Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association

Dave Mickey


Dave Mickey’s advice to students includes that “you can always do more and try harder!”; he definitely takes this to heart as he juggles designing, teaching and parenting. In fact an exploration of the bagpipes led to him almost passing out, so, in his words, “I guess I’m not as full of hot air as I thought”!Besides sound design, Dave teaches a Virtual Reality course, creates MIDI and MSC apps, and has two daughters, one of which is a junior olympic diver. If you are at USITT in 2016, he is reviewing various student projects as a guest of Vincent Olivieri and the Sound Commission. Dave teaches at CSU Fullerton in his home state of California. He has designed sound, video, interactive elements and lighting for productions at Theatre Row, 59E59, Virginia Stage Company, International City Theatre, The Colony Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, and Syzygy. He has numerous nominations for the LA Weekly Theater Awards, has garnered honorable mentions at the Garland Awards, and won the 2014 NAACP Best Sound Design award for his production of Breath and Imagination. Dave is co-host of THE CUE podcast about show control.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just opened Closer Than Ever at International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA as the sound designer.  In April I’m designing sound for Big Meal at the Chance Theatre in Anaheim Hills CA, Mary Poppins at GoldenWest College, and in August Doubt at International City Theatre.

I’m an Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance at CSU Fullerton were I’m the head of the Sound and Projection Design program for undergrads and grads. I’m advising twenty sound and projection design students on nine productions this semester.  I am also teaching an Audio Techniques, Advance Sound Design and an MFA Actors Voiceover Recording Course at CSU Fullerton. At CalArts I’m teaching a Virtual Reality course using Unity3d, Oculus Rift, and Google Cardboard for the Center of Integrated Media. I am also a co-host on the Cue Show Podcast, a podcast about show control We have just celebrated our first anniversary. In my free time I create iOS, AppleWatch and TVOS Apps. I have several MIDI and MSC apps,, sound playback, myReplay and Speaker test app. I’m currently working on sound education iOS apps and MIDI goto Apps. Recently I have started an Etsy store called MIDI UP selling MIDI to XLR adapters and MIDI Kill Switches and plan to release a MSC Controller.

What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?

My eight year old daughter just joined the swim team at the Mission Viejo Nadadores and my fourteen year old daughter is a junior olympic diver for the Mission Viejo Nadadores who competes across the US. My family is fostering a dog and she just had puppies; we now have four bundles of joy in our home.

In the next week you will be looking at various student projects at USITT.  What are you hoping to hear/find in these projects? Do you have any advice for young designers today?

I love seeing students’ work and what they create. I enjoy their different points of view, discovering new music and how they process a design. My advice for young designers is to believe in yourself, make a choice, make it quickly – it could be right or wrong, just make a choice. If it’s wrong you can change it. Know your tools and software. Trust your ears and listen. You learn more from listening than talking. Communicate. Life is all about public relations, treat everyone how you would like to be treated and never burn a bridge. Ask the question: Are all design elements telling the same story. Is your sound telling the same story and does it help move the story forward. You can always do more and try harder!  It’s only theatre, no one will die so don’t kill yourself (don’t forget to eat and sleep). Asking for help is not a weakness but a strength.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born and raised in Chino CA. My mother was German and my father was American. I’m a first generation American on my mother’s side. I now live in Lake Forest CA with my wife and 2 daughters.

Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?

My most successful collaboration was with director Saundra McClain,  costume designer Dianne Graebner and lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg. We have collaborated on six productions together over the past two years. I believe that our collaborations are successful because we trust each other, and we communicate. We will dissect the play together,  understand each moment of the play,  support each other’s designs and make sure we are all telling the same story at the same time. It’s a true definition of the term, collaborate,  and that is why I believe we are successful together.

Who or what makes up your support structure?

Having great colleagues and collaborators. People make the difference. At CSU Fullerton the sound department would be at a lost without our Sound Production Engineer, Jeff Polunas. Jeff keeps the sound department in tip top shape and is a great resource for the students. I would not be able to do all that we do without Jeff’s support. He is greatly appreciated.

What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?

Many times I have answered that question with whatever music I’m currently working on for the current productions. The band I’m currently listening to without a production is Twenty One Pilots. I find their music to be chaotic and fun, like my life, chaotic and fun but organized chaos.

Name a pet production peeve.

Long holds, so I have made them into games. The game: to see if I could fix my notes before the reason we are holding is over.

What is your favorite meal during or before tech?

A really good sandwich, one of those sandwiches that you can’t make at home, one bite is happiness -full of flavor and freshness. It’s all about the bread, soft pretzel bread is the best. Or a custom personal pizza from PizzaPress or Pieology.

Do you play an instrument?

I can play the piano, guitar, bass, ukulele, and I have tried to learn the bagpipes. But I almost passed out trying to play the bagpipes, I guess I’m not as full of hot air as I thought. I love to find different unique instruments as you never know when you’ll need it’s sound.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?

I started creating little shows when I was a little child, mostly puppet theatre with puppets and sounds. I was constantly making and creating random things and driving my parents mad. When I was thirteen I discovered that I could studytheatre and joined a stagecraft class my freshman year of high school. By the second semester I started to design sound for every school production during my tenure. My high school drama teacher, Frank Smouse, saw something in me and helped me get into college. I have him to thank; he changed my life forever for the better. At that age I never thought about going to college since my parents never went to college. My sister and I are the first generation in our family to go to college and we both have master degrees.

