Early Sound

Around 3000BC, China and India accompanied their theatrical productions with incorporated music and sound, and we know of examples of sound usage throughout the history of theatre. In Greek tragedies and comedies the productions call for storms, earthquakes, and thunder when gods appear. There is extensive history of the machinery that was used scenically; and even though there are only a few mentions of it, there were also uses of machinery in place for the few sound effects they needed. In the Roman theatre, Heron of Alexandria invented a thunder machine using brass balls that would drop onto dried hides arranged like a kettledrum, and a wind machine with fabric draped over a rotating wheel.


Roman Empire

During the Roman Empire, Aristotle noted that the chorus could be heard better on a hard surface rather than when they stood on sand or straw, beginning the understanding of reflection and absorption for audience cognition. You could say he was the first theatre acoustician. Because the Greeks also had an understanding of how sound traveled to an audience with their stepped seating structure, in the 1st century BC, Vitruvius, a Roman architect, used the Greek structure to build new theatres, but he had a deeper understanding of sound as he was known to be the first to claim that sound travels in waves like a ripples after a stone is thrown in water. His work was instrumental in creating the basis of modern architectural acoustic design.

Medieval and Jacobean

Sound effects were needed for the depiction of hell and the appearance of God in religious plays, the tools of drums and stones in reverberant machinery held over from the Greek theatre. And of course, both sung and instrumental music played a big part of medieval plays for both transitions and ambience. In Elizabethan theatre, audiences expected more realism in their entertainment and sound effects, and music begins to be written into texts. As theatre was moving indoors and becoming more professional, sound and music were used to create atmosphere, reproducing pistols, clocks, horses, fanfares, or alarms; but also sound was now being used for symbolic effect of the supernatural and to help create drama. A description of sound effects is listed in A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama 1580-1642, which includes everything from simple effects to specific needs for battle scenes.

For a short time after Shakespeare’s death until 1660, theatre declined in England, and after the English Civil War began in 1642, theatre was forbidden. When King Charles was restored to the throne after the war, theatres began to come alive again in part because the King, while exiled in France, was accustomed to seeing proscenium-designed theatre. Shortly after this, the first theatres were built in America but they did not survive for more than a few years at a time. It was not until the early 1800’s that theatres in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, and San Francisco continuously operated.

17th – 18th – 19th Century of Sound

The advent of mechanical devices being developed within the realm of sound effects and sound design in the building of thunder runs (cannonball rolled through chutes), thunder sheets, wind and rain makers.  The Bristol Old Vic recently re-activated their ‘thunder run’ for their 250th anniversary (to see a video). These devices are also highly developed to be cued by an equivalent to an SM in the time, and have a large dedicated “sound crew” to a type of Sound Designer or Director guided to be executed.


Victorian Age and the Use of Recorded Sound

In Michael Booth’s book Theatre in the Victorian Age, there is documentation of the first use of recorded sound in theatre; a phonograph playing a baby’s cry was heard in a London theatre in 1890. In Theatre Magazine in 1906, there are two photographs showing the recording of sound effects into the horn of a gramophone for use in Stephen Phillips’ tragedy Nero.

The first practical sound recording and reproduction device was the mechanical phonograph cylinder, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877

Bertolt Brecht cites a play about Rasputin written in 1927 by Alexej Tolstoi that includes a recording of Lenin’s voice. And sound design began to evolve even further, as long-playing records were able to hold more content.

Unconventional Sound

In 1913, Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo built a sound-making device called the intonarumori. This mechanical tool simulated both natural and manmade sound effects for Futurist theatrical and musical performances. He wrote a treatise titled The Art of Noises, which was written as a manifesto in which he attacks old presentations of classical instruments and advocates the tearing down of the classical structure and presentational methods of the music formats of his time. This could be intimated as the next stage of the use of unconventional instruments to simulate sound effects and classical instrumentation.


Foley in Theatre

Eventually, the scratchiness of recordings was replaced with a crew of effects people for better sound quality. Circa 1930, the American company, Cleon Throckmorton Inc., stated in an advertisement that they would build-to-order machinery to produce sound effects saying, “every theatre should have its thunder and wind apparatus.” At that time a thunder sheet cost around $7 and a 14” drum wind machine cost around $15. This is during the Great Depression when ticket sales ranged from $.25-$1.

And in the NY Herald on August 27, 1944, a cartoon depicting Foley artists backstage at the Broadhurst theatre performing the sound effects for Ten Little Indians shows 4 men operating the machinery used to create surf, a boat motor, wind, and something heavy dropping.

Hollywood Comes to Broadway

The field begins to grow when Hollywood directors such as Garson Kanin and Arthur Penn, start directing Broadway productions in the 1950’s. Because they had transitioned from silent films to ‘talkies,’ they had become accustomed to a department of people in the position of authority regarding sound and music. Theatre had not yet developed this field; there were no designers of recorded sound. It would normally fall upon the stage manager to find the sound effects that the director wanted, and an electrician would play the recordings for performances. In time, because savvier audiences could distinguish between recorded and live sounds, creating live backstage effects remained common practice for decades.

