into the he said she said of specific choices that led to the overall volume and mix that makes Million Dollar Quartet the musical that it is, or, on the other hand, to challenge the aesthetic validity of Deanna’s opinion. She has a perfectly valid point of view and experience of the show here, and has a right and a responsibility and a deadline to her readers to express it. There are also equally valid aesthetic reasons for turning up the decibel level, however, and the disconnect between the two opinions comes down to a question of: how loud should our theater be to appeal to an American audience?

What I do feel I can address here from within my massive bunker of conflicted interest – and hopefully continue and support Deanna’s discussion with the audience – is a lack of sophistication among the general public (greatly reinforced by barbed comments like Deanna’s and other theater critics) about the what, who, why and how sound choices like overall volume level get made. By a complete team of collaborators.

Here’s something you may not know: Sound Engineers and Designers are very concerned about the deafening of America. We value and protect our own hearing on a daily basis. And we also argue about the ethical implications of our own amplification techniques very passionately within the community and in our production meetings. Just as many musical engineers are moving to educate the public about the potential pitfalls of overly compressed dynamics on our hearing and in the quality of our music (see link above), I think it’s time that sound engineers, designers, and musically-savvy artists start a meaningful dialogue about how to balance sound systems to both appeal to a THX-soaked public and a community of theatrical purists who react violently against amplification. That’s really the story here – you have two types of audiences at war with each other, often in the same house – one that adores their ipods and needs to feel their sound and one that comes from a classical or purist standpoint and doesn’t want that aspect of culture to touch their art. I sympathize with both of these perspectives, and my designer tells me of an experience of his:

There was one night when someone went up to [my sound engineer] at intermission and said, “It’s so loud! Why does it have to be so loud?” and almost concurrently someone ELSE came up to the mixing board and said, “This is the best any show has ever sounded here.”

So we all have a valid opinion. That’s fine. At the same time, if the conversation continues like it has (ever since sound amplification became part of theater) sound engineers will remain the public whipping boys and girls of everything wrong with the mix of technology and art. The conversation that everybody wants – the one where the two audiences get heard and dare I say find a way to compromise (The bad idea that would lead to a better idea is something like a volume rating system – this show is rated RFL for Really Flippin’ Loud). Also in that discussion should be some theatrical reporting that investigates WHY shows are getting louder and louder at a rapid pace, and WHO is responsible for making those choices. Hint: there is no simple answer here. Like any battle in the culture war, there is a massive disconnect in the conversation which contributes to frustration from audience, critics, designers, and operators alike. Critics and the audience they represent sometimes seem to believe that sound engineers control the volume of the show with one of those knobs from Spinal Tap that goes to eleven, and that we engineers tend to be irresponsible doofs who are obsessed with squeezing more volume out of a sound system. As a result, the engineers are the ones that people come to with complaints. Which is sad and ultimately ineffective, since sound engineers and designers are not always equipped or empowered to lead and engage a public dialogue. You would not believe how hurt and hurtful people are made by sound that makes them feel uncomfortable… whether its too loud or too quiet.

So who is responsible for the sound that you hate? Here’s a comparison for you. Most critics (and many in the audience) are really adept at picking apart a finished production apart and identifying who made a particular choice as it relates to story: did the actor do that because the playwright told him to? Because it’s part of the director’s vision? Or is it just a choice that the actor made that night? The same process exists for sound, and the responsibility rests on the team of collaborators pretty much as follows:

The sound engineer / operator is primarily responsible for recreating the mix or sound design consistently as dictated to her by the sound designer. This responsibility of consistency does include things like communicating with performers and scenic crews to make sure their use of microphones, instruments and their own voice stays consistent under regular wear and tear, sickness, etc. The sound engineer is NEVER allowed to change the show based on what an audience member or critic is telling him that day.

The sound designer is responsible for translating the aesthetic desires of the director and music director into a technical configuration that allows for aesthetic flexibility, acoustic control, and support to the performers. They educate the creative team about what is physically possible for a sound system to accomplish, and they put their name on the sonic aesthetic choices being made. That said, if a director (or a producer) feels that a choice is inappropriate for the overall artistic quality of the show, they will give the sound designer a note. And then another note. If it gets really hairy, they might withhold a paycheck or two. The sound designer’s role is often one of the most complexly political in the creative process, because they must serve many functional requirements and still find artistic fulfillment through their work at the end of the day..

