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Why Sound Design is Important for Live Theater

Guest Blog by: Abby Chelsea

The theater industry has seen a lot of challenges in the past few years, but these trials revealed that live stage performances are more important now than ever. Our post “10 Lessons from 2020 about Theatre & Stage Management” emphasizes that theater is essential; as an art, it reflects a society’s cultures and values and unites communities, something desperately needed in times of crisis. It’s also amazing entertainment, a feast for the senses and emotions.

There’s no doubt that watching performers on stage is exciting—which is why the theater was so missed when it was closed—but technical aspects like sound are just as important when bringing an audience into a scene. It’s this immersive quality that makes live theater so engaging and life-changing for so many reasons. Here’s why sound design is vital for any production:

Beating Acoustic Limitations

Ensuring that audiences can clearly hear performers should be a top priority for sound designers. However, a venue’s acoustic capabilities, such as natural reverb and echo in a space, can pose unique challenges. Larger theaters will often have more of these qualities than a black box space or smaller theater, and proper equipment can be used to work around these issues. As Shout4Music highlights, different types of microphones and sound equipment are suitable for live performances. Microphones like the MTP W950 Modular Condenser Microphone showcase how proper gear can prevent issues with durability and feedback during live performances. Wind noise and plosives coming from performers are also eliminated.

High-quality equipment is essential for delivering the best sound quality to audiences so they can enjoy the show without the immersive effect being hampered by poor acoustics or gear that aren’t natural-sounding in a performance.

Developing Mood and Atmosphere

In live theater, sound design is as important as lighting and sets when setting a mood or atmosphere for a particular show. The Conversation notes that Professor of music Gena R. Ghrer notes that when it comes to films, music, and sound go hand-in-hand with creating a visual impact for a scene. Beyond mood, sound can foreshadow events, reveal a character’s inner emotions, and underscore the ongoing action. The same principles apply to live theater; a production need not be musical to use sound in a way that adds to a scene and conveys a particular emotion to audiences. Underscores are designed to enhance the atmosphere of a performance subtly. Sound effects can add an impactful element, such as a loud clap of thunder or glass breaking.

A scene may not reach its maximum potential without the proper sound design. Audiences may see the action unfold on stage, but the music and sound developed by a sound designer are essential for bringing the viewers into the world and touching their emotions. A good sound designer also knows when silence can provide the most impact.

Balancing Sound and Performance

Though music and sound are essential for a live theater production, sound design ensures that these elements don’t overpower the performers. An understanding of the previously mentioned aspects of sound design can be used to find a good balance between the acoustics of a space and the necessary music or sound effects to configure how the sound is delivered effectively. This can include choosing between recorded or live soundscapes, which sound effects to keep or omit in a scene, the kind of equipment being used, and or finding the harmony between the performers’ voices and the sounds being played.

Sound design is integral to the life-enriching aspect of live theater. Research from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that the immersive and entertaining theater experience can spark empathy for others. When you harness sound along with stunning performances, believable sets, and a touching story, you can shift the way people view the world. Delivering a good experience for audiences through sound design can help achieve this change.

For more expert guidance for stage management and the art and craft of theater, check out The Symposium to find out how you can gain more insights and advice.

Written exclusively for

by Abby Chelsea

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