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  Sound Design for the Theatre
Interpretation, Research, Composition, and Execution

by Michael Rasbury, Associate Professor of Sound Design
Department of Drama, University of Virginia
Theatrical artisans all participate in the study of human beings in action. As a sound designer, the core of research is focused on this. Each production constitutes a research project related to the theme of the script. However, designers do not always choose the play and, therefore, the specific topic of research. Rather, designers are employed because of an ability to research in multiple areas in order to discover the best design. This research includes compressed studies in historical context, environmental settings, musicology, technology, and culture. When designing for plays presented in an historical setting, much research is devoted to the particular period in addition to the standard areas of study. This includes studies into the way machinery sounded during the period, the way music sounded and the instruments used, etc. All research is framed by the director’s concept, chosen style, and budget for sound. The diversity of study required to provide successful design is a gratifying part of the process.

Specific source materials for constructing a design are as varied as the productions are. Libraries are rich with printed, visual, and audio media containing historical accounts, playwright biographies, music recordings, video of particular productions, and sound recording libraries. The Internet provides a wealth of production reviews, images of related productions, synopses of scripts, period music examples, and sound recordings.

Part of the sound designer’s research is achieved through practice in critical listening. In particular, sound designers pay close attention to sounds and music in their environments that may relate to productions in process. Sound designers often carry with them digital field recorders and capture source recordings deemed appropriate to a developing design.

It is important for each designer, including the sound designer, to share individual research data with the greater collaborative team. The collective goal is a unified body of work supporting the grand theme and style of the production. Periodic design meetings help the team focus each designer’s respective research. In these meetings, designers share documents, music recordings, video examples, tangible objects, and illustrations discovered during individual research. Communication of these findings is extremely important towards the achieving the unified production concept.

Sound designers must continually research emerging methods, standards, and technology. Since modern sound design typically requires the employment of technology to deliver the design, ongoing research includes information gathering about available sound instruments and audio software. New technology, standards, and processes are researched through technical journals, user’s manuals, tutorials, hands-on experience, and deeper studies of the physical properties of sound.

Research is ongoing for the duration of the collaboration because the production’s concept often matures due to discoveries by the performance team (director and actors) in early rehearsals. All research must define for the designer an appropriate path, congruent with the developing research of the other designers and director. Composition of final sound and music elements and components of the sound system is built upon this foundation of data.

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