In the first interview in a series that highlights Cleveland’s local directors and designers, I talked to Sound Designer Richard B. Ingraham. Here’s a little bit about Richard’s journey as a designer, and his thoughts on Cleveland theater and sound today.
KM: Were you always a “sound guy”, even as a kid?RBI: I don’t know if I was always a “sound guy”, but I guess I kind of was now that I think about it. I did have portable cassette recorders as a kid and used them to record everything from mock radio shows to pipe organs, mostly with some very cheap consumer mics that were more designed for dictation I believe than music recording. Luckily for me, I am pretty sure those tapes don’t exist any longer, or if they are hiding in some corner of my parents home I suspect that by now the tapes have degraded enough that I don’t have to worry too much. My father was kind of into home stereo equipment. We had an open reel tape deck in my home, and I think if my memory serves we even had a small portable open reel tape deck as well.
KM: What got you into sound recording and designing?
RBI: Well continuing from above, I think my father had a lot to do with it. I got into playing around with audio equipment more when I was in high school. I was an AV geek, I’ll admit. But it got me out of home room in the morning, and it also got me out of trouble. “I had to help Mrs. X with a film strip projector issue” was always a good excuse for not getting to class in time.
I didn’t really considered doing this as a career until I was in college. I initially went to Cleveland State to become an Electrical Engineer. But I eventually got sucked into the theatre program at CSU and changed my major. At first I was interested in lighting mostly. But a fellow student talked me into being on the running crew of a production of The Visit running sound. I wasn’t even the main sound person. All I did was cue up the tape decks between cues. Running that show gave me plenty of time to read through all the manuals for all the equipment in the room. Some of the equipment made sense to me and there was a lot of stuff I had never seen before.
To this day I think I became a sound person because I was one of only a couple of students that picked up the rather sparse manual for our large sound console, read through it and understood it. I guess I can thank those electronics classes in high school for that, since I could read a schematic. Eventually, [the CSU people] had asked me to be the sound technician and board op for a student directed piece. I got so into the piece that I ended up doing all of the sound design myself.
Over the course of a school year, I went from an Electrical Engineer major that liked to work on the shows to scholarship student with a major in Theatre. I think I did 12 Sound Designs when I was in college. That was CSU, it was a very hands on training program, at least at that point in time. It was a great place for me and I always learned best by just trying stuff out anyway.
KM: What local theaters and business do you design for?
RBI: Locally I work mostly for Dobama Theatre, Beck Center, Willoughby Fine Arts and most recently I’ve started doing more work with Cleveland Public Theatre. I mention Dobama first because … that’s really where my freelance career started and I am thankful to Joyce [Casey] -who was the artistic director at the time- to this day.
KM: What’s your favorite sound effect?
RBI: I don’t think I really have a favorite sound effect. I can tell you that my least favorite sound effects are phone rings, door bells, and dog barks. That’s likely because it is what many people think that is all a Sound Designer really does is make a phone ring on cue and hook up fake door bells and such. And on some shows that really is about all you do. But luckily I came into this area of expertise at what I think was the perfect time. Sound Design has become exponentially more important to the theatre experience just since I started working at it at CSU in the early 1990’s. I came into it just as everything was going from analog hardware to digital so I think that really gave me a good foundation. I know how to do stuff without a computer or some other magic gizmo or a plug-in doing it for me. That’s a good thing because you can then better understand how to use the new tools, at least in my opinion. his is something that I have to mentor students about on a regular basis, when I’m working with collegestudents. (University of Evansville, Oberlin, etc…)
I can tell you that the style of show I enjoy working on the most are scripts that allow me to create lots of ambiances and atmospheres. I really enjoy that type of sound design work the most.——
KM: Tell me a little about RBI Computers and Audio.
RBI: I started RBI Computers and Audio in April of 2001. All I can really say is that I am extremely lucky and blessed that I have been able to stick at it as long as I have. I have only had to work as a temp on two occasions to fill in gaps in my schedule. I guess it mostly just shows how much pent up demand there was for professional level sound design in our smaller theatre organizations in Cleveland. But mostly I have to credit my family for supporting me when I went down this path and as I mentioned before Joyce Casey for allowing me to make Dobama my artistic home when I first started down the freelance path. I now consider many organizations to be an artistic home for me and I am really glad that I get to work in such diverse
environments and on many different styles of theatre.
——KM: Is SFX your favorite software to run sound with? What other programs do you like and why?
RBI: Well SFX is certainly a tool that I use a lot and since I actually work part time for Stage Research, the creators of SFX, clearly I’m going to be biased in my assessment of that tool, since I’ve helped to develop some of the features of the product and how the product works. But the way I look at all the software and hardware that I use is that they are all just tools.
