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Bringing It Home: The Final Chapter In The Ongoing Series On Doing Theatre Sound On A Budget

Using what's available to the maximum benefit of the sound design, with the author detailing that process in a recent production.
The mix position at the Diego Rivera Theatre for “Mamma Mia.” Key components include a Waves eMotion LV1 mix system and Behringer X32 digital console.

In this series (part 1 and part 2), I’ve been exploring the challenges we face at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) when it comes to sound design with tight budget restrictions and the related issues. Here, I’ll detail our processes and strategies for a recent production achieved without spending a dime.

In this world that’s so connected by – and reliant on – technology, as sound designers we must understand that technology can’t solve every challenge, and further, we must explain this to the other members of the creative team. For example, 25 wireless microphones can’t be un-muted on stage at the same time without creating feedback issues, not to mention that it will sound like mush.

Over the years when I’ve asked a director what the wireless microphone needs are for a musical, the typical response is “How many do you have?” [Cue buzzer sound effect] “Wrong Answer,” and unproductive because the question is being answered with a question. The point is that it indicates they lack an understanding of the technical aspects of sound design and that they haven’t thought about how the sound design will impact the storytelling.

I never expect directors to understand sound design with the kind of depth I do, of course, but it’s not too much to ask that they think about what best serves the storytelling – without fixating on the limitations of the performers or the technology at hand. As a sound designer, I would never attempt to tell directors how to direct the production, so directors shouldn’t tell sound designers how to design the sound.

All that is necessary is for directors to express the challenges that are at hand and to depend on the talents, creativity, resourcefulness, skills, and experience of the designer – just as they depend on performers to know how to sing in key and remember their lines. Collaboration is the key and there’s no substitute; when it’s disregarded, the results are usually unremarkable at best.

Getting Organized

This past semester at CCSF we presented the musical “Mamma Mia.” Since the show is based on the music of ABBA, it has songs that people know well, which poses its own unique challenges. Each song is its own independent little story which contributes to the overall storytelling so the singers must shine over the band because the words drive the storytelling forward.

I put wireless mics on the seven principal singers for the entire show, and two more wireless mics moved between five soloists. The dialogue was not amplified to create a contrast with the songs, which let the magic of the music sparkle.

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