The director, as she relates to sound, is there to balance all of the sonic elements and make sure they work together to support the story being told and the overall artistic quality of the show

The producer foots the bill. Producers have to think about things like “can we sell this show,” and, “what equipment can we cut from this rental list to save money, and will it damage the aesthetics of the show,” and, “what could we do to maximize the appeal of this show to a broad market?” As a result, they often have to make wildly unpopular decisions.

One of the best thinkers about how a sound designer can navigate the various demands of performer, audience, producer and director just happens to be the sound designer in question, Kai Harada, who published his excellent sound handbook free online almost a decade ago. He has a lot to say on the question of pleasing everyone as a sound designer, and it’s a great primer on the sonic tightrope act if this is a subject you get passionate about:

The sound designer has a great duty, both due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound reinforcement is so unquantifiable. Everyone wants to hear something differently. The sound of the show can change within seconds– so many factors can influence the propagation of sound from Point A to Point B: humidity, temperature, full house versus no audience, tired operator, warm electronics, a singer having an off-day, a sub in the pit, etc., etc., whilst other departments have somewhat more quantifiable parameters under which they operate. Scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between, and it will travel from A to B in a given duration, but there aren’t many factors that can influence it greatly, short of some catastrophic automation failure. Lighting instruments are predictable beasts, as well; granted, voltage drops and old filaments can vary the quality of light projected from an instrument, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Sure, a bad data line can wreck an entire show very quickly, but that’s why we have backups. Humans who control the button-pushing on the electrics desk can influence the look of a show, too, but not so drastically as a sound operator. Let’s not forget that sound is a relatively new participant in theatre, and is often greatly misunderstood.

Thus, the designer must not only justify his or her design and equipment, but appeal to the wants of many– the director has an idea of the way the show should sound, and so does the designer. Let’s not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the producers, and the choreographer. Then the cast needs to hear onstage. Then the orchestra pit members need to hear in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn’t like look of so-and-so’s microphone. Politics plays a large and important role in the designer’s life. To paraphrase something a Broadway designer once told me, “Anyone can draw up designs and do equipment lists; the key is to getting other people to do what you want them to.” Theatre is a collaborative effort, and no one knows that better than the sound designers.

If we value the conversation at all, theater reporters should get more involved in this increasingly complex and controversial aspect of theatrical production. My belief, and it is one that is shared by several sound designers, is that sound is getting louder because of sound’s appeal to audiences, not because of all those reckless fascist dictators up in the booth. While I acknowledge the absolute inarguable validity of Deanna’s experience with this show, she does not do me the same service by indulging the urge to scapegoat me, the operator, for her experience. I think Deanna and reporters like her need to first investigate the many factors that cause our negative experiences with sound reinforcement in the theater. If you disagree with an artistic choice, explode open the conversation. Maybe some intrepid reporter could take the Bob Woodward approach and embed themselves in an artistic conversation as an observer… from concept to execution, and do the work of pinpointing exactly where creative teams could improve their response to audience demands for a quieter show. Wouldn’t that make for a more rich understanding of theater, and a more vital conversation about theater?

My booth is open, though you might have to speak up over all this fantastic noise I’m reinforcing.

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12 Comments to “Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?”

  1. Plus, I may add another correction to the reviewer’s assumptions. There are many non-guy (female) engineers in the city, and in the theatre community.

  2. I read this blog post to myself.. out loud.. really loudly… and I’m a tyrant for doing so. Shame on me.

  3. You fail to give enough thought to who are your audience at Goodman. Generally it is an older audience, like me, who find it disagreeable to have lyrics blasted out so loudly that I can not understand them. I must admit my taste is for opera, where a whisper on stage can be heard in the back row WITHOUT amplification. When I was in college, we often had “Dixie” bands playing for us (or even folk singers) who did not need a microphone to have their music heard. Why is that not the case today?

  4. Oh, I totally understand your perspective here, John. Though it should be said that the audience for Million Dollar Quartet is not the typical Goodman audience since it’s another production company. But that’s neither here nor there, ultimately.

