Sound Design for Theatre – Advice From Tony Award Winner Jessica Paz

Jessica Paz - Sound Designer Krotos

Jessica Paz is a Tony award-winning sound designer who has built a phenomenal career creating sound design for theatre. We caught up with Jessica recently to talk about her work and how she got started, and she shared some fantastic advice for those who are new to the world of Broadway and theatre sound design:

Watch the full video interview below:

Sound Design for Theatre – Getting Started

I started in a community theatre as a volunteer. I ran the fog Machine when I was 19, for ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ theatre at midnight on Saturdays. I eventually became a stage manager and there was a show that was having a particularly hard time with sound, so I hopped in and just started twiddling knobs and seeing if I could make it better…and it got better!

So I chose to start mixing that show and then started volunteering at a different community theatre and eventually got into a paid position and became the sound designer there.

Eventually, I answered an ad for a play off-Broadway. I got the job. I was his assistant and associate on subsequent shows and eventually we landed ‘Fela!’, which we did in Nigeria, London, and in Europe and the US, and later in Australia and New Zealand later as a concert version.

Building skills as a Live Sound Engineer

I worked at a lot of music venues around New York; Terminal Five, Knitting Factory, Sleep No More, Queen of the Night. I was doing a lot of mixing for bands,  and there were two that I actually was full-time with. I had these music venue gigs, and over a few years I think I got my chops in terms of making a band sound good – these venues have basically a box of SM57s and a console and you just have to use an SM57 on everything! It’s a really good training ground, I like to think.

The Broadway Production of Hadestown, for which Jessica Paz won a Tony Award for Best Sound Design

Returning Focus to Theatre

After working at venues for a while, I got an assistant associate job at the Delacorte Theatre working for Mark Menard. When he unexpectedly passed away, the Public Theatre promoted me to sound designer for the Delacorte that next year and so I designed there for five years. At that time, I was introduced to Nevin Steinberg, who I was the associate for on ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and ‘Bandstand’. We started working on ‘Hadestown’ but he wasn’t able to be in Canada, so he sent me and I did the show.

And the next year, when it was to go to London, the producers, director, and Nevin all decided to make me the co-designer. Then we did it on Broadway and the rest is sort of history!

Specifics of Sound Design for Theatre

The thing that everyone finds most fascinating is that when you do a Broadway show, all you get is the Theatre – there are no speakers or cables. You literally have four walls, an audience and a stage.

So you have to bring in everything completely custom built, and every sound system for every Broadway show is different. There will be a bid process where the designer will request the equipment that they want, and the sound shops will bid on it and one sound shop will be chosen. Then a team of people go into it and build every rack of equipment completely custom and label every piece of cable -that takes about three weeks.

Then they put it together, test it, take it down, put it in a truck, and they bring it to the theatre, and they put it back together again in the space. People tend to find that absolutely fascinating.

Who Decides on the Sound System?

The director, orchestrator and composer, of course, have their opinions. But in terms of the PA and the concept for the sound design, it was worked on in connection with the director’s vision. But in terms of what the PA ends up being, that’s totally under my purview.

The goal is to make sure that everyone has the same experience, or at least within a certain margin. It will never be completely perfect because of the architecture. But I aim to get it within a certain margin.

Beginning the Sound Design Process for Theatre

Of course, it starts with getting hired! Then you’ll read the script (you have probably already read the script before you get hired). Then you sit down and have a conversation with the director, and figure out the concept of what they’re looking for. If it’s a musical, then you will sit down with the writers and the composer and the orchestrators to understand what their vision and their goals are for the piece.

Then you take the information that you have from those meetings, and then you’ll do a site visit to the Theatre. You will go and sit in the space, and envision the audience’s perspective – what kind of PA is this going to need? You take lots of photos and figure out the technical details – what are the inputs to the console, which actors be wearing microphones, what the band’s makeup will be – drums, percussion, bass, guitars, piano.

Then it’s the output side – how are we taking the band inputs and the vocal inputs and sort of bussing them through the system and out to the PA? I’ll put that together in a Google sheet, which, although simple, is actually the best tool for the job because the rest of the team can work on the document simultaneously.

