On The Removal of the Sound Design Tony Award

June 10, 2015

Dear people in charge, sound design is an art.

Last year, the Tony Awards Administration Committee decided to eliminate the award for best sound design. While no reasonable statement on the decision was ever released, it became known that the committee considered sound design to be purely a technical craft rather than an art form.
Quite frankly, that’s just a foolish thought.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best sound designers in the industry. To degrade their work to simply a technical craft implies a gross misunderstanding of what exactly goes into sound design. Tony Awards Committee, if you’re interested in learning something new about live theatre, read on.
If sound design is considered to be a technical craft, why doesn’t the same apply to lighting design? Let’s break it down.
At it’s core, lighting design involves strategically placing lights in certain parts of a theatre and programming said lights to behave in certain ways throughout a show. Similarly, sound design involves strategically placing speakers in certain parts of a theatre and mixing them to behave in certain ways throughout a show. Lights are controlled via a lighting board, and sound is controller via a mixing board.
In the context of live theatre, lights and sound are used to invoke and support emotion and imagination. The most obvious and striking difference between lights and sound is how we perceive them.
Light is visual. Sound is aural.
I introduced the idea of people not knowing how to judge sound in a previous article. I believe this is exactly why the sound design award was eliminated. Not only does the Tony Awards Administration Committee neglect to learn about the intricate art of sound design, they also have no clue how to judge sound on an artistic level.
I’m not surprised.
Sound has always been an extremely subjective concept, much more so than visuals. This is partly due to the lack of both physical and mental tangibility. When we see something, we see color, texture, shape, size, etc. While it’s common to describe sound with color and texture, it’s not always absolute. Sonically, one person’s “blue” might be another person’s “green,”
Sound quality is something that is mostly ignored nowadays. People are relatively aware of visual resolution terms like 720p, 1080p, and 4K. There is a general understanding that a higher resolution translates to a clearer picture. Now, ask those same people if they prefer 256 kbps AAC or 320 kbps MP3. Most of them will have no clue what you’re talking about.
I don’t think the general public is at fault here. TV manufacturers obviously spend a lot more resources marketing visual resolution. Manufacturers of music listening products, on the other hand, usually don’t go out of their way to market audio resolution.
What I’m trying to get at here is there’s a lack of basic understanding of sound in the world today. Sound is taken for granted, and more often than not it’s seem as something that just happens. It isn’t.
In live theatre, sound is a living, breathing organism. It must be artistically molded before it can give audiences its full emotional impact. Obviously there are technical processes behind sound design, but that doesn’t diminish the artistry of it at all. Sound design isn’t black and white. It’s a craft that marries technology with art.
Tony Awards Administration Committee, go seek the advice of consultants who can help you make unbiased and informed judgements on sound design. While you’re at it, maybe stop by the rehearsal process of a new production and watch a sound designer work. If you still think sound design is a technical craft after that…
Well, that would just be hilarious.
If you end up seeing the light, reinstate the Sound Design Tony Award.
It’s 2015, technology and art are allowed to cross paths.
Get with the times.


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