Interview: Sound Designer Kai Harada

In June 2014, the Tony Awards rules committee decided to retire the awards for best sound design for a play and for a musical. Despite outcries from the Broadway community and a petition signed by Tony luminaries, including Stephen Sondheim, the committee refused to overturn their decision. 

We believe it is shameful to deny technical artists their due in an industry that so clearly relies upon them. In the words of Kai Harada, who is a celebrated sound designer currently represented on Broadway by FUN HOME, GIGI and ON THE TOWN:

“Let’s not forget that the point of any dramatic work is to tell a story. Theatre without scenery is “modern;” theatre without lighting is radio; but theatre without intelligible sound – whether produced from a human being, a musical instrument, or coming out of a loudspeaker – is mime… and nobody likes mimes.”

Given that the Tony Awards are this Sunday, we reached out to Kai and asked him to tell us more about his work. 

There’s a great lack of understanding about what sound designers do. Can you describe your process?

Kai Harada
Kai Harada

Just like any other design discipline, my job is to facilitate the telling of the story. My goal is to give each member of the audience the best possible aural experience through a combination of technical choices, collaboration with other departments, and finally a series of adjustments to make the sound system respond in the best way it can. The last step is where technology meets creativity in a very unquantifiable way- give two designers the same musical with the same equipment in the same theatre, and they may have two totally different ways of using the equipment and adjusting the way the system sounds or determining how the show is mixed.

After learning about the show itself (see below), my first order of business is to see the theatre itself – how big is it, how many levels does it have, what does it sound like naturally? This information influences my equipment decisions, and then I work closely with the other designers to make sure we all can get the best possible product – negotiating loudspeaker positions with scenery and lighting, determining microphone positions on actors based on costume designs, ensuring that the overall noise floor of the theatre isn’t made untenable by projection, lighting, or automation equipment, determining the layout of the orchestra in conjunction with the music department, and of course working within the budget!

How does your design differ between plays to musicals?

I tend to shy away from plays; musical reinforcement is where my passion lies. Although I have a classical music background, I am not a composer, so the actual *creation* of transitional music or complicated soundscapes where noise and sound effects meet music isn’t my forte (pun completely intended). I love the merging of technical, emotional, psychological, and scientific elements that come into play in musical theatre sound reinforcement, and I also love the fact that the show is *live*, and anything can happen. We can strive to make the most perfect product, night after night, but truly, we’ll never actually reach that goal, but it’s great fun to try to get as close as possible.

With musicals, my goal tends to be to make the loudspeakers disappear – regardless of how loud the show is or will be, I want the audience’s attention to be focussed on the stage and/or on the orchestra. Executing this goal may take a few more loudspeakers and a little longer to adjust, but I strive to be as transparent a conduit of the story and music as possible – I never want the sound system to get in the way of telling the story or reinforcing the music. Of course we assist in facilitating the dynamics, because the emotion of the storytelling – whether in word or in music – partially exists in how loud or how soft we get; we can make big production numbers land with a little more volume, and we can make poignant, introspective ballads a little more intimate by keeping them quiet – but the energy has to come from the writing first. I feel that if the show *sounds* like it’s coming from a cluster of loudspeakers instead of from the actors and is always set to a constant volume, the audience might as well be watching a movie, and it detaches them from actually participating in the listening process, and therefore it removes them one step from the story being told.

What information is most important to you when you’re starting a new show and who do you usually get it from (or would like to get it from)?

A lot of the time, the best information comes from the music team – whether it’s the composer, the arranger, the supervisor, or the music director.  I can learn a lot about the style of the show based on the orchestrations and some rough demos, which help me construct, in my head, what I’d like the show to sound like in the theatre, and that influences my choices in equipment. Is it more romantic, impressionistic, or big and brassy? Is it 1950s rock and roll, or does it span 1970 – 2000 musical styles? How many electronic instruments will be in the orchestration? It is important for me to know these details – even a simple drum kit can be mic’ed differently based on how I want that instrument to sound and what is appropriate for the style of show.

Obviously a conversation with the director is important – I’ve been lucky to have worked with some wonderful directors, but only a handful of them have strong opinions about sound; nevertheless, if there is a directorial decision that adversely affects how something will sound, I will speak up. Additionally, some directors have ideas about a particular scene in which a “traditional” sound system design may not work – for “On the Town,” I was told very early in the process by director John Rando that there were a couple of sections in which the actors would perform in the front row (“Carried Away”) or walk through the house (“Lonely Town” Chorale), so I had enough time to come up with technical solutions to achieve these goals, and I’m very pleased with the results.

In what ways do you work with musical directors to ensure singing actors protect their voices?

We talk pretty regularly. In fact I’m having a chat with the cast of a show I am working on this afternoon to discuss how to handle the rehearsal day – the first and only time they will have to sing the show twice in one day – and how best to preserve and protect their voices, but still give us, the sound team, what we need. In this example, one of the things I will say is, “Give me 70% for both rehearsals, not 10% for the first and 90% for the second.”  We can’t fix all problems – i.e. we can’t make a mumbled whisper any clearer, but if we have some consistency, that gives us a fighting chance to provide the reinforcement for the show.

