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Sound Design is a conceptually creative/technical field. It covers all non-compositional elements of a film, a play, a music performance or recording, computer game software or any other multimedia project. A person who practices the art of sound design is known as a Sound Designer.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes the finest or most aesthetic sound mixing or recording in film with the Academy Award for Best Sound, historically given to an English-language film. The new Tony Award for Best Sound Design is to be awarded for the best sound design in American theatre.
Sound Design can also be defined as: “The manipulation of audio elements to achieve a desired effect.”
Using sound to underscore actions in plays and dances started back in Prehistoric times. These people would use sound and music to evoke emotions and reflect a mood. At it’s earliest, it was use in religious practices, for healing or just for fun. 3 In Ancient China, there were events called kagura. This were performed in Shinto Shrines with music, dance and some mime.4 This is an example of the beginnings of music and sound being used in theatre.
Many of what makes up modern theatre came from the Medieval Times. There was a form of theatre called Commedia dell’arte. These plays used music and sound effects to enhance the shows. This is where the slapstick came from. After this time, was the Elizabethan Theatre. During these shows, the crew would not only use music, but would have sound effects that came from off stage. These could be bells, whistles, horns, etc. These cues would be written down in the script to be played at the appropriate time.
Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo, built mechanical sound-making devices, called intonarumori, for Futurist theatrical/music performances starting around 1913. These devices were meant to simulate natural and manmade sounds, such as trains and bombs. Russolo’s treatise The Art of Noises, is arguably the first written document on the use of abstract noise in the theatre; he might be called the grandfather of conceptual sound designers. After his death, his intonarumori were used in more conventional theatre performances to create realistic sound effects.
Possibly the first use of recorded sound in the theatre was a phonograph playing a baby’s cry in a London theatre in 1890. 6Sixteen years later, Beerbohm Tree definitely used recordings in his London production of Stephen Phillips’ tragedy NERO. The event is marked in the Theatre Magazine (1906) with two photographs; one showing a musician blowing a bugle into a large horn attached to a disc recorder, the other with an actor recording the agonizing shrieks and groans of the tortured martyrs. The article states: “these sounds are all realistically reproduced by the gramophone”. As cited by Bertolt Brecht, there was a play about Rasputin written in (1927) by Alexej Tolstoi and directed by Erwin Piscator that included a recording of Lenin’s voice. It would not be however until the 1950s, when Hollywood directors started directing Broadway productions, that sound design would start growing. Still, there was no sound designer in those plays; it was the stage manager’s duty to find the sound effects and an electrician played the recordings during performances. But even though the sound designer has basically assumed these roles, time and technology have not ruled out non-sound designers having a hand in sound production. For instance, since today’s audiences are savvier and can readily distinguish between live and recorded sounds, live backstage sound effects are still used (e.g. gun shots) by the stage manager (or assistant stage manager) for premium “aural illusion.”
Between 1980 and 1988, USITT’s first Sound Design Commissioner oversaw efforts of their Sound Design Commission to define the duties, responsibilities, standards and procedures which might normally be expected of a theatre sound designer in North America. This subject is still regularly discussed by that group, but during that time, substantial conclusions were drawn and he wrote a document which, although now somewhat dated, provides a succinct record of what was expected at that time. It was subsequently provided to both the ADC and David Goodman at the Florida USA local when they were both planning to represent sound designers in the 1990s.
MIDI and digital technology helped the field to evolve exponentially during the 1980s and 1990s. Features of computerized theatre sound design systems were recognized as being essential for live show control systems by Walt Disney World when they utilized systems of that type to control many facilities at their Disney-MGM Studios theme park, which opened in 1989. These features were incorporated into the MIDI Show Control (MSC) specification, ratified by the MIDI Manufacturers Association in 1991. The MIDI Show Control standard is an open, industry wide communications protocol through which all types of show devices may easily interact.
To create the MSC spec, Charlie Richmond headed the USITT MIDI Forum on their Callboard Network in 1990, which included developers and designers from the theatre sound and lighting industry from around the world. This Forum created the MIDI Show Control standard between January and September, 1990. This was ratified by the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) in January 1991, and the Japan MIDI Standards Committee (JMSC) later that year, becoming a part of the standard MIDI specification in August, 1991. The first show to fully utilize the MSC specification was the Magic Kingdom Parade at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in September, 1991.
Also, the World Wide Web has greatly enhanced the ability of sound designers to acquire source material quickly, easily and cheaply. Nowadays, a designer can preview and download crisper, more “believable” sounds as opposed to toiling through time- and budget-draining “shot-in-the-dark” searches through record stores, libraries and “the grapevine” for (often) inferior recordings. In addition, software innovation has enabled sound designers to take more of a DIY (or “do-it-yourself”) approach. From the comfort of their home and at any hour, they can simply use a computer, speakers and headphones rather than renting (or buying) costly equipment or studio space and time for editing and mixing. This provides for faster creation and negotiation with the director.