    From a trend perspective, I think it’s important to understand that the primary trend is that both our younger and older audiences are becoming progressively more deaf (due in large part to the ubiquitous of noise, headphone listening and television in our lives), which is an alarming trend, and active listeners like you (and me) are decidedly in the minority.

    Oddly enough, sound design in the theater is emerging as a force of encouraging active listening (which by definition requires subtler and more natural amplification levels) – check out this article from the Guardian:

    To address your question more directly, however, as to the cause of why there is this perceived default in the industry that we “need” a microphone to have music heard these days: That impulse comes primarily from the audience and non-technician administration, not from the artist or sound engineer. My belief as a theater educator (I teach at the high school, junior high and college levels) is that we should be a lot more suspect of using amplification in our schools. Nearly every school that still teaches students theater are scarily reliant, even desperately reliant, on amplification to showcase their students to parents INSTEAD of teaching kids to project.

    To make matters worse, schools have been de-prioritizing building acoustic spaces and instead create multi-use gymnasiums that create greater need for amplification. I did a walk through this week of a Chicago Public School that has this need to hear their students, and the primary difficulty is not one of equipment – it’s that their space is built with parallel brick walls so that the space can be used both as a concert hall and a basketball court. That architecture creates decreased intelligibility as the sound bounces back and forth between the walls. That creates a greater perceived need for amplification among administrators, teachers, and parents. Sound designers can’t overcome that kind of political pressure to do the right thing I can’t fight that trend without the support of a majority of parents. I’m just a sound engineer.

    Since PA systems were introduced to schools a few decades ago, students have been afforded fewer opportunities to develop their own projection skills. What a great example of how the gradual defunding of arts education in schools has reverberating negative effects, no?

    Vocal projection is no longer a priority in ANY kind of acting training, and I’m including many conservatory programs in that statement as well.

    So as our audience gets deafer, our performers are getting quieter.

    As someone on the front lines, It’s a no-brainer that this is a dangerous trend, both for our hearing and the future health of theater. Our performers should be capable of ANYTHING, let alone simply projecting to the back of an acoustic house. I’m not here to defend this trend of louder and louder shows in perpetuity – that’s not good for us, not good for our hearing. I’d like to encourage a trend of more active rather than passive listening in the younger generation. And frankly I do that to the best of my ability when I am empowered to make those decisions with my own students and in my own designs. I am a huge fan of subtlety as a method of retraining audiences to hear more actively.

    My point here is that blaming the sound engineers and designers of the world every time a show is too loud is NOT going to solve the problem. We WANT to address this problem, because we are all active listeners and our equipment frankly works better when the volume is down and the performers are projecting healthily.

    Your and my energy should not be used to level blame. Our energy is better spent working to educate each other and new audiences that there are other ways to listen.

    Instead, I recommend that you go to the schools in your area and tell them to turn off their PA systems and convince the PTA that training vocalists is what we should be doing rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sound systems that schools are not equipped to use.

    I think the audience should also realize that they are entitled to actively engage with people making decisions about programming and what to produce in our theaters and try to convince them that there are more people like you who are active listeners. Because the data that they’re seeing may not be supporting that claim, and they’re in the business of survival, not protecting our hearing.

    And to get back to why I wrote this post, I’d like theater journalists to accept a little bit more responsibility for investigating trends like this – enough to understand WHY they are caused. Because journalists ultimately are more capable than all of us to direct attention where attention needs to be paid. And in this case, it’s just not my decision, and I should not be given credit or blamed as I was by Deanna’s post.

    That is not how theater is made, and Deanna knew that, and if anyone wants change to happen (as you and I both do), we have to know whose door to knock on.

  5. I am glad that Nick pointed out that this is not a Goodman production. However, even if it were, there is an obvious need for vocal amplification in this production. No matter how much an actor has been trained to project, I can’t think of a single one who could have their voice heard over an on-stage rock and roll band with pickups and amplifiers. The discussion of whether or not amplification is needed in general, while certainly a necessary and interesting one, is completely moot when applied to this show and Deanna’s criticism.

  6. nick keenan says:

    I do wonder though… How could relative volume levels be used as a way to give audience members who care about active listening more choice in the theater they go to? Does volume need to be more clearly indicated in marketing or in info? (because there is rock n roll and then there is ROCK, and there’s opera and I’m sure there’s a market for all three)? I’m interested in hearing how audience members would like to be able to make that choice when choosing how to spend their evening. Does it mean we need “quiet companies” in the theater scene that only do transparent reinforcement and subtle designs? I do enjoy designing for an active ear.

