Chemical engineer-turned-sound designer, Garth Hemphill has been a systems designer for live music and theatre for over 18 years. Having spent five years as the resident sound designer and chief engineer at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, CA, he is in his fourth season as the resident sound designer for the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. A guest lecturer at California Polytechnic University and a highly respected consultant as well, Hemphill is renowned in the industry for his knowledge of audio and show control systems, and is the founding partner of GLHDesign, a systems consulting firm based in San Francisco. Kai Harada sat down with Hemphill at AES in Los Angeles last fall.
Kai Harada: Let's start at the beginning. How did you get started in sound?
Garth Hemphill: It started in high school - my brother was doing theatre and they needed someone to pull the main curtain for Guys and Dolls, so I ended up doing that for about half the run. The guy from the sound company got sick, and I ended up covering for him. Once they figured out that I had an aptitude for it, I was pretty much drafted - I was hired by that sound company to work part-time during school. It snowballed from there; I fell in love with theatre immediately!
When I went to college at CalPoly at Pomona, I was a chemical engineering major for three years, and ended up spending all my time at the theatre department designing shows for them. I taught myself to design because there wasn't anyone teaching design; I was just making it up as I went along. I remember for one of the first shows I designed, I drew this silly little emotional graph of the show - the engineering mind trying to be artistic - during the run-through. I laugh now, but it was really useful then. I guess it was a way of breaking down those barriers of being an artist.
When I finally did the switch and went over to the theatre department, the biggest thing I learned there was how to be an artist, how to think artistically, and how to give up those technical roots. That was tough! It took a lot of browbeating to finally figure that out.
KH: You are known to be more of a sound effects designer than a reinforcement-based designer. Was this a conscious decision, or did circumstances dictate this move?
Hemphill: I like music; I was a drummer when I was a kid, but I'm not exactly fond of musicals. I did only one musical when I was in college, and that probably contributed to my bent as a designer. If I had to do all musicals, I would go insane. I find that it's a totally different process. Working on a great musical project can be really exhilarating, but I find that most of the time it's much more a technical challenge than an artistic challenge. Obviously there are always creative decisions being made, and there are always sound effects to deal with, but I have found that they tend to take a back seat. When I design it's a different story: they take a very even seat with reinforcement.
KH: While we're on the subject, what kind of aesthetic do you strive to achieve in your designs?
Hemphill: I love doing huge multichannel systems that are very dynamic. On the American Conservatory Theatre musical Hans Christian Andersen, not only are there 250 sound effects, but even the orchestra moves into the surround system occasionally. I don't like movement for movement's sake, but if I can find a moment where tweaking something can add that little psychological shift to the audience's experience, I find that really effective. It's more about creating a psychological atmosphere - creating a definite tension. It's not something that the audience is going to hear and say, `Wow, that's cool!' I try to add that little thing that nobody can quite put his or her finger on.
For the most part, I don't think that sound needs to take a front seat on a production. I have much more of an acoustic taste: I'm the only sound designer I know who hates recorded sound effects and microphones. You may ask, `How do you exist in that world as a sound designer?'
KH: How do you exist in that worl -
Hemphill: You have to make compromises. For instance, I go to New York and listen to musicals, and I think the vocals tend to be miked way too loud. I know it's not really the designers' fault; I think the producers have a lot to do with it. But we're doing what we have to do. It's certainly frustrating when we can't achieve the quality of sound that we want. We all pour our hearts into our work, and when it comes out differently than the way we think it should be, it's not easy.
KH: What have been some of your biggest challenges as a designer? What advice would you give burgeoning new designers?
Hemphill: Learning to deal with the politics of a theatre institution is often the most challenging thing about theatre. That, and learning how to deal with different directors: how to approach a new director for the first time, not knowing their background or how they work with sound designers, or even if they have worked with sound designers. It's like a new marriage every time. It's everything from a director walking in and saying, `I have no idea what I want to do; give me something' to a director walking in with a list of CD tracks that they want to use in the show - those are the ones I hate the most, but at the same time it's all about what you make of it, to find the challenges in it for yourself. That's what makes the design that much better - going out and looking for those little challenges that will make the design yours.
