Sightlines: My Digital Epiphany

Article by Roberta Carlson

Roberta Carlson has been composing music for theater for many years, doing an enormous body of work for the Children’s Theater and Illusion Theater, among many others.  This month, she offers the second of two perspectives on what we’ve lost (and gained) in today’s world of theater in a discussion of how  digital technology has the changed the process of modern sound design and musical composition. - Mike Wangen

I came of professional age in the era of massive rolls of recording tape which were hugely expensive and ran on large bulky machines which were prone to problems and required continual maintenance. Retakes were a financial consideration and multi track planning took careful planning between the composer and engineer or sound designer. (Anyone who was ever reduced to recording over the click track knows exactly what I mean). And then...the heavens opened and the digital age began.

Unlimited takes, no tape hiss, the huge rolls (which cost more than some of us paid for rent) gone forever. You could record on your laptop! No more editing the new cues into the existing reels. No more relying on the sound tech not to cut off the tail-outs of cues. But even better was the advent of digital editing. Nothing enhanced the collaboration between composer and sound designer more than digital editing. Now it was possible to work together on “soundscapes”, working together in the studio. Thanks to the new technology, the start point of sound effects or music could be moved, and experiments could be tried with no lasting damage.

I have mixed feelings about some things that came with these changes. I have done many shows using only synthesizers, and yes, some of those purely synthesized scores were the correct choice for the nature of the production. But when a director wants the sound of real instruments, but won’t or can’t pay for them,there is another price to be paid - and that price is artistic value. There is a very small number of instruments that truly sound “real” on a synthesizer. Some work for short lines that can be buried in the mix, others never sound right (brass and woodwinds), and some are relatively successful (string sections, harps, timpani, etc).

Another effect has been the advent of sound designer/composer all-in-one. I’ve heard scores done by sound designers who think that with a synthesizer they can be a composer. Just putting together a string of notes or chords that sound okay doesn’t make you a composer. And just choosing speaker assignments doesn’t make you a sound designer.

In the end, the richest, most satisfying work comes from the collaboration between artists: singers, drummers, instrumentalists of all kinds, sound designers, composers - all bringing their talent and understanding to the table. In all aspects of theater, collaboration is the very heartbeat of the process. But when it comes to technology, digital editing changed my process and my ability to work more freely with those artists.