I don’t use software from Stage Research exclusively. If you were to look over my shoulder while I’m working you’ll see software and other tools from many manufacturers, some that are even friendly competition to Stage Research. The way I look at it is that each tool has its strengths and weaknesses. There is no one tool that will fit every need that anyone might need filled at some point in time.
Other programs that are useful include Sony’s Sound Forge, Vegas and ACID, Sonar from Cakewalk, Software Audio Workshop from RML Labs, and Tracktion from Mackie. While almost all of these pieces of software do very similar things, each of them is unique and do some things better than they do others and more importantly they do some things better than the other tools I have. So while I do a lot of basic editing tasks all in Sound Forge (in fact I might use almost nothing but Sound Forge as an editing tool for an entire production), it won’t help me at all if need to write some original underscore or create something that is very musical in nature or feeling. So I’ll open up another tool to do just that.
I equate it to building scenery. You probably could build an entire set or almost an entire set with just a jig saw and a screw gun, but it’s certainly not the easiest and most efficient way to do it. That is why most scene shops have any number of different saws and other tools as well. I work the same way it’s just that for me most of my tools are computer software, so I’m picking the software that will best achieve my end goals.
——KM: Digital or analog?
RBI: Analog is dead. Just joking. If you look at most of the audio products out in the marketplace nowadays almost no serious development is being done with regards to analog hardware. It’s all about digital mixing consoles, all digital playback and even all the connections between devices are gradually moving over to all digital. At some point I’m sure the only thing that will be analog will be the mics used to capture the audio and the speakers used to play them back and everything in between will be a completely digital signal path.
I just think about the fact that I have run into many sound professionals who are only maybe 5 years younger than I am, and they have never had to work with an open reel tape deck and have never had to splice tape. I’m not one of the old timers (not yet anyway) that thinks they should all have to learn how to do that (I know some that do) I only use it as an example to show how fast the technology changed.
The next step I feel we’ll see is the gradual move of everything possible into software. We’ve had digital hardware in theatre for a long time now starting with DAT tapes and CD and moving to digital mixers and other black boxes that replaced large racks of analog hardware. I think gradually everything will be moved to using software that runs in your typical off the shelf computer. Not only is this more cost effective, but it’s much easier to create a custom user interface that can be tailored to the needs of many different users in software than it is to create custom hardware interfaces.
As an example I’ve designed the sound for four productions now (starting with Evil Dead the Musical at Beck Center this past summer) where not only was the audio playback handled entirely by software running on a standard computer, but also all the live microphones were mixed and routed entirely in software. So in a way that day has already arrived. All the routing and control of audio in those shows was done entirely by software running in the computer. The only hardware was the mics, the speakers and the interfaces that allow the computers to be connected to the mics and speakers.
——KM: Ever done any acting? Directing?
RBI: My acting career ended in 6th grade when I played a grandpa in the school play. I was referred to as “Grandpa” by the first and second graders for the next two years. I’ve only worked on the technical side ever since then, running sound (ironically) for the school play in 7th grade. Obviously I had some acting and directing classes in college, but that’s really about it. Every once in a while I feel like I should just direct something myself. Maybe someday I will, but it would have to be just the right project, with just the right people and it would have to happen at just the right time and fall into my schedule. I will say that I have no desire to ever set foot on stage again as a performer. It would take someone dragging me kicking and screaming onto the stage to make that happen.
——KM: What’s your advice for aspiring sound designers?
RBI: Well my first piece of advice would be that, at least in theatre, visuals are still king and you just have to accept that. It’s very important to be able to work out a vocabulary that non sound people can understand so you can communicate your ideas. Directors don’t want to hear about sample rates or distortion or inverse square law or ohms law. You need to be able to commutate what you would like to achieve in terminology that a director and your fellow designers can understand.
Learn as much about the fundamentals of sound as you can. Learn as much about music as you can. Learn about the physics of sound. Don’t concentrate on the equipment. As I have been talking about all that changes very fast anyway. If you understand all the basics and fundamentals of what we do then you can always learn the equipment and how to use it well. It’s a lot easier for a good sound designer to figure out how to use the latest version of SFX or some other software tool, than it is to teach someone that might know SFX like the back of their hand, but has little design experience, how to be a successful Sound Designer.
One thing I find lacking in almost all professional training programs for theatre I have any experience with is the lack of training in simple business practices. So much of theatre ends up being about having good entrepreneurial like skills. This is especially true for a freelance designer. So take a few business classes if time and money allow. I’ve figured out most of it by just jumping in not knowing what I got myself into, and hitting up friends for advice. But I can’t help but think that one good semester long class in managing one’s personal finances wouldn’t serve almost anyone that ends up working in theatre.###
If you’d like to contact Richard in regards to new projects and designs, feel free to email him at [email protected]
Do you have a performing arts event or project that would be of interest to readers? If so, contact Kate Miller at [email protected].