Is There Anything Sound about Sound Design?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - 05:54 PM

A man hates city noise A man hates city noise (

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!


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Comments [16]

@ Jeff and Fred, well spoken from both of you. Re Broadway shows (and most touring companies, National or Stock), too loud. Too "over-sound-designed." And it has been that way for decades (been there, done that).

When I performed early-music music dramas -- no sound design, other than adjusting our performance to the "sound" of the venue. DD~~

Aug. 29 2014 12:01 AM
Tamaz from New York

Ii remember the old days when if your voice couldn't carry to the "peanut gallery," you had no business being on stage! There was no such thing as amplification in theatre! I miss those day.

Aug. 28 2014 01:46 PM
Fred Plotkin from France

Jeff Spurgeon: You make very good points from your quiet studio and I agree with most of them. We do not need to feel music or volume to hear and enjoy it. I entirely agree about restaurants. My first decision when I eat out is not about the food but about the acoustics and noise level. Out comes the trusty decibel meter. The second consideration is food, but I will not enjoy my food so I don't eat out much. You might have noticed that the superb chef Michael Romano (who loves good music) posted a comment. I eat in his restaurants because conversation is at normal levels, the acoustics are friendly to the dining experience and the food happens to be really good. And yes, rock concerts are way too loud and distorted. I like rock music (perhaps that is a surprise to my opera readers) but go at most twice a year because I want to protect my ears. About Broadway shows: I have been to very few musicals in the past five years that have had the proper level of amplification and no distortion. Most sound designers do a rotten job, sad to say.

Aug. 28 2014 01:30 PM
Jeff Spurgeon from a studio as quiet as I want it to be

I'll come to the defense of sound designers, Fred. I've been in the last row for some Broadway performances, and have been very grateful for sound design up there. When it's properly done, you hear the performers well, you don't hear echo from other parts of the house, and the performers' voices somehow seem to come from the direction of the performers, not from the speakers (which, happily, can be hard to locate, aurally or visually). It's a serious craft and, I imagine, quite difficult, employing electronics which delay sound by various fractions of seconds depending on where in the house that sound is being directed.
What I hate to see are amateur or school productions in which performers are on mics, because the mics are so often horribly controlled. It makes good sound design all the more impressive.
Of course, that doesn't mean the sound of the whole show should be annoyingly loud, but I find that's the case in movie theaters more than in any live theater venue.
More than anything, I blame pop music concerts and the TV watching experience for our too-loud environment. We want to feel the impact of music; an orchestra can still do that -- and great operatic singers can do it more magically than any instrument -- but we've mostly become dependent on speaker wattage to give us that rush. And thoroughly-massaged TV audio makes us frustrated in circumstances where we can't hear everything effortlessly -- thus, sound design for live events. I don't imagine the craft sprang from nothing. It would be interesting to find out how it developed.
You might ask some of your restaurateur pals about sound design in eating places. Sometimes I think dining rooms are designed to be loud. Maybe it sounds more like a good party. But it's a repellent to me, because I look forward to the conversation as much as the food.

Aug. 28 2014 09:07 AM
John Whiting from London

I said all this years ago: A Pain in the Ear: some reflections on amplified sound

Aug. 28 2014 07:50 AM
Michael Romano from New York/Tokyo

Thanks Fred--could not agree more. I spend a significant portion of my year in Tokyo. When I began living here, one of the things I noticed was how much quieter a city it is than New York. Yes, there are sirens (though quite infrequently), and garbage trucks and construction goes on, but all these sound producing machines operate at a much lower decibel level, a more human level if you will. All of which makes life here much more comfortable, sound-wise.
I applaud your efforts to turn down the noise!

Aug. 27 2014 11:18 PM
Marty Heresniak from Ithaca NY

I could not be more on board with Signore Plotkin. As a singing teacher I consider it my job to teach my students to produce enough sound to be heard in any hall. That job is being taken away from me more and more as sound designers provide each member of cast and chorus with body mikes. (Let's not even get into the expenses of all the electronica.)

I've been very proud to hear one of my students start his big song, hear the pop of the body mike disconnecting, and see him center himself and turn out the volume and resonance to balance the miked chorus.

I did have one experience where a sound designer, having seen the first stumble-through of a commedia dell'arte style show, announced "The sound design is no sound design." Cast and crew did all the sound effects live on and off stage. During a battle scene I ran off for a costume change to find the ASM with a tuba strapped across her chest blowing long tones. I had to change and join her by bouncing rebar on the floor.

Acoustic Lives!

Aug. 27 2014 09:15 PM

Where is John Cage when you need him?

Aug. 27 2014 09:00 PM

I am all for true sound design in live theater venues and film theaters -- where the designers serve the experience of the audience, rather than the "shock and awe" directive.

Aug. 27 2014 08:30 PM
Sid Cundiff from Winston-Salem

tI is surprising to me just how many people can't deal with silence. Can't sleep with silence, can't sit with silence. They say they feel things closing in on the.

I need silence. And the great silence after the great climax in Beethoven's 9th, 4th mvt. and Bruckner's 9th, 3rd mvt simply makes the music!

Aug. 27 2014 07:52 PM

Back in my performing days, I often did large-scale stock tours. Microphones for the leads (and some scatter-shot mics on the stage) were the norm. At sound checks, and during all performances, I sang full out (with requisite dynamic shadings). I figured it was up to the "sound guy" to do his job.

But I wasn't going to change the way I did my job. I was hired to provide the "sound" to be designed -- and I did just that. DD~~

Aug. 27 2014 07:35 PM

@ Beachsiggy, >because they never take the earbuds out<

My favorite is the announcements on subway cars where they warn about not displaying your electronic devices. But only those of us reading hard copy books (or Kindles/tablets) can hear it. Everyone else has their ear buds in! DD~~

Aug. 27 2014 07:29 PM
George M

At least the noise level in the bars these days has forced my to curtail my drinking.

Aug. 27 2014 02:47 PM
Beachsiggy from NYC unfortunately

I'm all for limiting noise, it makes me insane. I hate NYC because of the noise level. People won't listen and/or do anything about it, tho, because they never take the earbuds out. Imagine the volume level they are using to overcome the street noise! No wonder everyone is deaf.

Aug. 27 2014 11:27 AM
Neil Schnall

I agree, Fred, 100%.

Aug. 27 2014 11:09 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Hear! here! But, will anyone listen?

Aug. 27 2014 08:44 AM

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