First Recognitions

The first people to receive the credit for Sound Design were Prue Williams and David Collison, for the theatrical season in 1959 at London’s Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. The first men to receive the title of Sound Designer on Broadway was Jack Mann in 1961 for his work on Show Girl and Abe Jacob who negotiated his title for Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. And the first person noted as Sound Designer in regional US theatre is Dan Dugan in 1968 at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. As the technology of recording and playback of music and sound advances, so does the career of the sound designer.


The Advance of Technology

You cannot move forward in telling the history of the field of sound design without pointing out the technological advances. Technologically, someone needed to be in charge of the growing use of equipment and knowledge it took to make sound design work. But I would be remiss if I did not state that artistically technology makes choices easier to accomplish, because a designer still has to take into account story, character, emotions, environments, style, genre, and apply tools of music, psychology, and acoustics in order to impress upon an audience and bring them on an emotional sonic journey.

Let’s take a look at how technology advances changed how audio was recorded and played back.

  • By the end of the 1950’s, long-playing records were replaced with reel-to-reel tape, and with that came the possibility of amending content more easily than pressing another disc.
  • Dolby Noise Reduction (DNR) was introduced in 1966 and became an industry standard to a cleaner sounding quality of recorded music.
  • By the end of the 1970’s cassette tapes outnumbered all disc and tape usage. It was easy to amend content but difficult to use as playback as you would line up cassettes to be played one by one.
  • By the end of the 1980’s the compact disc and Digital Audio Tape (DAT) became the popular mode of playback, with the new auto-cue feature with DAT that made it possible to play a cue and have the tape stop before the next cue.
  • In 1992 Sony came out with the MiniDisc player (MD) and theatres immediately picked it up for playback. You could amend content quickly on your computer, burn it to a CD, transfer it to the MD, rename and reorder the cues on the disc, and it too would pause at the end of a cue.

Sound designers could now work during technical rehearsals. This is one of the major shifting points in the artistry of the profession because sound designers were legitimized as collaborators now that they were able to work in the theatre with everyone else. This is not to say that sound designers were not artistic and valuable to the process as they recorded and amended their work alone; this points out that others could now see a sound designer at work in the room, and with this knowledge came understanding.

First Contracts in the US

Between 1980 and 1988, United States Institute for Theatre Technology’s (USITT) first Sound Design Commission sought to define the duties, standards, responsibilities, and procedures of a theatre sound designer in North America. A document was drawn up and provided to both the Associated Designers of Canada (ADC) and David Goodman at the Florida United Scenic Artists (USA829) local, as both organizations were about to represent sound designers in the 1990’s and needed to understand contract language of expectations. USA829 did not adopt the contract until 2006 when unionization happened and accepted sound designers. Before this sound designers worked with Letters of Agreement.

MIDI and Show Control

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) and digital technology helped sound design grow very quickly. And eventually computerized sound systems in a theatre were essential for live show control. The largest contributor to MIDI Show Control (MSC) specifications came from Walt Disney who utilized systems to control their Disney-MGM Studios theme park in 1989. In 1990 Charlie Richmond headed the USITT MIDI Forum, a group that included worldwide developers and designers from theatre sound and lighting. They created a show control standard, and in 1991 the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) and Japan MIDI Standards Committee (JMSC) ratified the specifications they laid out. Utilization of the MSC specifications was first used in Disney’s Magic Kingdom Parade at Walt Disney World in 1991.

Moving this technology into theatres took years to adopt because of the lack of capability, finance, and the challenges with the scale of computerizing a system. With MIDI control, you could now use a sampler for playback. Your files would be uploaded into a storage unit and through a MIDI command you could trigger a specific file from a musical keyboard. These machines became smaller as digital storage space shrunk, but eventually, Level Control Systems (LCS), Cricket, SFX, and QLab quickly were becoming the standards in theatre show control, the newest making an easier interface than the last. They eventually made all older formats: record players, reel-to-reel tape, cassette tape, compact disc, mini disc, and samplers obsolete for usage in theatre.

Now, in the 21st century, sound designers can be faster in tech than other elements for the first time. Content can be amended in any dreamed-up fashion and within minutes it can be ready to work with the actors on stage. This is a very fast advance in the field and no other stagecraft element has grown so quickly in so short a time, becoming a valued artistic component of professional theatre.

Union Representation, Tony Awards, and TSDCA

In 2008 after years of campaigning by USA829, who now solidly represent sound designers in their union, the Tony Award Administration Committee added two awards for sound with Mic Pool winning the first Best Sound in a Play award for The 39 Steps and Scott Lehrer winning the first Best Sound in a Musical award for South Pacific. However, in 2014, only six years later, the Tony Award Administration Committee announced that both awards would be eliminated.

Questions about the legitimate artistry, and how to properly judge sound design, were a catalyst for the formation of The Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association (TSDCA). TSDCA was formed in 2015 to help educate the theater-going public, as well as to support and advocate for the members of the field.

One could argue that with the advances in technology, the artistry of sound design is taken for granted because it is not as magical as it once seemed when theatre artists created the impossible in the room. Or perhaps it’s that as a species we have all become accustomed to technology and it no longer holds any mystery. Either way, the artistry of sound design is still is an integral part to how human beings communicate their stories.