I'm looking for some resources to help me understand the challenges and equipment used in bringing sound design to the theater for plays and musicals. I'm currently using google but if anyone has any current links or resources I could use, then please share!


7 Answers 7


Hey, Hubert

concerning show cue playback, Stage Research's SFX (PC) is still the industry standard, although Figure 53's Q-lab (Mac), as mentioned, is now giving it a run for its money.

As far as online resources, I would highly recommend the Google Groups Theatre Sound: http://groups.google.com/group/theatre-sound-list

There are some seasoned professionals on there that are generous with their time and advice, much like this site. The topics range from simple to some pretty complicated discussions concerning theory, etc.

If you are willing to do some book learning, on the technical side I would recommend Yamaha's Sound Reinforcement Handbook and JBL's Audio Engineering book, both indispensable. On the artistic and theory side, I would recommend Kaye and LeBrecht's Sound and Music for the Theatre.

As first and foremost a live sound designer, I would like to elaborate on a couple points above and maybe clarify a couple things. While there is a tradition of live effects for radio plays and live productions, these techniques are so, so old-timey. Virtually everyone, unless the production calls for something special, is editing on a DAW, using computer playback, and working with some pretty sophisticated tools. We have White Christmas up right now at Pioneer and are using a maxed-out Yamaha LS9 with 64 channels of live inputs, separate channels EQ'd for when the principles wear hats, etc.

I totally understand that live theatre seems quaint by comparison, because there are significant physical limitations that don't hinder current films. Regardless of theatre being the preeminent form of entertainment for a long time, there are things that film flat out does better. Without (hopefully) being too much of an apologist, live entertainment is still a gigantic industry, drives a lot of innovation, and is not strictly relegated to some hayseeds putting on a melodrama in a grange...although I have done that.

If you want more resources, I would be more than happy to dig a little deeper and see what else I have bookmarked. Or you can contact me off the forum at [email protected]. I would be happy to help.


Matt Tibbs Resident Sound Designer Pioneer Theatre Company

Sound Design Faculty University of Utah


Hubert, I'm not sure if you're looking for modern technical details (mics, samplers, monitoring, etc.) or timeless theater sound techniques - can you clarify? If you're looking for the latter, though, I've loved all the videos that Roger Gregg from Crazy Dog Audio Theater has posted on YouTube with contraptions, techniques, and ideas galore. Good stuff for anyone interested in sound, even in a non-theatrical sense. These same techniques were used in early animation, too, most recently covered in the extras on the Wall•E DVD release, when Ben Burtt revisits early Walt Disney animation sound pioneers.

  • Okidoke, let me clarify. My wife works for a middle school's musical theater program and her boss knows I do sound for film and games and wondered if I'd be interested in checking out the school's gear and perhaps do a few gigs for them. So I was wondering how sound gets cued up for shows. The last broadway program I saw was Wicked a few years back and now I want to know how Broadway sounds are produced and cued for a show. I'll also consider applying for some theater apprenticeship programs if available. Oct 5, 2010 at 2:59
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    Sorry I didn't get the gist of your question, Hubert. I've triggered sounds for live productions with sample banks organized by scene or act, but it seems like the true Old School way is to perform the sounds in front of mics. But at the same time, if you want to design richer designs that you can't do live, I like the sampler/keyboard approach...of course these days, even a bank of rubber midi trigger pads would be darned handy. Oct 5, 2010 at 4:39
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    Combine those pads with a Ableton Live and you've got a fine set up. I've never thought of using Live for such an application, but if people use it to perform music live, why couldn't it be applied to triggering sounds for theater production! Oct 5, 2010 at 7:24

i've done a project with live foley and cues from ableton live. i don't think it matters much what your system is, but ability to memorise your cues and get their timing correct is a big deal. rehearsals are everything. on some shows there might be more than one op, on others, it might just be you doing everything..


i have used both show cue system (which is for pc) and qlab (which is mac) to great success for loading up cues and firing them off a go. the qlab do a free version which does up to 4 channels of output. show cue system is around $150 aus i think. qlab is great for integrating video as well, but i prefer show cue system for audio only shows. both will allow you to set levels, fade in times, crossfades, fade outs, panning so the show can be run off a GO (the operator just presses the space bar at the right time!) hope this helps, cheers

  • Yep, this was helpful, Terrein. I've been getting a gist of the software used in these shows. Thanks! Oct 5, 2010 at 7:31

+1 on Qlab. Really great program! With good discounts for students/education. You can also rent a full license if you need some of the other features that the free version doesnt have for a particular show, like more outputs etc..

I've also used Ableton Live for a show before. It was a one-man star wars show, with a wii remote as multi-function lightsaber/blaster/x-wing trigger. It's pretty flexible for cueing sounds and triggering things, but i found it a bit tricky for some cues and maybe not as ideally suited as Qlab for theatre.

Id also agree with @Colin that alot theatre directors i've encountered don't understand much about sound and can be quite scared of it, and computers aswell. So minidisk and CD still get used a fair bit. I've also worked on small show using itunes for cues! It worked, and the director was happy because they were also acting as LX/Sound OP, just remember to uncheck the little box to the left of the tracks so they don't keep playing.

Isadora by TroikaTronix is also an amazing bit of software for theatre use. It was originally designed for a dance company called Troika Ranch who use alot of interactive media in their performaces. It can do alot, mainly to do with visuals, but it also has some good audio features (and the ability to use midi and AU). Its main strength is its flexibility in that its a modular environment much like Reaktor, but with both video and audio, and many ways to interact with it.

  • Ya, I looked up Qlab. Great software. I hope to see it in action someday. Oct 5, 2010 at 16:10

The way in which sounds in theater are cued very much depends upon the systems being used in the theater space. I have worked on various shows, but all have been in relatively small, independent theater houses where the sound equipment has been minidisk-based (larger mainstream venues generally have more up to date methods). I have only worked in the UK, but many, many theaters over here stick to what they know, and continue to use minidisk (mainly for ease of cueing up sounds). It seems that many theatre directors don't understand much about sound and are generally quite scared by it!

Most sound designers prefer to use cue software, as mentioned by terrein, but if the theater doesn't have a computer in the control booth the someone would need to leave their laptop in the control room for the duration of the run. In some cases, the sound designer for a show would also work as the LX/Sound Op, but normally there would be a separate Op. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' seems to be a common opinion in theaterland. If you do have to go the minidisk route, put each cue on a separate track with no silence at the start of the track (unless specifically designed to do so, i.e. fade in) and document everything very clearly for the Op.

Whichever cue system is employed, the sound designer would need to be present for the tech run, in which all cue issues are addressed (LX and sound). Cues are initially designed using the script, then modified during the tech runs. Although the director will be the one who calls the shots, never forget that it's the Op who will be running all this, so make sure he is comfortable with everything and be nice to him/her (some directors can be very mean to the Op)!

Hope that helps...

  • yes it does. Thanks, Colin. This is soo much better than googling! Oct 5, 2010 at 8:35
  • On a great many "storefront" shows (and some college productions) the stage manager is the person operating the sound and lights. this is generally due to space restrictions (many storefront booths can barely accomodate one person, not very comfortably) as well as budget issues. So you may be handing your design off to an SM to run after tech. Dec 11, 2010 at 20:08

If you end up using Qlab, and want to ad an interactive element to your show, try an ICubeX digitizer and some sensors:


It might help you find something new and interesting to do with sound design.

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