Another thing I try to remind my students is that theatre is one of the only art forms that is truly collaborative. When I was in college, there was always this division between the techies and the actors, and that's not what it's about. Frankly, these guys are out there onstage every night, hanging their butts in the air, and we're safe and sound behind our mixers or sitting at home watching television while the show is going on.
KH: What about the sound engineers? Aren't they performers, too?
Hemphill: Of course! I include them as performers in the show. I am blessed with my engineer Suzanna Bailey at ACT - she's one of the finest engineers I've ever worked with. I'm able to walk away from a show on opening night, and when I come back and see the show, it's better than when I left. She's one of the few engineers I've ever worked with to whom I can say, `This is the feeling I want. This is what I'm going for. You make it happen.' She and I have been working together since I started at ACT, and we've developed a really great give-and-take relationship. There's no `I'm the designer, and you're the engineer; do what I tell you to do.' She has wonderful ideas, especially when she figures out what it is I'm going for; she's usually had more sleep than I have at that point, and often she'll say, `What if I try this?' and it's brilliant!
It's getting better, though. Thank God for people like Abe Jacob who have forged the path for people like you and me, coming along behind them - not to mention the whole issue of the unionization of sound designers. It's wonderful to be able to say that now we have representation. I know that there are a lot of younger sound designers who need to be protected, and need that kind of structure to help them out.
KH: Moving on to technology, what are your thoughts on the current generation of theatrical sound equipment? Do you have any predictions for the future?
Hemphill: I'm not afraid to use new gear if it is going to do the job that I want it to do, but it's also important to not use the technology just because it's there. I still do shows on cassette decks, and there's something really wonderful about that. You learn to get creative and do the things that need to be done. Even when you're working on Broadway or other big shows, I think it's really important to go out and do a little show like that, because it really takes you back to the roots and you start thinking a little bit about what you've been doing all this time with LCS and Richmond Audio and all this computer gear...although I don't know what I'd do if I had to go back and cut reel-to-reel tape.
Equipment-wise, I think we're going to see a trend toward more dedicated devices, like a big DSP box with a software interface, like BSS' SoundWeb. If you ask a desktop computer to do too many things, that's where your crashes and conflicts come from. Even in my office, I have six different computers set up to do four different things, and never the lines shall meet.
I also predict that we're going to see a lot more systems like LCS' CueConsole or like the Mackie Digital 8-bus - a console that is software-based with a hardware interface. The trick is to design the right interface, which is tough, because everyone has different things they want in their interface. That's why software interfaces are so attractive in some ways, because you can configure them any way you want, but you still need something to put your hands on - actually moving the fader.
For Hans Christian Andersen, we set up the analog desk and the LCS in combination so that one V-Group in LCS was a master effects level, so that Suzanna could even mix the effects live. The automation was still firing and setting all the levels but we could trim them; if the orchestra was a little louder we could kick them up a touch. It was very important on Hans Christian Andersen because so many times I'm doing things that add into the actual orchestrations of the music that have to be in the mix. The orchestra is a live element, thank God, and they change, and so you have to be able to make those changes with them.
KH: How did your consulting business come to fruition?
Hemphill: It started out with people calling me and asking, `Hey, what's your opinion on this piece of gear?' Eventually I was approached to redo a sound system, and so I really sat down and did a lot of research. I started getting more and more calls to do that, and suddenly I realized that there were people who do this for a living. I didn't realize it, but I was a consultant. Now my company, GLHDesign, is doing multiple projects all over the world. I'm right on that cusp where I've got a lot of big projects but not quite enough money to hire a full-time support staff. It means I work from nine in the morning until two or three at night, six or seven days a week, and it's hard on my family. They've been very supportive, and I keep telling them it will get better. I'm not a control freak; I'm much happier hiring someone competent and saying, `Go do this.'
We're doing a lot of projects with a wonderful media artist named Bill Fontana, who has commissions at major museums and installations all over the world. He's reached a point in his career where he doesn't want to do the technical work anymore, so we've pretty much started picking up all of his technical work for him. In addition, we just finished a small 200 - seat proscenium space in Los Angeles - we did the entire theatre - lighting, sound, acoustic design, seating. That's the last time I do everything!