Immediately after this year’s Tony Award celebration the Tony committee announced that they would no longer be awarding a Tony award for Sound Design for either a Play or a Musical. The committee offered several reasons for their decision. The decision has been debated, discussed and dissected. I’m not going to go into it.
I am going to talk about what Sound Design is about and how it differs from base-level sound. I spent a good part of last week at a conference, where I learned all about what good Sound Design can do. The conference had nothing to do with sound, yet the sound during several events showed what good sound design is not. The keynote addresses were given during the lunches. This is not ideal. Ideal or not, sound designers have been doing the less than ideal for a long time.
Competent sound technicians can make the sound audible. Competent sound technicians make sure there isn’t feed back. And if that was all sound designers did, maybe their shouldn’t be a sound design Tony Award. But hearing the words from someone’s mouth is not all sound design is.
A good sound design would give the impression that the sound was coming from the direction of the presenters. A good sound design would make the audio sound natural. And that is just for sound reproduction.
If the conference was a play, the sound designer would add subtle music or effects to build excitement or underscore key moments. The sound designer could make small changes to the way the source sounded when it came out: Boosting part of the signal, adding a bit of reverberation. The sound designer could create deafening silence at the high point of the speech. This is the art. This is the design.
Good sound is something most people take for granted when they watch Television, Film and (yes, even) theatre. Just because the designers are so good at what they do, you don’t notice it does mean you wouldn’t notice if it were lacking. I spent a weekend with not-very-good sound technicians, and longed for the true magic of good design.
I don’t know if the Tony Committee will come to their senses or not — the outcry has been great, but I do not know if was great enough. What I do hope is that everyone who reads this will take a moment to truly listen the next time you attend the theatre. Is there sound reinforcement? Is there careful underscoring? Do sound effects happen at the right moment, and do they sound like they are being created on stage? In short, don’t just watch the next play you see, but listen to it.
I can rant about how important sound is, but all that noise from me will never convince anyone else. So don’t take my word for it. Go to the theatre. Then listen.
Then track down the sound designer and say “Thank you.”