The Sound Department is responsible for all the recorded and live sound made during a production, the technical systems and speakers to produce the sound if it is amplified, and works with other design departments to ensure they integrate with the rest of the production.
The Sound Designer is the head of the Sound department, and is responsible for everything that the audience hears or listens to during the show. Like the Lighting Designer, they are responsible for both the creative design and also its technical implementation, and they work closely with the director and other creative team to create the world that the show lives in. Sound Design for theatre falls broadly into two categories: designs for straight plays, and designs for musicals. The Sound Designer for a play is likely to be more of a composer or musician, and will source, record or compose effects, soundscapes, music and atmospheres that can be played back in order to create the desired emotional and dramatic effect in the performance. The Sound Designer for a musical on the other hand is often more likely to have experience from the mixing and engineering side of sound, and is more focused on best amplifying, balancing and mixing the sounds created by the musicians and cast. However this is not to say that both fields are isolated: many designers successfully design both plays and musicals, and techniques and elements cross over from one to the other.
As well as the conceptual design of how they would like the piece to sound, a Sound Designer is also responsible for the placement, setup and operation of speakers, amplifiers, microphones, mixers, and playback systems to implement their design. On a small production they are likely to do this themselves; on a larger production and in particular musicals they are likely to have a larger department to help them. Like any other department the Sound Designer must ensure that they stick to their given budget if, say, hiring equipment in - for a musical often quite substantial amounts of equipment are hired, and Sound can easily be the largest budget line item.
Associate Sound Designer
Normally found in only larger productions, the Associate is normally a designer in their own right, whom the Sound Designer has worked closely with previously and trusts. They often provide an alternate source of experience and ideas for the Designer to work with. They understand the designer’s preferences and working methods and are permitted to speak creatively in the absence of the designer (though any large or irreversible decisions should of course be checked!)
Assistant Sound Designer
A slightly different role, the Assistant does not generally work creatively but instead helps the Designer to implement their creation technically, helping to rig the sound system in the theatre during the get in, maintain and draw paperwork showing how the system should be built, or programing and operating the playback computer during the show. They should however be invited to work through the design process with the Designer, attending runs and paper techs, such that they understand the show, can help the Designer with tasks and so that the Assistant gains experience of what the Designer does and can later go on to design shows themselves.
Mixer/Sound No.1/A1/Production Sound
A role with many titles depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on, the Sound No.1/Mixer is normally only found on musicals. They are responsible for mixing the microphones and band during the show to create the sound of the show, which can be a very demanding task depending on the speed and complexity of the show. They must work extremely closely with the Designer to create their desired sound, while also typically being responsible for the technical performance and construction of the sound system. For example, the Designer would specify a desired position of a speaker for a special effect, but the Mixer would then work out how to rig the speaker safely and wire it into the electrical system of the theater - freeing the Designer up to think about the design rather than technical details.
In Oxford it is currently typical that the Designer and Mixer are the same person. While this is not ideal as it prevents the designer from fully focusing on the design rather than technical details, this normally reflects the difficulty of finding sufficient experienced sound crew members.
Sound No.2/A2/Deck Sound
Wireless microphones are often key to providing a balanced sound in a musical. They however require a surprising amount of care and attention to rig onto the cast such that they do not break and stay in place. The Sound No.2 works closely with the Mixer/Sound No.1 to ensure that the microphones are rigged securely and consistently before each show, and monitor them during the show for battery and signal level to spot problems. They will also swap microphones between cast members as required during the show to reduce the number of microphones required with a large cast.
This role is often underappreciated but is critical to the success of a musical sound design - wireless microphones are notoriously finicky and any signal dropouts or mysterious clicks, bangs and pops will quickly be noticed by the audience.
A catch-all title, a Sound Technician might be doing anything from helping the Mixer rig the sound system, to helping the Sound No.2 build the wireless rack, laying out microphones and monitors in the pit of a musical, programming or operating the playback computer, running cables to the mixing desk, troubleshooting problems with the communication systems, or setting up the video relay system (it is a quirk of history that even if there is a dedicated video department in a show, the sound department is typically responsible for the “non-show” video, such as a screen showing the conductor at the prompt desk).
QLab - Sound playback software used in the Oxford Playhouse, O’Reilly Theatre and on many professional shows from small scale to the West End.
Q&A with Sound Designer Gareth Fry - A professional sound designer talks about his process of design.
Henley Theatre Services (http://henleytheatre.com/) - TAFF’s normal supplier, good selection of basic to more advanced sound equipment, wireless mics etc.
That Event Company (http://www.that-event.com) - THAT Event Company supply Sennheisser radio mic systems with headsets and audio systems from d&b audiotechnik, as well as a selection of other sound equipment.
Orbital Sound (http://www.orbitalsound.com/) - London based hire suppliers for large scale shows.
Finding sound effects & music:
Remember that not all sound effects and music available on the internet are free or licensed to be included in a theatrical production - always check and respect the artist’s license and if necessary obtain PRS clearance for music - see below. You must do this even if you have bought the music on iTunes or own it on CD - this does not give you a license to play the music for public performance.
TAFF also has a 10 CD SFX library which is available to borrow on request.
Obtaining PRS clearance is the process of obtaining permission and paying the appropriate fee to play music in a production. Note that this does not generally apply to musicals, which are licensed separately under grand rights, and it also does not apply to music composed for the production, public domain music, music licensed not under PRS terms (for example Creative Commons), or to occasional exceptions which are licensed individually by copyright holders. Despite these exceptions, PRS applies to the vast majority of music in the UK - even recordings of classical music which are widely regarded as out of copyright, as although the composer’s copyright may have long expired the recording will probably still be in copyright. The application of PRS fees is a very complex process depending on how much music you wish to use and crucially how it is used in the production, either as incidental scene change music or as an integral and unchangeable part of the sound design. You must consider it early as in some cases individual songs must be requested greater than 30 days in advance of the production, though sometimes advance permission is not required and the form can be filled in afterwards. Usually the fee involved ends up being very small compared to the amount of work, but still must be paid.
If you are performing in the O’Reilly Theatre or the Oxford Playhouse then parts of these charges may not apply as they are already paid for by the venue. Check with the venue contact and if you need help with PRS charges contact the TAFF committee.