Does your family understand what you do? 

To their dying day my parents never truly understood what I did for a living. Since they couldn’t see it they didn’t understand it. They thought sound was just there, it came from the objects that produced the sound so why would you need a sound designer. My wife does understand what I do since she grew up in theatre, her mother is a costume designer. My daughters can’t understand that people don’t understand it, sound has always been a part of their lives.

Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?

I have many mentors to thank and I am grateful for all of their help. Jon Gottlieb was my mentor at CalArts when I was a MFA sound design student. Jon mentored me in life, the universe and everything, not just sound design. Kevin Goold introduced me to Max/MSP and forever changed my life in interactive art. Tom Leeser introduced me tointegrated media design and game design. He has given me   the opportunity to teach integrated media design for the past eight years.

The late,  great Bill Morse was not only a mentor but also a father figure for me when I was a student at Cal Poly Pomona. James Reckon, my first sound design professorgave me my first professional sound tech job. Mike Hooker and Drew Dalzellshowed me the way of theme park sound design,  recommended and hired me for gigs. Frank Smouse saved me from throwing my life away and was the first person to believe in me.

Where do you find inspiration?


I find my personal inspiration from my history, my past. I come from a poor family, my father was a Vietnam veteran, a self-medicated PTSD alcoholic and my mother a German immigrant. We never had a lot in life and lived many years not knowing if we had a house to go home to. I was driven to not be like the other kids in my neighborhood and to do more with my life than my parents. Because of sound design I was able to excel in the arts and was fortunate to have a high school teacher and mentor who saw a kid with potential. He helped me escape the path I would have led and helped me into college, I never looked at another school other then Cal Poly Pomona. At the time Cal Poly Pomona was the only college I ever heard of. I worked to stay in school and worked even harder to never miss an opportunity.  Since I worked to stay in school it took me 8 years to complete my BA, but I am proud to say that every job I ever had was in theatre. I was hired at CalTech as their Senior Audio Technician at the age of 20. By the time I was 26 I realized that this was it, designing 1 to 6 shows a year and a dead end job, I was in a senior position with no where to go. I made the big leap and quit my job and went back to school. I only looked at CalArts because I know that’s where I wanted to be. Over the years life has been difficult, losing both of my parents within 18 months of each other, paying off school loans, finding a decent job. But I have been very fortunate too, I’ve been married for almost 16 years, I have 2 wonderful daughters and have traveled because of my art. Now I have the gift to give back and help young students discover and develop their talents and watch them grow as artists. No mater where you come from never let it stop you from being successful and following your dreams.

Was there a show or experience that drew you to sound design or composition?

Nope, just the mad desire to create and to be challenged.  I barely remember seeing a production of “Macbeth” as a wee lad and remember the sounds of the witches scenes. I’m the type of person that needs to bechallenged or I get bored. I tried other design areas and discovered that sound has the science, physics, technology, and best of all a creative outlet that challenges me to constantly grow as an artist.

What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?

QLab, Max/MSP, Xcode, Protools, Logic, Final Cut Pro, Unity3D, email and Omnigraffle.

Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?

Max/MSP and QLab. I created my own interactive apps in Max/MSP to trigger content to play in QLab.  Max/MSP gave me the tools to create any design that I could imagine. It’s one of those “swiss army knife” kinds of software that I could not live without.

QLab gave me the ability to create the sound designs that I heard in my head live on stage. I’m thankful for Chris at Figure53, my favorite email from Chris was “Dave what are you doing?”  I was building a show with some thousands of cues and trying to play pause play cues within a single frame. Qlab would crash every time. It ended up that QLab was rounding to the 9th decimal and needed to round to the 10th decimal for it to work.  Chris fixed it for me over night. Math, it was math that caused the crash. I was only able to design and create the show on time and budget because of QLab 2, this was a week after the release. Qlab has been saving my shows for the past ten years. Because I know how to program complicated show control with QLab I was hired to program three shows at Universal Studios back in 2009/10. Thank you QLab.

If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?

I most likely would be writing computer programs and hacking systems for a career instead of it being a hobby.

What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?

I hope TSDCA can create a community, a support system and a place to educate and learn. Some day I would like to see a student chapter, and a conference much like USITT but focused on sound design and composers. I hope one day Sound Designers will be treated equal to Set Designers. Just because people cannot see our work, and because we do not tell everyone how many edits we make on a sound cue doesn’t mean that Sound Designers and Composers don’t spend hours on end in the studio, at a computer, or in the space creating content.  We do it without a team/crew to build our content for us. It’s true some shows have a simple design like “Don’t Dress For Dinner” with doorbells and phone rings, but some set designs only have a door. I hope one day Sound Designers will have the same respect as other design elements and equal pay. Why is my time worth less and I’m expected to pay out of my paycheck for sound effects and music when the set, gel, gobos and costumes are paid by the production. I hope that TSDCA can help educate and break the stereotype that anyone can create sound because they have a playlist on their iPod or can turn on their car radio. Sound is much more than just playing a song, it’s story telling, it’s mood, it’s a character, it’s how we connect to an audience. A Musical without sound is just mime. We are more than a service we are a design. Sound Designers Matter.

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