Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, interested parties, we of the theatrical sound community are under attack. Not that this attack is anything new, rather, this is one we have been enduring for years. Barely a week goes by without another salvo launched on the internet, in The New York Times, in other popular media, and in private grumbling: the claim that amplification is ruining musical theatre, that musical theatre shows are too loud, that we are responsible for creating a deaf generation. To which I reply: hogwash. Well, mostly. I, for one, have come to praise amplification, not to bury it.
To that end, before adding my constructive criticism to the issue, I present a list rarely seen in print: positive contributions of amplification to musical theatre. Amplification has enabled composers, orchestrators, and arrangers to think in ways that were not possible previously; no longer do they have to consider leaving a sonic “hole” within arrangements for a vocal to sit in. One can write music without having to sacrifice the power of a crescendo for the sake of intelligibility, or abandon the excitement of a brass line prior to an actor's solo.
Amplification has enabled the birth of the rock musical, which I think we can all agree is a good thing for the future of musical theatre. As we struggle to capture the attention of an audience with more entertainment options, fighting for their hard-earned dollars is more difficult than ever before. I myself spent some time touring with Mamma Mia! and witnessed firsthand how effective it was at attracting first-time theatergoers.
Perhaps most importantly, amplification has blown casting wide-open for a larger number of performers than ever before. Broadway stars no longer need to be capable of throwing their voices to the back of the balcony in the largest houses, a feat that precious few people are capable of doing for eight shows a week.
Finally, the use of amplification has opened up the stage for directors and choreographers, who no longer have to restrict movement and blocking so that the performer can always be projecting maximum vocal energy straight out into the audience. On a daily basis I witness choreography that would be unthinkable without amplification: any human being doing it is quite simply too winded to produce (all that) much sound. (I would argue that amplification, rather than ruining musical theatre, is an important contribution to the robust health and ongoing innovation of Broadway today.)
Now, if I might venture on to the subject of overall volume: sound is loud on Broadway (and in the movie theatre, and on TV) because the public demands it. Period. Now, it's very much a matter of personal taste and in any audience the designer is somebody's hero and somebody's goat. But we, as a culture, have forgotten how to listen critically. Gone are the days where one could produce an unamplified straight play and the audience would sit in silence and actively listen, and most importantly, not expect to catch every word. Today's audience, raised on and accustomed to rock and roll, movies, and television, expects every word at living-room listening level. They do not want to listen critically and they do not respect the need for quiet (don't get me started on candy wrappers, hearing-aid feedback, or coughers!) We're also dealing with a higher noise floor imposed by lighting technology (every one of those gee-whiz moving lights has a fan or scroller in it!), stage automation systems, modern HVAC systems, and yes, embarrassingly enough, even our own front of house racks.
Aside from the cultural aspect of critical listening and the higher noise floor of the modern theatre, data provided by the House Ear Institute reminds us that accelerated hearing loss is increasingly a price of life in our modern world, with our subways, car stereos, emergency sirens, stadium rock-and-roll shows, construction of all varieties, headphones, jet engines, and the like. According to the research, from 1971 to 1990 reported hearing problems among those ages 45 to 64 increased 26% and among those 18 to 44 hearing problems increased by 17%. So in addition to the loss of critical listening skills of today's audience, we also face a very real and rapidly accelerating loss of actual hearing. This loss can be seen particularly in the aged and the elderly, who make up a (very) significant portion of the modern theatregoing audience and who aren't afraid to complain when their hearing aid is working overtime. Producers and directors serve to further drive up the volume — every show I have ever done has started out at a reasonable volume. Every show I have ever done has had a producer or director, or both, ask for the show to be louder, usually against the wishes of the sound designer. The director wants excitement and energy (and sometimes thinks that volume alone can create it!) and the producer just wants the bluehairs not to complain.
The last of the frequently heard complaints is, to me, the most ludicrous: the idea that musical theatre is responsible for ruining the hearing of a generation of audiences. I have seen descriptions of volume by critics of amplification stating that volume levels were painful, and that go so far as to intimate that the sound professionals of musical theatre are responsible for causing significant and permanent hearing damage to our audiences.
Again, I say Hogwash. The OSHA standard for safe levels of industrial noise exposure is 97 dBA continuously over the course of three hours. In the entire time I have been designing, mixing (and metering!) musicals, no show I have been involved with has ever exceeded a 97 dBA average over three hours. I would venture to guess that even the loudest rock musicals do not approach this standard for average daily noise exposure! By far, the loudest part of most of the shows I have been involved with as an engineer has been the applause at the end, which typically exceeds 100 dBA for a brief period of time. Rather than being offensive or painful, that particular sound is music to my ears. It is true that we audio professionals have a duty to protect the health of our audiences, but all of the data I have seen and collected suggests that we in the musical theatre community are doing so.
The ideal of theatrical sound is a totally transparent design where one can hear everything but can't tell that the material is amplified. This, unfortunately, is the Holy Grail; chased since the dawn of the art, but not yet attained. I've heard pretty close, but no cigar yet. But until that day, hooray for the well-amplified piece; one that puts spoken vocals at an easy volume for comfortable listening, sung vocals at an equally comfortable volume, balances them against the lush sound of a full orchestra, all sung by a performer who may move and dance in nearly any way they please, despite the fact that they may have little or no training in vocal projection. Hooray for the design that conveys a full range of dynamics and can take the audience on a journey from a sly whisper to an excited triple-forte climax. In short, hooray for amplification.
John B. Sibley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sound engineer who can usually be found behind the console at The Producers National Tour, trying to practice what he preaches.