Good sound design is essential to a show, especially if there are obstacles that might prevent the actors from being heard, such as staging, space size, or background noise and music. Sound can also act as a powerful tool for creating tension, chaos, peace–just about any atmosphere or effect you like, whether it’s a bone-rattling explosion or charming entrance music. Either way, having a good sound designer on your production team is as beneficial as it is hard to come by. In the meantime here are some considerations any director, producer, or sound designer should have in mind.
General Sound Design
When deciding where your speakers will go, balance, audience coverage, and staging are top priorities. If your actors are using microphones, make sure they will not be moving in front of the speakers, as this causes feedback. Also make sure that anyone who needs to be able to hear besides the audience, such as a pit conductor or drummer, has his own speaker, or monitor. Pit conductors may also require video monitors (which can be created with a camcorder and TV) so that they can see the show or so that the actors can see them. The Off Broadway Theater has a special box for hanging video monitors from the grid, and Media Services has extra long cable to connect camcorders to TVs, including the appropriate adaptors.
There are libraries of recorded sound effects available through the Drama school, as well as several recording studios available around campus for use by students and registered student groups. Visit the Audio Production resources page for a list of studios.
Sound equipment rentals, depending on your show’s needs, can run anywhere from less than one hundred dollars for a small production, to several hundred dollars or even a thousand for a large musical, to up to two thousand dollars for a Dramat mainstage musical. Generally musicals are significantly more expensive than non-musicals, due to the need for multiple body microphones.
Pits often need to be muted by some sort of sound wall or curtain, and almost always have to play softer than anyone thinks necessary. Guitar, bass, and keyboard are often patched through the main speakers and mixed with the voices.
When beginning any theatrical or presentational project, ask yourself what sound requirements your project has, from special sound effects to microphone issues. Here are some examples of shows that will need special attention paid to sound.
Unless your show is going up in a small space with minimal instrumental accompaniment, chances are you will need a significant sound design budget and a good designer if you are staging a musical. Both for the sake of the audience hearing the actors, and for the sake of preserving the actors’ voices, microphones will most likely be necessary, and, depending on the instrumentation, you might consider having microphones in the pit orchestra as well. Not every note in a musical is meant to be belted, so even if you think your actors can overcome whatever accompaniment there is, considering using microphones. Generally, if there is a drum set or brass in the pit, microphones will be necessary.
Theater in the round
When doing theater in the round, or any type of staging where actors’ backs are frequently turned toward a portion of the audience, it can help the overall sound and volume to have some light microphone use. Even if the audience can hear the actors when the actors are speaking away from the audience, it is nice to not have their voices suddenly become softer and harder to understand due to the change in speaking direction.
Many shows have sound effects or background music. Keep your show sounding professional by being conscious of good sound design practices.
Large theater spaces
Auditoriums almost always require microphones, both to preserve actors’ voices and to make sure the audience can hear. If you are in a space any larger than the Off Broadway Theater, it is very possible you will need microphones for your cast.
Here are some examples of equipment you might consider using:
There are several types of microphones to consider. Body microphones come in several varieties, varying in quality and visibility. Generally they are more expensive and more likely to give you trouble unless you are using higher quality body mics. Hand mics can be put on stands or held and are generally reliable, less likely to give feedback, but also inconvenient unless you want the look of a hand mic situation, such as a nightclub, rock performance, or prepared speech. Area microphones can be suspended from the lighting grid or mounted on the floor, and pick up a much larger area of sound, though provide less amplification. Generally area mics are used in addition to other types of microphones, and are better for amplifying groups of people. Be careful of using the floor-mounted variety if your show has dance, stomping, or running, as the thumping will be picked up by the mic. Instrumental mics are used for musical instruments and come in a variety of types to match each instrument group. They can help even out the sound balance or improve overall sound of instruments like drum set, guitar, or bass.
There are many types of speakers with various levels of quality and types of use, but generally you can find general use speakers at various places around campus. See “Equipment Available Through Yale” for details.
Subwoofers are a type of speaker designed especially for lower frequencies. They bring out the bass in music, or the rumble in sound effects, so if you have music or sounds such as thunder or explosions, consider getting a subwoofer if you can.
These are also available through Yale, and are necessary to control the input and output volumes of the microphones, recorded music, sound effects, and speakers you are using. The sound designer or someone else may be required to be the board op, or the person in charge of adjusting these levels during the show, depending on your show’s sound design needs.
These help improve sound quality, avoid overloading, and create sound effects such as reverb. However, they are often too expensive for most shows at Yale to rent.
Undergduate Production manages a variety of theatrical equipment that is available to borrow, provided you are working on a production they are directly supporting. Visit the UP Inventory page for more information.
If you are interested in using outside vendors, they must have Yale University listed on their insurance policy. A list of vendors who are in good standing with Yale can be found here.