J. Michael Gillette. Theatrical Design and Production, 4th edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1999. Chapter 19: Sound Design and Technology

1. When did the sound designer join the production team ?

The first person to receive a Broadway credit as Sound Designer was Abe Jacob. The show was the 1971 Broadway production of Weber and Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar. Three years earlier, Dan Dugan received Sound Design credit in the 1968-69 Season Program for San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre (ACT). The title was invented by ACT stage manager Dorothy Fowler "to describe what Dan Dugan does."

Electrical sound reinforcement and sound reproduction has been used in the theatre since the 1940s. A turntable would be plugged into the theatre's PA (public address) system for pre-show music and a couple of microphones were set on the front of the stage to pickup the lead singer's voice. Sound equipment was usually specified by the stage manager and set up by the electric (or light) crew. Most sound effects (gunshots, door slams, thunder) were produced manually by a member of the property department.

2. What is a "bell board?"

A bell board is a small piece of wood on which is mounted three-push botton switches, a small bell transformer (120v to 10v) and a door bell (ding-a-ling), door chime (ding-dong) and buzzer (buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz). Generally the door bell does double duty, it is both the door bell and the phone ring.

    A "thunder sheet?"

A thunder sheet is a large, heavy piece of sheet metal usually suspended back stage which, when shaken or hit, produces a low thunder-like rumble. The larger and heavier the sheet metal, the deeper and more substantial the effect. Northern's sheet is 4x10 feet; is approximately .024" thick (24 gauge) and weighes about 40 pounds. A small piece of "printer's tin" produces soprano thunder.

3. What is the difference between sound reinforcement and sound reproduction?

Sound reinforcement is the amplification of the performer's voice, sound reproduction is the reproduction of recorded music and sound effects.

4. What type of theatrical productions tend to use sound reinforcement?

Large modern musicals, especially those with a full pit orchestra.


Most singers need amplification to be heard over the orchestra.

5. How is pre-recorded sound used in the production of a play?

The Sound Designer (or Director) will typically select and record pre-show, scene change, intermission, and post-show music. Normally the music will reflect the period and mood of the play. Many dramas will also use recorded sound effects: thunder, a passing train, waves breaking on the shore... These sounds are available from a commercial effects library or off the Internet.

6. What is a sound designer's responsibilities?

  1. Develop a cue list of sound effects and required music.
  2. Specify the type and amount of equipment to be used.
  3. Determine the location of both microphones and speakers.
  4. Prepare the master tape or CD.
  5. Supervise the mounting and operation of the sound equipment.

7. What types of microphones are used to "mike" a musical?

  1. Three to five foot mikes placed along the front edge of the stage to pick up the chorus and
  2. a wireless body mike for each of the major characters.

8. What is the standard foot mike?

Crown PCC 160
Most sound designers specify a "preassure zone mike" (PZM®), a low profile (1" tall) directional unit which can be literally taped to the stage floor. We use the Crown PCC® 160.

9. What problems may be encountered when using a wireless mike?

A wireless mike consists of a small non-directional microphone, a transmitter pack about the size of a deck of cards and a receiver and antenna which is normally placed near the sound board. If the designer is using six wireless mikes, there must be also be six transmitters and six receivers. Each transmitter-receiver system is on a different frequency. A few comments...
  1. The mike and transmitter pack must be kept dry
  2. Fresh batteries must be placed in the transmitter for every performance and rehearsal
  3. With the VHF systems there should be approximately 18" between antennas
  4. The actor should never turn off the microphone or transmitter
  5. It is the board operators responsibility to make sure the actor's mike is off when he is off-stage

10. Where in the theatre are speakers located for sound reinforcement?

In a large theatre with a permanent sound system, a speaker cluster is generally hung over the center of the orchestra pit. In a smaller house, speaker columns are placed on each side of the proscenium opening. It is generally recommended that every member of the house be able to see at least one of these speakers.

    Sound reproduction?

Back stage near the "source" of the sound. If a character reacts to gun shots being fired off stage right, the sound should come from a stage right speaker.

11. What is feed back?

Feedback occurs when the sound from a speaker is picked up by a microphone, re-amplified and rebroadcast by the speaker. This produces an endless loop which creates an escalating howling or screeching tone at the frequency where the system gain is greatest.

    How can it be controlled?

If the system begins to go into feedback, the only thing that can be done is to reduce the level of the offending mike or pull back on the gain (volume) of the entire system. As a designer before the show goes into rehearsal you can...
  1. Place the speakers 6 to 8 feet in front of the microphones
  2. Use directional microphones.
  3. Reduce the number of open mike channels to the bare minimum
  4. Use a graphic equalizer to reduce the gain on the frequencies (the howling and screeching tones) where feedback occures.

12. Where should the mixing console be placed?

In the back of the auditorium. The sound board operator must be able to hear the same sound the audience hears.

13. What has traditionally been the source of sound effect cues?

A reel-to-reel tape deck. Sound effects and music cues were recorded onto tape. White leader tape was cut in (edited) between each sound cue making it possible to quickly locate a specific piece of music or effect. Because the entire show was recorded on tape, it was easy to add additional cues or to rearrange the existing cues.

14. How have computers effected sound reproduction?

Today, many sound designers record the music and sound effects on a computer's hard drive. The individual cuts can then be manuplitiated and edited with available software, and cut to a CD, recorded onto a MiniDisc® or played back in the theatre from the designer's computer.
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Last updated: August 16, 2005
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