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Isobel Waller-Bridge: As a sound designer, kicking ass is your job

Photo: Shutterstock/Zoran Milosavljevic

Even for the most meticulous of us, it’s still possible for things to go wrong. In the crucial moment when your carefully paced and richly built score or sound design is to reach its big flourish, a phantom menace in the control room can lead to your exquisite cue being hijacked by a brutal programming error (probably, annoyingly, your own).

I learned the hard way, as most of us have. It was a rite of passage that I’m rather proud of. Everyone needs at least horror story to share, right? Have you ever noticed that people often share stories with a big nostalgic grin on their face? Or with a sense of vision and new wisdom? Mistakes are great. Just get them in early.

For thrifty producers, a composer/sound designer package is an appealing prospect. It’s very important, however, to acknowledge that they are two very different disciplines. As the sound designer, you’re responsible for everything the audience hears during a show. It’s not your job to rig the speakers, but it is your job to know exactly where you want them in the space, and why. As the composer, I’ve always felt that it’s your job to find the soul of the production.

Different types of sound design place varying demands on sound designers. I know where I’m most inspired, and how I’m most useful to a show, so I tend to be discerning about the jobs I accept. I see music and sound as occupying a very similar place in the fabric of a show. It’s all about the storytelling. Whether you choose a piano or a soundscape, the bottom line is that it’s collaborating with the other theatrical elements to tell that story.

Learn your world. You’ve spent hours learning to use QLab as another instrument –practising, inventing designs to become quick at making changes and being able to achieve exactly the effects you want with simple shortcuts. In this environment, you’re building complex sound worlds that have tone and feeling and tell a story.

It’s important to learn the names of your speakers so you don’t look blankly at the sound technicians when they ask you about an E3. You should be able to name and request your favourite speakers, because they will, after all, be broadcasting your hard-grafted work to hundreds of people. You want to be able to create magic – and for it to sound great.

It’s taken me years to have the confidence to stand up to a musical director or technician – or to walk away from comments that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t spend hours writing a piece of music for it to be played at the wrong tempo. If you’re the sound designer or composer – or both – you’ve got the skills and you’re head of your department. You have the responsibility to politely kick some ass if you need to.

A cue might be cut from the show at the last minute, or reduced from 24 seconds to six, but if it’s good, it’ll stay in your mind. Then it might reappear somewhere down the line in a different show, in a different guise.

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