Is There Anything Sound about Sound Design?

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A few readers have taken me to task for having a decibel meter on my smartphone that I discreetly use to measure volume in certain theaters, restaurants and other public places. I think it is important to do so because one's hearing is precious and, in my case, is essential for the work I do. The acceptable level of decibels for safe hearing should not exceed 70 for any prolonged period. Many streets of New York—with their screaming sirens, honking horns, grinding garbage trucks, noisy buses, shouting people—are louder than is safe for many hours of the day and night.

Prolonged exposure to such volume is not only bad for one’s hearing but it can raise blood pressure, increase stress and produce collateral medical damage. The most frequent complaint to 311 (New York City’s non-emergency hotline) is, in fact, noise. And yet, a long succession of mayors have not taken serious action and a couple of them (Edward I. Koch, Rudolph Giuliani) regularly added to the decibel level with their own stridency. Similarly, holders of the office of Public Advocate (Mayor Bill De Blasio had that post until getting his new job) have not done much either.

I am certain that sirens on emergency vehicles are louder than in the past because I hear them inside buildings now and did not when I was younger and, presumably, had better hearing. Part of my own sensitivity to sound and noise is due to having senses that are too highly developed to live comfortably in cacophonous urban settings. I hear everything, it seems, and notice that people I am with do not. It is not that they tune some of the din out but that they simply cannot hear it. The upside of this is that, in concert halls and opera houses without amplification, I am able to derive boundless pleasure from when I am hearing (when the performances are good, of course). But the negative aspect of this "gift" is having to endure unrelenting noise.

While harmful noise levels are a universal problem in New York and many other cities, a whole other issue is what is happening in theaters. When there is less opera on in New York I tend to spend some of my nights catching up on Broadway musicals as well as plays in venues all over town. A Broadway show, when done well, can be a source of joy and is something we Americans excel at. Sadly, though, in recent years much of the joy has been marred by horrific amplification that makes the experience nearly unbearable.

Recently I attended four Broadway musicals, all of which had excellent performers, stories that were interesting, and music worth listening to.  But three of them (Once; If/Then; Hedwig and the Angry Inch) had opening numbers that exceeded 100 decibels and other songs that reached that volume as well. Idina Menzel, star of If/Then, is what is known as a belter, meaning that she has a powerful voice. The amplification was such that my ears hurt for most of the evening. The same could be said for the talented cast of Once, whose music would be so much more enjoyable if played more softly rather than in the distorted way it is heard.

Until recently, the prodigiously gifted Neil Patrick Harris starred in Hedwig. I noticed, under his wigs, that his ears were plugged. I wondered if this was to play the music of the band into his ears or try to block some of the crashing volume from the stage. Even with his excellent diction, many words were inaudible and drowned out. The fourth show, The Bridges of Madison County, was the only one in which its cast (led by the wonderful Kelli O’Hara, soon to appear at the Met alongside Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn in The Merry Widow) could make every word understood. Yes, the voices were amplified, but with sensitivity to the material and the audience.

Mixing console in a theater

There is a euphemism in this context that I don’t much care for: Sound Design. One would think this would mean “sound effects” such as gunshots, thunderstorms, and such. Perhaps it still does, but the dirty secret is that most sound design is about how loud the music and spoken voices are and how they blend with musical instruments in the orchestra (in which case there are often fewer than in the past, but more amplified).

In June an article in The New York Times looked at the decision by the committee of the Tony Awards (the top honor in the American theater) to eliminate the categories of sound design in a musical and a play. I would say “good riddance.” But in the article, Brian Ronan, who won the 2014 sound design Tony for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, explained why he thought it is a legitimate art form:

“Like my fellow designers in set, costumes and light I work in talent support, and as a whole we produce an end result that allows the performer to deliver the best production to the audience,” …… "I suppose, however, it’s the lack of tangibility in sound that led to the Tony’s decision to eliminate us from the ceremony. Our craft is at its highest when the audience is unaware of our presence, when the sound complements and moves the audience without drawing attention to itself. The Tony committee can be forgiven for taking the hard work that goes into invisibility for granted.”

Darron L. West, who won the 2012 Tony for sound design for the play Peter and the Starcatcher, said, “More often than not, today’s sound designers wear many hats in the theater…We are aural dramaturgs creating cinema-like meaning with underscoring in straight plays. We are problem-solvers helping the audience to hear the actors craft intimately in vast theater houses in both musicals and straight plays. And as more playwrights and directors are demanding more of sound design as a vital element in how they tell a story, we create context and mood for an audience all while in some cases artistically covering noisy stage scenery in transitions.”

A petition to reinstate the awards had more than 32,000 signatures by late July.

I would like to start a petition to turn down the volume on life in New York, one in which the city health department could weigh in on the consequences. And how about a cautionary petition banning amplification from opera in almost every circumstance? The day I no longer took the New York City Opera seriously was when they announced they were introducing “sound enhancement” to performances.

What say you, readers? Hear! Hear!