  7. Deanna Isaacs says:

    Nick — My apologies, and thank you for a fascinating response!

  8. nick keenan says:

    Thanks, Deanna, and thanks for bringing the subject up!

  9. Thanks for reminding us not to shoot the messenger, and taking the time to do it so eloquently. I’m a musician and do what the music director wants whether it matches my style or not, just as the sound engineer follows his instructions. That said, I decided long ago that I want to keep my hearing as long as possible, and getting blasted at high dB levels will go against that goal. I just saw Jersey Boys, which was amplified high enough to deliver the right sound, but also low enough that I could understand all of the words and did not leave with my ears ringing.

    Like the Jersey Boys, the musicians in the Million Dollar Quartet did not use AC/DC level amplification, and nor should a tribute. This show was on my to see list, but after reading about “amplification that distorts the music, assaults the audience …, and sends you home with a tinny ringing in your ears” I’m thinking maybe not.

  10. Hey Anthony. I’m glad you enjoyed the mix for Jersey Boys, that’s mixed by my pal Chad Parsley, who actually taught me how to mix down in Dallas.

    I haven’t mixed MDQ since it moved over to the Apollo, so I can’t speak to the acoustics there, but I would say: The performers themselves are worth braving the amplification to see them work their stuff. They all – and in particular, Levi Kreis, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis – are forces of nature in that show. If you’re worried, bring ear plugs, (I have a link to some nice attenuating ear plugs somewhere on this blog)…

    But see it.

    The odd thing about MDQ is that yes, it’s not really a recreation of that night, but in someways it’s something that I think is more engaging to a modern audience -while not true to the acoustic dramaturgy, it avoids becoming a lifeless museum piece. It is true to the energy of that moment in time, so that the boomers who lived that music and their children can both appreciate what it felt like to have music shift and change so suddenly. Before running that show, I couldn’t stand Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and yes – had never heard of Carl Perkins. Now, after being in that show, I get it. I get what they did to music. And it was the show, not the music as written on the page, that made it click for me.

    I rarely say this about commercial theater, and I’m saying this after MDQ has stopped paying my salary, but: it really is worth the price of admission.

  11. I haven’t seen MDQ as of yet. I may when it comes to NYC.

    I’m a long time guitarist. Played in 1960’s and 1970’s creative rock bands
    as well as in Country and western bands I currently perform and am hoping to work large arenas, YES, with massive controlled sound systems.

    I worked personally with the songwriter Otis Blackwell during his early 1980’s comeback. Otis wrote Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis early rock and roll hits. Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up, Great Balls Of Fire, etc.

    With Otis’ band we had our own individual stage amps and a PA system. we had a strong sound for the rocker numbers and a sweet touching lower volume feel for the love ballads. We controlled most of our individual volume not by amplifiers but by our nuanced handling of our individual instruments. Otis did the same with his singing volume – natural control first and mics and amplifiers second.

    The last decade I have heard countless live stage concerts and night club shows ruined by over amplification, mainly by the show’s producer and the sound people. The new house PA equipment these days pushes huge amounts of sound- especially over- amplified bass and drums. It’s totally out of control and a complete disaster.

    I’ve witnessed this at family fairs and festivals as well as indoors in famous nightclubs.

    I pity MDQ if they go for amplified overkill which the new concert house and nightclub sound systems seem to be doing.

    I have yet to meet many sound-men or sound-women that I can respect. These are not artists or performers or musicians, they are technicians wrapped up in ever-spiraling volume peaks and spikes to achieve a sense of loud realism which 90% of commercial shows can exist much much better without.

    Early rock and roll and rockabilly needs extra edge and volume but medium sized stage amps and a decent house PA utilizing the natural theater acoustics can be more than enough.

    This is authentic for that early Sun Records period and era.

  12. Thanks Nick for your insights. I just reread your entire piece and all of the comments. I want to add that my criticisms here are not addressed to anyone on this page or associated with any particular sound company and/or theater production.

    My criticisms are generally directed to the trend of ruinous over-amplification, especially in famous nightclubs and
    at many indoor and outdoor concert venues.

    Rock on!


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