Eventually, the whole sheet describes everything – computers, networking, intercom, video, and then we begin to build the plan. That’s sort of the process.

Making Artistic Decisions

Artistically, you choose what plugins beforehand. But for me, a lot of that work starts happening on site once we get into the Theatre. There are things I may experiment with, but until I have the real actors with the real bands, it’s hard to know what will be the best choices.

With sound effects and music editing, the process may vary. For my last play, ‘POTUS’, with Susan Stroman – Myself, the playwright, and Susan each made a Spotify playlist of songs that we think might fit in the show. We threw a bunch of songs into playlists and curated those down to the ones appropriate for the show.

From there, I created these short vamps of music to use for transitions, which I then sent into rehearsal, and they used them in the rehearsal room when I wasn’t there to experiment with them. Eventually, Susan’s team gave me a two-page document of vamps they wanted to use for which transitions, and what bar they wanted to cut it in at, then I would cut together the music and then create the bumps at the end and make them fit right. Or even in a musical, a director may say, like an album, that is the feeling they want the show to sound like.

Using Krotos Plugins in Theatre Sound Design

I used Reformer Pro on a podcast where I needed to do Foley and had to make these fight sequences for ‘Romeo and Julietta’ for the Public Theatre. It had these sequences where I needed cloth movements when the punches happened, so I used Reformer Pro to help me accomplish that.

Instead of copying and pasting cloth movement samples into the timeline, I just built an instrument that I then used and was able to manipulate. I don’t have a Foley studio, so I pulled a bunch of samples together and recorded myself in leather jackets and put that together, which was really great.

Concept 2 helped me to create the drones behind the final scene in the play. It was raining and there was this ominous background bed that was happening. And I used Concept 2 for that as well. I have used Weaponiser to make some sound effects also.

Jessica Paz and Nevin Steinberg at the Tony Awards
Jessica Paz with her Sound Design Partner, Nevin Steinberg

How Sound Design for Theatre is Evolving

There is a movement toward digital technology in theatres. The wireless radio frequency microphones are moving toward digital, which is helpful because the FCC has taken so much bandwidth away. These changes take time because we have to buy new equipment.

The quality of speakers is increasing exponentially too. The products that are coming out now are just absolutely stunning. Meyer are putting out really stunning and absolutely wonderfully sounding speakers that use less power, and have less output on their rear, so there’s less noise being thrown back onto the stage – just generally a much cleaner sound.

They’re also coming out with digital products now as well. So, instead of using copper wiring connections, everything is on a network. Plus, of course, computer processors are getting faster, so we have more ability now to incorporate more studio techniques into our work because the computers can process in real-time without too much latency.

Latency is always an issue right when you’re going from analogue to digital and back to analogue again. Now, I think we have processors and computers that are fast enough to deliver two and a half milliseconds of latency, which is really great.

Stepping Into the Theatre Sound Design World

Learn Every Job

I’ve pushed boxes, I’ve lifted speakers, I’ve rigged speakers. I’ve uncoiled and coiled cable, I’ve crawled underneath stages, I’ve stage managed, I’ve done props, I’ve done scenic painting, I’ve been a mixer, I’ve been an A2, I’ve been an associate, I’ve been an assistant and now I’m a designer.

I understand how each of the jobs on my team function and what their purposes are. I know how to do those jobs, which means that I know how to communicate with my team and help them to achieve their goal. So do every job you can. It’s never going to hurt you to learn a new perspective, and it will just make you able to communicate that much better!

Everytime you Enter a Room, do it Asking How you can Help

Nevin, who is also my partner on ‘Hadestown’, gave me that piece of advice. What I take that to mean is that it’s not about you or your design. It’s about the story and how you can help tell the story and 

Other than that, I’d say – keep showing up. Not just for yourself, but for your team, for the other creative team members, your directors, and your other designers. Show up for the actors, show up for the story, show up for the piece, show up for the playwright, but show up, show up fully and if you keep showing up, then you’ll keep getting offers. Show up and be present and work hard.

For more on Jessica Paz and her sound design work: Visit Her Website

For more sound design advice: Read Christa & Vanny’s guide here

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