I am a big fan of “old style” musicals that were written at a time pre-amplification and were originally performed by actors who could hit the back wall without a microphone; this style enables the sound designer to reinforce what already exists, and I feel that there have been a few recent trends that have adversely affected how we do our jobs in musical theatre.

It seems that the younger generations of actors have not had the same sort of dialogue training as their elder peers. I’m finding that most educational programs are training actors for television and film where it is acceptable (and almost normal) to whisper through a scene; this doesn’t work as well in a theatre setting. I’ve given plenty of directors and actors notes about whispering (bad) versus stage whispering (good). A microphone is only as good as the sound *it* hears, and I remind everybody that microphones are pretty stupid – so if that moving light on stage is louder than the actor’s voice, that’s what the microphone is going to hear the best. One of the grandfathers of sound design was reputed to have said to actors, “You get your voice to the third row, and I’ll take care of the rest,” and I think this is a very important piece of advice.

I also feel that some singers don’t have the breath control and production of sound from the diaphragm that older actors have – and part of this is training, but part of this is steeped in the writing of modern musicals – the “belt-y” style of singing versus a very supported, fuller sound, and writing styles that acknowledge and rely on the fact that microphones will be used – these can compromise the integrity of the actor’s voice. I think that if there is much concern over the actors’ voices doing eight shows a week, that there are other issues at hand that are beyond the purview of the sound department. We can only reinforce sound that is already there, we can’t make new sounds where they don’t exist, we can’t fix issues that might be better addressed with a rewrite or a re-orchestration, and there is a limit to what we CAN fix – ultimately dictated by the laws of physics.

Some examples:

  • A song written for a tenor but a baritone is cast in the part (I’ve done a show where this happened).
  • A section in which the ensemble sings in five-part harmony, but there are only twelve singers, and they’re all doing choreography, facing upstage into a curtain, and wearing forty-pound costumes.
  • A song in which there is an electric guitar phrase that is competing with “ear space” with the vocal.
  • A song that was written for a particular *singer* with incredible and unique pipes that then has to be replicated by subsequent casts.

When are you “done” with a show? Is it customary to check back every once in a while?

I am officially done when the show has its opening night, but yes, I do check back – cast changes happen often, seasonal changes can affect the sound in the theatre, we might train another person to mix (operate) the show – there are many reasons to go back and visit.  Sometimes I just need to go back to remind *myself* what I’ve done.

Can you give us specific examples of how technology has changed sound design in the last ten years?

“Digital” is probably one of the most overused marketing terms EVER, but it is a concept that has helped us do more, and faster, than ever before.

Computer-based digital playback of sound effects has given us a remarkable amount of flexibility in conjunction with computer-based audio editing software; in the old days if a director asked for a new sound effect, it would take a whole day: call the studio that has libraries of sound effects, ask for a few options, wait for FedEx to show up with a new cart/CD/MiniDisc, audition effects, and put it into the show.  Now many of us have our own libraries of sound effects and what used to take a day now takes five minutes; if we need to adjust the fade-out of a sound effect, it’s a simple keystroke.  It has made us FAR more efficient, but the caveat is that it also introduces the possibility of what I’d call ‘superfluous sound effects’- just because it’s easy for us to add a sound effect doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for the show.

Digital Signal Processing (DSP) has altered how we adjust the sound system in a very positive way.  Not too long ago, racks of analog equalizers would sit in the basement, adjusting the frequency response of each speaker system, and making a change either meant using another person with a flashlight and a two-way radio, or it would involve one person and a lot of stairs- listen in the balcony, run downstairs, make a change, run back up to the balcony.  Now we can walk around the theatre with a laptop and make those same changes in a fraction of the time.

Digital mixing consoles have been a bit of a blessing and a curse- on one hand, they give us a ton of flexibility in terms of routing and functionality, as well as recallability (some of them have “library” functions that allow a particular microphone to have several different equalization characteristics, which is perfect when dealing with an actor who sometimes has a hat on, which requires one type of EQ to make him/her sound natural, versus no hat, which requires a different EQ). Early models weren’t terribly reliable, but they are getting better, and they are smaller than their analog predecessors, which saves seats in the auditorium.  However, I have very strong opinions about which ones actually *sound good*, and that limits limits the models I prefer to use.

On the actor end, wireless microphone systems have become much more reliable and they sound great; unfortunately our government is slowly taking away the available frequencies for use in entertainment so there will be some shifts to different wireless technologies- this change will likely impact the sound rental houses and the producers the most- newer digital technology exists, but it’s a costly changeover.  Wireless microphone elements that are REALLY small have become available, and I’m a big fan of them since they are easier to hide in hairlines, wigs, or around temples.

On the audience end, loudspeakers have become more efficient- smaller sizes mean more options for physical location, and there have been advances in how the speakers actually spit out sound, which has allowed us to get closer to providing a uniform sonic experience for a greater portion of the audience.

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