Simon Baker grew up in the west London suburb of Feltham, just beside Heathrow Airport, “so everything I was interested in as a teenager was largely about escapism”, he laughs.
He loved the Star Wars films and Doctor Who on television, entranced not only by their futuristic worlds, but the technology that went into creating them.
That fixation led him to a documentary about the Radiophonic Workshop, the BBC’s in-house electronic music studio, and the creators of Doctor Who’s seminal theme tune and sound effects. With that, a love for the possibilities of sound was born.
Four decades later, and Baker is now one of British theatre’s leading sound designers. In practice, the role can vary dramatically from show to show, but, as Baker explains, he has two key responsibilities: “The technical delivery of a show – what loudspeakers we’re going to use, what radio mics we’re going to use, all those sorts of things,” he says, “and the creative element.”
While on a straight play a sound designer may be more focused on the creativity of a production, a big musical requires a huge concentration on the technical aspects. It is, Baker says, “like running an IT department in a large company”.
Whatever the show, Baker believes the sound has to serve the production. “I see shows where the sound designer has really gone for it and it doesn’t fit with the rest of the production. For me, it’s about aiding the telling of the story, rather than thinking: ‘I’m doing all of it.’ ”
His latest project is Standing at the Sky’s Edge, a new musical at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Based around the songs of hometown favourite Richard Hawley, it will tell the story of the city’s post-war housing project the Park Hill estate and its myriad residents.
Baker has been working on the long-gestating show for around 18 months. When we speak, he’s preparing to go to Sheffield armed with the “toolkit” of equipment and effects that he and his team have been preparing.
Hawley’s music lends itself perfectly to a theatrical narrative, he says, but when it comes to the sound set-up, people from the recording industry sometimes have to get around the fact “that the experience of watching a show is different to going to a gig”.
He recalls working on the Pet Shop Boys musical Closer to Heaven and “they wanted it so loud. You thought: ‘That’s great for 45 minutes in a club but at the Arts Theatre [in the West End], that’s not what people need.’ But I think after a couple of previews, everybody settles down into a groove of what a show’s going to be.”
Baker began his career working for the Royal Shakespeare Company, before moving to the Royal Court in London. It was there, as an assistant to the revered Paul Arditti, where he really began to understand the artistry of his profession, working with “a new generation of directors who were placing great importance on sound work”.
During the 1990s, things began to change for sound designers, who had previously battled for their creative due. “The traditional system in theatre had been a chief electrician and then a deputy, who sort of looked after the sound,” Baker says. “And we were turning that on its head saying: ‘No, there’s going to be a sound department.’ ”
A gradual shift in attitudes was apparent when he then went to work at the National Theatre in the role of sound supervisor during Trevor Nunn’s tenure as artistic director. “When I started there, I don’t think sound design was credited, but by the end sound designers were being brought in and featured on the poster with everyone else.”
Baker was already an established sound designer before his first musical, which came up while he was working for specialist sound design company Autograph. Being thrust into the big-budget commercial sector was a rewarding challenge, he says, not least because, for the first time, he was answering to producers – not just directors – such as Cameron Mackintosh.
“At the time, I suppose you can resent it and think: ‘Who is the guy shouting at the back of the room?’ But I’ve worked on many musicals since then, and I’ve always sat in the auditorium when it’s been going wrong and thought: ‘I really wish Cameron were here.’ ”
The biggest project of Baker’s career so far is Matilda the Musical, an international hit that won him an Olivier in 2012. Of all the musicals he’s done, it posed the biggest technical challenge because “Tim Minchin’s lyrics are dense and complicated and then they’re sung by an eight-year-old girl.”
What’s more, he says, when it comes to amplification, “we try to do it so nobody’s aware of the technology. We could have made it really easy and had everyone wearing really low, drop-down microphones but we [chose to] hide everything.”
In recent years, Baker has been freelance, forging close professional relationships with the likes of Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus and Wise Children head Emma Rice, his partner of 10 years. They met when he worked on her hit stage adaptation of Brief Encounter, and have collaborated many times since – including during her ill-fated reign at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Rice’s use of amplified sound was one of the key sticking points with the theatre’s board that led to her departure. Like many others, Baker was confused by their consternation. “I think people imagine when you go there that there’s a set of rules on the wall about what this place is – and there just isn’t. It’s really hard to understand the rules even now, when they use electric light all the time because otherwise they can’t perform at night.”
He’s also involved in Rice’s new company Wise Children – a touring organisation that aims to redefine the concept of the term so that it’s “not just rocking up to a theatre; you can bring something to that venue beyond the show itself”. He’s particularly excited by its plans to offer training along the way, hopefully creating some more skilled theatre technicians in the process.
As things stand, he worries about staffing in his field. When he was young, drama schools offered two-year technical courses – he undertook one such course at Guildhall – which provided very practical all-round training for those wanting to get their first job in theatre.
Nowadays, though, skills such as sound design are instead covered by expensive three-year academic degrees, which leave people unwilling to work from the bottom up, Baker believes. “There are very few people that want to learn a craft or a trade. Everybody wants to take the lead.”
Another concern he has is about the deteriorating quality of sound recording in the digital age. “Years ago, I think we were obsessed with the best way to capture audio – what was the sample rate, how we were going to do it. Now, quite often, something’s being played back and it’s an MP3 and it sounds fine on headphones, but on a big system it’s not fine.”
His wish? “I think learning about the old-fashioned basics of sound-system design would really benefit people.”